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Chapter 3: Thurlow Weed's discovery-the Jeffersonian and the Log Cabin

  • What attracted him to Greeley
  • -- their first meeting -- the Jeffersonian and the Log Cabin -- their character and features -- Greeley's industry -- poor business management -- last of the New Yorker

Up in Albany another man who was at that time editing a newspaper had a fight on his hands, not so desperately against overdue notes as against a most powerful political opposition. That man was Thurlow Weed, and his opposition, known as “The Albany Regency,” included such leaders as Martin Van Buren, William L. Marcy, and Silas Wright. Weed had founded the Albany Evening Journal in March, 1830, and for several years had not only written all its editorial articles, but had reported the legislative proceedings, selected the miscellany, collected the local news, read the proofs, and sometimes made up the forms for the press. His fight in the first presidential campaign after his paper was founded (in 1832) ended in the loss of the State and the nation by his candidate, Henry Clay, and Marcy defeated Seward for Governor the year following. [41]

The Whig party, as the National Republicans had come to be called, was stunned by these defeats, and when Harrison ran against Van Buren in 1836, Van Buren carried forty-two of the fifty-six counties of New York State, Massachusetts wasted her vote on Webster, and Van Buren carried New England and had a popular majority over his three opponents. But the Whigs were now to have as an ally the influence most potent, perhaps, in the politics of a republic — a financial panic and an era of hard times. How potent this influence is in shaping the fortunes of parties and candidates the history of the United States has proved in later years. On President Van Buren was laid the responsibility for the long list of business failures, the monetary evils, and the commercial stagnation. “What constitutional or legal justification can Mr. Van Buren offer to the people of the United States for having brought upon them all their present difficulties?” was the language of a remonstrance drawn up by a committee of New York city merchants, in April, 1837. In the following November the Whigs (in an “off-year” ) carried New York city for the first time, as well as county after county in the State that had been considered Democratic beyond attack, and elected 100 [42] of the 128 members of the Assembly voted for.

Weed and his associates in the Whig party leadership saw in this change of public feeling hope of electing a Whig Governor in New York in 1838, as well as a Whig President in 1840, and they looked on a cheap weekly newspaper, which would vigorously espouse their cause and keep the voters informed and stirred up, as a necessary part of their campaign equipment.

“In looking about for an editor,” says Weed in his autobiography, “it occurred to me that there was some person connected with the New Yorker possessing the qualities needed for our new enterprise. In reading the New Yorker attentively, as I had done, I felt sure that its editor was a strong tariff man, and probably an equally strong Whig. I repaired to the office in Ann Street where the New Yorker was published, and inquired for its editor. A young man with light hair and blond complexion, with coat off and sleeves rolled up, standing at the case, ‘ stick’ in hand, replied that he was the editor, and this youth was Horace Greeley.”

Greeley accompanied Weed and a member of the Whig State Committee, who was with him, to their hotel, where, after the necessary [43] explanations, it was arranged that Greeley should edit at Albany a small weekly paper to be called the Jeffersonian, for which service he was to receive $1,000 a year, the expense of the publication to be met by some Whigs of means. Only a man of Greeley's indomitable energy and willingness to work to the utmost limit of his strength would have undertaken this task in addition to the labor of editing the New Yorker. He understood that he would be obliged to spend nearly all his time in Albany when the Legislature was in session, and half his time in summer; and as Albany was not then connected with New York by rail, the trip there and back, to a tired man, was no small undertaking. But Greeley did not even ask time to consider the matter. His first trip to the State capital was made in a sleigh, and of his routine he wrote seven years later: “I regularly went up to Albany Saturday night, made up my paper there by Tuesday night, took the boat down and got out my New Yorker by Friday; then prepared copy for part-of my next number, and caught my valise for Albany again.” As a further illustration of his industry, we find this remark in his Busy Life: “As my small [Albany] paper did not require all my time, I made [44] condensed reports of the Assembly debates for the Evening Journal, and wrote some articles for its editorial columns.”

The political friendship-partnership, it has been called-thus begun between Weed and Greeley lasted until 1854, or, so far as Weed was concerned, until the nomination of Lincoln in 1860. Their usefulness as co-workers can not easily be overestimated. Weed was the cool, calculating, far-seeing politician, who would leave unsaid or undone what it was right to say or to do, if this would favor his party's success, and who worked for ends, without a constant criticism of means. Greeley was not nearly so far-seeing in political matters as he was credited with being, but he was desperately honest in his convictions, and eminently fitted to give them expression. As illustrations of Weed's foresight may be recalled his advice against the defeat of Van Buren's nomination to the English mission because this was likely to make him the candidate for Vice-President, as it did. Weed urged Webster to take the nomination for Vice-President on the Harrison, and again on the Taylor ticket, but in vain; if Webster had followed this advice, his ambition to be President would have been gratified. Weed personally favored a United [45] States Bank, but he would not print in the Evening Journal, in 1836, Webster's speech at a Whig mass meeting, in Boston, in support of the bank scheme, and against Jackson's veto, saying that two sentences in the veto message would carry ten votes against the bank to one gained for it by Webster's eloquence-viz., that our Government “was endangered by the circumstance that a large amount of the stock of the United States Bank was owned in Europe,” and that the bank was designed “to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.”

Weed has been severely criticized for the defeat of Clay in the National Convention of 1839. Clay received early assurance that Weed was “warmly and zealously” in favor of his election, and Shepard, in his Martin Van Buren, says that “the slaughter of Henry Clay had been effected by the now formidable Whig politicians of New York, cunningly marshaled by Thurlow Weed.” Weed did work against the election of Clay delegates to the convention, but he did so because he foresaw that Clay would probably be defeated at the polls, and that there was a good chance of Harrison's election; and he proved himself a wise friend of Clay by urging him, in the campaign of 1844, to write [46] no letters, advice that was disregarded with disastrous consequences. Greeley who, as he expressed it, “profoundly loved Henry Clay,” and looked for his nomination, defended Weed in this matter in his Busy Life, years after their political partnership was dissolved, saying, “If politics do not meditate the achievement of beneficent ends through the choice and use of the safest and most effective means, I wholly misapprehend them.”

But while Greeley would not urge the nomination of his own favorite when he thought that favorite would be a weak candidate, he would not follow Weed in his views of expediency. Thus we find him saying, in one of his early letters to Weed: “I think you take the wrong view of the political bearing of this matter, though I act without reference to that” (the italics are his), and Weed was powerless to repress Greeley's advocacy of what he considered vagaries in the Tribune.

Weed says that he found Greeley in the early years of their acquaintance, when they were most intimate, “unselfish, conscientious, public-spirited, and patriotic. He had no habits or taste but for work-steady, indomitable work.” 1 The young man was at [47] that time by no means unknown out of his own office in New York city. He had taken as practical an interest in political meetings as his time would allow, and had so far overcome the feeling of ridicule with which his first appearance had been greeted, that he had been offered (and declined) a place on the city Assembly ticket. His pen, too, was in demand, and for editorial contributions to, and for a time the practical supervision of, the Daily Whig, a short-lived journal, he received a salary of $12 a week.2

The first number of the Jeffersonian was issued on February 17, 1838, with Horace Greeley's name as editor under the title. Its prospectus announced its purpose to be “to supply a notorious and vital deficiency-to furnish counties and neighborhoods not otherwise provided with correct and reliable information upon political subjects,” at a [48] price within the reach of all (six subscriptions for $3). It was not to be a mere party organ, but would print the views of public men on both sides. The Jeffersonian was an eight-page quarto, containing usually a page of editorial discussion, the text of important speeches in Congress, reports of the proceedings of Congress and of the Legislature, and a summary of general news. The modern reader would pronounce it dull, with its columns of speeches and by no means “sparkling” editorials. One of the notable contrasts between the political journals of those days and of the present is found in the vastly greater importance which editors then attributed to speeches at Washington and Albany. The editor in the thirties and forties placed such matter, as well as full reports of legislative business, at the head of his list of “reliable information upon political subjects.” Nowadays the compliment of printing in full a speech made in Congress or the Legislature is rarely paid, and the largest daily papers do not give a complete summary of the proceedings of Congress, allowing their special correspondents to serve up to their readers only the most entertaining subjects.

Greeley was a member of the Young [49] Men's Whig State Committee, and after the nominations were made, the Jeffersonian warmed up to its campaign work. Here is one of its appeals to the Whigs of New York: “The eyes and the hopes of the Union are now upon New York. The Empire State must determine the great question at issue between the People and the Usurpers. She is the last and only barrier between Freedom and Despotism. She must breast the shock alone.” The Whigs carried New York State by 15,000 and elected Seward Governor in 1838 by about 38,000, and as the 15,000 copies of the Jeffersonian circulated principally among readers who had no other paper, Greeley's modest assumption that “it did good” will not be disputed. The suspension of the publication was announced in the issue of February 9, 1839.

In the next two years the Whig cause did not flourish, almost all the States which voted in 1839 showing a return to the Democrats, New York remaining Whig by a reduced majority. Harrison received the nomination for President in the first Whig National Convention, in 1839, and one of the most exciting campaigns in the history of the country followed. “Give Harrison a log cabin and a barrel of hard cider, and he will stay contented [50] in Ohio, and not aspire to the presidency,” was the unfortunate sneer of a Democratic editor. From that day “log cabin” and “hard cider” became Whig rallying cries, and successful ones, as the result proved.

Greeley's editorship of the Jeffersonian had so satisfied the party managers at Albany-and shrewder ones never held council --that they selected him to conduct a Harrison campaign paper, to be published in New York city, and to be called the Log Cabin. The first number of this paper — a folio, 15 by 28 inches-dated New York and Albany, appeared on May 2, 1840, the title line containing a picture of a log cabin, with a cider barrel beside it, and a Harrison-Tyler flag waving in front. The subscription price was fifty cents for six months, or seven copies for three dollars; single copies costing two cents. The publishers described it as “a political and general newspaper, to be devoted to the dissemination of truth, the refutation of slander and calumny, and the vindication, by fair and full citations from the recorded history of our country, of the character and fame of one of her noblest and most illustrious patriots” (Harrison).

The Log Cabin was a lively campaign [51] paper. It printed in full the leading speeches of the day, made a feature of the campaign news of the different States, gave, with every number, the words and music of a campaign song (Weed thought the music unnecessary), and used illustrations occasionally. The Democrats opened the campaign with a volley of attacks on General Harrison, belittling his military and civil capacity, and raking up for use against him every public expression of his that would serve their purpose. The Log Cabin defended its candidate vigorously, under such headings as “Another Slander Nailed,” “The Devices of Baseness,” and urged non-partizan voters to support Harrison because he was the representative of Madison's view “that a President who should remove officers for political opinions alone would be justly liable to impeachment.” The Log Cabin announced that it would not print articles “assailing the private character of Mr. Van Buren, or any of his supporters,” but in doing so it gave this keen thrust: “We do not think it at all material to the present contest to prove Mr. Van Buren a slippery lawyer, dishonest as a man, or incorrect in private life. We have no warfare with him as an individual.” As election day approached, the paper's efforts in behalf of its [52] ticket became more and more earnest, and it closed the campaign with an appeal to “Freemen!” “Americans!” in which it said: “The hour of deliverance has come. . . . Press on to the polls. Speak to your friends and your neighbors. Implore the doubtful and hesitating to give one vote now for their country, and as many as they please hereafter for their party.” Harrison received 234 of the 294 electoral votes, and no one will dispute Greeley's modest remark, “I judge that there were not many who had done more effective work in the canvass than I. ”

The Log Cabin was a remarkable success in one respect from the start. An edition of 30,000 of the first number was exhausted before the close of the week, and 10,000 more did not satisfy the demand. Later editions of 80,000 were printed, that being the limit, not of the demand, but of the editor's press-room facilities. Greeley had, when the publication of the Log Cabin was begun, taken one of his many partners in the firm of Horace Greeley & Co., which published the New Yorker, but the new partner was so alarmed by the rush of subscribers, in connection with the low subscription price, that he soon retired. An extra number of the Log Cabin was issued on November 9, giving the election [53] returns, and a prospectus was published announcing that, yielding to urgent requests, the editor would soon begin a new series of the paper, the subscription price of which would be $1.50 per annum. The first number of this new series was dated December 5, 1840, and the last number November 20, 1841, when it was succeeded by the Weekly Tribune.

With good business management, a paper with the circulation of the Log Cabin should have made money for its proprietors. Even in those days advertising might have been secured.3 The experience in trusting subscribers of the New Yorker had not been a sufficient warning, and again credit was given, to be followed by another appeal to “friends who owe us,” saying, “We implore you to do us justice, and enable us to do the same.” Greeley was never a good business man, and it would have required a man of extraordinary business, as well as literary, ability to do the work he did in New York city and Albany from 1838 to 1841, with two journals almost constantly on his hands, and taking an active part in committee work, making [54] speeches, and receiving the hundreds of people who came to him with suggestions or for advice. In illustration of his business methods Parton relates that, one spring day, after getting the mail from the post-office, Greeley put it into his overcoat pocket, forgot all about it, and left his coat hanging on the peg until autumn, when he had occasion to use it again. Then he discovered the letters containing enclosures about which the writers had been for months inquiring in vain. His partners who, he says, “were no help to me,” withdrew, one after another. But the Log Cabin did afford some pecuniary aid, and he wrote to Weed in January, 1841, that he was beginning “to feel quite snug and comfortable,” and by the spring of that year he considered himself in a position to start the Tribune. But the New Yorker was a weight on his hands to the last. He gave its editorial conduct more largely to assistants in its last years, and tried hard to sell it, and its end came when it was superseded in September, 1841, by the weekly issue of the Tribune. He was then able to repay what was owing to subscribers who had paid in advance, although his books showed that $10,000 was due him from delinquents. These books, he says, he never opened again, and they were [55] “dissolved in smoke and flame” when his office was burned in 1845.

Greeley names four causes of the New Yorker's financial failure: That it was never properly advertised, that “it was never really published,” the credit system with subscribers, and the lack of such facilities for distribution as railroads and news-companies afford to-day. Certainly it was “never really published,” and the want of good business management made its financial success impossible. [56]

1 Lewis Gaylord Clark, in the Knickerbocker, said of Greeley: “A man careless, it may be, of the style of his dress, preferring comfort to fashion, but yet of scrupulous cleanliness in person and habiliments always; possessing a benevolent heart, and ‘clothed with charity as with a garment’ ; frank and fearless in the expression of his opinions, whether such opinions are to be praised or execrated; of infatigable industry, and unpretending, kindly manners-this is Horace Greeley.”

2 Greeley, in a letter to R. W. Griswold dated March 18, 1839, said: “I think better of my new pet, the Whig. I write the editorial for that, and edit it generally. Don't you think it better than formerly? If not, it's wretched bad, that's a fact. It is rather gaining in patronage.”

3 The Log Cabin in most of its numbers published less than a column of advertisements, increasing them to three and a half columns for a short time in November. The Herald in 1840 printed from ten to fifteen columns a day.

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