- Historic Sites
The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper
Horace Greeley founded the “Trib”— and the union that eventually helped kill it. But in 125 years it knew many a shining hour.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
And, apparently, it had. Thumbing his nose at the Herald and the Sun, Greeley raised the daily Tribune’s price to two cents and, reassured of its success, proceeded with plans to move it from the small Ann Street building to a new location at the junction of Nassau and Spruce streets and Park Row, across from City Hall, a site and structure owned by McElrath’s father-in-law, Thompson Price. The Tribune remained at this location—although not in that particular building —for nearly seventy-nine years. A fire in 1845 forced Greeley to return the Tribune to Ann Street to share the plant facilities of the World (it is one of the wonders of nineteenth-century journalism that papers brawling and feuding in their columns would, in emergencies, make every effort to assist each other), but the Tribune soon returned to its new site in a squat, five-story building that was purchased from Price in 1858 for $163,000. This building, as a Tribune brochure later boasted, possessed stairs “worn with the feet of men whom the future historian of this country will place among the most venerable figures in the most critical period of the American Republic.”
The brochure (printed expressly for the centennial celebration of the nation’s independence, held in Philadelphia) was not far wrong. From the new building Greeley waged his incessant campaigns: for reform and retrenchment in government; against alcohol, tobacco, and slaveholding; in favor of Associationism, (a modified form of Socialism propounded by the Frenchman Charles Fourier and his American disciple, Albert Brisbane, who proposed dividing society into “phalanxes” or joint stock companies); in favor of Transcendentalism (with exceptions); and in favor of high tariff protection (without exceptions).
To aid him in these campaigns, Greeley set out to build a staff that he could trust the paper to during what would prove to be frequent absences. Raymond, who was making $1,000 a year as assistant in the departments of literary criticism, fine arts, and general intelligence, soon defected and went over to feud with Greeley as managing editor of the Courier and Enquirer. (A few years later, in 1851, he started a paper of his own and called it the New York Times.) At the Tribune he was eventually succeeded by Charles A. Dana, who was to make something of a name for himself in journalism, too. It was Dana who took the initiative in building up the Tribune staff, hiring and assigning correspondents, including a man in London named Karl Marx, who wrote dispatches to the Tribune at one pound apiece for more than ten years. The author of the Communist Manifesto, the Tribune noted editorially, “has indeed opinions of his own, with some of which we are far from agreeing, but those who do not read his letters neglect one of the most instructive sources of information on the great questions of European politics.” (See “When Karl Marx Worked for Horace Greeley” in the April, 1957, AMERICAN HERITAGE.)
During the Tribune’s early years, Greeley was not the easiest man to work for, but Dana, who put in fifteen years—as city editor, foreign correspondent, and finally as managing editor—made a fine complement for his querulous employer. He also showed a remarkable capacity to take direction from the Senior Editor, who was anything but tolerant of the weaknesses of subordinates. (On one occasion, angered by an error in proofreading, Greeley directed a subordinate editor to “oblige me and go upstairs and choke that infernal fool for nine minutes.”) In addition to keeping a watchful eye on what appeared in the paper, Greeley insisted on having the final say on who worked for it—and on the salaries they were paid. Still, Greeley and Dana worked well together. As the latter’s biographer, James H. Wilson, noted:
“Nothing seems to have been too trivial, or too great, for that matter, for their consideration. Standing, as it were, like sentinels on a watch tower, they caught the first signs of every social or political disturbance, and took cognizance of every event which promised to affect the public interest. They were leaders, not followers, of public opinion …”
His mind eased, to some extent, over the editing of the Tribune, Greeley could now turn his attention to ridding himself of some of the more onerous tasks of publishing it, and, in 1849, he found his solution. Influenced somewhat by his Associationist leanings, he turned the paper into a joint-stock venture, issuing 100 shares of stock, each valued at $1,000. But apparently the teachings of Associationism had not found favor among the members of the Tribune staff, for only six employees came forward at the first offering with the courage—and the $1,000—to invest in the Tribune. Of the other 94 shares, 10 were reserved for Dana, 31 1/2 for Greeley, and 52 1/2 for McElrath. Greeley, who was assured by the Tribune Association bylaws of an annual salary of $2,500, had thus surrendered nominal control of the paper, but until the last days of his life, even at times when he himself possessed only six shares, he never lost the decisive voice.