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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 530

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This is the grave of Horace Greeley.

Born in 1811 on a farm outside of Amherst, New Hampshire. Evidently he barely survived, not really being able to breathe for the first twenty minutes of his life. At least on the Wikipedia page for Greeley, it is suggested that this could have been part of why he might have had Asperger’s, which might have suggested why his behavior became so…erratic as he aged. I dunno, seems like a lot of conjecture to me. Anyway.

The family was poor. Even as the young Horace was clearly talented and local elites wanted to pay for his education, his father refused to take charity. In 1822, the family had to flee New Hampshire so his father would not end up in debtor’s prison and moved to Vermont. Greeley became a printer’s apprentice when he was 15, reading everything he could get his hands on. The paper eventually closed and he started traveling around, trying to find newspaper work, ending up first in Erie, Pennsylvania and then New York, in 1831.

Greeley struggled to make a go of it for the first several years in New York. He also became interested in the reform movements of the day, becoming an adherent of Sylvester Graham’s diet, the first of many weird diet fads related to supposed health problems that continue in America unabated today. He eventually left this, but remained mostly a vegetarian for his whole life. Greeley’s ticket was finally punched in 1838, when he got to know the Whig kingmaker Thurlow Weed, who hired the skilled young man to edit the state’s Whig paper for the upcoming midterm elections. His paper to support the Harrison campaign in 1840, Log Cabin, which focused on the mass politics and songs that defined that campaign, did very well. So the next year, Greeley turned it into the New York Tribune. This became probably the most important newspaper in antebellum New York.

Greeley’s career took off at this point. The Tribune was read around the country. It became the major journal pushing the politics of Henry Clay and his American System. He hired Margaret Fuller as his literary editor and then foreign correspondent. Overall, the paper was one of the best in the country, combining the rough and tumble politics of the era with an interest in the period’s reform movements and a real discussion of cultural issues. It briefly pushed Fourierism and other more extreme movements as well. Greeley briefly served in Congress when another member was expelled for corruption. Although only in the body for a few months, he took it seriously and proposed a lot of legislation, including an early version of what would become the Homestead Act, as well as to create prohibition in the Navy. He also published information about the travel expenses of members of Congress, making him hated, which he loved.

Greeley became to drift from the Whigs by the late 1840s because he was becoming increasingly interested in anti-slavery causes and the Whigs were waffling on that, trying to remain a national party. He opposed the Compromise of 1850 and then came down hard on Winfield Scott in the 1852 election for being part of a party that would support such an act. Of course, what this all contributed to was the Whigs dissolving, unable to maintain their party in the face of growing sectionalism over slavery. Greeley became an enthusiastic Republican upon its formation in 1854, though he was disappointed not to be nominated for one of its high offices in New York and held it against William Seward. He came to promote many of the free labor ideas of the Republican Party, more than the radical abolitionist stuff. After all, for most northern anti-slavery whites, the real threat of slavery was not what it did to black people. That was a secondary concern at best. It was how it affected whites, leaving no place in an aristocratic society for the yeomen freeholder.

Meanwhile, the Tribune hired Karl Marx as a correspondent and he printed over 500 articles there! Charles Dana recruited him and Greeley issued a disclaimer, but he was always interested in printing interesting ideas. Greeley also of course become synonymous with his promotion of westward expansion, traveling to the West himself to promote the transcontinental railroad idea. His famed “Go West, Young Man” statement that is he is most known for today is probably apocryphal, but it did sum up his beliefs. He traveled to Denver and went on to Salt Lake, interviewing Brigham Young for a long piece in the Tribune. Like any good Republican, he had no respect at all for Native Americans, seeing them as hopelessly doomed and backwards relics who had no business in the way of good Yankee farmers and craftsmen.

Greeley was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, after his preferred candidate Edward Bates went nowhere. This was somewhat part of his long-standing dislike of Seward, who then blamed the editor for his loss. Thurlow Weed had come to hate Greeley over this as well and ensured that Greeley would not replace Seward in the Senate when the latter became Secretary of State. Greeley pushed Lincoln to end slavery and it was in a reply to the Tribune that the president wrote, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, 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 alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” But of course Greeley also knew the Emancipation Proclamation was coming and was very supportive of it. Tribune offices were thus targeted in the New York Draft Riots in 1863, though no major damage occurred. Greeley kept trying to insert himself into policy making, especially through trying to foster peace efforts between the two sides, which both Lincoln and Seward rejected. Greeley only reluctantly gave Lincoln any support in 1864.

After the war, Greeley largely urged moderation toward the ex-Confederates and even put up the bond to free Jefferson Davis from prison, going down to meet him. That act alone nearly ruined the Tribune, as people boycotted the paper. He made up for it though by supporting the radical Republican actions, more or less, and definitely for impeaching Andrew Johnson, who he came to hate. Greeley also kept his weird reform stuff, trying to start a utopian community in Colorado and publishing a book about his own farming techniques. He also kept trying to run for office, but people hated him so much that he never won. Grant offered him the position of minister to Santo Domingo (today, the Dominican Republic) in 1870, but he turned it down.

Speaking of Grant, what Greeley is also known for is his bizarre run against Grant in 1872. There are a number of complicated issues going on here. First, the corruption in Grant’s administration was very real and should not be downplayed, which often happens with his modern defenders. That really offended the old Republican elites. Thus they wanted to engage in civil service reform to cut some of that, as well as lower taxes. They also didn’t much care about black rights and didn’t like Grant’s more or less aggressive fight for them.

Horace Greeley? He mostly just really wanted to be president. He wanted it so bad. He never could get over the fact that everyone hated him personally and that he could never get elected to anything because of that. So he was willing to take on the head of the Liberal Republican ticket that developed out of those elites if Grant wouldn’t step down as president. Then the Democrats came on board behind him. And Greeley began to fully embrace the racism of his time, as Scott referenced recently, attacking the right of blacks to vote and talking about the horrors of black politicians.

But how out of character was that? Frankly, it wasn’t, not really. It was very easy to be a Republican who opposed slavery and feel this way. Remember, that for lots of lots of northern Republicans, as I stated earlier, slavery was an issue about whites. Greeley always saw black people as inferior. So did most northern white liberals. We already discussed how he saw Native Americans. Yes, Greeley’s personal behavior, always erratic, got even more so as he aged. And possibly a younger Greeley might not have said this stuff so directly as he did in 1872. But ultimately, lots of liberal whites are still squishy about real black equality, even today, when pushed on their own privilege. And Greeley was one of those. The combination of his own racism, blind ambition for office, and erratic behavior led to one of the most bizarre and reputation-ruining campaigns in American history in 1872. But it wasn’t until July or August that Grant expected to win reelection and he credited Thomas Nast pillorying Greeley in cartoon after cartoon and the Republican media machine accusing Greeley of assisting the KKK that Grant felt assured of victory.

Greeley’s wife died in October 1872 and he basically gave up when she got sick, so the final total was a bigger blowout that it would have been. And then he dropped dead a couple of weeks after the election, even before the electoral votes had been counted.

Horace Greeley is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other failed presidential candidates, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Winfield Scott Hancock is in Norristown, Pennsylvania and, well, Winfield Scott is at West Point. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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