The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper

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The formation of the association gave Greeley some of the freedom he was straining for, and so, he soon found, did the invention of the magnetic telegraph in 1845. With the subsequent linking of cables between the major cities, the pace of news in the papers picked up. The Herald was the first paper to capitalize on the telegraph in New York, but the Tribune quickly followed—not, however, without some misgivings on the part of its editor, who wrote in 1851: “In old days when there was no Telegraph and no Railroad between this city and New Haven, we used to arrange our expresses from that state so as to have the returns from two thirds of the towns in our office within ten hours from the close of the polls, and so tell how the state had gone in our next morning paper, but never since we have had two or three telegraphic lines through that state have we been able to give a clear account of any election on the morning after its occurrence. …”

Though he grumbled about the newfangled device, it enabled Greeley to exercise a kind of remote control over the Tribune , and, at the same time, to embark on his life’s true work—lecturing, in and out of the paper, the American people. Now he could make long speaking tours and serve in the House of Representatives (where he was something less than a success, trying fruitlessly, as New York’s Senator William H. Seward observed, “to reform Congress all at once”). He was also free to play a leading role in the formation of the Republican Party and, eventually, to prepare the free states for the break that would widen into civil war.

During the intervals when he did find himself at Park Row, however, Greeley enjoyed nothing more than the professional brawls that enlivened the journalism of his day. Not immune himself to libel problems (James Fenimore Cooper had won a $200 verdict against the Tribune in its first year), he took a particular delight in publicizing the libel difficulties of his rival, Bennett, whom he termed in print “the low-mouthed, blatant, witless, brutal proprietor of that sewer sheet.” And even the gentlest of questions directed toward the Greeley theories was enough to bring down the wrath of the Tribune’s editor. Nettled when William Cullen Bryant, the poet-editor of the Evening Post, intimated that he had once been mild in his opposition to slavery, Greeley replied in the Tribune: “You lie, villain! Willfully, wickedly, basely lie! ” And if he couldn’t find a pretext for a quarrel, Greeley invented one. His way of celebrating the installation of a new font of type at the Tribune in 1846 was to editorialize, “If there be one thing that we dislike above all others, it is a flimsy, chocolate colored, half illegible, pitchforked-together apology for a newspaper—like the Express, for example.”

In this climate the Tribune flourished or declined—primarily the former—in relation to the popular reception of its editor. When Greeley backed prohibition and tax-supported public schools, the paper’s circulation in liberal and Roman Catholic homes fell off markedly. As friction over the slavery question increased, however, circulation began rising again, until, at the outbreak of the war, Tribunes were being sent to nearly 300,000 subscribers of the daily, weekly, and semiweekly editions. The Weekly, as the Tribune liked to point out at this juncture, “is known … as the standard and favorite paper of common people; found in more village stores and offices, mechanics’ workshops and farmers’ homes than any other paper in the country.” In contrast, the semiweekly, published Wednesday and Saturday, “circulates almost entirely among the educated and professional classes at points more or less remote from New York where local daily papers are depended upon for the telegraphic news.” As if this were not enough, the Tribune also was publishing a special edition for European readers (issued on the departure of each mail steamer for Liverpool) and, finally, a post-Gold Rush edition for “California, Oregon and the Sandwich Islands” (published on the departure of each mail steamer for Aspinwell, the transshipment point on the Isthmus of Panama). Greeley could truly boast that his papers were seen each week by more than a million Americans.

And as the paper’s influence and circulation grew, so did the influence and authority of its editor. Greeley’s lectures, particularly in the West, were extremely popular, and his words, as embodied in Tribune editorials, were considered the final authority on almost every subject.1