James Gordon Bennett — Beneficent Rascal

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A young man bearing a parcel called at the New York Herald office one day in 1854, and insisted that he must deliver it to the proprietor, James Gordon Bennett himself. Having passed muster in an anteroom (a procedure made advisable by a bomb Bennett had received in an innocent looking package not long before), the messenger was escorted into the presence of a lean, gnarled man, a bit over six feet tall, with a crown of curling white hair, florid complexion, large aquiline beak, and eyes so terribly crossed that while one of them surveyed his caller, the other appeared to glare out the window at the City Hall. There were no pleasantries.

“Who fr-r-rum?” (Bennett’s “r” was pure Aberdeen.)

“Mr. Isaac C. Pray.”

“Noth-ing to do with Mr. Isaac C. Pray! Noth-ing to do with Mr. Isaac C. Pray! ” At a bound, Bennett seized the parcel and ripped off the wrapping, disclosing a sheaf of printed matter. The messenger (one William A. Croffut) would not soon forget its fate: “With savage finality he flung it out the door and into the hall, fixed me with one good eye, and shouted, ‘I don’t want it! I won’t have it! Carry it back and tell him to keep his stuff!’ ”

The scattered proof sheets in the hall represented Pray’s worshipful attempt at a biography, Memoirs of James Gordon Bennett and His Times , but Bennett’s reaction was altogether in character.

A strange, lonely crag of a man, this Bennett. “He had no friends at the beginning, he has made none since, and he has none now,” James Parton wrote of him a few years before the end. Bennett, with the swaggering self-reliance that set him apart even in an age of individualists, professed indifference. “I care for no man’s friendship or enmity,” he wrote in the Herald years before. “If I cannot stand upon my own merits, let me fall.” Cursed by fellow editors, loathed by polite society, boycotted, kicked and caned in his office and on the streets, anathematized from platform and pulpit for the better part of forty years, he stood; and in the process the old Caledonian contrived to give journalism such a shaking up that the American newspaper has never been the same.

What Bennett gave it pre‘minently was a shattering example of independence; and with it, gradually, the logical corollary of independence—a new and wonderfully comprehensive concept of news. During the middle years of the last century, no newspaper in the world, not excepting The Times of London, surpassed Bennett’s daily miracle in circulation or wealth of information. Stock and money market news, religious news, society news, news from abroad by regular correspondents, full reporting of criminal court news and of the doings of Congress—all these, as we conceive them today, were Herald firsts.

Not many men have more profoundly influenced our outlook upon the world, yet James Gordon Bennett is not to be found among the 83 Americans in the Hall of Fame (which overlooks the Hudson not far from the site of his old home at Fort Washington); nor is it likely that he ever will be. The scholarly burghers who cast the ballots have long memories.

“I have been a wayward, self-dependent, resolute, self-thinking being, from my earliest days,” Bennett wrote, and that seems a fair summation. Born of Catholic parents of French extraction in Scotland, he was placed in a seminary to study for the priesthood. The boy bridled, and left after a few years with a strong distaste for theology and an interest in literature, particularly in Scott and Byron. At the age of 24, still with no clear notion of what he was to do with himself, he came to America on pure impulse. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography , just then appearing in Scotland, had fascinated him, and upon arrival at Halifax in 1819, he gravitated to the printing press.

Had the Autobiography ’s simple formula of hard work and sober habits worked for Bennett from the outset, he might have been a very different man. But for sixteen long and bitter years it most emphatically did not work. First as proofreader and newspaper space-writer, later as correspondent and editor, he stumbled from Portland to Boston to New York to Charleston to New York again to Washington to Philadelphia, dogged by misfortune. When, finally, his increasingly trenchant pen began to make a name for him as associate editor and guiding light of the Morning Courier and New York Enquirer , the leading Jackson paper, it was only to learn in 1832 that a change in management had changed its politics, and he quit.

On three occasions during these years Bennett tried to establish himself as a publisher, each time failing for lack of the political subsidies to which all newspapers of the time looked for their support. It was not that the politicos failed to perceive his talents: as one of Martin Van Buren’s friends explained to him, they simply didn’t trust this bright meteor to follow a charted course.

The sixteen years of drudgery and disappointment were the making of Bennett. They hammered the bright young apprentice who quoted Franklin’s aphorisms, the eager editor who caught the enthusiasm of Jacksonian democracy, into a disillusioned, toughminded opportunist with deep convictions as to the cussedness of the species, and a sure instinct for what was readable about it.