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Chapter 15: starts the Tribune.

  • The capital
  • -- the daily Press of New York in 1841 -- the Tribune appears -- the omens unpropitious -- the first week -- Conspiracy to put down the Tribune -- the Tribune triumphs -- Thomas McElrath -- the Tribune alive -- Industry of the Editors -- their independence -- Horace Greeley and John Tyler -- the Tribune a fixed fact.

Who furnished the capital? Horace Greeley. But he was scarcely solvent on the day of the Tribune's appearance. True; and yet it is no less the fact that nearly all the large capital required for the enterprise was supplied by him.

A large capital is indispensable for the establishment of a good daily paper; but it need not be a capital of money. It may be a capital of reputation, credit, experience, talent, opportunity. Horace Greeley was trusted and admired by his party, and by many of the party to which he was opposed. In his own circle, he was known to be a man of incorruptible integrity—one who would pay his debts at any and at every sacrifice—one who was quite incapable of contracting an obligation which he was not confident of being able to discharge. In other words, his credit was good. He had talent and experience. Add to these a thousand dollars lent him by a friend, (Dudley S. Gregory,) and the evident need there was of just such a paper as the Tribune proved to be, and we have the capital upon which the Tribune started. All told, it was equivalent to a round fifty thousand dollars.

In the present year, 1855, there are two hundred and three periodicals published in the city of New York, of which twelve are daily-papers. In the year 1841, the number of periodicals was one hundred, and the number of daily papers twelve. The Courier and Enquirer, New York American, Express, and Commercial Advertiser were Whig papers, at ten dollars a year. The Evening Post and Journal of Commerce, at the same price, leaned to the “Democratic” side of politics, the former avowedly, the latter not. The [192] Signal, Tatler, and Star were cheap papers, the first two neutral, the latter dubious. The Herald, at two cents, was—the Herald! The Sun, a penny paper of immense circulation, was affectedly neutral, really “Democratic,” and very objectionable for the gross character of many of its advertisements. A cheap paper, of the Whig school of politics, did not exist. On the 10th of April, 1841, the Tribune appeared—a paper one-third the size of the present Tribune, price one cent; office No. 30 Ann-street; Horace Greeley, editor and proprietor, assisted in the department of literary criticism, the fine arts, and general intelligence, by H. J. Raymond. Under its heading, the now paper bore, as a motto, the dying words of Harrison:

I desire you to understand the Tribune principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.

The omens were not propitious. The appallingly sudden death of General Harrison, the President of so many hopes, the first of the Presidents who had died in office, had cast a gloom over the whole country, and a prophetic doubt over the prospects of the Whig party.

The editor watched the preparation of his first number all night, nervous and anxious, withdrawing this article and altering that, and never leaving the form till he saw it, complete and safe, upon the press. The morning dawned sullenly upon the town. ‘The sleety atmosphere,’ wrote Mr. Greeley, long after,

the leaden sky, the unseasonable wintriness, the general gloom of that stormy day, which witnessed the grand though mournful pageant whereby our city commemorated the blighting of a nation's hopes in the most untimely death of President Harrison, were not inaptly miniatured in his own prospects and fortunes. Having devoted the seven preceding years almost wholly to the establishment of a weekly compend of literature and intelligence, (The New Yorker,) wherefrom, though widely circulated and warmly praised, he had received no other return than the experience and wider acquaintance thence accruing, he entered upon his novel and most precarious enterprise, most slenderly provided with the external means of commanding subsistence and success in its prosecution. With no partner or business associate, with inconsiderable pecuniary resources, and only a promise from political friends of aid to the extent of two thousand dollars, of which but one half was ever realized, (and that long [193] since repaid, but the sense of obligation to the far from wealthy friend who made the loan is none the less fresh and ardent,) he undertook the enterprise—at all times and under any circumstances hazardous—of adding one more to the already amply extensive list of daily newspapers issued in this emporium, where the current expenses of such papers, already appalling, were soon to be doubled by rivalry, by stimulated competition, by the progress of business, the complication of interests, and especially by the general diffusion of the electric telegraph, and where at least nineteen out of every twenty attempts to establish a new daily have proved disastrous failures. Manifestly, the prospects of success in this case were far from flattering.

The Tribune began with about six hundred subscribers, procured by the exertions of a few of the editor's personal and political friends. Five thousand copies of the first number were printed, and ‘we found some difficulty in giving them away,’ says Mr. Greeley in the article just quoted. The expenses of the first week were five hundred and twenty-five dollars; the receipts, ninety-two dollars. A sorry prospect for an editor whose whole cash capital was a thousand dollars, and that borrowed.

But the Tribune was a live paper. Fight was the word with it from the start; fight has been the word ever since; fight is the word this day! If it had been let alone, it would not have died; its superiority both in quantity and the quality of its matter to any other of the cheap papers would have prevented that catastrophe; but its progress was amazingly accelerated in the first days of its existence by the efforts of an enemy to put it down. That enemy was the Sun.

‘The publisher of the Sun,’ wrote Park Benjamin in the Evening Signal,

has, during the last few days, got up a conspiracy to crush the New York Tribune. The Tribune was, from its inception, very successful, and, in many instances, persons in the habit of taking the Sun, stopped that paper-wisely preferring a sheet which gives twice the amount of reading matter, and always contains the latest intelligence. This fact afforded sufficient evidence to Beach, as it did to all others who were cognizant of the circumstances, that the Tribune would, before the lapse of many weeks, supplant the Sun. To prevent this, and, if possible, to destroy the [194] circulation of the Tribune altogether, an attempt was made to bribe the carriers to give up their routes; fortunately this succeeded only in the cases of two men who were likewise carriers of the Sun In the next place, all the newsmen were threatened with being de prived of the Sun, if, in any instance, they were found selling the Tribune. But these efforts were not enough to gratify Beach. He instigated boys in his office, or others, to whip the boys engaged in selling the Tribune. No sooner was this fact ascertained at the office of the Tribune, than young men were sent to defend the sale of that paper. They had not been on their station long, before a boy from the Sun office approached and began to flog the lad with the Tribune; retributory measures were instantly resorted to; but, before a just chastisement was inflicted, Beach himself, and a man in his employ, came out to sustain their youthful emissary. The whole matter will, we understand, be submitted to the proper magistrates.

The public took up the quarrel with great spirit, and this was one reason of the Tribune's speedy and striking success. For three weeks subscribers poured in at the rate of three hundred a day! It began its fourth week with an edition of six thousand; its seventh week, with eleven thousand, which was the utmost that could be printed with its first press. The advertisements increased in proportion. The first number contained four columns; the twelfth, nine columns; the hundredth, thirteen columns. Triumph! triumph! nothing but triumph! New presses capable of printing the astounding number of thirty-five hundred copies an hour are duly announced. The indulgence of advertisers is besought “for this day only;” “ to-morrow, their favors shall appear.” The price of advertising was raised from four to six cents a line. Letters of approval came by every mail. ‘We have a number of requests,’ said the Editor in an early paragraph, ‘to blow up all sorts of abuses, which shall be attended to as fast as possible.’ In another, he returns his thanks ‘to the friends of this paper and the principles it upholds, for the addition of over a thousand substantial names to its subscription list last week.’ Again: ‘The Sun is rushing rapidly to destruction. It has lost even the grovelling sagacity, the vulgar sordid instinct with which avarice once gifted It.’ Again: ‘Everything appears to work well with us. True, we [195] have not heard (except through the veracious Sun) from any gentlemen proposing to give us a $2,500 press; but if any gentlemen have such an intention, and proceed to put it in practice, the public may rest assured that they will not be ashamed of the act, while we shall be most eager to proclaim it and acknowledge the kindness. But even though we wait for such a token of good — will and sympathy until the Sun shall cease to be the slimy and venomous instrument of loco-focoism it is, jesuitical and deadly in politics and grovelling in morals—we shall be abundantly sustained and cheered by the support we are regularly receiving.’ Editors wrote in the English language in those days. Again: ‘The Sun of yesterday gravely informed its readers that It is doubtful whether the Land Bill can pass the House. The Tribune of the same date contained the news of the passage of that very bill!’ Triumph! saucy triumph! nothing but triumph!

One thing only was wanting to secure the Tribune's brilliant success; and that was an efficient business partner. Just in the nick of time, the needed and predestined man appeared, the man of all others for the duty required. On Saturday morning, July 31st, the following notices appeared under the editorial head on the second page:

The undersigned has great pleasure in announcing to his friends and the public that he has formed a copartnership with Thomas McELRATH, and that the Tribune will hereafter be published by himself and Mr. M. under the firm of Greeley & McELRATH. The principal Editorial charge of the paper will still rest with the subscriber; while the entire business management of the concern henceforth devolves upon his partner. This arrangement, while it relieves the undersigned from a large portion of the labors and cares which have pressed heavily upon him for the last four months, assures to the paper efficiency and strength in a department where they have hitherto been needed; and I cannot be mistaken in the trust that the accession to its conduct of a gentleman who has twice been honored with their suffrages for an important station, will strengthen the Tribune in the confidence and affections of the Whigs of New York.


Horace Greeley. July 31st.

The undersigned, in connecting himself with the conduct of a-public journal, invokes a continuance of that courtesy and good feeling which has been extended to him by his fellow-citizens. Having heretofore received evidence of kindness and regard from the conductors of the Whig press of this city, [196] and rejoicing in the friendship of most of; them, it will be his aim in his new vocation to justify that kindness and strengthen and increase those friendships. His hearty concurrence in the principles, Political and Moral, on which the Tribune has thus far been conducted, has been a principal incitement to the connection here announced; and the statement of this fact will preclude the necessity of any special declaration of opinions. With gratitude for past favors, and an anxious desire to merit a continuance of regard, he remains,

The Public's humble servant,

A strict disciplinarian, a close calculator, a man of method and order, experienced in business, Mr. McElrath possessed in an eminent degree the very qualities in which the editor of the Tribune was most deficient. Roll Horace Greeley and Thomas McElrath into one, and the result would be, a very respectable approximation to a Perfect Man. The two, united in partnership, have been able to produce a very respectable approximation to a perfect newspaper. As Damon and Pythias are the types of perfect friendship, so may Greeley and McElrath be of a perfect partnership; and one may say, with a sigh at the many discordant unions the world presents, Oh! that every Greeley could find his McElrath! and blessed is the McElrath that finds his Greeley!

Under Mr. McElrath's direction, order and efficiency were soon introduced into the business departments of the Tribune office. It became, and has ever since been, one of the best-conducted newspaper establishments in the world. Early in the fall, the New Yorker and Log Cabin were merged into the Weekly Tribune, the first number of which appeared on the 20th of September. The concern, thus consolidated, knew, thenceforth, nothing but prosperity. The New Yorker had existed seven years and a half; the Log Cabin, eighteen months.

The Tribune, I repeat, was a live paper. It was, also, a variously interesting one. Its selections, which in the early volumes occupied several columns daily, were of high character. It gave the philosophers of the Dial an ample hearing, and many an appreciating notice. It made liberal extracts from Carlyle, Cousin, and others, whose works contained the spirit of the New Time. The eighth number gave fifteen songs from a new volume of Thomas Moore. Barnaby Rudge was published entire in the first volume. Mr. Raymond's notices of new books were a conspicuous and interesting feature. [197] Still more so, were his clear and able sketches and reports of public lectures. In November, the Tribune gave a fair and courteous report of the Millerite Convention. About the same time, Mr. Greeley himself reported the celebrated McCleod trial at Utica, sending on from four to nine columns a day.

Amazing was the industry of the editors. Single numbers of the Tribune contained eighty editorial paragraphs. Mr. Greeley's average day's work was three columns, equal to fifteen pages of foolscap: and the mere writing which an editor does, is not half his daily labor. In May, appeared a series of articles on Retrenchment and Reform in the City Government, a subject upon which the Tribune has since shed a considerable number of barrels of ink. In the same month, it disturbed a hornet's nest by saying, that ‘the whole moral atmosphere of the Theatre, as it actually exists among us, is in our judgment unwholesome, and therefore, while we do not propose to war upon it, we seek no alliance with it, and cannot conscientiously urge our readers to visit it, as would be expected if we were to solicit and profit by its advertising patronage.’

Down came all the hornets of the press. The Sun had the effrontery to assert, in reply, that ‘most of the illegitimate births in New York owe their origin to acquaintances formed at “Evening churches,” and that ‘Class-meetings’ have done more to people the House of Refuge than twenty times the number of theatres.’ This discussion might have been turned to great advantage by the Tribune, if it had not, with obstinate honesty, given the religions world a rebuff by asserting its right to advertise heretical books.

‘As to our friend,’ said the Tribune, ‘who complains of the advertising of certain Theological works which do not square with his opinions, we must tell him plainly that he is unreasonable. No other paper that we ever heard of establishes any test of the Orthodoxy of works advertised in its columns; even the Commercial Advertiser and Journal of Commerce advertise for the very sect proscribed by him. If one were to attempt a discrimination, where would he end? One man considers Universalism immoral; but another is equally positive that Arminianism is so; while a third holds the same bad opinion of Calvinism. Who shall decide between them? Certainly not the Editor of a daily newspaper, unless [198] he prints it avowedly under the patronage of a particular sect. Our friend inquires whether we should advertise infidel books also We answer, that if any one should offer an advertisement of lewd, ribald, indecent, blasphemous or law-prohibited books, we should claim the right to reject it. But a work no otherwise objectionable than as controverting the Christian record and doctrine, would not be objected to by us. True Christianity neither fears refutation nor dreads discussion—or, as Jefferson has forcibly said, “Error of opinion may be tolerated where Reason is left free to combat it.” ’

In politics, the Tribune was strongly, yet not blindly whig. It appealed, in its first number, to the whig party for support. The same number expressed the decided opinion, that Mr. Tyler would prove to be, as president, all that the whigs desired, and that opinion the Tribune was one of the last to yield. In September it justified Daniel Webster in retaining office, after the “treachery” of Tyler was manifest, and when all his colleagues had resigned in disgust. It justified him on the ground that he could best bring to a conclusion the Ashburton negotiations. This defence of Webster was deeply offensive to the more violent whigs, and it remained a pretext of attack on the Tribune for several years. With regard to his course in the Tyler controversy, Mr. Greeley wrote in 1845 a long explanation, of which the material passage was as follows:—‘In December, 1841, I visited Washington upon assurances that John Tyler and his advisers were disposed to return to the Whig party, and that I could be of service in bringing about a complete reconciliation between the Administration and the Whigs in Congress and in the country. I never proposed to “connect myself with the cause of the Administration,” but upon the understanding that it should be heartily and faithfully a Whig Administration. * * Finally, I declined utterly and absolutely, to “ connect myself with the cause of the Administration” the moment I became satisfied, as I did during that visit, that the Chief of the Government did not desire a reconciliation, upon the basis of sustaining Whig principles and Whig measures, with the party he had so deeply wronged, but was treacherously coqueting with Loco-Focoism, and fooled with the idea of a re-election.’

Against Repudiation, then an exciting topic, the Tribune went [199] dead in many a telling article. In behalf of Protection to American Industry, the editor wrote columns upon columns. In a word, the Tribune was equal to its opportunity; it lived up to its privileges. In every department it steadily and strikingly improved throughout the year. It began its second year with twelve thousand subscribers, and a daily average of thirteen columns of advertisements. The Tribune was a Fixed Fact.

The history of a daily paper is the history of the world. It is obviously impossible in the compass of a work like this to give anything like a complete history of the Tribune. For that purpose ten octavo volumes would be required, and most interesting volumes they would be. All that I can do is to select the leading events of its history which were most intimately connected with the history of its editor, and dwell with some minuteness upon them, connecting them together only by a slender thread of narrative, and omitting even to mention many things of real interest. It will be convenient, too, to group together in separate chapters events similar in their nature, but far removed from one another in the time of their occurrence. Indeed, I am overwhelmed with the mass of materials, and must struggle out as best I can. A great book is a great evil, says the Greek Reader. This book was fore-ordained to be a small one.

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