Horace Greeley Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111205132-Greeley.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: A daring journalist and lecturer, Greeley engaged himself personally with a wide range of social issues—labor rights, abolitionism, territorial expansion, women’s rights, and political reform—and his paper, the New York Tribune, became a medium for the best thought of his time.

Early Life

Horace Greeley’s ancestors were among the founding families of New England, having arrived in 1640. The third of seven children of Zaccheus and Mary (Woodburn) Greeley, he was a frail boy, uncoordinated, with a very large head on a small frame. His mother was very protective of him, keeping him close as he was physically weak. She held great influence on him, and she urged him to read and study rather than risk injury in the rough-and-tumble world of children. Greeley could read at an early age, and with his delicate manners he became a favorite of teachers in Bedford, whose trustees were also impressed with the boy’s brilliance. Some influential citizens even offered to underwrite Greeley at Phillips Academy in nearby Exeter. His parents declined the offer, as hard times seemed continually to press them to move from farm to farm, from Connecticut to Massachusetts and on to Westhaven, Vermont, all before Horace was ten years old. He continued with his self-education, aided and watched over by his mother. His ungainly appearance and odd wardrobe of baggy short trousers and a coat topped by equally odd slouching hats and caps did little to mitigate the impression made by the high-pitched, whining voice that came from his large, moonlike head. Youngsters called him “the ghost,” and he became a subject for their merriment. Throughout his life he lacked social polish and a sense of dress.

At fifteen, Greeley was apprenticed to a small newspaper, the Northern Spectator of East Poultney, Vermont; there, he learned the rudiments of what was to become his life’s work. He joined the local debating society, and, with his intense and serious attention to public affairs, he became a respected member of the community. The paper folded, however, and Greeley joined his family, which had moved to the Pennsylvania-New York border village of Erie, where his father had again taken up farming. There he helped with the farm and gained printing jobs in Erie, Jamestown, and Lodi, all towns in New York State. The struggle for existence, let alone success, in the dismal marginal area depressed him, and in 1831, with ten dollars, he set out on foot for New York City.

Life’s Work

Finding employment in New York was difficult, but Greeley was willing to take on a job that no other printer would do: set up print for an edition of the New Testament with Greek references and supplementary notes on each book. This job, which strained Greeley’s already weak eyesight, brought him to the attention of other printers. He began work on William Leggett’s Evening Post, from which he was fired because he did not fit the model of “decent-looking men in the office.” Greeley, however, was able to save some money and form a partnership with Francis Vinton Story, and later, Jonas Winchester. They did job-printing as well as printing Bank Note Reporter (1832) and the Constitutionalist (1832), which dealt with popular lottery printing. They attempted a penny paper called the Morning Post using patronage investment by H. D. Shepard and supply credit from George Bruce, but a general lack of business acumen caused the venture to fail. With the failure of the penny daily, Greeley turned to putting out a successful weekly, the New-Yorker, which, coupled with his other publications, made the partnership now called Greeley and Company a success in journalism although not in the cash box. The habit of newspapers to extend credit rather than work on a cash basis was not to be changed until James Gordon Bennett’s Herald demanded it in the 1840’s. Greeley’s weekly was nonpartisan in politics, stimulating, well written, and well edited. Greeley also made extra money by selling his writing to other papers, such as the Daily Whig.

In 1836, Greeley married Mary Youngs Cheney, formerly of Cornwall, Connecticut, then a teacher in North Carolina. They had first met while virtual inmates of Sylvester Graham’s boardinghouse; Cheney was a devoted follower of the Grahamite cause, while Greeley was simply a teetotaling vegetarian satisfying his curiosity about Graham’s unique regimen for healthy living. They were an odd match. She was plain, dogmatic, humorless, supercilious, and uncommunicative; he was compassionate, outgoing, and egalitarian. From the first day of their marriage, on July 5, 1836, they did not get along.

As a matter of personal conscience, Greeley was never inclined to pyramid debt, and this contributed to the failure of his weekly. In addition, nonpartisanship was never Greeley’s strong suit. Opinionated, he found advocacy-journalism more to his liking; therefore, he was more than willing to accommodate the proposition of Whig boss Thurlow Weed of Albany, New York, to put out a New York paper favoring the party. The result was the Jeffersonian, which brought Greeley a guaranteed salary of one thousand dollars per year and proved a success. More important, Greeley was mixing in state and national political circles. In 1840, the Whigs encouraged Greeley to publish another weekly, called the Log Cabin; because it had a guaranteed subscription list among the party faithful, the journal was an immediate success. Greeley edited the Log Cabin as well as his struggling New-Yorker until, on April 10, 1841, he combined the two publications using three thousand dollars, of which one-third was his cash, one-third was in supplies, and one-third was borrowed from James Coggeshall. The result was his New York Tribune. He had built a personal following through the political papers, and he now sought to capitalize on his name recognition.

As a conservative Whig daily, the New York Tribune was carefully structured, with sober news stories, minimal sensationalism, and a strong editorial section. Greeley turned over the business affairs to another partner, Thomas McElrath, while he concentrated on the journalism. Unlike Bennett, who was both a newsman and a businessman, Greeley was a man to whom opinions came first. His work was like an ongoing feature article. His Puritan background encouraged him to seek redress for the social wrongs that he saw everywhere. His belief in the rectitude of his moral cause made him impregnable to criticism. The common denominator linking many of his positions was his advocacy of the downtrodden and the oppressed. He strongly opposed the death penalty, which he saw as a violation of life and also a violence done by society against the weakest elements, who did not have the wherewithal to defend themselves; he led the fight for the rights of women and laboring classes, took up the cause of temperance as early as 1824, and championed the farming classes and frontier development. That he would join the cause against slavery was inevitable.

Both wage slavery...

(The entire section is 2943 words.)