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.,
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 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?"
"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
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
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
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
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.