HORACE GREELEY

(1811-1872)

HOW THE FARM-BOY BECAME AN EDITOR

Horace Greeley, the farmer's son, lived most of his life in the metropolis, yet he always looked like a farmer, and most people would be willing to admit that he retained the farmer's traditional goodness of heart, if not quite all of his traditional simplicity. His judgment was keen and shrewd, and for many years the cracker-box philosophers of the village store impatiently awaited the sorting of the mail chiefly that they might learn what "Old Horace" had to say about some new picture in the kaleidoscope of politics.


From "Captains of Industry," by James Parton. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1884.

I have seldom been more interested than in hearing Horace Greeley tell the story of his coming to New York, in 1831, and gradually working his way into business there.

He was living at the age of twenty years with his parents in a small log-cabin in a new clearing of Western Pennsylvania, about twenty miles from Erie. His father, a Yankee by birth, had recently moved to that region and was trying to raise sheep there, as he had been accustomed to do in Vermont. The wolves were too numerous there.

It was part of the business of Horace and his brother to watch the flock of sheep, and sometimes they camped out all night, sleeping with their feet to the fire, Indian fashion. He told me that occasionally a pack of wolves would come so near that he could see their eyeballs glare in the darkness and hear them pant. Even as he lay in the loft of his father's cabin he could hear them howling in the fields. In spite of all their care, the wolves killed in one season a hundred of his father's sheep, and then he gave up the attempt.

The family were so poor that it was a matter of doubt sometimes whether they could get food enough to live through the long winter, and so Horace, who had learned the printer's trade in Vermont, started out on foot in search of work in a village printing office. He walked from village to village, and from town to town, until at last he went to Erie, the largest place in the vicinity.

There he was taken for a runaway apprentice, and certainly his appearance justified suspicion. Tall and gawky as he was in person, with tow-coloured hair, and a scanty suit of shabbiest homespun, his appearance excited astonishment or ridicule wherever he went. He had never worn a good suit of clothes in his life. He had a singularly fair, white complexion, a piping, whining voice, and these peculiarities gave the effect of his being wanting in intellect. It was not until people conversed with him that they discovered his worth and intelligence. He had been an ardent reader from his childhood up, and had taken of late years the most intense interest in politics and held very positive opinions, which he defended in conversation with great earnestness and ability.

A second application at Erie procured him employment for a few months in the office of the Erie Gazette, and he won his way, not only to the respect, but to the affection of his companions and his employer. That employer was Judge J. M. Sterrett, and from him I heard many curious particulars of Horace Greeley's residence in Erie. As he was only working in the office as a substitute, the return of the absentee deprived him of his place, and he was obliged to seek work elsewhere. His employer said to him one day:

"Now, Horace, you have a good deal of money coming to you; don't go about the town any longer in that outlandish rig. Let me give you an order on the store. Dress up a little, Horace."

The young man looked down on his clothes as though he had never seen them before, and then said, by way of apology:

"You see, Mr. Sterrett, my father is on a new place, and I want to help him all I can."

In fact, upon the settlement of his account at the end of his seven months' labour, he had drawn for his personal expenses six dollars only. Of the rest of his wages he retained fifteen dollars for himself, and gave all the rest, amounting to about a hundred and twenty dollars, to his father, who, I am afraid, did not make the very best use of all of it.

With the great sum of fifteen dollars in his pocket, Horace now resolved upon a bold movement. After spending a few days at home, he tied up his spare clothes in a bundle, not very large, and took the shortest road through the woods that led to the Erie Canal. He was going to New York, and he was going cheap!

A walk of sixty miles or so, much of it through the primeval forest, brought him to Buffalo, where he took passage on the Erie Canal, and after various detentions he reached Albany on a Thursday morning just in time to see the regular steamboat of the day move out into the stream. At ten o'clock on the same morning he embarked on board of a towboat, which required nearly twenty-four hours to descend the river, and thus afforded him ample time to enjoy the beauty of its shores.

On the 18th of August, 1831, about sunrise, he set foot in the city of New York, then containing about two hundred thousand inhabitants.… He had managed his affairs with such strict economy that his journey of six hundred miles had cost him little more than five dollars, and he had ten left with which to begin life in the metropolis. This sum of money and the knowledge of the printer's trade made up his capital. There was not a person in all New York, as far as he knew, who had ever seen him before.

His appearance, too, was much against him, for although he had a really fine face, a noble forehead, and the most benign expression I ever saw upon a human countenance, yet his clothes and bearing quite spoiled him. His round jacket made him look like a tall boy who had grown too fast for his strength; he stooped a little and walked in a loose-jointed manner. He was very bashful, and totally destitute of the power of pushing his way, or arguing with a man who said, "No" to him. He had brought no letters of recommendation, and had no kind of evidence to show that he had even learned his trade.

The first business was, of course, to find an extremely cheap boarding-house, as he had made up his mind only to try New York as an experiment, and, if he did not succeed in finding work, to start homeward while he still had a portion of his money. After walking a while he went into what looked to him like a low-priced tavern, at the corner of Wall and Broad streets.

"How much do you charge for board?" he asked the barkeeper, who was wiping his decanters, and putting his bar in trim for the business of the day.

The barkeeper gave the stranger a look-over and said to him:

"I guess we're too high for you."

"Well, how much do you charge?"

"Six dollars."

"Yes, that's more than I can afford."

He walked on until he descried on the North River, near Washington Market, a boarding-house so very mean and squalid that he was tempted to go in and inquire the price of board there. The price was two dollars and a half a week.

"Ah!" said Horace, "that sounds more like it."

In ten minutes more he was taking his breakfast at the landlord's table. Mr. Greeley gratefully remembered this landlord, who was a friendly Irishman by the name of McGorlick. Breakfast done, the newcomer sallied forth in quest of work, and began by expending nearly half of his capital in improving his wardrobe. It was a wise action. He that goes courting should dress in his best, particularly if he courts so capricious a jade as Fortune.

Then he began the weary round of the printing offices, seeking for work and finding none, all day long. He would enter an office and ask in his whining note:

"Do you want a hand?"

"No," was the inevitable reply, upon receiving which he left without a word. Mr. Greeley chuckled as he told the reception given him at the office of the Journal of Commerce, a newspaper he was destined to contend with for many a year in the columns of the Tribune.

"Do you want a hand?" he said to David Hale, one of the owners of the paper.

Mr. Hale looked at him from head to foot, and then said:

"My opinion is, young man, that you're a runaway apprentice, and you'd better go home to your master."

The applicant tried to explain, but the busy proprietor merely replied:

"Be off about your business, and don't bother us."

The young man laughed good-humouredly and resumed his walk. He went to bed Saturday night thoroughly tired and a little discouraged. On Sunday he walked three miles to attend a church, and remembered to the end of his days the delight he had, for the first time in his life, in hearing a sermon that he entirely agreed with. In the meantime he had gained the good will of his landlord and the boarders, and to that circumstance he owed his first chance in the city. His landlord mentioned his fruitless search for work to an acquaintance who happened to call that Sunday afternoon. That acquaintance, who was a shoemaker, had accidently heard that printers were wanted at No. 85 Chatham Street.

At half-past five on Monday morning Horace Greeley stood before the designated house, and discovered the sign, "West's Printing Office," over the second story, the ground floor being occupied as a bookstore. Not a soul was stirring up stairs or down. The doors were locked, and Horace sat down on the steps to wait. Thousands of workmen passed by; but it was nearly seven before the first of Mr. West's printers arrived, and he, too, finding the door locked, sat down by the side of the stranger, and entered into conversation with him.

"I saw," said the printer to me many years after, "that he was an honest, good young man, and being a Vermonter myself, I determined to help him if I could."

Thus, a second time in New York already, the native quality of the man gained him, at the critical moment, the advantage that decided his destiny. His new friend did help him, and it was very much through his urgent recommendation that the foreman of the printing office gave him a chance. The foreman did not in the least believe that the green-looking young fellow before him could set in type one page of the polyglot Testament for which help was needed.

"Fix up a case for him," said he, "and we'll see if he can do anything."

Horace worked all day with silent intensity, and when he showed to the foreman at night a printer's proof of his day's work, it was found to be the best day's work that had yet been done on that most difficult job. It was greater in quantity and much more correct. The battle was won. He worked on the Testament for several months, making long hours and earning only moderate wages, saving all his surplus money, and sending the greater part of it to his father, who was still in debt for his farm and not sure of being able to keep it.

Ten years passed. Horace Greeley from journeyman printer made his way slowly to partnership in a small printing office. He founded the New Yorker, a weekly paper, the best periodical of its class in the United States. It brought him great credit and no profit.

In 1840, when General Harrison was nominated for the Presidency against Martin Van Buren, his feelings as a politician were deeply stirred, and he started a little campaign paper called The Log-Cabin, which was incomparably the most spirited thing of the kind ever published in the United States. It had a circulation of unprecedented extent, beginning with forty-eight thousand, and rising week after week until it reached ninety thousand. The price, however, was so low that its great sale proved rather an embarrassment than a benefit to the proprietors, and when the campaign ended the firm of Horace Greeley & Co. was rather more in debt than it was when the first number of The Log-Cabin was published.

The little paper had given the editor two things which go far toward making a success in business: great reputation and some confidence in himself. The first penny paper had been started. The New York Herald was making a great stir. The Sun was already a profitable sheet. And now the idea occurred to Horace Greeley to start a daily paper which should have the merits of cheapness and abundant news, without some of the qualities possessed by the others. He wished to found a cheap daily paper that should be good and salutary as well as interesting. The last number of The Log-Cabin announced the forthcoming Tribune, price one cent.

The editor was probably not solvent when he conceived the scheme, and he borrowed a thousand dollars of his old friend, James Coggeshall, with which to buy the indispensable material. He began with six hundred subscribers, printed five thousand of the first number, and found it difficult to give them all away. The Tribune appeared on the day set apart in New York for the funeral procession in commemoration of President Harrison, who died a month after his inauguration.

It was a chilly, dismal day in April, and all the town was absorbed in the imposing pageant. The receipts during the first week were ninety-two dollars; the expenses five hundred and twenty-five. But the little paper soon caught public attention, and the circulation increased for three weeks at the rate of about three hundred a day. It began its fourth week with six thousand; its seventh week with eleven thousand. The first number contained four columns of advertisements; the twelfth, nine columns; the hundredth, thirteen columns.

In a word, the success of the paper was immediate and very great. It grew a little faster than the machinery for producing it could be provided. Its success was due chiefly to the fact that the original idea of the editor was actually carried out. He aimed to produce a paper which should morally benefit the public. It was not always right, but it always meant to be.