Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Greeley as a Journalist
By Charles Anderson Dana (18191897)
[Born in Hinsdale, N. H., 1819. Died in Glen Cove, L. I., N. Y., 1897. From an Article in the New York Sun, 5 December, 1872.]
THOSE who have examined the history of this remarkable man and who know how to estimate the friendlessness, the disabilities, and the disadvantages which surrounded his childhood and youth; the scanty opportunities or rather the absence of all opportunity, of education; the destitution and loneliness amid which he struggled for the possession of knowledge; and the unflinching zeal and pertinacity with which he provided for himself the materials for intellectual growth, will heartily echo the popular judgment that he was indeed a man of genius, marked out from his cradle to inspire, animate, and instruct others. From the first, when a child in his fathers log cabin, lying upon the hearth that he might read by the flickering fire light, his attention was given almost exclusively to public and political affairs. This determined his vocation as a journalist; and he seems never to have felt any attraction toward any other of the intellectual professions. He never had a thought of being a physician, a clergyman, an engineer, or a lawyer. Private questions, individual controversies, had little concern for him except as they were connected with public interests. Politics and newspapers were his delight, and he learned to be a printer in order that he might become a newspaper maker. And after he was the editor of a newspaper, what chiefly engaged him was the discussion of political and social questions. His whole greatness as a journalist was in this sphere. For the collection and digestion of news, with the exception of election statistics, he had no great fondness and no special ability. He valued talent in that department only because he knew it was essential to the success of the newspaper he loved. His own thoughts were always elsewhere.
Accordingly there have been journalists who as such, strictly speaking, have surpassed him. Minds not devoted to particular doctrines, not absorbed in the advocacy of cherished ideasin a word, minds that believe little and aim only at the passing success of a daymay easily excel one like him in the preparation of a mere newspaper. Mr. Greeley was the antipodes of all such persons. He was always absolutely in earnest. His convictions were intense; he had that peculiar courage, most precious in a great man, which enables him to adhere to his own line of action despite the excited appeals of friends and the menaces of variable public opinion; and his constant purpose was to assert his principles, to fight for them, and present them to the public in the way most likely to give them the same hold upon other minds which they had upon his own. In fact, he was not so much a journalist, in the proper meaning of that term, as a pamphleteer or writer of leading articles. In this sphere of effort he had scarcely an equal. His command of language was extraordinary, though he had little imagination and his vocabulary was limited; but he possessed the faculty of expressing himself in a racy, virile manner, within the apprehension of every reader. As he treated every topic in a practical rather than a philosophical spirit, and with strong feeling rather than infallible logic, so he never wrote above the heads of the public. What he said was plain, clear, striking. His illustrations were quaint and homely, sometimes even vulgar, but they never failed to tell. He was gifted also with an excellent humor which greatly enlivened his writing. In retort, especially when provoked, he was dangerous to his antagonist; and though his reasoning might be faulty, he would frequently gain his cause by a flash of wit that took the public, and, as it were, hustled his adversary out of court. But he was not always a victorious polemic. His vehemence in controversy was sometimes too precipitate for his prudence; he would rush into a fight with his armor unfastened, and with only a part of the necessary weapons; and as the late Washington Hunt once expressed it, he could be more damaging to his friends than to his opponents.
The occasional uncertainty of his judgment was probably due, in a measure, to the deficiency of his education. Self-educated men are not always endowed with the strong logical faculty and sure good sense which are developed and strengthened by thorough intellectual culture. Besides, a man of powerful intellect who is not regularly disciplined, is apt to fall into an exaggerated mental self-esteem from which more accurate training and information would have preserved him. But the very imperfection of Greeleys early studies had a compensation in the fact that they left him, in all the tendencies and habits of his mind, an American. No foreign mixture of thought or tradition went to the composition of his strong intelligence. Of all the great men who have become renowned on this side of the Atlantic he was most purely and entirely the product of the country and its institutions. Accordingly, a sturdy reliance on his own conclusions and a readiness to defy the world in their behalf were among his most strongly marked characteristics.
But a kind of moral unsteadiness diminished his power. The miseries of his childhood had left their trace in a querulous, lamentable, helpless tone of feeling, into which he fell upon any little misfortune or disappointment; and as he grew older he came to lack hope. When the Kansas-Nebraska bill was proposed in Congress he was at first scarcely willing to make any unusual fight against it because, he said, resistance would be ineffectual; and the whole of the great campaign against that measure, in which The Tribune, enlisting the pens of many of the most brilliant writers of the time, displayed such admirable vitality and gained such a hold upon the country, was fought with his consent indeed, but with very little active aid and little encouragement from him. Similar irresolution was displayed on the approach of the rebellion. He seemed to be dazed by the magnitude of the danger, and shrank from the terrible evils of warthe bloodshed, the demoralization, the pecuniary loss, the arrest of the industry and progress of the country which it involved. His nature was too sensitive to contemplate such things without horror, and he hoped to the last that they might be avoided. But, to his honor be it said, he scorned to compromise his principles or to form any new alliance with slavery, even to avoid what seemed to him so dreadful. Prominent and most influential members of his party were disposed to make such a compromise; but Greeley resisted them with determination, and the project came to naught.
It should also be understood that the willingness to let the South go, which he then manifested, was in part a product of the same distrust of the event which he had exhibited at the time of the Nebraska conflict. It was his abiding fear that if the Union remained together slavery would be sure to triumph at last, and that the whole country would thus be brought permanently under the heel of that institution. This fear was aggravated by a profound dislike of President Lincoln and by dissatisfaction with the composition of his Administration. Finally, when the tardy movements of the national forces in the spring of 1861 gave rise to general discontent, he shared this feeling, and expressed it in The Tribune in one or two pregnant articles. Then, as the cry of On to Richmond was raised in echo to his own suggestions by Gen. Fitz Henry Warren of Iowa, a Washington correspondent of the paper, Mr. Greeley allowed it to be repeated and enforced through his columns; but he looked with anxiety and doubt for the result. After the defeat of Bull Run he consented to the publication of a critical article written by another hand, in which the conduct of the war was sternly condemned, and a change in the Administration demanded. The next day, however, his purpose swerved; his fears got the mastery; and in the celebrated manifesto entitled Just Once he renounced all thought of controlling the policy of the Government, and declared that he should henceforth publish the news of military movements, but abstain from dictating to the President on any subject. He also wrote to the same purport a private letter to President Lincoln, which that astute politician, who dealt with him always as with a foe, kept as a singular kind of treasure.