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Greeley, Horace (1811-1872)

Editor, Lecturer, Politician, Reformer, Travel Writer

Horace Greeley was born in 1811 in Pleasantville, N.Y. to a poor farming family. Though physically feeble, Greeley had an affinity for books and tried for a printing apprenticeship at the age of eleven. He became an apprentice three years later in Vermont, where he learned the business rapidly and sent most of his earnings to his father. Greeley went back to farm life at the age of twenty before going to seek his fortune (Appleton 734). Greeley fostered this rags-to-riches story, claiming to have arrived in New York City in 1831 with only twenty-five dollars in his pocket. Starr writes, "Already the myth of Horace Greeley, the moralist in shining armor, the poor Vermont boy with a hatful of type who had worked hard and lived right and made good, the homely philosopher, the eccentric personality, the national oracle, towered almost frighteningly over the man himself” (18). He spent a few years working as a type-setter and printer before turning to journalism. His first article appeared on March 22, 1834 in the New Yorker, of which he became editor and publisher (Derby 131).

In 1841 Greeley founded the New York Tribune, which “set a new standard in American journalism by its combination of energy in newsgathering with good taste, high moral standards, and intellectual appeal” (Nevins). During this time, he also lectured, including in several church fairs and festivals (Odell 687), and authored several books, most notably The American Conflict (Derby 131). Greeley “was an egalitarian who hated and feared all kinds of monopoly, landlordism, and class dominance” (Nevins). He became a follower of Fourierism and spoke against Southern slavery and wage slavery (Tribune, June 20, 1845). These personal views served as ammunition for Henry Raymond, who rivaled Greeley as editor of the Times (Lause 35-37). During this time, Greeley was considered one of “the dominant figures in the literary and intellectual stratum” (Boynton 328).

As the Tribune grew in popularity, it became a place of employment for many Pfaffians, including Bayard Taylor, William Henry Fry, Charles T. Congdon, and F. J. Ottarson. Greeley’s association with Pfaff’s grew out of his friendship with Henry Clapp, Jr., who once described Greeley as “a self-made man that worships his creator” (Winter, Old Friends 62). Greeley was also patron of Pfaff’s (Hyman 56-61) and was acquainted with Walt Whitman, who felt that Greeley contributed to discussions and ideas but was not a great man. However, Whitman acknowledged that “I ought to like him--and do--for he was very sweet and kind to me” (Traubel 209). Greeley is listed among several prominent literary figures who gathered at the home of the Cary sisters in the 1850s (Derby 250).

In addition to his journalistic work, Greeley also wrote about his travels--Glances at Europe (1851) and An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 (1860)--published some of his lectures in Hints Toward Reforms, and edited a collection of public records entitled History of the Struggle for Slavery Extension or Restriction in the United States (1856). Greeley’s popularity declined after the Civil War, in part because of his vacillations during the war. The decline can also be attributed to the fact that "he would not take a clear position about it" and “before the Civil War the Tribune had been Horace Greeley; after the war there was no such close identity” (Nevins).

In 1871, Greeley ran for the office of President of the United States. His campaign was filled with hardship and disappointments as critics mounted an “exceptionally abusive campaign” against him (Nevins). He “was attacked as a traitor, a fool, an ignoramus, and a crank, and was pilloried in merciless cartoons by Nast and others, including Frank H. T. Bellew. He took the assaults much to heart, saying later that he sometimes doubted whether he was running for the presidency or the penitentiary” (Nevins). Greeley’s bid for office failed miserably and he was left bitterly disappointed and hurt, feeling as though he was “the worst beaten man who ever ran for high office” (Nevins).

In 1872, he returned to the Tribune eager to resume editorship of the paper. Unfortunately, Greeley discovered that there was no longer a place for him there. After this “last blow,” his “mind and body broke, and he died insane on November 29” (Nevins). Clara Louise Kellogg recalls that Greeley’s last words, “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” referenced her performance of Handel’s Messiah which Greeley particularly admired (209). Dignitaries including the President and Vice-President attended his funeral. His failures were soon overshadowed by his numerous contributions to society as one of the “dominant figures in the literary and intellectual stratum” (Boynton 328).