The Life And Death Of A Great Newspaper


Through its news pages, and particularly through the work of the twenty-odd correspondents Greeley assigned to the war, the Tribune was able to win back the prestige that its unwise editorials had cost it, and eventually President Lincoln was forced to take it into account. When Greeley, in a famous editorial, “The Prayer for 20 Million,” urged upon the President the emancipation of all slaves in the freed territories, Lincoln put aside his scruples about making a reply to Greeley. A paragraph from his letter to the Tribune is generally cited as the true position of the Great Emancipator on the question of the Union and slavery:

“My primary object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is NOT either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing ANY slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing ALL the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others slaves, I would also do that.”

The Tribune did not emerge from the war either physically or fiscally unscathed. The hostilities, as the Tribune complained, occasioned “a sudden and rapid increase in the cost of our paper and other materials.” The newsstand price leaped, in two jumps, to four cents, but still the Tribune lost money. Physically, however, the Great Moral Organ’s staff and office remained strong enough to withstand attacks by murderous rioters who roared through New York City after the passage of the draft laws in July, 1863. The mob, which set fire to the Negro orphanage on Fifth Avenue above Forty-third Street and murdered dozens of Negroes of all ages, made two attacks on the Tribune itself, gaining entrance during one and setting several small fires. With the aid of a platoon of policemen, however, the rioters were driven from the office before any serious damage was done. During a lull in the furious four days, a correspondent from the Cincinnati Gazette, Whitelaw Reid, who was to become Greeley’s final adjutant and his eventual successor, visited the Tribune and described the scene:

“Muskets were provided for every employee. The floor of the editorial room was littered with hand grenades, and extra bayonets were lying about on the desks like some new pattern of mammoth pen holders. Arrangements for pouring a volume of scalding steam into the lungs of anybody attempting to force an entrance had been perfected. In the midst of all the warlike preparations, Mr. Greeley, coat off and apparently just risen from preparing a leader, was listening to the statements of his reporters as to the progress of the mob, and making suggestions for perfecting the defenses of the office.”

The steam, however, was not needed. The Tribune managed to weather the war without further physical damage—although its reputation was again tarnished when Greeley, eager for peace and a negotiated settlement, became caught up in spurious Confederate maneuvers intended to weaken Northern determination for a victory.

Understandably, the Tribune greeted Appomattox with the largest type in its history and eight subheads:

Lee Surrenders!

The Rebellion Ended!

Official Correspondence

General Lee Desirous of ‘Peace’

Manly and Patriotic Letter from

General Grant

The Rebel Leader Must Lay Down

His Arms

He Capitulates on General Grant’s

Own Terms

The Officers to be Paroled

and Sent Home”

Like the rest of America, the Tribune was shocked and demoralized by the assassination of President Lincoln four days later. The lead news story, on the aftermath of the war, had already been locked into place. There was barely time to turn the rules and compose the headlines that told the then incomplete story:

The President Shot!

Secretary Seward Attacked”

President Lincoln was dead and the nation leaderless. The next seven years would find the Tribune valiantly attempting—in the face of a good deal of competition—to fill the void. Greeley, predictably, offered his support to President Johnson at first, but by May of 1866, also predictably, he had turned upon the new administration. When it was suggested that the Tribune’s opposition might be mollified by the appointment of its editor as Postmaster General, President Johnson demurred that Greeley ran “to goodness of heart so much as to produce infirmity of mind.”