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Chapter 6: return to New York journalism

  • Continued confidence in socialistic experiments
  • -- praises Kossuth -- MacREADYeady riots -- antislavery agitation -- General Taylor elected president -- Greeley, Dana, and the tribune -- Opposes carpenters' strike -- favors free speech and free press -- protective tariff -- land reform -- Pacific Railroad

Dana arrived at New York in March, 1849, by the steamship United States, which was twenty-eight days on the passage, and this gave rise to the fear that she was lost.

Shortly after his return he expressed the hope, in some notes for the Tribune, that certain French industrial associations, which were thought to embody the better part of the revolution, would survive, but one after another they disappeared, and were finally followed by the failure of Icaria, a socialistic society established by a Frenchman named Cabet, near Nauvoo, in Illinois. The fatal defects in all these societies, like that of Brook Farm, were insufficient capital and an insufficient number of the right kind of socialists. But Dana, although discouraged, did not give up his interest in the subject. In an editorial on the approaching election in France, he wrote:1

Let no man be frightened by the terms “social” and “Socialist” as adopted by the Democratic journals of France. They are Socialists not as propagandists of any societary theory or system, but as believers together, that the condition of the toiling, suffering millions ought to be, may be [95] ameliorated, and that it is the pressing duty of governments to affect such amelioration.

He followed this by an analysis of Proudhon's Political Economy, in which that writer points out that the way to ideal society is by association. He was evidently full of this subject, for a few days later he came out in favor of a national bank, and in his argument to support the measure, spoke sympathetically of the national credit institution, or so-called People's Bank, apparently a modification of Proudhon's Bank of Exchange, which the French democrats were advocating at that time, but which seems to have been quite as visionary as similar institutions advocated in this country, many years later, by the Populists. In the discussion of this and other socialistic measures he appealed to the Roman Catholics of the country in an editorial addressed specially to them, saying among other things:

... There is one purpose very dear to us, with which it seems that the Catholics do not sympathize-namely, that of a radical improvement in the social relations of mankind.

The next day he commented with reservation upon the discordance which had made its appearance among the French reformers, and threatened to defeat the measures with which he was in sympathy. Upon this occasion he wrote:

... Full discussion will show how those who have not may benefit without robbing those who have-how to secure plenty for all without confiscating the goods of any.

It is to be observed, however, that the articles of this period in favor of association, co-operation, and social reform were earnest and sympathetic, rather than positive [96] and dogmatic. They show a great desire — a sincere hope for the amelioration of the human lot everywhere. All honest efforts to that end undoubtedly had his support, but there was a note of uncertainty throughout his writings based upon the undeniable fact that hope is a word implying doubt, and that he was not without apprehensions.

The revolution in Austria was at this time still claiming the attention and exciting the interest of the world. Bern, the Polish hero, was fighting the battle of the Hungarians in the field, while Kossuth was pleading their cause in the press and on the forum with marvellous eloquence. Dana, true to his sympathies, gave them unstinted praise in the Tribune. His pen was ever true to the call of the downtrodden and oppressed. Liberty was the supreme blessing of mankind then, as it always remained, to him, and this was as true in the case of an individual as in the case of a race or nation. He looked upon France at that time as “the sheet-anchor of the liberties of the world,” and regarded the issues of the war in Hungary as affecting the interests of all mankind. With deep intensity of feeling, he prayed, “May God prosper the right.” He criticised and condemned the Russian army, which had gone to the assistance of the Austrian government against its insurgent subjects, as “the bane of human liberty,” and “the heartless tool of tyranny and absolutism.” Indeed, no one can read his Tribune editorials on these subjects without being deeply impressed by the unselfish sympathy with which he always advocated the cause of the people as against the customary restrictions upon their freedom, no matter whence they came. Whatever 1may be said against his views on the broader questions of social and governmental reform, and the means by which they were to be obtained, it is evident that his ideas of personal and popular liberty rested upon a solidly basis. That he sympathized deeply with the European revolutions [97] is apparent in every line of his editorials as well as his correspondence. It is also apparent that the underlying foundation of this sympathy rested rather upon hatred of absolutism than upon any exaggerated love of free government.

It was in May of this year that the Macready riots took place in New York. In consequence of a misunderstanding, and of possible rivalry existing for some years between Edwin Forrest, the American tragedian, and William Charles Macready, an English actor of distinction then on a tour of the United States, the friends of Forrest took violent measures to prevent Macready from acting in New York, and brought about a bloody disturbance for the suppression of which both the police and the military forces were called out. Some twenty-three persons were killed and thirty-six wounded. Great excitement prevailed for a week. The best citizens took part in behalf of Macready's protection and his right to act. The newspapers led in the discussion, and in the end the cause of free speech and free acting prevailed. The country papers took sides, and one published at Wilkesbarre strenuously denied Macready's right to act “if a part of the people disapproved of him.” This brought out the Tribune in strenuous defence of Macready, on the broad ground that “his rights as a man were superior to other people's prejudices.” This article was written by Dana, and had in it all the ring which afterwards characterized the Sun under his editorship.

Early this year the Tribune began its advocacy of a railroad to the Pacific, and took a leading part in favor of a protective tariff, as well as in the discussion of slavery. In all these questions Greeley, who was the largest owner as well as the responsible editor, defined the policy of the newspaper on lines which nobody could mistake. Curiously enough, in a reply to a warning from a Southerner that [98] the Union was in danger, he frankly declared that “dissolution would not be the dreadful affair represented. If the South should ever want to secede, we go for giving her the largest liberty.” This was doubtless the precursor of that other saying, “Erring sisters, depart in peace!” While this was occasionally repeated during the decade, and finally became a favorite sentiment of the Tribune in the dark and doubtful days which preceded the end of the war for the Union, so far as I can discover, it found no place in Dana's writings, and at no time received his approval. He was doubtless as radical as Greeley in regard to the wickedness of slavery, and even more radical than he in resisting the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the spread of slavery into the territories, but throughout his share in this agitation he refused to tolerate the idea of the dissolution of the Union. He believed then and afterwards in the power of Congress, not only to abolish the institution in the District of Columbia, but to prohibit it in the territories.

Early in 1850 the Tribune, for the first time, called attention to the fact “that a formidable body of politicians have been for a year plotting to dissolve the Union.” Similar statements, with increasing frequency, recurred throughout the decade, and in almost every discussion this great danger was, in one form or another, placed before the people. Agitation and discussion were the daily occupation of editors, politicians, and statesmen. Missouri Compromises, Wilmot Provisos, the Omnibus Resolutions, Squatter Sovereignty, the Nebraska Bill, the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, the prohibition of slavery in the territories, the dissolution of the Union, the preservation of the Union, were subjects of absorbing interest more or less constantly under discussion. The great public men of the period were Clay, Webster, and Calhoun; while Benton, Dayton, Davis, Douglas, Crittenden, [99] Sumner, Foote, Seward, and Mangum were lesser lights; but each was striving in his own way to compose the differences between the sections by compromises and arrangements, which it was hoped would not only save the Union, but would also save slavery where it legally existed, and put an end forever to the discussion of the slavery question. Each did his part according to his lights, but still the agitation went on with ever-increasing intensity, because the more it was discussed, the more evident it became that the disease was incurable by peaceful methods, and that the divergent views held in regard to it were irreconcilable.

General Taylor, the Whig candidate, had been elected president, but this was also a compromise measure that was destined to end in disappointment. The Tribune took part in every discussion, and worked as though the solution of every question depended upon the arguments put forth in its columns. While it was Whig in its politics, it was pre-eminently “independent in all things-neutral in none.” There were many other great journals in both the North and the South, but there was only one Tribune in the entire country. During this period it reached its greatest circulation. It was published both as a daily and as a weekly, and went into almost every parsonage, college, and farmer's home in the Northern States. Under Mr. Greeley, who was chief editor, assisted by Dana, who was executive officer, and for several years had charge of its make-up, it became the great antislavery journal of the day, and it has been well said that during the entire ante-war period it was “the spokesman of the most numerous, most independent, and most determined body of men ever associated for political purposes in the United States.” 2

Greeley was undoubtedly one of the greatest political [100] and controversial writers this country ever produced, and it is but simple justice to say that his heart was overflowing with sympathy for the slaves and with hatred for slavery. He threw his whole soul into the controversies going on about him, but no one can read the files of the Tribune, or the political writings and books of the day, without discovering that Dana was in many respects a stronger and more aggressive character than his chief. While Greeley was far from being a moral coward, it is not to be disguised that he showed at times, when the fight was heaviest, a lack of nerve if not of courage.

On the other hand, Dana: was never known to weaken in a fight, nor to abandon one till it was ended. He was as tireless as a gladiator, and as unrelenting in his purposes. Withal, he was a much better educated man than Greeley, and while he may not have been so pleasing a writer, he was a master of polemical discussion and invective. It was Dana who first learned the value of reiteration, and first practised it in the columns of a newspaper as the best means of driving home his points and fastening them in the public mind. It is commonly believed by those who knew these men at the time that to Dana much more than to Greeley was due the tremendous fight which the Tribune made for bleeding Kansas, and for the signal victory which it won in saving that State from the curse of slavery.

While it is inconsistent with the purposes and limits of this memoir to give a complete history of this important period, or even an exhaustive resume of Dana's contributions, I shall endeavor to set forth his views and arguments, as found in the columns of the Tribune, with sufficient fulness to show the important part he played and the great influence he exerted in the final settlement of the momentous questions of this decade.

In March, 1850, one of the first strikes of the New York [101] carpenters occurred, and Dana, notwithstanding his own recent strike for a higher salary, at once recorded himself against it as a measure “which could be of no permanent value.” True to his convictions, he pointed out, then and frequently afterwards, that the remedy for such injustice as existed should be looked for in “association,” or “cooperative carpentering,” but he failed to indicate the essential difference between his plan and that of the strikers. It doubtless lay in his belief that it was then and always the inherent right of every carpenter to stay out of the association, or to join it, just as he pleased, without coercion or any other infringement of his personal liberty or restraint upon his perfect freedom of action. Be this as it may, it will be seen as we proceed that this is the fundamental principle upon which Dana always acted to the close of his life, whether the strike was against himself or against others.

About the same time, although strongly in favor of temperance in the use of intoxicating liquors, he took ground against absolute prohibition, and suggested instead such a tax upon the liquor-sellers as would reimburse the public for all the loss it might sustain from the traffic. While this cannot be claimed as a suggestion of the modern high license, as it has come to be applied in many States and communities, it evidently contains the germ of that measure, and is noticeable as one of the best as well as earliest solutions of a question which remains open to the present day.

As might have been supposed, the discussions of the slavery question led to much excitement, and occasionally to disturbances in the Northern States, where slavery had many apologists. It was no uncommon thing for ignorant and intolerant partisans to interfere with antislavery meetings, especially where the speakers were orators of such prominence as Garrison, Phillips, and Lovejoy. Frederick [102] Douglass, the eloquent negro speaker, was frequently prohibited from speaking, and in many parts of the North, where the Democratic party prevailed, it was positively dangerous for him to make his appearance. While Dana freely admitted that some of these persons, especially Garrison, “might not be all that he ought to be,” he vehemently contended that “there must be no interference with his rights as a man,” and, above all, “no infringement of the right of free speech, no matter what might be the pretext.” He regarded this as one of the inalienable rights of American citizenship, and stood for it to the day of his death, strenuously and without flinching, not only for himself and every other man as a man, but for himself and every other editor as an editor. In later years he was forced to appeal to the courts for personal protection against the violation of this fundamental principle, and, as I shall relate in its proper place, fortunately won one of the most important legal victories that has ever been accorded to an American citizen. But Dana was not only in favor of free speech at this early date, as well as throughout his life, but in favor of free education for every child in the land, without reference to “his parents' providence or means, as a broad foundation for the training of the great mass of the generations to come after us in the ways of knowledge and virtue.” And from this liberal and generous principle he never departed. Fortunately, it was at home in America from the earliest days of the colonies. It had some enemies among the slave-holders, but as the years passed on and slavery was abolished, it received general approval in the Southern as well as in the Northern States.

The Tribune from its foundation had been a sturdy advocate of a protective tariff as the best stimulant for diversified home industries. It never faltered in its support of this policy, and in this it had Dana's best help, [103] both before and after he became city editor. He was a consistent and persistent writer of editorials on every aspect of the subject, but as it has been accepted as the established policy of the nation under a succession of Republican presidents, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, it can hardly be considered necessary at this time to summarize, much less to repeat, the arguments for or against it. But there was a cognate discussion carried on with great warmth for the same decade in behalf of land reform and the emancipation of labor, in which Dana took a leading part. I do not understand that this discussion had reference to land tenure, or to any special form of taxation, but rather to the disposition of the public lands owned by the government. Dana's idea was that Congress should pass such laws as would put it in the reach of every citizen to acquire a quarter section, or one hundred and sixty acres, of public land as a homestead by free gift from the government, on the sole condition of actual settlement, improvement, and cultivation, and that the government should besides encourage the construction of railroads into and through the unimproved lands in the Far West, by giving the companies having them in hand such liberal land grants as were proper and necessary. But, on the other hand, he strenuously opposed all bounty land bills, for the ostensible purpose of rewarding military services to the republic. He resisted such measures as “a great outrage on the rights of the people for the benefit of speculators and land sharks.” He contended that the soldiers would neither get the lands, nor anything like their value, but that while the tree might be shaken in their name, “the fruit would be gathered and devoured in Wall Street and in similar patriotic localities.” A further argument was that such measures would tend to interfere with a railroad to the Pacific, an “enterprise” which he considered as “by far the most important in its [104] character and consequences yet presented for public consideration.” He contendd that there was no hope of financing the undertaking, except by using “the public lands as a source of capital, coupled with a judicious scheme for the colonization of the region” through which the road should be located. This was in 1850, and it is a noteworthy fact that at that early date he favored the plans of Asa Whitney, who, as early as 1846, had made a proposition to the government for the construction of a line from the western end of Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean. The first speech in the Senate in advocacy of the general measure was made by Senator Breeze, of Illinois, but the bill which was finally passed was introduced by Senator Benton, of Missouri, in 1849. Dana gave this scheme his heartiest approval and support from the first, and urged that should the bounty land bill become a law, as he feared it would, it should be followed at once by another setting apart alternate sections for the railroad, within five miles on either side, so that its construction should not fail for want of resources. He pointed out that the construction of such a road would confer an immense benefit,

not only upon the whole country and the whole world, but a very great special benefit upon the country lying along its line. That country will be vastly increased in value by the road for all purposes of human occupation. That increase will pay for the road. ... New York Tribune, July 4, 1850.

His advocacy of the measure, in its various stages, was continued as occasion required, till it came to be recognized by the entire country as essential to the preservation of the national unity and to the maintenance of the national defence. But the final victory was not [105] won till Congress, by the acts of July, 1862, and July, 1864, provided, in addition to the land subsidy, for a subsidy of $16,000, $32,000, and $40,000 per mile for the various sections of the road, according to location, in the six-per-cent. gold-bonds of the United States. During the discussion, which was carried on with various intermission for twelve years, Dana remained true to his convictions, and worked for the great undertaking with all his might. Although he was charged with violating his principles as a land reformer, in favor of free distribution of public lands, and opposed to traffic in the soil, he stood to his guns without flinching. In vindication of his course he set forth his views as follows:

Our doctrine about land is that the soil is necessary to the support of life like air and water, and is accordingly the common property of the human race. As such it is, strictly speaking, not a proper subject for trade between individuals. But improvements in land are the result of labor, and as such are properly individual property and may be bought and sold without violating the absolute principles of justice.

Now take the immense tract supposed to be set apart for the Pacific road, and in its natural state it is comparatively worthless for purposes of habitation and culture. The greater part, indeed, lying in the centre of the continent, must remain unoccupied for want of a market. ...

But with the road constructed he urged:

The actual productive value of lands along the line will be doubled, or more than doubled, not by any factitious means, but by a permanent public convenience, whose usefulness must constantly become greater. This increase of value which results from human labor and ingenuity is what is actually sold when the land is sold, and its price would not be diminished were all the rest of the public lands thrown open without pay to actual settlers as we shall do our best to have [106] done. In fact, by this scheme the building of the road is made actually to create the capital which pays for it.

Although this was written twelve years before the work was actually begun, and nineteen years before the road was connected through to San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean, it could not have better stated the true merits and influence of the enterprise had it been written at the present time, when the entire debt of the Pacific roads has been repaid to the national government.

But neither Greeley nor Dana was content to rest the establishment of the commercial policy of the country solely on the advocacy of a protective tariff. While both favored the latter measure as absolutely essential to the development of our resources, both opposed free-trade with all the ability they could bring to bear in the discussion. In November, 1850, Dana wrote an editorial for the Tribune which may be taken as a fair sample of all on that topic. I quote from it as follows:

... There are free-traders by interest and free-traders by theory. These two classes are far apart in motives and in character. The first care not a copper for the philosophy of the matter, their only philosophy being to make money, according to that antique if not venerable principle, “each for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” In this country they consist mainly of importers, many of them English, French, or Germans, whose business is to bring in and sell the greatest quantity of foreign products. The welfare of the people, the adoption of a sound course of policy, the development of American resources, are all nothing to them, for the reason that their interest lies the other way. They are like the silversmiths that once flourished at Ephesus. The balance in their ledgers is the great test of good and evil, and that no arguments can alter. Reasoning is accordingly useless with them. Their organ is the Journal of Commerce. [107]

The free-traders by theory are men who have a thought on the question, and have studied at least their own side of it. The majority of them are sincere and earnest in their convictions, and believe that their practical application must result in good. It is true that they are not always the most agreeable of people nor the fairest of debaters; like the generality of mere theorists, they are apt to be arrogant and ill-mannered, and speak contemptuously of arguments which they will not take the trouble to examine, and consequently cannot answer. But they have a great advantage over the Journal of Commerce free-traders, in the fact that they do after a sort speak from principles and reflection, and not from money-bags. And they are as much more worthy of respect, as it is better to speculate in ideas and theories than in the product of other men's labor.

To this class of speculators we respectfully suggest that they put the cart quite too far before the horse, and are pursuing a mere abstraction, a theory for whose regulation the indispensable conditions are wanting. In short, they are Utopians.

Many people range themselves with the free-trade party simply because it wears the name of liberty and claims to be in the van of progress. But this hardly seems to us a conclusive reason; and until we forget the difference between names and things, we shall endeavor to examine every pretension before admitting its validity. And the more we examine this free-trade pretension the more we are convinced that it is unsound and delusive. We shall oppose it therefore in the name of both progress and liberty.

For, let us say, we do not yield to commerce that unqualified adoration which is the stock in trade of some writers. There are other interests the fostering of which seem to us more essential to human prosperity, taken in a large and just sense, than the interests of trade, and especially of trade with foreign and distant regions. We distrust exceedingly the source from which this cry of commercial liberty has issued. And we are assured that the true freedom of exchanges, in which as an ultimate thing, we most fully believe, [108] as indeed we believe in freedom of every sort, is not to be reached in the road travelled by these speculators, whether of the one class or the other. ...

In his editorials Dana presented the fundamental arguments on which the protective tariff was based twelve years later. They were quickened by the outbreak of the war between the States, and the necessity which arose at once for additional revenues, and for the corresponding development of our own manufactures as against those of rival and possibly hostile countries from which we might be cut off at any time by the complications of the war. Without dwelling upon the history of the times, or upon the principles of political economy which were involved, it will be admitted by most Americans that no policy of government ever received a more complete vindication than did that which Greeley and Dana advocated in the Tribune, and which was finally carried into effect by the laws of the country.

As between industrial reform, land reform, financial reform, and social reform, all of which engaged public attention from time to time during this important period, the curious reader of the present day may be at a loss to choose, and at a still greater loss to understand which should have had precedence, but he can hardly fail to approve what Dana said about them in a philosophical editorial, from which I quote as follows:

... Now it is a question with many persons which of these great schemes is entitled to pre-eminence, which has the most of intrinsic truth, to which ought men devoted to the welfare of the race exclusively to devote themselves?

We answer that for our part we believe in exclusive devotion to none, but in contending for each or all as occasion may favor. While we see them all to be necessary, we rejoice in the enthusiasm which devotes itself to the advocacy of any, [109] even if accompanied by some exaggeration of its merits as compared with the others.

Surely the foregoing is a sane and helpful rule for the modern editor, whatever may be the subjects engaging his attention. That Dana followed it always thereafter is abundantly evident not only from the Tribune, but from the Sun, which he took in hand many years later. No question affecting the people at home or abroad ever escaped his analysis. No political measure or public law ever escaped his criticism, no act of violence or outrage, whether of the many or of the few, ever failed to receive his condemnation. He stood at all times, and everywhere, for a fair and equal chance for all, for public improvements, for free schools, for equal rights, for honesty in office, for virtue in all classes, and, so far as can be discovered by reading his editorials, he was absolutely fearless as well as independent in expressing his opinions. He was a Whig, a Free-soiler, and a protectionist; he sympathized with the down-trodden, the impoverished, and the oppressed, and never for a day stood neutral or indifferent in any controversy which affected the interests of mankind at large.

1 New York Tribune, April 24, 1849.

2 Pike, First Blows of the Civil War, p. 14.

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