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  Name:  Horace Greeley
  Born:  February 3, 1811
  Died:  November 29, 1872

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Greeley, Horace (February 3, 1811 – November 29, 1872)

Horace Greeley was the longtime editor of the New York Tribune and the 1872 presidential nominee of the Liberal Republican Party and the Democratic Party.   

He was born in Amherst, New Hampshire, on February 3, 1811, to Mary Woodburn Greeley and Zaccheus Greeley.  His parents struggled to make a living at farming, and therefore moved several times in his youth. His sporadic schooling ended when he was 14, but he had an inquisitive mind and was a voracious reader throughout his life.  

In 1826, Greeley began his publishing–journalistic career as a printer’s apprentice with the Northern Spectator (East Poultney, Vermont), and then moved with his family in 1831 to Erie, Pennsylvania, where he was hired by the Erie Gazette. Within a few months, he struck out on his own for New York City, where he worked for several newspapers, including the Evening Post, Spirit of the Times, Morning Post, and Commercial Advertiser. In 1834, he and Jonas Winchester founded The New Yorker, a literary weekly (not the current magazine of the same name). Backed by New York politicos Thurlow Weed and William Henry Seward, Greeley published in 1838–1839 a Whig Party organ, the Albany Jeffersonian, and in 1840, the Log Cabin, to promote the election of Whig presidential nominee William Henry Harrison.  

In 1841, Greeley founded the New York Tribune, the city’s first Whig daily, which soon became a financial and editorial success. By 1860, the combined daily, weekly, and semiweekly circulation of the Tribune reached almost 300,000. As editor of one of the most popular and influential newspapers in the country, Greeley became one of the most well known figures in the United States. His controversial crusades against slavery, capital punishment, smoking, drinking, and adultery, and for women’s rights, labor rights, vegetarianism, quasi–socialist schemes, and trade protectionism brought him both admiration and scorn. Unlike many white abolitionists, his concern for the plight of African Americans extended to free blacks, who faced discrimination in the Antebellum North. Although the editorials represented Greeley’s (sometimes contradictory) views, he opened the rest of the journal to various competing perspectives. The Tribune hired talented editors and writers, such as Charles Dana (managing editor), George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, and as the paper’s European correspondent during the 1850s, Karl Marx.  

Greeley gave wide exposure to Indiana editor John Soule’s advice, “Go west, young man, go west,” and thereby became associated in popular discourse with the catchphrase. Greeley urged settlement of the West as well as sparsely populated areas of the East and, particularly after the Civil War, the South. He followed his own advice and embarked on a western trek to California, partly to promote the need for a transcontinental railroad. His experiences were published as An Overland Journey, from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859, in which he discussed the need for a transcontinental railroad, the deplorable conditions endured by American Indians, and the peculiar practices of the Mormons in Utah. He also bought a farm near the village of Chappaqua, 35 miles outside of New York City, where he applied experimental scientific methods to agriculture. Years later he would report his findings in the book What I Know of Farming (1871).  

Over the years, Greeley made several attempts to gain public office but only succeeded when he won a brief three–month term (December 1848–March 1849) in the U.S. House of Representatives, following the death of an incumbent. In Congress, he quickly made enemies on both sides of the aisle by vehemently attacking the franking privilege, which allowed congressmen to send mail for free. Greeley’s antislavery stance led him in 1854 to help found the Republican Party in New York. Two year later, he supported Republican John C. Frémont’s losing effort at the presidency.  In 1860, Greeley was instrumental in securing the Republican presidential nomination for Abraham Lincoln through the editor’s opposition to front–runner William Henry Seward, Greeley’s former Whig benefactor.  

As the possibility of secession and civil war loomed large, Greeley expressed ambivalence about future path of the nation. After Lincoln’s election, Greeley editorialized (November 9, 1860) that the best hope for avoiding war might be to allow peaceful secession. Yet when the slave states from the Deep South left the Union, he criticized their action as undemocratic. After Fort Sumter in April 1861, he backed the Union military war effort, pushing hard for a quick victory. As the war wore on, the editor proffered his good offices to bring about a peace settlement, meeting with Confederate representatives in Niagara Falls, Canada, in July 1864. Lincoln acquiesced in Greeley’s participation, even though the president rightly accessed the negotiations chances as futile.  

From the early days of the war, Greeley kept constant pressure on Lincoln to emancipate the slaves. His most famous editorial on the subject was “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” (August 20, 1862), which urged the president to use the Second Confiscation Act to allow Union commanders to free the slaves of rebel masters. Although Lincoln had already decided privately to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he responded publicly to Greeley that as president his first task was to preserve the Union, whether that meant keeping or abolishing slavery. (The Emancipation Proclamation was announced on September 22, following the Union victory at Antietam, and took effect on January 1, 1863.) Although Greeley was at first reluctant, he eventually endorsed Lincoln’s reelection in 1864. Despite a hectic schedule, the editor found time to write a two–volume analysis of the Civil War, The American Conflict (1864, 1865).  

During Reconstruction, Greeley promoted political equality for blacks and universal amnesty for Confederates as complementary policies necessary for national reconciliation. On the one hand, he condemned President Andrew Johnson for failing to enforce the Reconstruction Acts, while on the other hand he helped bail former Confederate President Jefferson Davis out of prison. In 1868, Greeley published his memoirs, Recollections of a Busy Life.  

Greeley had supported Republican Ulysses S. Grant for the presidency in 1868, but within a few years he became frustrated with the Grant administration’s policies. In May 1872, a dissident group of Liberal Republicans surprisingly nominated Greeley for president. The Liberal Republicans, led by Senators Carl Schurz, Lyman Trumbull, and Charles Sumner, opposed the Grant administration’s military–backed Reconstruction, expansionist foreign policy, high tariffs, and corruption. Greeley stood together with the Liberals on all issues, except for his stance in favor of trade protection.  The party platform and the candidate downplayed the issue.  In July, the weak and desperate Democratic Party also nominated Greeley as their standard–bearer. 

Greeley resigned as editor of the Tribune and then took the usual step (at the time) of personally campaigning for the office.  He delivered speeches across the country, including in the South, which stressed national reconciliation. He faced an uphill battle against much skepticism and ridicule, especially in the Harper’s Weekly cartoons of caricaturist Thomas Nast. In October, Greeley’s wife became ill and died later in the month. A few days later, Grant’s reelection juggernaut decisively crushed Greeley, who won just six states and 44% of the popular vote. Greeley returned to his Tribune office.  However, managing editor Whitelaw Reid, concerned about his former boss’s deteriorating health and possible negative effect on circulation, forced Greeley to relinquish the post. Exhausted, disheartened, and ill, Horace Greeley died a few weeks later on November 29, 1872, in Pleasantville, New York. His funeral on December 4 was attended by a large gathering of local, state, and national leaders, including President Ulysses S. Grant and Chief Justice Salmon Chase. 

Sources consulted: Erik S. Lunde, American National Biography; Dictionary of American Biography.


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