James Parton.

Famous Americans of Recent Times online

. (page 26 of 42)
Online LibraryJames PartonFamous Americans of Recent Times → online text (page 26 of 42)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

for $4,000 to save my whole fortune. I had to look out for
the mortgages. Take my note; you can get it discounted for
three per cent.'

"'No, I can't. If you will give me $250 for the debt, I
shall give the other half to pay the interest on your

"Whether the proposition has been accepted we shall know
to-morrow; but we have many such rich people." - _Herald_,
Oct. 28, 1836.

But it was not such things as these that established the Herald.
Confined as he was to the limits of a single town, and being compelled
to do everything with his own hands, he could not have much in his
columns that we should now call "news." But what is news? The answer
to that question involves the whole art, mystery, and history of
journalism. The time was when news signified the doings of the king
and his court. This was the staple of the first news-letter writers,
who were employed by great lords, absent from court, to send them
court intelligence. To this was soon added news of the doings of other
kings and courts; and from that day to this the word _news_ has been
continually gaining increase of meaning, until now it includes all
that the public are curious to know, which may be told without injury
to the public or injustice to individuals. While this man was playing
fantastic tricks before high Heaven, his serious thoughts were
absorbed in schemes to make his paper the great vehicle of news. Early
in the second month, while he was still losing money every day, he hit
upon a new kind of news, which perhaps had more to do with the final
success of the Herald than any other single thing. His working day, at
that time, was sixteen or seventeen hours. In the morning, from five
to eight, he was busy, in the quiet of his room, with those light,
nonsensical paragraphs and editorials which made his readers smile in
spite of themselves. During the usual business hours of the morning,
he was in his cellar, over his flour-barrel desk, engaged in the
ordinary routine of editorial work; not disdaining to sell the morning
paper, write advertisements, and take the money for them.

About one o'clock, having provided abundant copy for the compositors,
he sallied forth into Wall Street, picking up material for his
stock-tables and subjects for paragraphs. From four to six he
was at his office again, winding up the business, of the day. In
the evening he was abroad, - at theatre, concert, ball, or public
meeting, - absorbing fresh material for his paper. He converted
himself, as it were, into a medium through which the gossip, scandal,
fun, and nonsense of this great town were daily conveyed back to it
for its amusement; just as a certain popular preacher is reported to
do, who spends six days in circulating among his parishioners, and on
the seventh tells them all that they have taught him.

Now Wall Street, during the years that General Jackson was disturbing
the financial system by his insensate fury against the United States
Bank, was to journalism what the Army of the Potomac was in the year
1864. The crash of 1837 was full two years in coming on, during which
the money market was always deranged, and moneyed men were anxious and
puzzled. The public mind, too, was gradually drawn to the subject,
until Wall Street was the point upon which all eyes were fixed. The
editor of the Herald was the first American journalist to avail
himself of this state of things. It occurred to him, when his paper
had been five weeks in existence, to give a little account every day
of the state of affairs in Wall Street, - the fluctuations of the money
market and their causes, - the feeling and gossip of the street. He
introduced this feature at the moment when General Jackson's
embroilment with the French Chambers was at its height, and when the
return of the American Minister was hourly expected. Some of our
readers may be curious to see the first "money article" ever published
in the United States. It was as follows: -


"Stocks yesterday maintained their prices during the session
of the Board, several going up. Utica went up 2 per cent;
the others stationary. Large quantities were sold. After the
Board adjourned and the news from France was talked over,
the fancy stocks generally went down 1 to 1-1/2 per cent;
other stocks quite firm. A rally was made by the bulls in
the evening, under the trees, but it did not succeed. There
will be a great fight in the Board to-day. The good people
up town are anxious to know what the brokers think of Mr.
Livingston. We shall find out, and let them know.

"The cotton and flour market rallied a little. The rise of
cotton in Liverpool drove it up here a cent or so. The last
shippers will make 2-1/2 per cent. Many are endeavoring to
produce a belief that there will be a war. If the impression
prevails, naval stores will go up a good deal. Every eye is
outstretched for the Constitution. Hudson, of the Merchants'
News Room, says he will hoist out the first flag. Gilpin, of
the Exchange News Room, says he will have her name down in
his Room one hour before his competitor. The latter claims
having beat Hudson yesterday by an hour and ten minutes in
chronicling the England." - _Herald_, June 13, 1835.

This was his first attempt. The money article constantly lengthened
and increased in importance. It won for the little paper a kind of
footing in brokers' offices and bank parlors, and provided many
respectable persons with an excuse for buying it.

At the end of the third month, the daily receipts equalled the daily
expenditures. A cheap police reporter was soon after engaged. In the
course of the next month, the printing-office was burnt, and the
printers, totally discouraged, abandoned the enterprise. The
editor - who felt that he had caught the public ear, as he
had - contrived, by desperate exertions, to "rake the Herald out of the
fire," as he said, and went on alone. Four months after, the great
fire laid Wall Street low, and all the great business streets
adjacent. Here was his first real opportunity as a journalist; and how
he improved it! - spending one half of every day among the ruins,
note-book in hand, and the other half over his desk, writing out what
he had gathered. He spread before the public reports so detailed,
unconventional, and graphic, that a reader sitting at his ease in his
own room became, as it were, an eyewitness of those appalling scenes.
His accounts of that fire, and of the events following it, are such as
Defoe would have given if he had been a New York reporter. Still
struggling for existence, he went to the expense (great then) of
publishing a picture of the burning Exchange, and a map of the burnt
district. American journalism was born amid the roaring flames of the
great fire of 1835; and no true journalist will deny, that from that
day to this, whenever any very remarkable event has taken place in the
city of New York, the Herald reports of it have generally been those
which cost most money and exhibited most of the spirit and detail of
the scene. For some years every dollar that the Herald made was
expended in news, and, to this hour, no other journal equals it in
daily expenditure for intelligence. If, to-morrow, we were to have
another great fire, like that of thirty years ago, this paper would
have twenty-five men in the streets gathering particulars.

But so difficult is it to establish a daily newspaper, that at the end
of a year it was not yet certain that the Herald could continue. A
lucky contract with a noted pill-vender gave it a great lift about
that time;[1] and in the fifteenth month, the editor ventured to raise
his price to two cents. From that day he had a business, and nothing
remained for him but to go on as he had begun. He did so. The paper
exhibits now the same qualities as it did then, - immense expenditure
and vigilance in getting news, and a reckless disregard of principle,
truth, and decency in its editorials.

Almost from the first month of its existence, this paper was deemed
infamous by the very public that supported it. We can well remember
when people bought it on the sly, and blushed when they were caught
reading it, and when the man in a country place who subscribed for it
intended by that act to distinctly enroll himself as one of the
ungodly. Journalists should thoroughly consider this most remarkable
fact. We have had plenty of infamous papers, but they have all been
short-lived but this. This one has lasted. After thirty-one years of
life, it appears to be almost as flourishing to-day as ever. The
foremost of its rivals has a little more than half its circulation,
and less than half its income. A marble palace is rising to receive
it, and its proprietor fares as sumptuously every day as the ducal
family who furnished him with his middle name.

Let us see how the Herald acquired its ill name. We shall then know
why it is still so profoundly odious; for it has never changed, and
can never change, while its founder controls it. Its peculiarities are
_his_ peculiarities.

He came into collision, first of all, with the clergy and people of
his own Church, the Roman Catholic. Thirty years ago, as some of our
readers may remember, Catholics and Protestants had not yet learned to
live together in the same community with perfect tolerance of one
another's opinions and usages; and there were still some timid persons
who feared the rekindling of the fagot, and the supremacy of the Pope
in the United States. A controversy growing out of these apprehensions
had been proceeding for some time in the newspapers when this impudent
little Herald first appeared. The new-comer joined in the fray, and
sided against the Church in which he was born; but laid about him in a
manner which disgusted both parties. For example: -

"As a Catholic, we call upon the Catholic Bishop and clergy
of New York to come forth from the darkness, folly, and
superstition of the tenth century. They live in the
nineteenth. There can be no mistake about it, - they will be
convinced of this fact if they look into the almanac....

"But though we want a thorough reform, we do not wish them
to discard their greatest absurdities at the first breath.
We know the difficulty of the task. Disciples, such as the
Irish are, will stick with greater pertinacity to
absurdities and nonsense than to reason and common sense. We
have no objection to the doctrine of Transubstantiation
being tolerated for a few years to come. We may for a while
indulge ourselves in the delicious luxury of creating and
eating our Divinity. A peculiar taste of this kind, like
smoking tobacco or drinking whiskey, cannot be given up all
at once. The ancient Egyptians, for many years after they
had lost every trace of the intellectual character of their
religion, yet worshipped and adored the ox, the bull, and
the crocodile. They had not discovered the art, as we
Catholics have done, of making a God out of bread, and of
adoring and eating him at one and the same moment. This
latter piece of sublimity or religious cookery (we don't
know which) was reserved for the educated and talented
clergy from the tenth up to the nineteenth century. Yet we
do not advise the immediate disturbance of this venerable
piece of rottenness and absurdity. It must be retained, as
we would retain carefully the tooth of a saint or the
jawbone of a martyr, till the natural progress of reason in
the Irish mind shall be able, silently and imperceptibly, to
drop it among the forgotten rubbish of his early loves, or
his more youthful riots and rows.

"There must be a thorough reformation and revolution in the
American Catholic Church. Education must be more attended
to. We never knew one priest who believed that he ate the
Divinity when he took the Eucharist. If we must have a Pope,
let us have a Pope of our own, - an American Pope, an
intellectual, intelligent, and moral Pope, - not such a
decrepit, licentious, stupid, Italian blockhead as the
College of Cardinals at Rome condescends to give the
Christian world of Europe."

This might be good advice; but no serious Protestant, at that day,
could relish the tone in which it was given. Threatening letters were
sent in from irate and illiterate Irishmen; the Herald was denounced
from a Catholic pulpit; its carriers were assaulted on their rounds;
but the paper won no friends from the side which it affected to
espouse. Every one felt that to this man _nothing_ was sacred, or
August, or venerable, or even serious. He was like an unbeliever in a
party composed of men of various sects. The Baptist could fairly
attack an Episcopalian, because he had convictions of his own that
could be assaulted; but this stranger, who believed nothing and
respected nothing, could not be hit at all. The result would naturally
be, that the whole company would turn upon him as upon a common foe.

So in politics. Perhaps the most serious and sincere article he ever
wrote on a political subject was one that appeared in November, 1836,
in which he recommended the subversion of republican institutions and
the election of an emperor. If he ever had a political conviction, we
believe he expressed it then. After a rigmarole of Roman history and
Augustus Caesar, he proceeded thus: - -

"Shall we not profit by these examples of history? Let us,
for the sake of science, art, and civilization, elect at
this election General Jackson, General Harrison, Martin Yan
Buren, Hugh White, or Anybody, we care not whom, the EMPEROR
of this great REPUBLIC for life, and have done with this
eternal turmoil and confusion. Perhaps Mr. Van Buren would
be the best Augustus Caesar. He is sufficiently corrupt,
selfish, and heartless for that dignity. He has a host of
favorites that will easily form a Senate. He has a court in
preparation, and the Praetorian bands in array. He can pick
up a Livia anywhere. He has violated every pledge, adopted
and abandoned every creed, been for and against every
measure, is a believer in all religions by turns, and, like
the first Caesar, has always been a republican and taken
care of number one. He has called into action all the ragged
adventurers from every class, and raised their lands,
stocks, lots, and places without end. He is smooth,
agreeable, oily, as Octavianus was. He has a couple of sons,
also, who might succeed him and preserve the imperial line.
We may be better off under an Emperor, - we could not be
worse off as a nation than we are now. Besides, who knows
but Van Buren is of the blood of the great Julius himself?
That great man conquered all Gaul and Helvetia, which in
those days comprised Holland. Caius Julius Caesar may thus
have laid the foundation of a royal line to be transmitted
to the West. There is a prophecy in Virgil's 'Pollio'
evidently alluding to Van. But of this another day."

A man who writes in this way may have readers, but he can have no
friends. An event occurred in his first year which revealed this fact
to him in an extremely disagreeable manner. There was then upon the
New York stage a notoriously dissolute actor, who, after outraging the
feelings of his wife in all the usual modes, completed his infamy by
denouncing her from the stage of a crowded theatre. The Herald took
her part, which would naturally have been the popular side. But when
the actor retorted by going to the office of the Herald and committing
upon its proprietor a most violent and aggravated assault,
accompanying his blows with acts of peculiar indecency, it plainly
appeared, that the sympathies of the public were wholly with the
actor, - not with the champion of an injured woman. His hand had been
against every man, and in his hour of need, when he was greatly in the
right, every heart was closed against him. Not the less, however, did
the same public buy his paper, because it contained what the public
wanted, i.e. the news of the day, vividly exhibited.

The course of this curious specimen of our kind during the late war
was perfectly characteristic. During the first two years of the war he
was inclined to think that the Rebels would be successful so far as to
win over the Democratic party to their side, and thus constitute
Jefferson Davis President of the United States. If he had any
preference as to the result of the contest, it was probably this. If
the flag of the United States had been trailed in the mud of Nassau
Street, followed by hooting ruffians from the Sixth Ward, and the
symbol of the Rebellion had floated in its stead from the cupola of
the City Hall, saluted by Captain Rynders's gun, it would not have
cost this isolated alien one pang, - unless, perchance, a rival
newspaper had been the first to announce the fact. _That_ indeed,
would have cut him to the heart. Acting upon the impression that the
Rebellion, in some way, would triumph, he gave it all the support
possible, and continued to do so until it appeared certain that,
whatever the issue of the strife, the South was lost for a long time
as a patron of New York papers.

The key to most of the political vagaries of this paper is given in a
single sentence of one of its first numbers: "_We have never been in a
minority, and we never shall be_" In his endeavors to act upon this
lofty principle, he was sadly puzzled during the war, - so difficult
was it to determine which way the cat would finally jump. He held
himself ready, however, to jump with it, whichever side the dubious
animal might select. At the same time, he never for an instant relaxed
his endeavors to obtain the earliest and fullest intelligence from the
seat of war. Never perhaps did any journal in any country maintain so
great an expenditure for news. Every man in the field representing
that paper was more than authorized - he was encouraged and
commanded - to incur any expense whatever that might be necessary
either in getting or forwarding intelligence. There were no rigid or
grudging scrutiny of reporters' drafts; no minute and insulting
inquiries respecting the last moments of a horse ridden to death in
the service; no grumbling about the precise terms of a steamboat
charter, or a special locomotive. A reporter returning from the army
laden with information, procured at a lavish expense, was received in
the office like a conqueror coming home from a victorious campaign,
and he went forth again full of courage and zeal, knowing well that
every man employed on the Herald was advancing himself when he served
the paper well. One great secret of success the proprietor of the
Herald knows better than most; - he knows how to get out of those who
serve him all there is in them; he knows how to reward good service;
he knows a man's value to him. There is no newspaper office in the
world where real journalistic efficiency is more certain to meet
prompt recognition and just reward than in this. Not much may be said
to a laborious reporter about the hits he is making; but, on some
Saturday afternoon, when he draws his salary, he finds in his hands a
larger amount than usual. He hands it back to have the mistake
corrected, and he is informed that his salary is raised.

The Herald, too, systematically prepares the way for its reporters.
Some of our readers may remember how lavishly this paper extolled
General McClellan during the time of his glory, and indeed as long as
he held the chief command. One of the results of this policy was,
that, while the reporters of other papers were out in the cold,
writing in circumstances the most inconvenient, those of the Herald,
besides being supplied with the best information, were often writing
in a warm apartment or commodious tent, not far from head-quarters or
at head-quarters. As long as General Butler held a command which gave
him control over one of the chief sources of news, the Herald hoarded
its private grudge against him; but the instant he was removed from
command, the Herald was after him in full cry. If, to-morrow, the same
General should be placed in a position which should render his office
a source of important intelligence, we should probably read in the
Herald the most glowing eulogiums of his career and character.

What are we to think of a man who is at once so able and so false? It
would be incorrect to call him a liar, because he is wanting in that
sense of truth by violating which a man makes himself a liar. We
cannot call him a traitor, for his heart knows no country; nor an
infidel, for all the serious and high concerns of man are to him a
jest. _Defective_ is the word to apply to such as he. As far as he
goes, he is good; and if the commodity in which he deals were cotton
or sugar, we could commend his enterprise and tact. He is like the
steeple of a church in New York, which was built up to a certain
height, when the material gave out, and it was hastily roofed in,
leaving the _upper half_ of the architect's design unexecuted. That
region of the mind where conviction, the sense of truth and honor,
public spirit and patriotism have their sphere, is in this man mere
vacancy. But, we repeat, as far as he _is_ built up, he is very well
constructed. Visit him: you see before you a quiet-mannered,
courteous, and good-natured old gentleman, who is on excellent terms
with himself and with the world. If you are a poor musician, about to
give a concert, no editor is more likely than he to lend a favorable
ear to your request for a few lines of preliminary notice. The persons
about him have been very long in his employment, and to some of them
he has been munificently liberal. The best of them appear to be really
attached to his person, as well as devoted to his service, and they
rely on him as sailors rely on a captain who has brought them safe
through a thousand storms. He has the Celtic virtue of standing by
those who stand by him developed to the uttermost degree. Many a
slight favor bestowed upon him in his days of obscurity he has
recompensed a thousand-fold since he has had the power to do so. We
cannot assign a very exalted rank in the moral scale to a trait which
some of the lowest races possess in an eminent degree, and which
easily runs into narrowness and vice; nevertheless, it is akin to
nobleness, and is the nearest approach to a true generosity that some
strong natures can attain.

What are we to say of the public that has so resolutely sustained this
paper, which the outside world so generally condemns? We say this.
Every periodical that thrives supplies the public with a certain
description of intellectual commodity, which the public is willing to
pay for. The New York Ledger, for example, exists by furnishing
stories and poetry adapted to the taste of the greatest number of the
people. Our spirited friends of The Nation and Round Table supply
criticism and that portion of the news which is of special interest to
the intellectual class. The specialty of the daily newspaper is to
give that part of the news of the day which interests the whole
public. A complete newspaper contains more than this; but it ranks in
the world of journalism exactly in the degree to which it does _this_.
The grand object of the true journalist is to be fullest, promptest,
and most correct on the one uppermost topic of the hour. That secured,
he may neglect all else. The paper that does this oftenest is the
paper that will find most purchasers; and no general excellence, no
array of information on minor or special topics, will ever atone for a
deficiency on the subject of most immediate and universal interest.
During the war this fundamental truth of journalism was apparent to
every mind. In time of peace, it is less apparent, but not less a
truth. In the absence of an absorbing topic, general news rises in
importance, until, in the dearth of the dogdays, the great cucumber
gets into type; but the great point of competition is still the
same, - to be fullest, quickest, and most correct upon the subject
_most_ interesting at the moment.

But every periodical, besides its specialty on which it lives, gives
its readers something more. It need not, but it does. The universal
Ledger favors its readers with many very excellent essays, written for
it by distinguished clergymen, editors, and authors, and gives its

Online LibraryJames PartonFamous Americans of Recent Times → online text (page 26 of 42)