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Chapter 1: his early years and first employment as a compositor

  • New York city in 1831
  • -- Parentage and farm life -- his schooling -- opinions of a college education -- apprenticeship in Vermont -- appearance and dress -- views of country journalism -- amusements -- a nonuser of tobacco and liquor -- arrival in New York city

The country lad who went to New York city in the summer of 1831 to seek his fortune, arrived in what would now be called a good-sized town. The population of Manhattan Island (below the Harlem River) was only 202,589 in 1830, as compared with the 1,850,093 shown by the census of 1900; the total population of the district now embraced in Greater New York was then only 242,278, while in 1900 it was 3,437,202. The total assessed valuation of the city, real and personal, in 1833, was only $166,491,542; in 1900 it was, for the Borough of Manhattan, $2,853,363,382. No railroad then landed passengers or freight in the city, no ocean steamers departed from the docks, and there was no telegraphic communication. Thirteenth Street marked the northern boundary of the settled part of Manhattan Island, and although, [2] in 1828, lots from two to six miles distant from the City Hall were valued at from only $60 to $700 each, more than one writer of the day was ready to concede that, owing to advantages of cheaper land on the opposite shores of Long Island and New Jersey, newcomers were likely to settle there before the city could count on a larger growth. We get an idea of the rural condition of the city in the announcement that the post-office (in Exchange Place) was open only from 9 A. M. to sunset; that the “elegant [dry goods] emporium” of Peabody & Co. occupied a frontage of two windows under the American Hotel, at the northwest corner of Broadway and Barclay Street, the residences of Phillip Hone and another prominent citizen being situated in the same block, and that Greenwich Village had not yet lost its character as a summer resort; and, five years later, the New Yorker, in an article setting forth the growth of the city, said, “Her streets, lacking more direct appliances, have been sun-dried and rain-washed till they are passably, if hardly, respectable.”

This was the city on one of whose wharves an Albany boat landed Horace Greeley one summer morning. His equipment for a struggle for a living among entire strangers he [3] has thus described: “I was twenty years old the preceding February; tall, slender, pale, and plain; with ten dollars in my pocket, summer clothing worth perhaps as much more, nearly all on my back, and a decent knowledge of so much of the art of printing as a boy will usually learn in the office of a country newspaper.”

The Greeleys, for generations back, had not known affluence. Of Scotch-Irish stock, some of them had emigrated to America as early as 1640, and had fought the fight for a living as farmers or as blacksmiths. Horace's father Zaccheus was a farmer, and the future journalist was born on his farm of fifty acres five miles from Amherst, N. H., on February 3, 1811. With the best of management it would have been difficult to obtain from such a farm more than a living for the owner's family. The Greeleys did work hard, the mother sharing with her husband such labor as raking and loading hay, besides doing housework and carding and spinning, and Horace, when five years old, gave such assistance as riding the horse to plow before going to school for the day, and killing wireworms in the corn. But the father was an easy-going rather than an energetic man. In those days whisky, rum, and cider were [4] served even at the ordination of clergymen in parts of New England, and Zaccheus Greeley was never behind his neighbors in acts of hospitality. He was, his son has testified, “a bad manager,” and always in debt, and his farm did not enable him to gain on his indebtedness. In the hope of improving matters, he let his own farm to a younger brother and rented a larger one near by. But the brother could not meet his engagements, and the family moved back in 1819. Sickness ensued, a speculation in lumber proved disastrous, and the end came in the summer of 1820, when the home farm was seized by the sheriff at the instance of several creditors, the father took his departure to escape arrest for debt, and the farm and crops, when sold, left nothing for the wife and children. “When night fell,” wrote the son in later years, “we were as bankrupt a family as well could be.” Horace then had a brother, eight years old, and two sisters of six and four years; another sister was born in 1822.

In the following January the Greeleys, with their effects packed in a two-horse sleigh, joined the father in Westhaven, Vt., where he had hired a house at a rental of $16 a year. There for two years the elder Greeley worked by the day at such jobs as he could secure, [5] the largest of these being the clearing of a fifty-acre tract of land. The two boys attended school in the winter months, but assisted their father in his laborious tasks the rest of the time. Cutting down trees was not the work for which boys of eight and ten were fitted; but they did what they could at that, and carried off the brush and drove the team. In the early spring they chopped away, standing in slush knee-deep, and in summer they endured at night the torture of having the lances of thistles dug out of their festered feet which they could not afford to protect with shoes. Seven dollars an acre, and half the wood, was to have been the recompense for this labor; but before the account was adjusted their employer died, and a part of even this small emolument they never received. Next, the father, again with the sons' assistance, tried farming and running a sawmill on shares at the same time, and later he united land-clearing and farming-all without financial success. This was the last of Horace Greeley's farm work as a boy. He had found in it “neither scope for expanding faculties, incitement to constant growth in knowledge, nor a spur to generous ambition.” But he believed in farming on business principles, and it was his experience in these early years [6] which led him, when in command of a great newspaper, to devote so much thought to a higher agriculture, and to write and speak so many words in behalf of intelligent land culture.

Any one who visits the neighborhood where the early days of a man afterward famous have been spent will not fail to discover reminiscences of his youthful talent, and to unearth venerable predictions of his future greatness. This has been the case with Horace Greeley, producing a kind of biography which he himself pronounced “monstrously exaggerated by gossip and tradition.” In his early years he was very delicate, and the death of two children who had preceded him made his mother especially tender of him. She had a rare store of old-country traditions told to her by her Irish grandmother, and the child took an eager interest in these; and an open book on his mother's knees while she spun so attracted him that when he was four years old he could read, and, from the manner of taking his lessons, it became indifferent to him whether the book was held sideways or even upside down. Before he was quite three years old he was sent to the district school from the house of his grandfather, which was nearer it than his home, and this school he [7] attended most of the winter, and some of the summer, months during the next three years. He also attended the district school while they lived in Vermont, as circumstances permitted. The text-books in those days were as primitive as the teaching and the discipline, embracing Webster's Spelling-Book (just introduced), The American Preceptor as a reader, and Bingam's Ladies' Accidence as a grammar. Reviewing his school days, in his Recollections of a Busy Life, Greeley said: “I deeply regret that such homely sciences as chemistry, geology, and botany were never taught. Yet I am thankful that algebra had not yet been thrust into our rural common schools, to knot the brains and squander the time of those who should have been learning something of positive and practical utility.”

Horace was certainly a precocious child. He had read the Bible through, under his mother's guidance, when he was five years old. When he was four years old he was so good a speller that, in the weekly matches at school, in which sides were chosen, he would easily secure and retain the head of his side, but was so much a child that the “choosing” of the spellers had to be committed to some one else, because he always selected for his [8] side the playmates whom he liked best, without regard to their spelling ability. All his school-fellows testified in later years to his early love of books, and that not one of the few volumes which the neighborhood afforded escaped him, and they recalled also his interest in the weekly newspaper for which his father subscribed. The first book that Greeley owned was The Columbian Orator, given to him by an uncle when, five years old, he lay sick with the measles. At Westhaven, Vt., the Greeleys lived near the house of the landowner who gave them employment, and he allowed Horace access to his library; and thus, by the time the boy was fourteen years old, he had read the Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, Shakespeare, and some history.

During the family's last year's residence in New Hampshire Horace's repute as a student induced a man of means to offer to send the lad, at his own expense, to Phillips Academy at Exeter, and afterward to college. Some men, after going through such struggles as Greeley encountered, would have regretted in later years the loss of this opportunity. Greeley did not. On the contrary, he expressed his thanks that his parents did not let him be indebted to any one of whom he had not a right to expect such a favor, and [9] he was ever hostile to the education furnished by the colleges of the day. To a young man who wrote to him in 1852 for his advice about going to college, Greeley replied, “I think you might better be learning to fiddle,” and in his Busy Life (1868) he said he would reply to the question, “How shall I obtain an education,” by saying, “Learn a trade of a good master. I hold firmly that most boys may better acquire the knowledge they need than by spending four years in college.” In an address at the laying of the corner-stone of the People's College at Havana, N. Y., in 1858, he explained, however, that he did not denounce a classical course of study, but only “protested against the requirement of application to and proficiency in the dead languages of all college students, regardless of the length of time they may be able to devote to study, and of the course of life they meditate.” The founding of agricultural and technical colleges, the opening of scientific departments in our classical institutions, and the device of optional courses are all concessions to the idea for which Greeley then contended.

A lad disgusted with the hard labor and slight remuneration of farming and land-clearing, and with a decided literary taste, naturally looked, in those days, to the printer's [10] trade as a congenial occupation. Newspapers Greeley had “loved and devoured” from the time when he had learned to read, and when he was eleven years old he induced his father to accompany him to a newspaper office in Whitehall, N. Y., where he had heard that there was an opening for an apprentice. But he was rejected as too young for the place. By the spring of 1826 his father had given up the fight for a living in New England, and decided to carry out a project he had long had in mind — a move to Western Pennsylvania. He bought a tract of four acres in Erie County, about three miles from Clymer, N. Y., on which was a log cabin with a leaky roof, in a wilderness, where the woods abounded with wild animals, and the forest growth was so heavy that he and his younger son were a month in clearing an acre. By additional purchases he in time increased his holding to some three hundred acres. The life of the family there was a discouraging one, and Horace says he never saw the old smile on his mother's face from the day she entered that log cabin to the day of her death in 1855.

That spring, before the family moved, Horace saw an advertisement, stating that an apprentice was wanted in the office of the Northern Spectator at East Poultney, Vt., [11] and he at once applied for the place. In all his early applications for work his personal appearance was an obstacle to his success. His figure was tall and slender, and his head large and covered with a growth of yellowish, tow-colored hair, so light that it seemed almost white with age. “Gawky” would describe his general aspect. His carelessness about dress, which was a personal characteristic in after-life, and which he was sometimes accused of cultivating with a view to effect,1 began with his boyhood, partly because [12] he had no money with which to buy good clothes, and partly because he was indifferent in the matter. A tattered hat, a shirt and trousers of homespun material, and the coarsest of shoes, without stockings, sufficed for his summer costume, and when, on his arrival in New York city, he added a linen roundabout, his appearance was so amusing that the boys jeered at him on the streets.

The business manager of the Northern Spectator, when Horace asked him, “Do you want a boy to learn the trade?” thought it strange that so unpromising a subject should have conceived the idea of becoming a printer. But he found the lad intelligent, and was told by him that he “had read some,” and that he understood what he had read; so he sent him to the foreman. The latter also changed a first unfavorable impression to the opinion that they should give him a trial, and he was engaged. A few days later, he appeared at the office with his father, his worldly possessions tied up in a handkerchief, and entered into a verbal agreement to work for the concern until he was twenty-one years old, receiving only his board for the first six months, and after that $40 a year in addition. This compensation was somewhat increased before he left Poultney, and out of his slender means, [13] as afterward in New York, he always found some surplus to send to the struggling family in the Pennsylvania wilderness. It is interesting here to note that from the town of Poultney, Vt., came George Jones, who gave Henry J. Raymond his chief financial assistance in founding the New York Times, and long survived both Greeley and Raymond as controlling owner of the Times.

Horace's experience in East Poultney was of the greatest educational value to him. There he first had access to a public library. He soon joined a debating club, of which the leading citizens of the town were members, and, without changing his working clothes or attempting oratory, he won a reputation as a cogent reasoner, and a speaker who was always sure of his facts. As there were only two or three workmen employed in the office, he had experience, not only in setting type, but in blistering his hands and laming his back assisting in running off the edition on an old-fashioned hand-press. His opportunity went further than this. Writing “compositions” had not been one of the requirements of the schools he had attended; but the editor of the Northern Spectator was a Baptist clergyman, whose religious duties took up a good deal of his time, and the apprentice, [14] when his taste for reading and his ability in debate became known, was entrusted with the selection of some of the miscellany for the paper, the condensation of news, and the preparation of occasional original paragraphs, which were often set up in type by him without first reducing them to manuscript form.

This was that kind of practical education for which Greeley always contended, and it was excellent fundamental instruction for the future editor of a city daily. The place for a young man to begin in journalism is at the bottom — as a reporter, if he is employed on a daily newspaper, or a condenser and gleaner if news is not the leading feature of the journal he is helping to make. While Horace Greeley achieved his chief fame as a writer — a debater of principles — it would be a mistake not to recognize the fact that he was a good “all-around” newspaper man. His first journalistic attempts in New York city, as we shall see, illustrated this; his reports of legislative and congressional proceedings and other matters demonstrated his skill as a reporter, and his close supervision of all the columns of the Tribune was made plain in the correspondence with his managing editor, Charles A. Dana, published [15] after his death. He always felt a responsibility for the kind of journal that he gave to his subscribers. “I think that newspaper reading is worth all the schools in the country,” he told a committee of the House of Commons, of which Cobden was a member, when invited, in London in 1851, to give his views on “taxes on knowledge,” and he was too honest to offer his readers anything less than the best that he could supply. Some advice to a country editor, written by him in 1860, could hardly be improved upon. His first principle laid down was that “the subject of deepest interest to an average human being is himself; next to that, he is most concerned about his neighbor.” He therefore told his correspondent that, if he would make up at least half his paper of local news, secured by “a wide-awake, judicious correspondent in every village and township in your county, nobody in the county can long do without it. Make your paper a perfect mirror of everything done in your county that its citizens ought to know.” This covers the whole ground of breadth and restriction. Next, he would have the editor take an active part in promoting all “home industries,” in which he included local fairs and new business enterprises of all kinds. Thirdly, and [16] lastly, he says: “Don't let the politicians and aspirants of the county own you. .. . Remember that — in addition to the radical righteousness of the thing — the taxpayers take many more papers than the tax consumers.” The following of this advice would have made a success of many a journalistic experiment that has proved a failure.

Greeley's interest in politics began with his early interest in newspapers, and he confesses that he was an “ardent politician” when he was not half old enough to vote. His newspaper apprenticeship gave him his first opportunity to share in political discussion, and aid in the work of a campaign. John Quincy Adams was President, Calhoun Vice-President, and Henry Clay Secretary of State when Greeley went to East Poultney, and public feeling was seething over the charge that there had been a corrupt bargain between Adams and Clay. In the national election of 1828 Calhoun was the candidate for Vice-President on the Jackson (Democratic) ticket, and Adams and Rush headed the National Republican ticket. “We Vermonters were all protectionists,” wrote Greeley; the Northern Spectator was an Adams paper of the partizan type, and on election day Poultney gave Adams 334 votes and [17] Jackson only 4. Greeley was also greatly interested in the Antimasonry political movement, sympathizing with the opponents of the secret order, and maintaining his opposition to such organizations throughout his life.

Diligent student as he was, Horace was not averse to amusements in those days. In his school and farming life, fishing was his favorite recreation, and in picturing an ideal rest, in his Busy Life, he suggested a party of congenial friends, camped on some coast islet or Adirondack lake, where fish or game could be had. He sometimes, when at Poultney, joined a party of bee-hunters, and occasionally took part in a game of ball, but acknowledged his inability “to catch a flying ball, propelled by a muscular arm straight at my nose.” He in later years objected to baseball matches between clubs of distant cities, and advocated giving the prize to the club that made the lowest score, as this demonstrated that these players attended better than their opponents to their business duties. Old acquaintances in Poultney said that he was fond of whist, checkers, and chess, and told of his defeating a locally famous checker player; but such games did not win his admiration, and he afterward advised persons [18] of sedentary habits to shun them “because of their inevitable tendency to impair digestion and incite headache.” He never witnessed a game of billiards, but he recommends bowling as an indoor exercise.

Two rules of life Greeley had already formed when he reached New York-he was a non-user of intoxicants and tobacco. Neither of his parents, he says, was a total abstainer from the use of liquor, and both loved their pipe. But the son was made sick by smoking a half-burned cigar in his grandfather's house when not more than five years old, and from that time he looked on the use of tobacco in any form as “if not the most pernicious, certainly the vilest, most detestable abuse of his corrupt sensual appetites whereof depraved man is capable.”

On January 1, 1824, young Greeley “deliberately resolved to drink no more distilled liquors,” and he kept this pledge thus made to himself when only thirteen years old, in a community where strong drink was as free as water, and nine years before the American Temperance Society declared for total abstinence. Soon after he went to Poultney he assisted in organizing a temperance society, and, to make sure that his own years would not bar him from membership, he had a [19] resolution adopted that members be received “when they were old enough to drink.”

The Northern Spectator was not a financial success. It struggled on, however, under different ownerships, until June, 1830, when its publication was discontinued and the office was closed. Greeley left the town with enlarged information on many subjects, including writing and speaking and the duties of newspaper editing. In the way of capital he had only $20 in cash and perhaps a few more clothes than he came into the town with. He went at once, part of the way on foot, to his parents' home, made a visit there of a few weeks, and then set out to seek work at his trade. He found employment at Jamestown and Gowanda, N. Y., and later began an engagement that lasted for seven months in the office of the Erie (Penn.) Gazette. Wherever he applied his personal appearance was still against him. The proprietor of the Gazette used to relate that when he entered the office and saw Greeley (who was waiting for him) reading some of the exchange newspapers, his first feeling was one of astonishment that a fellow so singularly “green” in his appearance should be reading anything.

When the Gazette office no longer offered him employment, he tried to secure work in [20] some of the neighboring towns, and, when this effort failed, made up his mind to look for a position in New York city. Accordingly, he again visited his parents, divided with them his cash, retaining only $25 for his own use, and with $10 of this sum, and his scanty wardrobe, he stepped from an Albany boat to a pier near Whitehall Street early on the morning of Friday, August 18, 1831. [21]

1 In his controversy with Cooper, the novelist, over the latter's libel suits, in the early days of the Tribune, Greeley printed a report of an imaginary argument by Cooper in court, in which he made Cooper thus allude to his appearance: “Fenimore-‘Well, then, your Honor, I offer to prove by this witness that the plaintiff is tow-headed, and half bald at that; he is long-legged, gaunt, and most cadaverous of visage-ergo, homely.... I have evidence to prove the said plaintiff slouching in dress; goes bent like a hoop, and so rocking in gait that he walks on both sides of the street at once.’ ”

When, in 1844, Colonel James Watson Webb, in the Courier and Enquirer, accused Greeley of seeking notoriety by his oddity in dress, the Tribune retorted that its editor had been dressed better than any of his assailants could be if they paid their debts, adding “that he ever affected eccentricity is most untrue ; and certainly no costume he ever appeared in would create such a sensation on Broadway as that which James Watson Webb would have worn but for the clemency of Governor Seward” --an allusion to Webb's sentence for fighting a duel.

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