“Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, and riches take wings. Only one thing endures and that is character.”
—Horace Greeley (1811–1872)
Today is World Press Freedom Day. To highlight the occasion, we are focusing on a man who was a towering figure in the 19th-century New York City newspaper business, Horace Greeley. May 3rd is also the anniversary of the birth of Danish-American social reformer, journalist and social documentary photographer, Jacob August Riis. He worked at the newspaper Mr. Greeley founded, the New York Tribune, where he did some of his earliest and best social reform writing and photography (How the Other Half Lifes) in the 1880s.
Born in Amherst, New Hampshire, Mr. Greeley served as a printer’s apprentice in East Poultney, Vermont, moving to New York City in 1831. Four years later he became a founding editor of a new literary and news journal, The New-Yorker. Mr. Greeley was a member of the liberal Whig party; he wrote weekly political campaign during the elections of 1838 and 1840 at the urging of New York State and local politicians, including Governor William Seward, who went on to become Secretary of State for President Lincoln.
In 1841 Mr. Greeley founded the newspaper that would make him a household name, the New York Tribute. The newspaper became a champion of various reforms, including the improvement of the lives of the working classes. Mr. Greeley, who earned the reputation as the most outstanding newspaper editor of his day, employed a large staff, which included Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who published under Marx’s name, coving European affairs. The paper became a political bible for its readers across the North.
Reflecting a traditional New England upbringing of high moral standards of behavior, Mr. Greeley put the force of his newspaper behind his opposition of liquor, tobacco, gambling, prostitution, and capital punishment. The Tribune favored free public education for all; but, surprisingly opposed women’s suffrage. Another topic dear to Mr. Greeley’s heart was westward expansion. He did not, however, coin the phrase “Go West, young man;” although it is commonly claimed that he did. John B.L. Soule, an Indiana journalist, originated the phrase. To encourage the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny, in 1841 Mr. Greeley wrote, “Do not lounge in the cities! There is room and health in the country, away from the crowds of idlers and imbeciles. Go west, before you are fitted for no life but that of the factory.”
Because of its wishy-washy stance on slavery and its reluctance to put him forward as a candidate for high political office, Mr. Greeley grew disenchanted with the Whigs. In 1854 he switched party alliance to the fledging Republican Party, which he helped to get off the ground. Throughout the 1850s the New York Tribune stoked the fires of the antislavery sentiments in the North. His editorials opposed any compromise on the topic of slavery.
Once the Civil War began, Mr. Greeley sided with those Republicans who endorsed early emancipation of the slaves and civil rights for freedmen. He opposed President Lincoln’s re-nomination in 1864; he lost popular support because of it. Mr. Greeley helped to form the Liberal Republican Party, made up of those Republicans who were dismayed by the corruption in President Ulysses S. Grant’s the first administration. The Liberal Republicans opposed President Grant’s re-election in 1872, and nominated Mr. Greeley for president. He garnered more than 40 percent of the popular vote. Mr. Greeley suffered a collapse of his health because of the personal attacks during the campaign, and the loss of control of the Tribune. He died on November 29, 1872, before the Electoral College votes were cast. He had been pledged 66 electoral votes; but gained only three, the others going to four minor candidates.
Located at the northeast corner of City Hall Park, the over life-size seated figure of Mr. Greeley was sculpted by the dean of American sculptors, John Quincy Adams Ward (1830–1910). The seven-foot, two-inch tall bronze figure rests on a five-foot tall base of polished Quincy granite, which was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827–1895). A gift of the Tribune Association, the figure was cast in 1890, and dedicated in 1916. The reason for locating the sculpture in this area of the park is because the New York Tribune Building had been located across the street for 100 years.
A goal of World Press Freedom Day, celebrated each May 3, is to emphasize the importance of a free press in a democratic society; this cannot be underestimated. The day is also commemorates the journalists who have lost their lives supporting a free press. At a time when too much media coverage slants toward fear mongering and sensationalism, it is necessary to make an effort to appreciate and seek out journalism with a fair and unbiased point of view. As stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Each World Press Freedom Day has a theme and a host city. For 2016 the host city is Helsinki, Finland’s capital; and the theme is “Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms: This Is Your Right!”
Join our Five Squares and a Circle Tour to see another seated figure of Horace Greeley in one of those squares. Read about another bronze sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward in “A Pilgrim’s Progress”; discover it on our Central Park Walking Tour.
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT NOTED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2016