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Chapter 4: the founding of the New York Tribune

  • Greeley's preparation
  • -- views on good journalism -- local competition -- the first number -- growth of business -- McElrath as publisher -- Greeley's courage in printing the news -- attacks and counter-attacks -- the Cooper libel suits -- profits

“I cherish the hope that the stone which covers my ashes may bear to future eyes the still intelligent inscription, ‘Founder of the New York Tribune.’ ”

So wrote Greeley in his chapter on the Tribune in his Busy Life. In truth, the Tribune was his lasting monument. He had qualified himself to edit it. He had the courage to found it. He made it a greater power than has ever been exercised by another newspaper in the United States. He identified his own name with it as no other editor has been personally identified with the journal committed to his charge.

Greeley had entered on his thirty-first year when the first number of the Tribune was issued, and had been a resident of New York city less than ten years. In these years he had fought a desperate fight with poverty, almost unaided. But he had secured a recognition not only in the city and State, but in a wider circle. His editorial writing in the [57] New Yorker had attracted the attention of so competent a critic as Thurlow Weed. His residence at Albany had widened his acquaintance with the lawmakers gathered from all parts of the State, and with the State officials and the managers of both parties. There was probably not another man in this country who was then editing two newspapers, and the editor of one newspaper was a person to be pointed out in those days. The big circulation of the Log Cabin had still further increased his reputation, and in 1841 he received an urgent invitation to assume the editorship of the Madisonian, a weekly which it was proposed to publish in Washington, D. C., as an Administration daily, and to which he afterward contributed. He was therefore justified in his belief that (if he referred to editorial experience) he “was in a better position to undertake the establishment of a daily newspaper than the great mass of those who try it and fail.” As to his finances, he had a capital of about $2,000, half of it in printing material. A daily newspaper in New York required much less capital in those days than now, but a man of more careful business instincts would have hesitated to embark in the enterprise with so restricted resources. [58]

Greeley had a very clear idea of the kind of daily paper that he wanted to edit. In a letter to Weed in January, 1841, he said: “As for the country press, two-thirds of it is a nuisance and a positive curse — a mere mouthpiece for demagogues who are ravenous for spoils.... What good have such papers as [naming some] and many more of that stamp, done us? . . . I do believe they are all a positive failure — that any paper in bad or injudicious hands is so.” His purpose in publishing the Tribune is thus set forth in his Busy Life: “My leading idea was the establishment of a journal removed alike from servile partizanship on the one hand, and from gagging, mincing neutrality on the other.”

The rivalry that he had to face may be understood from the following list of newspapers published in New York city in November, 1842, with their estimated circulation, as given in Hudson's Journalism in the United States:

Herald,2 cents15,000
Sun,1 cent20,000
Aurora,2 cents5,000
Morning Post,2 cents3,000
Plebeian,2 cents2,000
Chronicle,1 cent5,000
Tribune,2 cents9,500
Union,2 cents1,000
Tattler,1 cent2,000


Sunday papers

Sunday Herald9,000

Wall Street papers

Courier and Enquirer7,000
Journal of Commerce7,500
Commercial Advertiser5,000
Evening Post2,500

Saturday papers

Brother Jonathan5,000
New World8,000
Spirit of the Times1,500

The Courier and Enquirer, Commercial Advertiser, American, and Express favored the Whig cause, but their price, as was that of the Evening Post and Journal of Commerce, of the opposition, was $10 per annum, and they were commercial rather than political and general newspapers, as Hudson's classification shows. The Herald, then six years old, and the Sun, eight years old, while independent in name, were anti-Whig in sentiment, and not in good moral repute, and Greeley found encouragement in the advice of Whigs who thought the field for a cheap Whig daily a good one.

Having decided on his venture, he obtained a loan of $1,000 from his friend James Coggeshall, to add to his own little capital, [60] and promises of more, which he did not get. Then he printed in the Log Cabin of April 3, 1841, an announcement that on April 10 he would publish the first number “of a new morning journal of politics, literature, and general intelligence,” adding: “The Tribune, as its name imports, will labor to advance the interests of the people, and to promote their moral, social, and political well-being. The immoral and degrading police reports, advertisements, and other matter which have been allowed to disgrace the columns of our leading penny papers, will be carefully excluded from this, and no exertion spared to render it worthy of the hearty approval of the virtuous and refined, and a welcome visitant at the family fireside.”

Greeley's hopes for the success of his journal rested largely on expectations of future Whig ascendency, raised by the election of General Harrison to the presidency. How nearly the death of the President, which occurred on April 4, came to checking the Tribune enterprise Greeley explained in a brief autobiography, dated April 14, 1845, which was published after his death: “In 1841 I issued the first number of the Daily Tribune, which I should not have done had I not issued [61] a prospectus before General Harrison's death.”

The birthday of the Tribune fell on the date of the funeral parade held in New York city as a mark of mourning for the President. It was a day of sleet and snow, and every Whig heart was bowed down. Friends of the editor had secured for him less than five hundred subscribers in advance, but an edition of five thousand was printed, and of these, Greeley says, “I nearly succeeded in giving away all of them that would not sell.” The first week's receipts were only $92, with which to meet an outgo of $525; but by the close of that week the paper had two thousand paid subscriptions, and this number increased at the rate of five hundred a week until a total of five thousand was reached on May 22, and the growth continued. Writing to Weed in June of that year, Greeley said: “I am getting on as well as I know how with the Tribune, but not as well as I expected or wished,” and he called the giving of the list of letters by the postmaster to Stone's paper, “the unkindest cut of all.” In a note to R. W. Griswold, on July 10, he said: “I am poor as a church mouse and not half so saucy. I have had losses this week, and am perplexed and afflicted. But better luck must come. I [62] am fishing for a partner.” Certainly if ever an editor needed a good business partner Greeley did, and he was fortunate in finding one.

Very soon after this note was written, Thomas McElrath surprised him with an offer to become his partner in the new enterprise, and this Greeley gladly accepted, and the announcement of the new firm was made on July 31. McElrath contributed $2,000 in cash as an equivalent for a half-interest. Not until this arrangement was made did Greeley consider the paper “fairly on its feet.” The new partner was a member of the firm of McElrath & Bangs, who kept a bookstore under the printing-office in which Greeley had set up the Testament, and his natural business tact and his experience supplied something in which the Tribune editor was always lacking. This partnership continued for more than ten years. Greeley has called McElrath's business management “never brilliant nor specially energetic,” but so “safe and judicious” that it lifted the responsibility of the publication office from the editor's shoulders. The Weekly Tribune took the place of the New Yorker and the Log Cabin on September 20, and the new journal was then ready to address both city and rural [63] readers. The issue of a semiweekly edition was begun on May 17, 1845.

The price of a single copy of the daily during the first year was one cent, which did not cover the cost of paper and printing, compelling the owners to look for their profits to the advertisements. Greeley asserted, in 1868, that “no journal sold for a cent could ever be much more than a dry summary of the most important, or the most interesting, occurrences of the day” --a view which many modern newspaper publishers would combat. The price was doubled with the beginning of the second volume, and increased to three cents in 1862, and to four cents in 1865. In 1866 it was enlarged to its present size.

The Tribune's rivals gave it unintended assistance at the start. The penny Sun, for instance, finding that the new journal was gaining some of its readers, tried to hire the Tribune's carriers to give up its distribution, and, failing in this, informed newsdealers that those who sold the Tribune could not handle the Sun. This action stirred up a “war” between the two papers, in which the public took a lively interest, and attention was thus called to a new venture which was confessedly so serious a competitor.

Before he had begun the publication of [64] the Tribune Greeley had hired as an editorial assistant on the New Yorker a young man who, while a college student in Vermont, had been a valued contributor to that journal. This was Henry J. Raymond, in later years the founder of the Tribune's chief local competitor, the Times, and an antagonist in views social and political. Greeley has said that Raymond showed more versatility and ability in journalism than any man of his age whom he ever met, and that he was the only one of his assistants with whom he had to remonstrate “for doing more work than any human brain and frame could be expected long to endure.” 1

Under this management the Tribune in its first year forged steadily ahead, winning more and more of the public attention, if not always of the public approval. Greeley's [65] own energy was tireless, his editorial contributions averaging three columns a day. There was no valuable news that he was afraid to print, nothing evil in his view that he was afraid to combat. The transcendentalists of the Boston Dial, to which Emerson and Margaret Fuller contributed, had a hearing in his columns, and the doings of a Millerite convention found publication. Greeley himself reported a celebrated trial at Utica, sending in from four to nine columns a day. He aroused a warm discussion by characterizing “the whole moral atmosphere of the theater” as “unwholesome,” and refusing to urge his readers to attend dramatic performances, “as we would be expected to if we were to solicit and profit by its advertising patronage.” 2 At the same time he offended the religious element by publishing advertisements of unorthodox books, and he accompanied [66] an advertisement of an offer of $50 for the best tract on the impropriety of dancing by church members, with an offer of prizes of his own for the best tracts on such subjects as “The rightfulness and consistency of a Christian's spending $5,000 to $10,000 a year on appetites and enjoyments of himself and family, when there are a thousand families within a mile of him who are compelled to live on less than $200 a year.”

To a modern reader who runs over the pages of the earlier volumes of the Tribune the small space allotted to local news will be noticeable. One reason for this was that the smaller city did not then supply the topics of general interest to be found in the daily doings of a Greater New York. Another was Greeley's refusal to cater to the sensational, as promised in his prospectus. What we call “yellow journalism” he called “the Satanic press.” In one of his attacks on this press he said (February 17, 1849): “Sometimes it will cant in dainty terms of the naughty ferocity of a fist-fight while devoting half its columns to an enormous exaggeration of all the details of that fight, and tagging thereto everything that can serve to whet the vulgar appetite for such exhibitions.” But if some big event-like a meeting in behalf of the [67] Erie Railroad or a political gathering — required attention, the report of the Tribune of those days would do credit to any newspaper of our own.

When Greeley attacked a contemporary for some cause that aroused his indignation, his language was apt to descend to vituperation, and “villain,” “old villain,” “escaped State-prison bird,” and “deliberate falsehood” were among his favorite terms. The following on the result of a libel suit against the Herald, is an illustration: “The ruffian has got his deserts. The low-mouthed, blatant, witless, brutal scoundrel is condemned — condemned, too, by the people. Let not his sewer-sheet roll its nastiness and filth over the ‘ codfish aristocracies,’ as he has called them for fifteen years.” 3 [68]

During its first year the Tribune published a letter on the trial of the suit for libel brought by J. Fenimore Cooper against Thurlow Weed, in which the novelist secured a verdict of $400. The writer of this letter remarked: “The value of Mr. Cooper's character, therefore, has been judicially ascertained. It is worth exactly $400.” This led Cooper to sue Greeley for libel, and the trial took place in Saratoga, in December, 1842. Greeley argued his own case, and the jury gave the plaintiff a verdict for $200. As soon as this result was announced, Greeley took a sleigh for Troy, where he caught a boat, and early the next morning he was at his desk writing his own report of the trial. This report, which filled twelve columns of the Tribune of December 12, 1842, he finished by 11 P. M.--“the best single day's work I ever did.” Cooper made this report the ground for another libel suit, but that suit never came to trial.

A young newspaper can secure no advertising [69] more effective than that which comes from making itself talked about, and the Tribune was soon talked of more widely than any other American newspaper. Its editor's personal following is indicated by the fact that he was so overrun with callers that he had to post a notice limiting visitors to the hours between 8 and 9 A. M. and 5 and 6 P. M. One may wonder when this editor of a morning daily, who got to his office before 8 A. M., found time to sleep. “For weeks together,” he wrote to a friend in November, 1841, “my hour of quitting work has varied from 12 to 2.30 A. M. This is killing, especially to one whose hours have been regular and reasonable like mine.” Subscriptions and advertisements kept on increasing, so that in its third year it was necessary to issue supplementary pages, to accommodate its advertisers. The issue of March 3, 1849, contains this notice: “For two months we have been obliged to leave out two to six columns of advertisements a day to make room for reading matter.” In a dispute over the question of circulation with the Herald, the Tribune thus stated its own circulation on August 1, 1849: Daily, 13,330; weekly, 27,960; semi, 1,660; California edition, 1,920; European, 480. The circulation of the daily reached 45,000 [70] before the war, and during the exciting times of that conflict it mounted to 90,000, while the weekly edition had 217,000 subscribers in some of the years between 1860 and 1872. The profits in 1859 were $86,000. Of its earnings in its first twenty-four years the sum of $382,000 was invested in real estate, and an average of $50,000 a year was divided among the stockholders.4 [71]

1 Young editors who grow discouraged under criticisms of their first work may find encouragement in contrasting this praise of Raymond's practised labor with the following description by Greeley of his first attempts (given in a private letter): “Raymond is a good fellow, but utterly destitute of experience. . . . He went to work as a novice would, shears in hand, and cut out the most infernal lot of newspaper trash ever seen. He got in type a column of Lord Chatham, which you published a month ago, three or four column articles of amazing antiquity and stupidity, and then gave out an original translation of a notorious story — which I fear we have published once. Thus the New Yorker is doomed for this week.”

2 Greeley always considered the stage inimical to many of his pet reforms. He remembered a song that he heard in a theater in derision of temperance, and a ridiculing of socialism by John Brougham, and he thought some of the impersonators of Irishmen “deserving of indictment as libelers of an unlucky race.” In summing up his Dramatic Memories in his Busy Life, he said: “I judge that the wise man is he who goes but once to the theater, and keeps the impression then made on his mind fresh and clear to the close of his life” ; but he had faith in a future stage “which will exert a benign influence over the progress and destiny of our race.”

3 “ I remember very well a conversation between Mr. Horace Greeley and my father, Mr. Park Benjamin, during a railway journey which they were then taking to fulfill one of their numerous lecture engagements. Mr. Greeley came into the car where we were seated with his under lip sticking out, and evidently in a very disagreeable frame of mind. He seated himself, and having wrapped his legs in an old red blanket which he always carried with him, looked up and said: ‘ Benjamin, that man Bennett would disgrace a pigsty. I have told him so often enough for him to become convinced of the fact, but it is like water on a duck's back.’ Mr. Benjamin laughed, and replied: ‘ Greeley, you are the bigger fool of the two. Don't you see that those soedolagers of yours only serve to advertise him? The general public has no memory. If you want to make a man prominent in New York city abuse him. The public will forget in a few days all you said of him, and will merely remember his name.’ To this Mr. Greeley replied, ‘I think you are right, and I won't bother with the hog in the future.’ ” The Tribune from that time dropped Bennett.-(G. H. Benjamin, in New York Evening Post.)

4 In 1850 Greeley gave an example of the consistency of his views on cooperation by making the Tribune a stock concern, on a valuation of $100,000, represented by 100 shares of stock, some 20 of which were sold to its editors, foremen, and assistants in the publication office.

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