The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper

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In the slaveholding states, of course, Greeley’s abolitionist dogma was anathema. Sam Houston called the editor a man “whose hair is white, whose skin is white, whose eyes are white, whose clothes are white, and whose liver is, in my opinion, of the same color.” Nevertheless, the Tribune was carefully studied in the South—if for no other reason than that its editorials were believed to represent the true voice of the North. Not that its editor was ever consistent on the question of how far opposition to slavery should be carried. First the Tribune categorically opposed its extension to the territories, then accepted the Missouri Compromise, then reverted to its original opposition. When southerners began talking about secession, Greeley appeared amenable. The right of secession, the Tribune said, “may be a revolutionary one. … It exists nevertheless.” But then Greeley hedged that right with impossible conditions, and eventually he concluded that secession was “treason.”

Leaders in the North found him equally hard to pin down. Instrumental in the nomination of Lincoln (turning his back on his former colleague in Congress, Seward, Greeley held fast with Edward Bates, a conservative, and this helped open the door for the Rail Splitter), the editor soon began chevying the new President. Asked once why he did not reply to a distorted Tribune story, Lincoln told an aide, “Yes, all the newspapers will publish my comment on it, and so will Greeley. The next day he will take a line and comment on it, and he will keep it up in that way, and at the end of three weeks I will be convicted out of my own mouth of all the things which he charges against me. No man, whether he be private citizen or President of the United States, can successfully carry on a controversy with a great newspaper and escape destruction unless he owns a newspaper equally great with a circulation in the same neighborhood.”

So the Tribune ranted on unchecked, expressing Greeley’s abomination of slavery, running morbid accounts of Negroes burned at the stake, of the hanging and torture of slaves, and dubious reports of the activities of a possibly fictional slave trader in New Orleans. The battle was waged even in local items:

“IN FEAR—The U.S. Marshal of Massachusetts has applied to the Marshal here for an escort for the fugitive Sims when he is passing through the city. Of course, he will get it. The Chief could not be hired to let such an opportunity to exhibit his new shooting iron escape. Yes, Mr. Massachusetts Negro-Catcher, you shall have safe passage for yourself and followers through the City of Gotham.”

As secession approached, the Tribune appeared to be resigned to the possibility of war, and even to welcome it. “Let this intolerable suspense and uncertainty cease,” it proclaimed on April 2, 1861. “The country, with scarcely a show of dissent, cries out—if we are to fight, so be it.” And, on April 15, 1861, it trumpeted, “Fort Sumter is lost, but freedom is saved.” The Tribune started in the war with a hawkish scowl, castigating Union generals, and the President too, for not marching across the Potomac and sweeping through the South. When the Confederate congress announced its intention to convene in Richmond, the daily Tribune ran above its editorial column, in standing italic type, the legend “Forward to Richmond! Forward to Richmond! The Rebel Congress must not be allowed to meet there on the 20th of July. By that date, the place must be held by the National Army.” At least partly as a result of such pressure from the Tribune, and other papers as well, the Union armies did advance, and were brutally mauled on July 21 at Bull Run.

The reaction in the North was strong, and much of it was aimed at the Tribune. The man who was responsible for the headline found himself in a vulnerable position: on March 27, 1862, Dana was notified by the Tribune Association that Greeley had requested his resignation.

The next managing editor was Sydney Howard Gay, a man much more amenable to discipline than his predecessor. His term of office lasted only through the war, however; in 1866 he retired for reasons of health. But it was during Gay’s administration that the Tribune did much of its best journalistic work. The paper’s editorial page may have been subject to attack for its blatant misreading of facts (at first it called Bull Run a Union victory), but the news reporting remained straight—and it remained good. Correspondent Albert D. Richardson managed to give Tribune readers the first uncensored, detailed account of Sumter’s fall. Captured later in the war by the Rebels, he escaped from the Confederate penetentiary at Salisbury, North Carolina, and made his way to Knoxville, Tennessee, from where he wired the Tribune, “Out of the jaws of death. Out of the mouth of hell,” and went back on the job. Probably the Tribune’s outstanding journalistic exploit of the war, however, was George W. Smalley’s dispatch on the Battle of Antietam, which was intercepted by Union censors to provide President Lincoln with his first news of the battle. Smalley, rushing back to New York, still arrived in time to give the Tribune the first battle accounts.