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Chapter 9: Dana's influence in the tribune

  • Correspondence with Greeley
  • -- continues fight against slavery -- Fremont nominated for president -- continued agitation in behalf of free Kansas -- death of Senator Benton -- leadership of the tribune -- John Brown's raid

That Dana, although only managing editor, was all powerful in the actual control of the Tribune during most of the year, and especially so during the winter of 1855-56, is shown by the fact that Greeley was absent in Europe, the West, and in Washington much of the time. It is still more fully shown, however, by Greeley's letters to Dana, which were published many years afterwards in the Sun. They are full of interest, for the light they throw not only upon current politics, but also upon the troubles of running a great newspaper in those days. They abound in wit, humor, and pathos, and ought to be published in some permanent and accessible form; but as the limits of this narrative will not permit me to give them in full, and as Dana's replies to Greeley have not been found, I must content myself with such quotations as are consistent with my general plan.

This correspondence began in December, 1855, and continued till June, 1856. It commented freely upon men as well as measures, upon correspondents as well as upon reporters. It admonished, scolded, and appealed, sometimes successfully, but frequently without success. It was in Greeley's first letter from Washington that he said: [142]

It does me good to see how those who hate the Tribune much, fear it yet more. There are a dozen here who will do much better for my eye being on them. ...

Referring to an old reporter, whom he couldn't use, but wanted carried on the roll a while longer, he wrote:

... I wouldn't mind his being a genius if he was not a fool.

Having had his own correspondence crowded out to make room for a long article on the new opera-house, and the feasibility of sustaining the opera in New York, he inquired of Dana:

What would it cost to burn the opera House? If the price is reasonable, have it done and send me the bill.

The next day, after saying:

... We calculate to elect Banks [Speaker] in the course of to-morrow night. No postponement on account of weather, “he added:” I want you to caution your folks not to “hit out” at everything and everybody here. We must have friends not only in one party, but in all parties, or we can learn nothing . . . Now don't you see I can't get into Democratic caucuses? I must learn what they do from somebody, and if we pick a quarrel with all opponents personally what chance have we for news? You remember the Grand Vizier who knocked in the head the Sultan's proposal to exterminate the infidel dogs with this sensible demur, “If we kill all the Rajahs, what shall we do for the capitation tax?” He added: “Abusing Clayton [of Delaware] so savagely is shying a stone at our own crockery. I wouldn't do it if it were provoked, but this was unprovoked. It is a train that don't stop in front of the Tribune office.” ...

Greeley thought it bad policy to exasperate the Southerners by saying they wouldn't let Pierce make war with [143] England, or to charge the Roman Catholics with the slaveholders as being opposed to reading the Bible. The next day he begged Dana's pardon for scolding about the omission of his letters, and turned upon the musical critic who had given too much space to the opera-house, and whom he pronounced a detriment. He admonished another writer for slurring the Jews, commended Hildreth (the historian) as a good writer, but a “Timothy Pickering Federalist sixty years behind the times.”

On January 17th he wrote:

... Since my letters get in somehow, I am less uneasy here, but every traitor and self-seeker hates me with a demoniac hatred, which is perpetually bursting out. Lastly ... General Shankland, of the Kansas Volunteers, has notified me that he intends to cowhide me the first time he catches me in public. Now I am a hater of novelty, and never had any taste for being cowhided, cowhid, or cowhidden, or whatever the past participle of the active verb used by General Shankland may be, but he is short of funds, and I could not think of putting him to the trouble of chasing me all over the country, so I shall stay here for the present. I trust the man of whom he buys the cowhide will know him well enough not to sell it on tick. I prefer to be the only sufferer by the application.

After commending a speech of Schuyler Colfax, and asking for its insertion at once, he wrote:

N. B.--General Shankland's cowhiding not yet come to hand-or back.

He sent Dana a strong letter, again cautioning him not to attack people in Washington without consulting him, and ending as follows:

... It will hurt us dreadfully. Do send some one here and kill me if you cannot stop it, for I can bear it no longer. My life is a torture to me. ...


It seems that in the daily comments of the Tribune on the men of the times, one Benton, who had been supporting Banks, “steadily but sulkily,” was handled rather roughly, to the great annoyance of Greeley, whereupon he remonstrated:

Now I write once more to entreat that I may be allowed to conduct the Tribune with reference to the mile wide that stretches either way from Pennsylvania Avenue. It is but a small space, and you have all the world besides. I cannot stay here unless this request is complied with. I would rather cease to live at all. If you are not willing to leave me entire control with reference to this city, I ask you to call the proprietors together and have me discharged. I have to go to this and that false creature and coax him to behave as little like the devil as possible (Lew Campbell, for instance), yet in constant terror of seeing him guillotined in the next Tribune that arrives-and I can't make him believe that I didn't instigate it. So with everything here. If you want to throw stones at anybody's crockery, aim at my head first, and in mercy be sure to aim well. ...

After commending Dana's editorial remarks on Benton and Lew Campbell as being in excellent taste, and then condemning him for what was said of one Bayard Clark, he broke out again with:

I must give it up and go home. All the border ruffians from here to the lowest pit could not start me away, but you can do it, and I lust give up. You are getting everybody to curse me. I am too sick to be out of bed, too crazy to sleep, and am surrounded by horrors. I shall go to Pittsburg on the 22d, and I guess I shall not return. I can just bear the responsibilities that belong to me, but you heap a load on me that will kill me....

... I would not publish articles about Rust's assaults on me, but especially those that speak of my weakness, inoffensiveness, [145] etc. I do not desire any sympathy. At all events, I don't wish to beg for it.

On February 6, 1856, he wrote to Dana:

I had to meet Clayton last evening at Seward's, where I had a quiet talk with him, Colonel Benton, and Governor [Stanton] as to Kansas and what is to be done. Judge whether it is either pleasant for me, or profitable for the Tribune or the cause, to have had him assailed in the Tribune as he was.

I rode home with Colonel Benton, who is every inch as vulnerable as Clayton. But he is now on the right side doing good service. Would it be wise to attack him for any of his by-gone errors? And above all, should you attack him. in New York in utter disregard that I am in friendly understanding with him here? . . .

I do wish you would consider my position. In yesterday's paper I see you talk of Rust as drunk when he assaulted me. Now I don't know this, and have never asserted it. Of course the barbarian will regard this as a fresh attack upon and defiance of him by me, and I can do nothing to undeceive him. . . . Let others denounce or revile Rust; I mean never to speak of him unless obliged to. ...

A few days later he wrote to Pike, “Charge Dana not to slaughter anybody, but be mild and meek-souled like me.” But this was not the end of his troubles. With his own carelessness in mailing his letters, and the bad postal service between Washington and the Tribune office, there was necessarily much in the editorial columns which gave him trouble. He was a querulous and hesitating man, and while he felt deeply and wrote caustically about the public men of the day, he could not always reach his subordinates in time to prevent them from taking action in opposition to his advice. In one of his letters he says: [146]

... may be as great a rascal as he is represented. If so I begin to see the utility of rascals in the general economy of things. ...

With much more of the same sort, this correspondence continues on to the end-now complaining of the management, then praising it; now pleading for economy, then cursing it; now thanking Dana for a “glorious issue with supplement,” then remonstrating with him for too much space for “unsigned editorials” ; now praising him for his considerate treatment of himself and other correspondents, then begging consideration for some worthless politician; now expressing his willingness to give up Washington whenever Dana might think it best, then desiring to stay longer; now asking for Pike to relieve him, then declaring, “I mean to be extra good this year, and rather doubtful as to the next.” Finally, on April 11, 1856, in almost his last letter from Washington, he explains most of his troubles as follows:

... My heart does not break easily, but these mail features are hard to bear. On Tuesday, Henry Waldron, of Michigan, made a glorious speech. He is one of our best men; never spoke before, and probably will not again.

I sat down and wrote a telegraphic despatch about it, then a letter. Wednesday's paper came and no despatch. I wrote one of inquiry to you, and took it down to the office, when lo! they owned up that they had mislaid and failed to send the despatch till next morning! So the milk in that cocoanut was accounted for. “Well,” says I, “the next paper will bring along my letter, anyhow” ; but that paper came last night, and no letter, but instead of that a despatch from you, sent after, saying that the letter only reached you yesterday. Now, I have myself carried every letter to the post-office this week-usually a little before midnight, and the letters are taken till five in the morning. So the fault can [147] hardly be here. I am afraid you fail to make a row with the New York post-office when this sort of thing occurs.

Last night it was one o'clock when I took my letter to the office, and your despatch gave me a dread that it might have been overlooked and delayed here. So I have been to the postmaster this morning, and had the office overhauled, and the letter has certainly gone. The only chance of failure is, says the P. M., that these late letters are made up in a special or extra package, and this may be overlooked and left unopened at night in the New York office. Pray look to this.

Your despatch about the Fremont letter is generally admired. I have not yet taken Banks' opinion of it; but he has written me a note saying that he was misled by A. B. James, and will keep out of such ruts hereafter. Rather late, but very right.

You can't guess how old Butler gave it to me yesterday for that infernal article telling the British how to invade and conquer the South. No report can do justice to his venom. I will try to keep such articles out of the Tribune hereafter.

Old Badger was sitting in the Senate all day yesterday. He must be “tickled to death” at the prospect of Pike's return to this city. I trust you have a supplement to-day. Thank Carey in my name for that article on Bowen. Also whoever did the Joe Bonaparte, though it used up so much room. ...

On May 20th he wrote from Lawrence, Kansas, transmitting a speech which he had delivered at Ossawatomie, and giving an account of his riding from place to place, shaking hands with everybody, including a lot of “political half-breeds and twaddlers.” According to this statement there was “considerable malignity in his speech, some of which will seem funny to some folks and not so funny to others. In Kansas, where its every shot will hit somebody, I know it will do good, and I promise not to write out another this side of San Francisco at the worst.” He ends with the following comprehensive summary: [148]

Rain-mud most profound, flooded rivers and streams-glorious soil-worthless politicians and lazy people-such is Kansas in a nutshell.

According to his itinerary, Greeley could not have got back to New York till late in July or early in August, therefore it is entirely certain that Dana had principal charge of the Tribune from early in 1855 till late in 1856, and it is fair to conclude that he practically controlled its opinions, utterances, and policy. The campaign it was conducting for free Kansas was mainly his, and this fact also entitles him to the principal share of the praise, as well as to nearly all the blame that was visited upon the paper. The letters from which I have quoted throw a flood of light upon the character of Horace Greeley, and to the critical reader foreshadow the melancholy end which finally overtook him.

The fight against slavery continued throughout the year. The friends of freedom, under the advice of the Tribune, were now sending Sharp's rifles, as well as men to use them, into Kansas. The assault on Senator Sumner at his seat in the Senate by Preston S. Brooks, a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina, was denounced as the culmination of Southern intolerance, and an outrage upon free speech and free thought. Sumner was far from being a popular man, but this act seemed to fill the entire North with a sense of danger that it had not hitherto felt. Its immediate effect was to intensify as well as to diversify the struggle. Fremont, The Pathfinder, an amiable but weak man without political experience, was nominated by the Republicans in opposition to Buchanan, the Democratic candidate, for the presidency. Greeley, Dana, and a host of clever writers now threw themselves into the campaign with greater determination than ever. The weekly Tribune had reached [149] an unprecedented circulation of two hundred and eight thousand through the mails, and thus, with the daily and semi-weekly, doubtless came before at least a million readers every week. While the circulation was confined largely to the Northern and Western States, it must not be forgotten that those States contained the principal centres of population, and when sufficiently united in public sentiment were sure to come into control of Congress and the general government. It needed but a few acts like the assault on Sumner to so influence and unite the North as to place a political victory within its grasp. That Dana fully expected the election of Fremont, and counted upon it to preserve the Union for at least four years to come, is shown not only by the editorials of the Tribune, but by his private correspondence:

In July he wrote to James Pike:

... It is a great canvass; for genuine inspiration, 1840 couldn't; hold a candle. I am more than ever convinced that Fremont was the man for us. ...

Later he added:

... If you had approved either Fremont or his life, I should have been alarmed, but your total condemnation quite reassures me. I notice that Garrison, Parker Pillsbury, S. S. Foster, and other disunionists hold the same language. It is alarming thus to see all the Damphools against us. Our course and our candidate need no other indorsements. ...

On October 4th he declared:

The political prospect brightens constantly. In this State it is hard to tell how big the majority will be. I bet on fifty thousand over both Fillmore and Buchanan . ... Pennsylvania, week after next, will go by from thirty to forty thousand against Buchanan. . . . The tide is rising with a [150] rush, as it does in the Bay of Fundy. ... The Democrats are terrified and demoralized. . . . My impression now is that every free state will vote for Fremont. ... Pike, First Blows of the Civil War.

And yet, with all this confidence and enthusiasm, Dana was mistaken. He had worked as he had never worked before, but in vain. He had planted seed plentifully, but the season was too short to mature the crop. Fremont was badly beaten, and as it turned out this was perhaps the best thing that could have happened. He had served well enough as a standard-bearer to uphold the flag while the army was forming, but, fortunately for the Union and the cause of freedom, a great captain as yet entirely unknown was destined to come forth from the body of the people, and lead them through four years of a bloody conflict to a victory greater than any that the most ardent Free-soiler had ever yet dared to hope for.

Meanwhile, Dana and his friends of the Tribune were not cast down. They accepted defeat with a fair degree of resignation, and turned their attention again to the advocacy of a railroad to the Pacific, a bounty to the New England cod-fishermen, and fair treatment to the nonunion locomotive drivers. A timely word was said in favor of finding a competent man to carry on the work of making the Central Park. A sound and scientific currency was advocated as against the Democratic outcry for “hard money” ; the Dred Scott decision was denounced as the severest blow ever inflicted upon the free States; the people of St. Louis were praised for electing an antislavery municipal ticket, and when the panic of October, 1857, which it had foreseen, broke upon the country and carried down eighteen New York banks, the Tribune did all in its power to allay the excitement and foster a feeling of [151] hopefulness. While it inculcated economy and industry as the surest way to the restoration of confidence and the re-establishment of business, it did not fail to stand for the idea that “Capital is just as conducive to production as labor.”

As was his custom, Greeley was absent from the city frequently, and thus left the management of the Tribune, as before, largely in Dana's hands. Just what articles either wrote it would be difficult to ascertain. Indeed, it matters little, for enough has been quoted to show that they were a unit on all the fundamental questions of the day.

In a letter to Pike, September 1, 1859, Dana makes this entirely clear by the explicit declaration which follows:

... I have not invented or added anything to the programme of the paper when it came into my hands. I have simply pursued, and that with greater moderation, and, I think, with much greater caution than he exhibited, the course which Mr. Greeley started it upon. I think he was right, and I think I have been right, too. ... Pike, First Blows of the Civil War.

The struggle to keep slavery out of Kansas and Nebraska, and to bring those territories into the Union as free States, went on without relaxation or the thought of defeat. The doctrine of popular sovereignty — as embodied in the Lecompton constitution, and as advocated with such unflagging zeal by Senator Douglas, gave them greater difficulty than any other political doctrines of the day. It seemed plausible, and reasonable to the average man, that the people of the territories should carry with them such domestic institutions as prevailed in the States from which they went, or at least be free to adopt such as they might think proper, but the Tribune declared: [152]


To us the path of duty is plain. Henceforth, to the end of the struggle, we shall know how to resist the imposition of that fraud on Kansas as brethren, while we regard those who support that fraud as deadly enemies, not merely to Kansas and to the Republican party, but to the principles of American independence — the inalienable rights of man! . . . All other issues will be postponed or subordinated till Kansas shall have been fully delivered from her oppressors and added to the galaxy of free states.... Slavery condemned by the clear-sighted political economy no less than by the enlightened morality of our age, is doomed to decline and vanish. ... It needs only to be confronted by a quiet, steady, and determined but constitutional resistance to insure and hasten that benignant consummation. We cherish joyful hopes that 1860 will make this plain to many who now disbelieve it. ...

Finally, planting themselves squarely on the doctrine of the “higher law,” as announced by Senator Seward, they ended all argument on that point with the lofty declaration:

... We recognize no right in one man to enslave his fellow-man! ...

On this platform they kept the Tribune to the end, dodging no issue however small, but meeting every question as it arose, bravely and squarely, without any visible shadow of selfish or personal bias.

The death of Senator Benton, in April, 1858, was followed by an appreciative editorial in the Tribune analyzing his character, pointing out both its weak and its strong points, praising his courage, his integrity, his morality, his fidelity, and his great personal force, but giving him small credit for real statesmanship or mental ability when compared with Clay, Webster, and Calhoun.

During the entire period of Buchanan's administration [153] the Tribune cultivated close relations with Seward, Collamer, Chase, Fessenden, Hale, Sunnier, Henry Wilson, and all the other rising men of the Republican party. A warm and devoted friendship grew up between them, with Dana as well as with Greeley. The paper was their chief support, as well as their chief means of reaching their constituents through a friendly interpretation. Under Dana's special guidance it had also come to be the leading literary journal of the country. Its columns were filled with criticisms of the latest books by Ripley, Hildreth, George William Curtis, and other rising men, and this made it welcome to the preachers, school-masters, and professional men throughout the North. Thus the advanced thought of the day on every subject was widely disseminated.

On the other hand, the leading Southern men, and the leading Democrats from both sections, were kept under constant observation and criticism. Such men as Davis, Toombs, Benjamin, Hammond, Chesnut, Hunter, Mason, Slidell, Douglas, and Breckenridge were kept constantly before the country. Their actions were questioned, their speeches were analyzed, and their motives were impugned. Nothing they did was allowed to go unchallenged. Every sentiment they uttered was tested by the Constitution as well as by the “eternal principles of justice.”

Benjamin was unsparingly denounced for his plea in the Senate in behalf of slavery as the necessary condition of labor in the tropics as well as in the Southern States. He was mercilessly excoriated for favoring the annexation of Cuba in the interest of that barbaric and aggressive institution. The killing of Senator Broderick, of California, by the fire-eater, Judge Terry, was held up to the country as a murder under the forms of the duel, in the interest, if not at the dictation, of the pro-slavery party. The insanity of John Brown, who was hanged for [154] his futile raid against slavery in Virginia, was confidently charged to the same account. In short, the wickedness, the wastefulness, and the barbarity of human slavery were constantly set forth in the columns of the Tribune. Every incident connected with it in fact, or which could be connected with it by inference, was reported, analyzed, and held up for the execration of its readers. The German settlers of Missouri and Texas were praised for their opposition to slavery and for their unanimous adherence to the party of freedom. Of all that sturdy and industrious race, the Tribune declared that “only two, and they broken-down noblemen who try to preserve a shabby gentility,” had ever become slave-holders.

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