Horace Greeley printed the first edition of his new morning newspaper out of a decaying two-story building in New York City on a leaden, snowy, funereal April morning on Apil 10, 1841. It was a high-minded publication that eschewed sensationalism. There would be no police blotter, no scandal, no quack medicine advertisements, no celebrities.
It was called the New-York Tribune and it became the most influential newspaper in the country. It fought corruption and slavery, reported political stories with precision and clarity and gave plenty of space to lectures and book reviews. Greeley became one of the most famous men of his day, known for his eccentricities and his editorials. It was said no country editor wrote an opinion piece without first checking what Greeley had written.
Greeley was born on Feb. 3, 1811, in Amherst, N.H., where he developed many of the traits that made him famous. His parents, Zaccheus and Mary Greeley, were poor farmers. He was described as a ‘prodigy. A frail, odd, tow-headed child, nervous and sensitive, timid of manner and squeaky of voice, he seemed to have eyes more for print than anything else. He learned to read, nobody ever learned how, before he could speak plainly, and never left off reading.’
Greeley could have had a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy, but he declined, having no use for college. He called college graduates ‘the most ignorant of all horned cattle.’ Debt and misfortune forced his family to move to Vermont before he was 10. At 14, he left school to become a printer’s apprentice in East Poultney, Vt. He then became a printer in Erie, Pa., before moving to New York City with $10 to his name.
By 1841 the daily newspaper was a relatively new phenomenon, one that Horace Greeley viewed with contempt. Newspapers were sensationalist, partisan party organs. Greeley wanted to publish a cheap daily newspaper that was independent and could reach working-class men and women. He had no partner, little credit and no financial support. After one week, the New-York Tribune brought in $92. It spent $525.
The newspaper was an immediate success, with 15,000 copies printed daily in the early years, 90,000 by 1865. It was initially not a financial success. Greeley found a wealthy partner, Thomas McElrath, who brought order and discipline to the Tribune.
On the newspaper’s pages Greeley fought slavery, championed the working man, attacked monopolies and giveaways of land to the railroads. His liberal views on homesteading prompted his most famous editorial on July 13, 1865, in which he wrote, ‘Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.’
The newspaper was interesting, and so was Greeley. He wore a full-length coat even in the hottest weather, stuffed his pockets with newspapers and always carried an umbrella. He seemed to follow every new -ism with enthusiasm: spiritualism, phrenology, utopianism and vegetarianism.
The New-York Tribune was easily the leading newspaper in the United States from 1840s to 1870. Greeley employed great reporters like Henry Jarvis Raymond, later founder of The New York Times; muckraker Julius Chambers and editor Charles Anderson Dana; and fine writers like Transcendentalists Margaret Fuller and George Ripley; travel writer Bayard Taylor; music critic William Henry Fry; and essayist George William Curtis. Economist Karl Marx was famously a foreign correspondent for many years.
Greeley died on Nov. 29, 1872. He was memorialized by former Massachusetts Attorney General Albert Pillsbury at a dedication ceremony marking his 100th birthday at his birthplace in Amherst. Of the Tribune, Pillsbury said,
…it was clean, independent, honest and fearless. Greeley talked to the people in their own tongue and, as it were, face to face. A habit of signing his articles with his name or initials gave them a direct personal eleement, and many an honest countryman who never saw Horace Greeley felt that he had talked with him and knew him. On occasions he could smite with a rough and heavy hand, whose blow was terrible and sometimes fatal. Greeley was neither nice nor polite in his choice of words. Naturally the most peaceable and kindly of men, he was hot of temper and a master of vituperation. The much quoted, ‘You lie, you villain,’ was not an every-day affair, but he answered the fool according to his folly, and never stuck at epithets if he thought they were deserved. The clearness and vigor of his style, the open sincerity of his opinions, and the universal confidence in his integrity, gave him a hold on the popular mind unparalleled in journalism.