Mr. Horace Greeley by Edwin Lawrence Godkin

Story type: Essay

There has been something almost tragic about the close of Mr. Greeley’s career. After a life of, on the whole, remarkable success and prosperity, he fell finally under the weight of accumulated misfortunes. Nobody who heard him declare that “he accepted the Cincinnati Convention and its consequences,” but must be struck by the illustration of what is called “the irony of fate,” which nearly everything that occurred afterwards affords. His nomination, from whatever point of view we look at it, was undoubtedly a high honor. The manner in which it was received down to the Baltimore Convention was very flattering. Whether it was a proper thing to “beat Grant” or not, that so large and so shrewd a body of his countrymen should have thought Mr. Greeley the man to do it was a great compliment. It found him, too, in possession of all the influence which the successful pursuit of his own calling could give a man–the most powerful editor in the Union, surrounded by friends and admirers, feared or courted by nearly everybody in public life, and in the full enjoyment of widespread popular confidence in his integrity. In six short months he was well-nigh undone. He had endured a humiliating defeat, which seemed to him to indicate the loss of what was his dearest possession, the affection of the American people; he had lost the weight in public affairs which he had built up by thirty years of labor; he saw his property and, as he thought, that of his friends diminished by the attempt to give him a prize which he had in his own estimation fairly earned, and, though last not least, he found his home invaded by death, and one of the strongest of the ties which bind a man to this earth broken. It would not be wonderful if, under these circumstances, the coldest and toughest of men should lie down and die. But Mr. Greeley was neither cold nor tough. He was keenly sensitive both to praise and blame. The applause of even paltry men gladdened him, and their censure stung him. Moreover, he had that intense longing for reputation as a man of action by which men of the closet are so often torn. In spite of all that his writing brought him in reputation, he writhed under the popular belief that he could do nothing but write, and he spent the flower of his years trying to convince the public that it was mistaken about him. It was to this we owed whatever was ostentatious in his devotion to farming, and in his interest in the manufacturing industry of the country. It was to this, too, that he owed his keen and lifelong desire for office, and, in part at least, his activity in getting offices for other people.

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Office-seekers have become in the United States so ridiculous and so contemptible a class, that a man can hardly seek a place in the public service without incurring a certain amount of odium; and perhaps nothing did more damage to Mr. Greeley’s reputation than his anxiety to be put in places of trust or dignity. And yet it is doubtful if many men seek office with more respectable motives than his. For pecuniary emolument he cared nothing; but he did pine all his life long for some conspicuous recognition of his capacity for the conduct of affairs, and he never got it. The men who have nominations to bestow either never had confidence enough in his judgment or ability to offer him anything which he would have thought worthy of his expectations when there was the least chance of their choice receiving a popular ratification. They disliked him, as politicians are apt to dislike an editor in the political arena, as a man who, in having a newspaper at his back, is sure not to play their game fairly. The consequence was that he was constantly irritated by finding how purely professional his influence was, or, in other words, what a mortifying disproportion existed between his editorial and his personal power. The first revelation the public had of the bitterness of his disappointment on this score was caused by the publication of the famous Seward letter, and the surprise it caused was perhaps the highest compliment Mr. Greeley ever received. It showed with what success he had prevented his private griefs from affecting his public action, and people are always ready to forgive ambition as an “infirmity of noble minds,” even when they do not feel disposed to reward it.

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Unfortunately for Mr. Greeley, however, he never could persuade himself that the public was of the same mind as the politicians regarding his personal capacity. He persisted to the last in believing himself the victim of their envy, hatred, and malice, and looking with unabated hope to some opportunity of obtaining a verdict on his merits as a man of action, in which his widespread popularity and his long and laborious teachings would fairly tell. The result of the Cincinnati Convention, which his friends and emissaries from this city went out to prepare, but which perhaps neither he nor they in the beginning ventured to hope for, seemed to promise him at last the crown and consummation of a life’s longings, and he received it with almost childlike joy. The election was, therefore, a crushing blow. It was not, perhaps, the failure to get the presidency that was hardest to bear–for this might have been accompanied by such a declaration of his fitness for the presidency as would have sweetened the remainder of his years–it was the contemptuous greatness of his opponent’s majority which was killing. It dissipated the illusion of half a lifetime on the one point on which illusions are dearest–a man’s exact place in the estimation of his countrymen. Very few–even of those whose fame rests on the most solid foundation of achievement–ever ask to have this ascertained by a positive test without dread or misgiving, or face the test without a strain, which the nerves of old men are often ill fitted to bear. That Mr. Greeley’s nerves were unequal to the shock of failure we now know. But it needed no intimate acquaintance with him to see that the card in which he announced, two days after the election, that he would thereafter be a simple editor, would seek office no more, and would confine himself to the production of a candid and judicial-minded paper, must have been written in bitterness of spirit for which this world had no balm.

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In addition to the deceptions caused by his editorial influence, Mr. Greeley had others to contend with, more subtle, but not less potent. The position of the editor of a leading daily paper is one which, in our time, is hardly possible for the calmest and most candid man to fill without having his judgment of himself perverted by flattery. Our age is intensely commercial; it is not the dry-goods man or the grain merchant only who has goods for sale, but the poet, the orator, the scholar, the philosopher, and the politician. We are all, in a measure, seeking a market for our wares. What we desire, therefore, above all things, is a good advertising medium, or, in other words, a good means of making known to all the world where our store is and what we have to sell. This means the editor of a daily paper can furnish to anybody he pleases. He is consequently the object of unceasing adulation from a crowd of those who shrink from fighting the slow and doubtful battle of life in the open field, and crave the kindly shelter of editorial plaudits, “puffs,” and “mentions.” He finds this adulation offered freely, and by all classes and conditions, without the least reference to his character or talents or antecedents. What wonder if it turns the heads of unworthy men, and begets in them some of the vices of despots–their unscrupulousness, their cruelty, and their impudence. What wonder, too, if it should have thrown off his balance a man like Mr. Greeley, whose head was not strong, whose education was imperfect, and whose self-confidence had been fortified by a brave and successful struggle with adversity.

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Of his many private virtues, of his kind-heartedness, his generosity, his sympathy with all forms of suffering and anxiety, we do not need to speak. His career, too, has little in it to point any moral that is not already trite and familiar. The only lesson we can gather from it with any clearness is the uncertainty of this world, and all that it contains, and the folly of seeking the presidency. Nobody can hope to follow in his footsteps. He began life as a kind of editor of which he was one of the last specimens, and which will shortly be totally extinct–the editor who fought as the man-at-arms of the party. This kind of work Mr. Greeley did with extraordinary earnestness and vehemence and success–so much success that a modern newspaper finally grew up around him, in spite of him, almost to his surprise, and often to his embarrassment. The changed condition of journalism, the substitution of the critical for the party views of things, he never wholly accepted, and his frequent personal appearance in his columns, under the signature of “H. G.” hurling defiance at his enemies or exposing their baseness, showed how stifling he found the changed atmosphere. He was fast falling behind his age when he died. New men, and new issues, and new processes, which he either did not understand at all or only understood imperfectly, crowded upon him. If the dazzling prize of the presidency had not been held before his eyes, we should probably have witnessed his gradual but certain retirement into well-won repose. Those who opposed him most earnestly must now regret sincerely that in his last hours he should have known the bitterness of believing, what was really not true, that the labors of his life, which were largely devoted to good causes, had not met the appreciation they merited at the hands of his countrymen. It is for his own sake, as well as that of the public, greatly to be regretted that he should not have lived until the smoke of the late conflict had cleared away.

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