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Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom byRobert C. Williams

Posted By Peter Bridges On April 22, 2007 @ 7:55 am In Biography,History,Non-Fiction Reviews | 4 Comments

Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom
by Robert C. Williams
New York University Press, 411 pp.
CLR Rating:

The Man In The White Coat

orace Greeley is a familiar name, but how much do today’s Americans know about him? Most of us remember that he was an editor; that he said “Go west, young man!” What else? Much else, indeed.

Greeley was a poor boy, born in New Hampshire in 1811, who went to New York City as a young printer and at twenty-one put out his first newspaper. Soon he had founded a weekly–the first New Yorker–but it was his daily New York Tribune, launched in 1841 when he was thirty, that made him America’s most famous editor. By 1848 Greeley was in Congress, just briefly, appointed to fill the final three months of the term of a Democrat who had died. It was the only public office he would ever hold, but not for lack of trying. Greeley’s final effort came in 1872, when he became the Democratic candidate for President, was soundly defeated by the Republican incumbent, U.S. Grant, and died three weeks later. Public official or not, Greeley was for over three decades one of the most influential Americans. The historian Robert Williams has done aficionados of American history a great service with his well documented new biography of this sad, hardworking, and accomplished man entitled Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom.

Did Greeley really say “Go west, young man”? As Professor Williams tells us, he may not have said exactly that. But Greeley was always worried about the plight of working people, and after the Panic of 1837 put many out of work, Greeley urged the workers of Eastern cities to go out to the new Western country to find jobs. He was ever a man with a conscience. He was a workaholic, but Greeley was not greedy; he made his Tribune into a joint-stock company, sold shares to employees, and sold off most of his own holdings in the paper to friends, at sub-par prices.

One of the more curious episodes in Greeley’s long editorial career began in 1851, when Karl Marx and (occasionally) Friedrich Engels, writing from England, began to contribute to the Tribune articles on the European political and social scene. Over the next eleven years almost five hundred articles by the two revolutionaries appeared in Greeley’s paper. One wishes Williams had found room to give a better sense of what Karl Marx wrote for American readers. His sympathies were with the working class and he wanted revolution–as did many others in oppressed Europe–but all in all Marx provided good reporting on main events, and not just in Europe, e.g. his reportage on British rule in India.

Greeley was no revolutionary, no socialist, and eventually he terminated the Tribune’s relationship with Marx. He believed, however, that American society needed new forms of cooperation. For some years he was a principal backer of the “North American Phalanx,” a community outside Red Bank, New Jersey, whose members together ran a large farm, receiving a stated salary and also dividing profits, and living communally.

Greeley was both hardworking and brilliant. Williams suggests that Greeley had Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological disorder in men caused by oxygen deprivation at birth, that produces not just intellectual brilliance but a prodigious memory, precocity with language, and eccentric behavior. Greeley showed all these traits. He soon gained a reputation for eccentricity. His appearance had something to do with this. Even as a young man his hair was almost white, and he liked to wear a white hat and white coat. Williams describes the editor in his forties in Manhattan, “drifting uncertainly down the street in his old Irish linen coat, his pockets stuffed with newspapers, wisps of white hair blowing in the wind.”

Even if Greeley was seen as eccentric, by the 1850s his Tribune was the most widely read newspaper in America. To reach this point Greeley had not sacrificed his intellectual independence, but he had aligned himself closely with the two Whig leaders of New York State, William Henry Seward and Thurlow Weed. He broke with them in 1854. It was just as well; Weed was one of the less savory politicians of that age. Williams calls Weed manipulative; beyond that he was unscrupulous, if not corrupt.

Horace Greeley was always a fierce enemy of American slavery, and for years he had seen the Whig party as the most effective antislavery vehicle. In 1856 he took part in the first organizational meeting of the new Republican party, and thereafter did his best to make opposition to slavery a main part of the Republican agenda. After the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency, Greeley became a strong Lincoln supporter. There were reports–which Greeley denied–that Greeley initially hoped for a post in Lincoln’s Cabinet.
During the Civil War, when Lincoln put curbs on freedom of the press, Greeley remained in general supportive of the Administration. He and Lincoln did not agree on the need for emancipation of black slaves. When in August 1862 Greeley published his famous “Prayer” that the President would decide on emancipation, the President responded that his aim was to save the Union, and if he could do that by freeing all slaves he would do so–and if he could save the Union by freeing none, he would do that.

Before the Republican party convention of 1864 Greeley hoped for another candidate than the incumbent President, but after Lincoln was nominated Greeley and his paper continued their strong support for Lincoln and his administration. It was typical of the independent-minded Horace Greeley, though, that after the Union’s victory he opposed the imprisonment of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and in 1867 helped post the bail bond for Davis’s release.

Greeley’s great competitor in journalism was James Gordon Bennett, a Scot who emigrated to America and founded the New York Herald. Williams reports the little known fact that Bennett had originally asked Greeley to join him in putting out a daily–but Greeley declined, fearing Bennett wanted him simply as a printer. Decades later, the Herald and Tribune would combine, and the name remains today in the International Herald Tribune–which is published in Paris and owned by the New York Times.

In 1836 Greeley married a then vivacious Connecticut schoolteacher, Molly Cheney. It was a long marriage, but not always a happy one. Molly suffered several miscarriages, they lost several children, and she suffered from depression and spent long periods away from her husband in Europe. Molly died at the end of October 1872, days before the Presidential election in which Horace Greeley contested U.S. Grant, who ran a notoriously corrupt administration.

Greeley was devastated by his wife’s death, and as mentioned earlier he died just after losing the election. He had never been a happy candidate, and many people believed the eccentric editor unfit to be America’s chief executive. Perhaps the truest thing said about his candidacy came from his longtime friend Donn Piatt, the then famous editor of the Washington Capital. Piatt was sure that Horace Greeley would be less than an ideal President, but when people first made fun of Greeley as a candidate, Piatt defended him as a far better man than Grant and “…a shining mark in the American world of journalism.”

Greeley accomplished much in his sixty-one years, and he deserves to be better known today. His greatest accomplishment, the author tells us, was to help fuel what Williams calls the Second American Revolution. Our first Revolution had brought liberty while maintaining black slavery. The second brought “the freedom and equality forged in the fires of Civil War.”

Sorry to say, a number of small flaws make this new biography less readable. To cite a few examples, it was not Francis Blair, as the author writes, but his son Montgomery who served as Lincoln’s Postmaster General. In 1848, autocratic regimes crushed democratic revolutions across Europe; Williams puts it backward in saying that “The 1848 revolutions had crushed liberty in Europe.” Williams speaks of American attempts “to acquire the islands of Cuba and Haiti,” but Haiti is only part of the island of Hispaniola and what Americans really wanted was the other part, Santo Domingo, which Williams mistakenly calls a “black republic.” And although it is true that in 1840 the Whigs tried to paint their Presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, as a rough frontiersman, he was by birth a Virginia aristocrat and it is confusing for Williams to write of “Harrison’s folksy origins on the Indiana frontier.”


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