In November 1872, Horace Greeley declared himself “the worst beaten man who ever ran for high office.” He’d just exhausted himself to the last molecule running for president against the incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant. At 61, the founding editor of the New-York Tribune was a living legend, known to all Americans as eccentric “Uncle Horace,” but he’d never been elected to public office. Traveling as far as Texas, giving as many as 200 speeches a month, he called for reconciliation between North and South, black and white, urging all Americans to bury the hatchet and join hands “over the bloody chasm” of the Civil War. Americans weren’t ready for that. He won in six states to Grant’s 31, while enduring such a maelstrom of mockery and calumny (Harper’s Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast drew him praying to Satan and clasping hands with John Wilkes Booth) that he moaned, “I hardly know whether I was running for president or the penitentiary.” Collapsing into deep despair, he was carried to a sanatorium in Pleasantville, N.Y., where he died on November 29.
On hearing the news, Henry Ward Beecher called him “a man of noble ambition, if not always the most wise.” In his diary, George Templeton Strong wrote: “Had God granted him a little plain common sense, Horace Greeley would have been a great man.” For us, Greeley’s sad end might be a cautionary lesson that a nation rent asunder is not easily mended. At the very least, it may say something about the difficulties of translating celebrity into political power.
Born in 1811 into a hardscrabble New Hampshire farm family, Greeley apprenticed at a hand-cranked printing press before arriving in New York City in 1831. He was just in time to help start a revolution in newspapers, transforming them from gray business sheets for gentlemen subscribers to lively “penny dailies” hawked to everyone on the street. Brilliant, excitable, and flighty, Greeley started the Tribune in 1841 and made it a platform for every new and progressive idea that caught his fancy: abolitionism, vegetarianism, feminism, utopian communes, phrenology, Mesmerism, spiritualism, socialism. Exasperated after a decade of isms, his assistant Henry Raymond would flee the Tribune and start his own, more temperate daily, the New York Times. But an estimated 1.25 million northern readers from the streets of New York to the frontier, including Abraham Lincoln, were educated and amused by Uncle Horace’s enthusiasms. (In the slave states, the abolitionism got the Tribune banned and Greeley hanged in effigy.)
In a new biography, Horace Greeley: Print, Politics, and the Failure of American Nationhood, historian James M. Lundberg posits that if Greeley had one constancy, it was his passionate devotion to his hero Henry Clay and the Whig party Clay helped found. Through the 1840s, as sectional chasms in America grew wider and deeper, Clay offered a national vision of all sections cooperating and making such sacrifices and concessions as were needed for the good of the whole. Recognizing that slavery was the issue that could blow the nation apart, he spent much of his long career trying to broker consensus between the pro- and antislavery sides. They called him the Great Compromiser.
When the Whigs nominated Clay for the presidency in 1844, Greeley stumped tirelessly for him. He filled the Tribune with pro-Clay editorials, started a separate Clay Tribune, and gave almost daily speeches, until he was covered with nervous boils and on the brink of complete physical collapse. When Clay narrowly lost to James K. Polk, Greeley, not for the last time, plummeted into bleak depression and declared himself “the worst-beaten man on the continent.” Today such behavior would probably be diagnosed as bipolar. In his time it was called brain fever.
Clay sought the Whig nomination again in 1848; when the party chose Zachary Taylor instead, Greeley denounced it as “a slaughterhouse of Whig principles” and refused at first even to print the Whig ticket in the Tribune. But if there was another constancy to Greeley, it was his lifelong dream of holding public office himself. The Whigs offered him the chance to fill a vacated congressional seat for three months if he’d throw the Tribune behind Taylor, and he took it. Taylor was elected, and Greeley went to Washington. “Few people in the whole history of Congress have ever made themselves so unwelcome in so short a time,” Lundberg writes. Greeley annoyed his fellow representatives, both Whig and Democrat, by accusing them of padding their expense budgets, and by writing scathing dispatches to the Tribune on their “doings, misdoings, un-doings, and not-doings.” While there’s no record of Greeley ever writing “Go west, young man” — the phrase often attributed to him — he did back a bill to allow settlers on the western frontier to acquire federal land through homesteading. The bill was tabled but would resurface in 1862 as the Homestead Act, which President Lincoln would sign. On his last day in Congress, Greeley proposed that the name of the United States of America should be changed to “Columbia,” “a truly National name.”
Although he never held office again, Greeley’s prominence in American politics only grew in the following years. As the Whig party fell apart in the 1850s, he helped to found the Republican party and gave it its name. In 1860, he was instrumental in bringing Lincoln to the Cooper Union for his career-making speech. He then helped swing the Republican convention Lincoln’s way and threw the considerable weight of the Tribune behind his election campaign. It was after Lincoln’s victory that Greeley’s behavior became truly erratic and, many of his contemporaries thought, downright unhinged.
From the start, Greeley hectored, lectured, and criticized the president, while offering him unsolicited and wildly inconsistent advice. When slave states began to secede after Lincoln’s election, Greeley advised letting them go in peace. Then, when the shooting war commenced, the Tribune called for swift military action “not merely to defeat, but to conquer, to SUBJUGATE” the rebels. A few months later, after the First Battle of Bull Run had been a demoralizing rout for the Union, Greeley evidently succumbed to another bout of brain fever. He scrawled an astounding letter to Lincoln, reproaching himself for his role in the debacle. “This is my seventh sleepless night — yours, too, doubtless — yet I think I shall not die, because I have no right to die. I must struggle to live, however bitterly,” it began. Calling himself a “hopelessly broken” man, he asked Lincoln, “Can the Rebels be beaten after all that has occurred, and in view of the actual state of feeling caused by our late awful disaster? If they can — and it is your business to ascertain and decide — write me that such is your judgment, so that I may know and do my duty. And if they cannot be beaten — if our recent disaster is fatal — do not fear to sacrifice yourself to your country.” He signed it, “Yours, in the depth of bitterness.” Lincoln, no stranger to dark depression himself, kept this letter hidden for three years.
A few months later, Greeley had recovered and was back to bedeviling Lincoln with opinion and advice in both published pieces and private correspondence. As the war dragged on, he seems to have decided that he, not Lincoln, was the man to end it. First he sought the intervention of the French government to bring the two sides together at the negotiating table. When that failed, he traveled to Niagara Falls to meet with a cabal of shady characters who claimed to be Confederate ambassadors “with full and complete powers for a peace.” It was a hoax, and he was widely ridiculed for falling for it. In the election year of 1864, Greeley wrote that Lincoln was unelectable — maybe “patriotic, honest, and faithful,” but “not infallible — not a genius — not one of those rare great men who mold their age.” In short, no Henry Clay. Greeley joined other disaffected Republicans who proposed John C. Frémont as their alternative. That fall, as final Union victory in the war began to look likely, he switched back to Lincoln’s side.
In the aftermath of the war, Lundberg argues, Greeley severely misread the mood of the American people and saw a great opportunity to finally bring about his hero’s vision of a truly united nation. But once again, he had no faith that the Republican president — Grant this time — was capable of achieving it. So once again he joined a splinter group, who called themselves the “Liberal Republicans.” Mainstream Republicans called them “soreheads.” Satirists and editorial cartoonists had a field day lampooning Greeley’s quixotic campaign and rejoicing in his utter defeat. Which led to his final, fatal attack of brain fever.
Maybe it’s just as well he didn’t live to see Grant’s second term, which brought not the national reconciliation he’d always hoped for, but more tumult and violence. In an 1894 statue in Manhattan’s Greeley Square, he strikes no heroic pose. He’s slumped over in a chair, looking exhausted, often with a pigeon standing on his head to add a lingering grace note of the ridiculous even after all these years.
This article appears as “Horace Greeley’s Last Stand” in the December 31, 2019, print edition of National Review.