Biography of Horace Greeley

New York Tribune's Editor Shaped Public Opinion for Decades

Engraved portrait of editor Horace Greeley

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The legendary editor Horace Greeley was one of the most influential Americans of the 1800s. He founded and edited the New-York Tribune, a substantial and very popular newspaper of the period.

Greeley's opinions, and his daily decisions on what constituted news impacted American life for decades. He was not an ardent abolitionist, yet he was opposed to enslavement, and he was involved in the founding of the Republican Party in the 1850s.

When Abraham Lincoln came to New York City in early 1860 and essentially began his run for the presidency with his address at Cooper Union, Greeley was in the audience. He became a supporter of Lincoln, and at times, especially in the early years of the Civil War, something of a Lincoln antagonist.

Greeley eventually ran as a major candidate for president in 1872, in an ill-fated campaign that left him in very poor health. He died soon after losing the 1872 election.

He wrote countless editorials and several books, and is perhaps best known for a famous quote he probably did not originate: “Go west, young man.”

A Printer in His Youth

Horace Greeley was born on February 3, 1811, in Amherst, New Hampshire. He received irregular schooling, typical of the time, and became an apprentice at a newspaper in Vermont as a teenager.

Mastering the skills of a printer, he worked briefly in Pennsylvania and then moved to New York at the age of 20. He found a job as a newspaper compositor, and within two years he and a friend opened their own print shop.

In 1834, with another partner, Greeley founded a magazine, The New-Yorker, a journal "devoted to literature, the arts and sciences."

The New York Tribune

For seven years he edited his magazine, which was generally unprofitable. During this period he also worked for the emerging Whig Party. Greeley wrote leaflets, and at times edited a newspaper, the Daily Whig.

Encouraged by some prominent Whig politicians, Greeley founded the New-York Tribune in 1841, when he was 30. For the next three decades, Greeley would edit the newspaper, which came to have a profound influence on the national debate. The dominant political issue of the day, of course, was enslavement, which Greeley adamantly and vocally opposed.

A Prominent Voice in American Life

Greeley was personally offended by the sensationalist newspapers of the period and worked to make the New-York Tribune a credible newspaper for the masses. He sought out good writers and is said to be the first newspaper editor to provide bylines for writers. And Greeley’s own editorials and commentaries drew enormous attention.

Though Greeley’s political background was with the fairly conservative Whig Party, he advanced opinions that deviated from Whig orthodoxy. He supported women's rights and labor and opposed monopolies.

He hired early feminist Margaret Fuller to write for the Tribune, making her the first female newspaper columnist in New York City.

Greeley Shaped Public Opinion in the 1850s

In the 1850s Greeley published editorials denouncing enslavement, and eventually supported full abolition. Greeley wrote denunciations of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott Decision.

A weekly edition of the Tribune was shipped westward, and it was very popular in rural parts of the country. It's believed that Greeley's hardening opposition to enslavement helped shape public opinion in the decade leading up to the Civil War.

Greeley became one of the founders of the Republican Party and was present as a delegate at its organizing convention in 1856.

Greeley's Role in Lincoln's Election

At the 1860 Republican Party convention, Greeley was denied a seat in the New York delegation because of feuds with local officials. He somehow arranged to be seated as a delegate from Oregon and sought to block the nomination of New York’s William Seward, a former friend.

Greeley supported the candidacy of Edward Bates, who had been a prominent member of the Whig Party. But the tempestuous editor eventually put his influence behind Abraham Lincoln.

Greeley Challenged Lincoln Over Enslavement

During the Civil War Greeley’s attitudes were controversial. He originally believed the southern states should be allowed to secede, but he eventually came to support the war fully. In August 1862 he published an editorial titled “The Prayer of Twenty Millions” that called for the emancipation of enslaved people.

The title of the famed editorial was typical of Greeley's presumptuous nature, as it indicated that the entire population of the northern states shared his beliefs.

Lincoln Responded Publicly to Greeley

Lincoln wrote a response, which was printed on the front page of The New York Times on August 25, 1862. It contained an oft-quoted passage:

“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 do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

By that time, Lincoln had decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But he would wait until he could claim military victory after the Battle of Antietam in September before proceeding.

Controversy at the End of the Civil War

Horrified by the human cost of the Civil War, Greeley advocated peace negotiations, and in 1864, with Lincoln’s approval, he traveled to Canada to meet with Confederate emissaries. The potential thus existed for peace talks, but nothing came of Greeley's efforts.

After the war Greeley offended a number of readers by advocating amnesty for Confederates, even going so far as to pay for a bail bond for Jefferson Davis.

Troubled Later Life

When Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1868 Greeley was a supporter. But he became disillusioned, feeling Grant was too close to New York political boss Roscoe Conkling.

Greeley wanted to run against Grant, but the Democratic Party was not interested in having him as a candidate. His ideas helped to form the new Liberal Republican Party, and he was the party’s candidate for president in 1872.

The 1872 campaign was particularly dirty, and Greeley was viciously criticized and mocked.

He lost the election to Grant, and it took a terrible toll on him. He was committed to a mental institution, where he died on November 29, 1872.

Greeley is best remembered today for a quote from an 1851 editorial in the New -ork Tribune: "Go west, young man." It has been said that Greeley thus inspired many thousands to set out for the frontier.

The most likely story behind the famous quote is that Greeley had reprinted, in the New-York Tribune, an editorial by John B.L. Soule that contained the line, "Go west, young man, go west."

Greeley never claimed to have coined the original phrase, though he later expanded upon it by writing an editorial with the phrase, "Go west young man, and grow up with the country." And over time the original quote was usually attributed to Greeley.

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McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Horace Greeley." ThoughtCo, Jan. 5, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, January 5). Biography of Horace Greeley. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Horace Greeley." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).