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Chapter 2: first experiences in New York city-the New Yorker

  • Looking for a job
  • -- his first employment -- setting up in business -- sources of income -- how the New Yorker was started -- early journalism in the United States -- scope of the New paper -- Greeley as a poet -- subjects of editorial discussion -- financial views -- his straits for money

Greeley soon satisfied himself with a stopping place, engaging a room and board for $2.50 a week with Edward McGolrick, who kept a grog-shop and boarding-house combined — a quiet, decent one-at No. 168 West Street; and after breakfast he started out to look for work. He was as persistent in this, in the face of discouragement, as he was in every duty. For two days he tramped the streets, visiting two-thirds of the printing-offices in the city, always receiving a “No” to his question, “Do you want a hand?” and incurring the accusation in one office of being a runaway apprentice. When Saturday night came he had satisfied himself that the city afforded him no hope of a living, and had decided to start for the country again on Monday, before his last dollar was spent.

But this was not to be. Some young acquaintances of his landlord, who called on [22] Sunday, told him of an office at No. 85 Chatham Street, where a compositor was wanted, and there Greeley betook himself on Monday morning so early that the place was closed when he arrived. So uncouth was the lad's appearance that here again he would probably have been rejected had any one been at hand to undertake the work that was to be done. This was the putting in type of a small New Testament, with narrow columns, the text interspersed with references to notes marked by Greek and other letters. So complicated was this task, and so little could a man earn at it, paid by the ems set, that several compositors had abandoned it after a brief trial. This job the foreman offered to the country lad, confident that a half day would prove his incompetence to perform it. When the proprietor came in and saw Greeley at work, he inquired, “Did you hire that d-d fool?” adding, “For God's sake, pay him off to-night.” But the foreman did not pay him off. The one thing this New Englander, who had cleared land standing knee-deep in slush in the spring, and barefooted on thistles in summer, was not afraid of was hard work; the one thing he must have was an income sufficient to keep him alive. He set that Testament. When the foreman examined [23] his first proof, he found that the “d-d fool” had set more type and in better shape than any one else who had attempted it.

For two or three weeks the boy scarcely made his board, although he moved his quarters to a mechanics' boarding place near the office, and worked all the hours that were not given to his meals and to sleep; but he gained in rapidity, and finally made $5 or $6 a week by working from twelve to fourteen hours a day, his “case” lighted at night by a candle stuck in a bottle. Naturally, the boys in the office played tricks on so promising a subject, but he took these without resentment, and the annoyance soon stopped, his good nature winning him friends. He was, even in that early year, a lender of money to his fellow-workmen, while he was denying himself everything outside of the bare necessities of life. The New Testament finished, he was out of work for a time, and was then assigned to a “lean” job on a commentary on the Book of Genesis. Then came further tramping, and a discharge from one newspaper office, tradition says, because he was not “decent looking,” until he became so nearly discouraged that he seriously thought of trying some other form of employment. The [24] idea of seeking work at the national capital occurred to him, but while he had employment he had treated himself to a suit of clothes --a second-hand suit of black, bought of a Chatham Street dealer, in which, he says, he found “no wear and little warmth” --and this had so depleted his capital that he had not money enough to pay his way to Washington. In the following January, however, he found work in the office of the Spirit of the Times, which had just been started by W. T. Porter and James Howe, two newcomers from the country, with scant capital. This enterprise was a discouraging one from the start, but, while Greeley found it difficult to collect his wages, he also found opportunity to show his skill in writing articles for the paper, thus keeping in practise what he had learned in Vermont. Later in the year he secured employment in the office of J. S. Redfield, afterward a prominent publisher, and remained there until he was induced to join a fellow printer in setting up a printing establishment of their own. That experiment came about in this way:

Francis Story, the foreman of the Spirit of the Times composing-room, numbered among his acquaintances S. J. Sylvester, a leading seller of lottery tickets, and Dr. H. D. [25] Shepard, a medical student, who had about $1,500 in cash at command. Through Sylvester, Story counted on being able to secure the printing of the weekly Bank-Note Reporter, and for Shepard he had in view the printing of a one-cent daily newspaper, which Shepard had decided to establish. With this business in sight, Story proposed to Greeley that they open a printing-office of their own, and, not without misgivings, Greeley finally consented. Between them they could count up less than $200; but they secured $40 worth of type on six months credit, hired two rooms at No. 54 Liberty Street, and invested all their cash in the necessary equipment. Thence, on January 31, 1833, Dr. Shepard's Morning Post was issued. Finding no encouragement for his one-cent scheme, he had fixed the price from the start at two cents; but as cheapness was to be the one quality that would induce people to buy a paper of which Greeley says, “it had no editors, no reporters worth naming, no correspondents, and no exchanges even,” it was a certain failure, and it died when two weeks and a half old. The one-cent Sun came nine months later, and came to stay.

The firm of Greeley & Story lost about $50 through Dr. Shepard, but this did not [26] bankrupt them. A purchaser was found for some of the Morning Post's equipment, the Bank-Note Reporter gave them a little income, and they secured the printing of a triweekly paper called the Constitutionalist, whose local habitation was in Delaware, and which was the organ of the lottery interest. Lottery-ticket selling was a reputable business in those days, and Greeley not only printed the dealers' organ, but was a contributor to it, one of his articles being a defense of lotteries when an outcry arose against them because of the suicide of a young man who had lost all his property in tickets. When his assistance was not required in his own shop, Greeley would work as a substitute compositor in a newspaper office near by, and he was making fair if slow progress in the world, when, in July, 1833, Story was drowned while bathing in the East River. His place in the firm was taken by Jonas Winchester, and the business continued so prosperously that in 1834 Greeley had the courage to think seriously of starting a newspaper of which he should be the editor. That he had made something of a mark in the local newspaper world is shown by the fact that he was at this time invited by James Gordon Bennett to become interested with him in [27] starting a daily paper to be called the New York Herald. This offer was declined, but the idea of a paper of his own was carried out, and on March 22, 1834, appeared the first number of the weekly known as the New Yorker. Greeley was its editor; his partner confining himself to the business of the job-office.

The people of this country early manifested a demand for newspapers, and, as settlements were pushed farther West, a local paper would spring up, sometimes before the stumps were removed from the new clearing. A usual plan was for a printer to issue a prospectus and ask for subscribers. If he secured sufficient encouragement, he might act as his own editor, or, more probably (as was the case with the Northern Spectator), engage some person of a literary bent to devote a part of his time to the editorial room. De Tocqueville, in 1835, wrote: “The number of periodicals and occasional publications which appear in the United States actually surpasses belief. There is scarcely a hamlet which has not its own newspaper.” 1 [28] But he found that “the most distinguished classes of society are rarely led to engage in these undertakings” ; and that “the journalists of the United States are usually placed in a very humble position, with a scanty education and a vulgar turn of mind.” When John (afterward Lord) Campbell eked out his income in London, in the first years of the nineteenth century, by reporting parliamentary debates, the calling was so discreditable that he concealed his avocation from his fellow law students. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes let it be understood that it would have hurt him professionally had it been known that he was a “literary man” when he began writing.

Of the literary taste of New York city in 1828, a writer in the Picture of New York said: “Most of the periodical works attempted in this city have proved abortive in a few years. The population is so nearly commercial that the largest portion of the public attention is monopolized by the newspapers of the day.” Whether Greeley had gaged the literary taste of New York by this measure and hoped to improve it, we do not know. He never exhibited long-headedness in business matters, and may have been guided by an ambition to edit a creditable literary journal [29] rather than by any careful estimate of its possible financial success.

Greeley planned to combine in his New Yorker “literature, politics, statistics, and general intelligence.” His success in making a good paper of his initial venture was a sufficient proof of his editorial ability. What the New Yorker was he made it almost unaided. In his farewell address to his subscribers, in 1841, when the paper was merged with the Weekly Tribune, he said: “The editorial charge of the New Yorker has from the first devolved on him who now addresses its readers. At times he has been aided in the literary department by gentlemen of decided talent and eminence [including Park Benjamin,2 C. H. Hoffman, and R. W. Griswold]; at others the entire conduct has rested with him.” A glance at the file of this journal will show what a capacity for work its [30] editor had.3 Beginning as a folio, it was published in both folio and quarto form after March, 1836, the folio being issued on Saturday mornings and the quarto (of sixteen pages) on Saturday afternoons. Taking as [31] a fair example the quarto of March 26, 1836, we find, first, eight pages devoted to original and selected poems; the first of a series of Letters of a Monomaniac; a description of a visit to the King of Greece, and prose selections from home and foreign sources; then come two pages of editorial and political matter; a little over a page devoted to a report of the proceedings of Congress; reviews of new books; the latest foreign and domestic news (particular attention being given to the politics of the different States), and the last page occupied with the words and music of Meet Me by Moonlight, “written and composed by J. Augustin Wade, Esq.” The space given to the proceedings of Congress, to State politics, and to tabulated election returns gave every indication of the political bent of the editor, and his appreciation of the value of news was shown by the frequent additions of “postscripts” to the folio edition, giving intelligence received by the mails after the first edition had gone to press. In later years the literary pages contained original stories-Dickens's Barnaby Rudge being printed as a serial (appearing also in the Tribune)-and increased space was devoted to book reviews. In an article contesting an argument that the best British writers of the [32] day were superior to the best American writers, the editor thus expressed his opinion of Disraeli:

Himself an open libertine in life, we regard his works as among the most monstrously absurd, and at the same time abominably pernicious, of the distorted and depraved pictures of fashionable description in European high life that we ever unsuccessfully attempted to endure to the end.

Greeley contributed to the New Yorker and to other periodicals of the day a number of poems over his initials. They were of varied merit, some of them showing quite as much of the poetic “fire” as do current poetical contributions of our own day. A single quotation — the last of some verses On the Death of William Wirt-must suffice:

Then take thy long repose
Beneath the shelter of the deep green sod;
Death but a brighter halo o'er thee throws-
Thy fame, thy soul alike have spurned the clod-
Rest thee in God.

But Greeley never considered himself a poet, and when, in 1869, Robert Bonner proposed to print a volume of poems not to be found in Dana's Household Handbook of Poetry, Greeley sent him a letter saying: “Be good enough-you must-to exclude me [33] from your new poetic Pantheon. I have no business therein — no right and no desire to be installed there. I am no poet, never was (in expression), and never shall be.”

The reader of to-day, who had only a file of the New Yorker for his literary entertainment, would find it both interesting and instructive. The editorial articles discussed a wide range of subjects with clearness and precision, and an exacting editor of a modern metropolitan journal would find in their form little that would call for revision. The editor had those prime qualifications for success in his calling-ideas to express and the power of expressing them. His views might at times be erratic and provoke much dissent, but this did not mean that he would not command an audience. As illustrations of the scope of his discussion it may be mentioned that he vigorously attacked the franking abuse; opposed all labor combinations, either of masters or journeymen, to regulate compensation, except the establishment of a uniform scale of wages, to be followed in the absence of an agreement to the contrary; expressed a wish for the independence of Texas, but opposed its annexation as likely to cause foreign complications, and because “our territory is ample” ; objected to the expenditure of the [34] Treasury surplus (in 1836) on armaments and fortifications, believing that a railroad from Portland to New Orleans would serve the better purpose of assisting in the concentration of “the true safeguard against invasion — the muskets of our citizen soldiers” ; proposed the formation of associations in the city to enforce the law against houses of ill-fame; and, when rents were advanced downtown, urged the building of railroads from the Exchange, the park, and the Battery to the Harlem River, in order to make the upper part of the island accessible; opposed the forcible removal of the Creeks and Cherokees from their homes in the southern Atlantic States; and, while maintaining that the United States Government was right in its claim regarding the northeastern boundary, deprecated war and proposed arbitration.

Greeley's view of “clean” journalism was well set forth in an article in April, 1841, in which he condemned the spreading of details of crime before newspaper readers, saying: “We weigh well our words when we say that the moral guilt incurred, and the violent hurt inflicted upon social order and individual happiness by those who have thus spread out the loathsome details of this most damning [35] deed [a murder] are tenfold greater than those of the miscreant himself.” He was an opponent of the spoils system, characterizing political removals (in 1837) as “calculated to corrupt and demoralize the public sentiment.”

The two great questions with which Greeley's name was afterward so intimately associated — the tariff and slavery — were attracting little attention during the first years of the New Yorker, and their treatment by him at that time will be shown in later chapters. The great subject of public interest was the finances, State and national. The proposition to establish a United States Bank, the removal of the Federal deposits, the distribution of the public funds among the States, Harrison's defeat by Van Buren, the expansion of the paper currency by the issues of the many new banks throughout the country, and the panic of 1837, all came within the scope of the New Yorker's editorials. In New York State, before the year 1838, bank charters were granted only as the Legislature thought fit. “Accustomed as we are to the spoils system of to-day,” says Horace White, “it sounds oddly to read that bank charters were granted by Whig and Democratic Legislatures only to their own partizans. [36] Not only was this the common practise, but shares in banks, or the right to subscribe to them, were parceled out to political ‘bosses’ in the several counties.” There was opposition to all banks in the agricultural counties, and the laboring classes were generally hostile to paper money.4 The New Yorker fought steadily for free banking and for a redeemable paper currency. It expressed a hope that the agriculturist would be found “firmly united in spurning an unnatural and ruinous alliance with the mustering legions of agrarianism,” and it combated the theory that money should be made only of the precious metals. Under the free banking system that it favored no persons were to be allowed to issue notes “in excess of their actual capital (or, better, only to equal three-quarters of this capital), in specie, or property readily [37] convertible into specie.” Some of its financial recommendations were novel. Thus, in 1836, it suggested that each railroad, canal, and similar corporation be empowered to issue notes to the amount of two-thirds the value of its completed enterprise, “these notes to constitute a special lien on the work itself, taking precedence of all other claims.”

At the time of the suspension of payments by the New York city banks, in 1837, the New Yorker defended them warmly, charging the troubles to the Northwest, and on the day of the suspension it offered three-per-cent premium “on every New York city bill mailed to our address before the first of June.” Considering the editor's financial status at that time, this was a good deal like Daniel Webster's offer to pay the national debt. In February, 1838, as a means of obviating the necessity of both a National Bank and State banks, the New Yorker proposed the issue of $100,000,000 in Treasury notes, by the Federal Government, bearing one-per-cent interest, receivable for all dues, and redeemable “in public lands at cash prices.” The Subtreasury scheme it constantly opposed. From these excerpts it is evident that the possession of “views” on public questions and boldness in advocating them were an [38] early, as well as a late, characteristic of Horace Greeley.

Beginning with less than a dozen subscribers, the New Yorker gained steadily in circulation at the rate of about one hundred a week, until, in 1836, its subscribers numbered 7,500. Unfortunately, many of these readers did not pay for their subscriptions. The paper had agents all over the country (a list of them fills two columns of one number) who sent in the names of subscribers, but in many cases did not accompany these names with the cash. Greeley lived with the utmost frugality — the life of a miser, as he once expressed it to Thurlow Weed-and for two years was obliged to look to his job-office for his income. Then, the paper having a fair prospect, he gave over the job-office entirely to his partner, and took the charge of the paper on himself. In 1836, when he was married, he thought that he was worth $5,000, and that he could safely count on an income of $1,000 a year. But the panic of 1837 came, and his books began to show a weekly loss of $100. He had given notes for his white paper, and he had used up some three thousand subscriptions paid in advance. Earnest appeals to the delinquents appeared in the paper: “Friends of the New [39] Yorker! Patrons! We appeal to you, not for charity, but for justice. Whoever among you is in our debt, no matter how small the sum, is guilty of a moral wrong in withholding the payment. We bitterly need it. We have a right to expect it.” Greeley had a horror of debt, but he felt that he must keep up the struggle. One loan of $500 saved him from bankruptcy, and he would sometimes pay $5 for the use of $500 over Sunday.5 “If any one would have taken my business and my debts off my hands, upon my giving him my note for $2,000, I would have jumped at the chance,” he said in later years, “and tried to work out the debt by typesetting, if nothing better offered.”

Something better offered. [40]

1 The number of newspapers and periodicals in the United States in 1828 was estimated at 863, with an annual issue of over 68,000,000, while the census of 1840 showed 1,403, with a yearly issue of 195,838,073 copies. New York State reported 161 in 1828, and 245 in 1840.

2 Henry J. Raymond, in a letter to R. W. Griswold, from Burlington, Vt., October 31, 1839, said: “I am sorry Benjamin has left the New Yorker. If he had exerted himself but a little he could have made that infinitely the best weekly in the United States. Who will Greeley associate with him? I hope (but do not expect) that he will get one to fill B.'s place. The Sentinel here a few weeks since undertook to use up Benjamin instanter on account of his critique of Irving. I gave it a decent rap for it in the Free Press, and since that they have let B. alone and gone to pommeling me.”

3 Greeley's idea of what a man should do in the way of newspaper work in those days was thus set forth in a letter to B. F. Randolph, dated May 2, 1836: “I want the whole concern, printing-office included, to belong to you and I, and to be entirely managed between us. I want you to take command at the publication office, and, in a short time, reduce the whole business to a system. Thus far our business department has been but half attended to, and the consequence is that we have lost a great deal by bad agents, runaway subscribers, etc. To remedy this it requires a man steadily at the publication office who not only knows what business is, but feels a deep interest in the prosperity of the concern. It needs some one who knows every agent and the state of his account familiarly, and who can almost repeat the names of the subscribers from memory. To do this he must make all the entries in the books himself and keep the accounts; but as the new subscribers will not probably exceed 100 per week, the discontinuances 25 or 30, and the changes as many more, I believe all the business, including the making out of the bills (excepting, of course, the writing of mails, which is done by a clerk), might well be done by a thorough appropriation of five hours per day-at least after one had become practically familiar with it. As I should still have to do a share of the outdoor business, besides taking entire charge of the printing-office, I should expect you to assist me in the editorial management-at first in the easier portion of it, such as examining exchange papers, and taking entire charge of the city and domestic news; afterward, as experience in these departments and system in the other would allow you more time to do so, in the more especially literary department of the paper.”

4 A meeting in the City Hall Park, in March, 1837, called to consider the high prices of the necessaries of life, adopted a report which said: “There is another great cause of high prices, so monstrous in its nature that we could hardly credit its existence were it not continually before us-we mean the curse of Paper Money. Gold and silver are produced from the earth by labor; they are, or ought to be, earned from the producer by labor. No man nor combination can by Christian means collect a sufficiency of these metals to enable him to engross the food, fuel, or houses of a nation; but a leagued band of paper-promise coiners exert absolute control over the whole wealth of the country.” --(New Yorker, March 18, 1837.)

5 Greeley wrote to a friend on July 29, 1835: “I paid off everybody to-night, had $10 left, and have $350 to raise on Monday. Borrowing places all sucked dry. I shall raise it, however.”

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