Our country is a better place because of Horace Greeley

A rare 1872 presidential campaign banner for Horace Greeley and Benjamin Gratz Brown sold for $38,750 at a November 2018 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In his autobiography, Horace Greeley made a critical observation when he wrote: “Having loved and devoured newspapers, I early resolved to be a printer if I could.” Not only was he able to fulfill his resolution, but a strong case exists that he was probably the preeminent printer/editor of the 18th century, easily surpassing Ben Franklin, James Gordon Bennett and the other prominent American editors.

Newspapers had started as a modest sideline for printers before they evolved into a potent force leading the inexorable push in support of American independence. It is telling that the founders, who debated for months over the construction of the Constitution and made many compromises in the process, easily agreed on the value of a free and independent press. The very first Amendment to this sacred document guaranteed freedom of the press and it is still the first one to be defended yet today without any controversy. In addition, the Postal Service Act of 1792 established generous subsidies to ensure widespread circulation (under the law, a newspaper was delivered to subscribers for only 1 penny up to 100 miles away).

As a child, Greeley (1811-1872) demonstrated a remarkable affinity for the printed word. He learned to read by age 3, and polished off the entire Bible two years later before starting on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress – a Christian allegory (1678) cited as the first novel written in English. This purportedly was followed by the Arabian Nights.

He had an encyclopedic memory crammed with dates, facts and significant events. Children with these mental abilities typically had little time for physical ability and Greeley was no exception. He was of little use in planting crops, tending animals or simply cavorting with other children. However, he was so obviously intelligent that a wealthy neighbor offered to send him to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy and then on to college. The Greeley family refused to accept any form of charity and Horace became even more determined to be successful.

In 1826, he accepted a position as a printer’s apprentice and in his spare time he read his way through the town’s public library. By 1831, he had migrated to New York City, trying his hand at various jobs involving printing, but with only modest success. Within three years, he was able to publish the first issue of The New-Yorker, an inexpensive literary magazine that failed during the Panic of 1837.

Undaunted, in 1840 he borrowed $1,000 and with the remnants of The New-Yorker started the now famous New-York Tribune. His timing was perfect and the Tribune was a success nearly from the first issue. Greeley had developed a revolutionary credo that was quickly adopted by the masses … the simple premise that newspapers should be printed to both entertain and inform the entire community. His competition had adopted a style that was limited to narrow petty issues, private interests and too many advertisements for shady schemes.

Greeley’s success as a publisher was primarily due to his bold thinking, daring imagination and total rejection of the stifling precedent that was so common. He literally invented the modern-style newspaper, much as Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Those countless hours of reading had given him a discriminating taste and an eye for superior printing that hadn’t existed.

For three decades in the middle of the 19th century (1840-70), his pen produced a virtual torrent of essays, articles and books that earned him a reputation as a highly respected printer/editor in the newspaper vortex of New York. Inevitably, politics became his area of expertise, altering the form and content in new and exciting ways. Many believe he personally created modern journalism, proclaiming, “He chases rascals, not dollars.”

He was described as having a weird appearance … tall and angular with a head, torso and limbs that didn’t match. This was a perfect match for the range of topics he eagerly promoted: socialism (hiring Karl Marx to extoll the virtues), vegetarianism, agrarianism, feminism (he supported black suffrage but not for women), temperance and anti-trust (60 years before Teddy Roosevelt). He was anti-slavery but not for abolition, and was willing to let slave states secede at will (they will come back … no need for war).

This whole story came to an end in 1872 when he felt compelled to challenge President Ulysses S. Grant. Despite being one of the founders of the Republican Party, he had exposed a devastating list of crimes, corruption and incompetence that Grant had to be held accountable for. In a twist, the Democrats – who didn’t have their own candidate – nominated Greeley as a Liberal Republican!

Greeley died 30 days before the election and Grant had a reasonable second term.

Our country was a better place because of Horace Greeley.

This strange-appearing man – who managed to make Abraham Lincoln look debonair, who was too frightened to play baseball, yet who had the temerity to mingle with frenzied crowds taunting him after he paid the bail for Jefferson Davis after the Civil War – set a standard for personal ethics that still stands, although lost in the mist of history.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

My question for Benjamin Franklin might surprise you

A copy of The Pennsylvania Gazette from May 9, 1754, which includes the earliest publication of the most celebrated editorial cartoon in American history – Benjamin Franklin’s woodcut illustration “Join, or Die” – sold for $53,775 at an April 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

I suppose that most people interested in history have given consideration to the traditional question, “Who would you like to have dinner with?” There are many excellent choices, but my personal No. 1 is Benjamin Franklin and his youngest sister, Jane Franklin Mecom. I’d select “Benny and Jenny” (as they were called) since they were so close and corresponded with each other over a string of 60 years.

Jane did not attend any school and Franklin ended up teaching her how to read. She survived him by four years, until 1794, and subsisted almost exclusively on an allowance from Benjamin that included a house until she died. The house was then converted into a monument to Paul Revere. Of her 12 children, she survived all but one. At the time, 25 percent of all children died before their 10th birthday. It was so routine that, from a religious standpoint, children were taught not to fear death.

I would invite Jane to my dinner simply to get a female’s perspective on life in the 18th century. Much of what we know about those times is slanted to a narrow slice of the population (i.e. white males who were landowners). Benjamin was never really committed to religion. Asked about his views when he was near the end, he ducked it by saying he’d never really studied it and would soon be able to find out with a degree of certainty.

The choice of Benjamin might seemingly appear to be obvious: He was a polymath of the first order (a 20th century term reserved for exceptional people). Some rank him on a level with Leonardo da Vinci, despite the stark difference in versatility in creative arts. Even Walter Issacson, who wrote biographies of both men, describes Franklin as “the most accomplished American of his age and influential in inventing the type of society America would become.”

Consider his resume as inventor, diplomat, printer, politics, scientist, the postal system and wit as a writer. It would have to be a l-o-n-g dinner to touch on even a partial list of accomplishments. Besides, there are dozens of modern books on every single topic available on an e-reader in a matter of seconds. Why waste time listening to his dated thinking, which has been overtaken by later experts?

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, which means it was during the reign of Anne, Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland (1702-07). On May 7, 1707, under the Acts of Union, the kingdoms of England and Scotland united as a single sovereign state known as Great Britain. She continued to reign as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland until her death in 1714. Anne was in ill health for much of her life and despite 17 pregnancies, died without any surviving. Under the Act of Settlement (1701), which excluded all Catholics, she was succeeded by a second cousin, George I of the House of Hanover (a German Royal House).

George III became King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1760 at age 22 following the sudden death of his grandfather George II. In his accession speech to Parliament, he played down his Hanoverian connection. “Born and educated in this country,” he said, “I glory in the name of Britain!” In his long life (81 years), George never traveled beyond England … not to Ireland, to the continent, not even to Scotland and most certainly never to America. As an aside, none of his ministers had been to the New World. They had no idea that America had a population of 2.5 million that was doubling every 25 years, a growth rate never seen in recorded history. George III would reign for 59 years, longer than any of his predecessors and only exceeded by two queens: Victoria and Elizabeth II.

He was aware of the outcome of the French and Indian War (the Seven Years’ War that lasted nine years, 1754-1763) that was resolved by the Treaty of Paris. The spoils were perhaps the greatest ever won by force. Britain took Canada from France and half a billion acres of fertile land from the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains. Florida and the Gulf Coast were ceded by Spain. Britain emerged with the most powerful navy in history and with 8,000 sails, the world’s largest merchant fleet. George Macartney penned the still well-known descriptor of “this vast empire on which the sun never sets.”

Ten years later in June 1773, King George III participated in a great celebration of his reign over the greatest empire since ancient Rome. However, at the end of the next decade, Britain’s bright future had dimmed by a series of provocative taxes levied on his increasingly rebellious American Colonies: 1764’s Sugar Tax, 1765’s Stamp Act and, finally, the Tea Tax that provoked the Boston Tea Party and lead directly to April 18, 1775, and the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the American Revolution.

The war would last eight years and though at least 1 in 10 Americans would die for the cause, the treasure was beyond measure: freedom from oppression and the creation of a new republic. This is my conversation for Benjamin Franklin. What happened on Jan. 29, 1774, that transformed him from a conciliator to a revolutionary … from a loyalist to the British Crown to “the First American?” … and exactly what role did the Hutchinson Letters Affair play?

The God question can wait, but I would like to know if Benjamin has a sense of humor … and what makes him laugh.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Maybe it’s time for a First Gentleman

A three-piece coin silver coffee set, circa 1855, that belonged to Jefferson and Varina Davis sold for $28,680 at a June 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When a discussion of First Ladies occurs, the names of Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy Onassis are invariably among the first to be named. However, thanks to David McCullough’s splendid book (and TV mini-series) on John Adams, Abigail Adams (wife of one president and mother of a second) has gained long-overdue respect. Her wisdom, wit and persistent advocacy for equal rights for women was both fresh and modern.

The Adams marriage is well-documented due to an abundance of personal correspondence. She is also particularly associated with a March 1776 letter to John and the Continental Congress requesting that they “remember the ladies, and be more generous to them than your ancestors!”

As the first First Lady to reside in the White House, she was in a perfect position to lobby for women’s rights, especially when it came to private property and opportunities for a better education. After all, mothers played a central role in educating the family’s children. The more education she had, the better educated the entire family. It was this type of impeccable logic that made her so persuasive.

Had John won a second term, women’s progress would have been a big beneficiary with four more years of Abigail’s influence on policy-makers.

Abigail Adams is also given full credit for the total reconciliation of two long-time political enemies: Thomas Jefferson and her grouchy husband. They finally resumed their correspondence, which lasted right up until their same-day deaths on July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the founding of the nation.

That same year (1826), Varina Howell was born in rural Louisiana. Her grandfather, Richard Howell, served with distinction in the American Revolution (1775-1783) and would become governor of New Jersey in the 1790s. Her father fought in the War of 1812 and then settled in Natchez, Miss. Varina would later jokingly call herself a “half-breed” since she was born in a family with deep roots in both the North and South.

Jefferson Davis (1808-1899) was another prominent example of people who had deep ties to both the North and South, both in government and the military. In September 1824, he entered the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). He was in the middle of his class and was an infantryman 2nd Lieutenant in 1828. He married Sarah Taylor, daughter of President Zachary Taylor. However, they both contracted a fever and she died three months later. Deeply depressed, he lived in seclusion on his plantation until elected to Congress.

When the Mexican War started, he joined his ex-father-in-law’s army at Camargo, Mexico. Davis and his Mississippi riflemen did heroic duty. Davis was wounded at the Battle of Buena Vista and returned to the United States to find himself a hero. He was appointed to fill an unexpired U.S. Senate term. He was re-elected in 1850, gained prominence and made an unsuccessful bid to be governor. Newly elected President Franklin Pierce added him to his Cabinet as Secretary of War. Pierce had a problem with alcohol and relied on Davis to substitute when needed.

Inexorably, he was drawn into the vortex over the slavery issue. He spoke often of his love for the Union and even as the moral issues grew, he still felt the Union was safe, despite being fully aware of the growing political storm clouds. Devoted to the nation by lineage, history and patriotism, he was torn by the compact theory of the Union. These tenets held that the states were in fact sovereign, but they had yielded it by joining the Union and had to secede to reclaim it. He argued for stronger states’ rights within the Union, while urging moderation and restraint to save the Republic.

In December 1860, he was appointed to the Senate Committee of Thirteen, charged with finding a solution to the growing crisis. Davis ultimately judged the situation as hopeless and (reluctantly) advised secession and the formation of a Southern Confederacy.

Weary, dejected and ill, Jefferson Davis made a farewell address to the Senate on Jan. 21, 1861, emphasizing the South’s determination to leave the Union. Disunion was finally a stark reality. He and his family left Washington, D.C., and returned to Mississippi. It was there that he learned of his election as president of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America.

The Confederate guns began firing at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

War began.

In one of the Civil War’s richest ironies, the second Mrs. Jefferson Davis – his wife of 16 years – was openly critical of secession, calling it foolish and predicting the Confederacy would never survive. As the first First Lady, she characterized her time as the worst four years of her life. She told her mother the South did not have the resources to win and when it was over, “She would run with the rest!”

She did run to Manhattan and supported herself writing columns for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. That baby born in 1826 had fallen in love with Jefferson Davis and became Varina Howell Davis. The only First Lady of the Confederacy died in 1906 and her tombstone reads simply “AT PEACE.”

Considering the wisdom of Abigail Adams and Varina Davis, maybe it’s time for a First Gentleman.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].