Poultney’s Writing Man: Horace Greeley

GreeleyDid you know there could have been a third president with a claim to Vermont?

In 1872, one Horace Greeley, formerly of West Haven and East Poultney, a Liberal Republican candidate endorsed by the Democrats, ran against Ulysses Grant, whom he had formerly supported. Ridiculed by Republicans and attacked in the political cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly as an extremist and turncoat — he campaigned to pull the Federal troops out of the South arguing the war and slavery were over and that the people should now essentially govern themselves — he only received 43 percent of the popular vote.

Shortly after this defeat, his wife Mary died. Thirty days later, before the electoral vote was cast, Greeley also died, leaving him with the unfortunate distinction of being the only presidential candidate to ever die during the election process.

But this is hardly a fair claim to fame. Greeley needs to be remembered for far more than his failed bid for election. Indeed, the school, park and various towns named after him, as well as the statues and the commemorative stamp are a tribute to his life’s real achievements.

Overall, Greeley will be remembered as the founder and editor of the New York Tribune, from 1841 until just months before his death in 1872. Originally selected by politicians to edit two campaign newspapers, the Jeffersonian, then the Log Cabin, Greeley helped forward the opinions of, and helped elect a candidate for, the Whig party, which supported the supremacy of Congress over the Presidency.

In 1841, Greeley merged these papers into the New York Tribune. Reaching tens of thousands of readers, Greeley continued to use his paper as a platform for the Whig Party, and later, having transferred his affiliation, the Republican Party. His well-written and highly respected weekly also propagated Greeley’s other causes, such as homestead laws, vegetarianism and socialism.

But first, we have to back up in time to see where the man and his ideals came from.

EARLY LIFE

Although a strong supporter of westward expansion, and alleged to be — but often challenged as — the one who originally said, “Go West, young man!,” Greeley was born in New Hampshire and lived all his life in the east. The eldest of five, Greeley moved to West Haven in 1821 at age 10 with his farming parents and remained in western Vermont until he was almost 20.

Reading sections of his autobiography, “Recollections of a Busy Life,” written in 1868, gives an enlightening glimpse into life in Rutland County at the beginning of the 19th century. For example, the fact that he mentioned, “all five of us children have been spared,” implies the difficult reality of that time that many children didn’t survive. In fact, five of his own seven children did not (some, however, due to neglect by his mentally unstable wife).

Greeley’s position as “a champion of the working man,” surely harkens back to his days in West Haven, which, he says was “thickly covered by heavy lumber,” mostly white pines. Here he helped his father clear sections of land — with bare feet. Despite the rattlesnakes and “detestable Canadian thistles, which infest every road and almost every field in Westhaven … dug out of my festered feet with needles,” he still declared that “clearing the land is pleasant work.”

During this time, Greeley reports, they “made the acquaintance of genuine poverty, — not beggary, nor dependence, but the manly American sort.” Apparently, the “manly, American sort” means not only owning but also owing nothing.

But they “never were without meal, meat and wood,” even if the meal (i.e. grain) wasn’t that great (it makes you manly to eat tough stuff, right?). He writes, “The bread of our class in this section was almost exclusively made of rye … and, though there are always about six women alive who know how to make of rye the best bread ever tasted, our mother was not one of these …”

According to Greeley, the soil in this area made farming very difficult, thus making rye the main crop. But “by and by,” Greeley prophesied, “some one will settle there who knows how to supply the superabundant lime to the strong but stubborn clay.”

But, West Haven, Greeley continued, “having no pursuit but Agriculture — (for now) lies petrified and lifeless … Clearly, Man was not intended to live on bread alone, — whether the eating or growing of it.” But, he says charitably, “I can heartily commend her remaining people — all farmers, after a sort — as too honest to need a lawyer, and too wise to support a grog-shop …”

Indeed, Greeley was not a fan of “grog” — alcohol. As a child, Greeley had decided never to drink and wasn’t shy about stating his opinion on the issue, stating that “whole families died drunkards and vagabond paupers from the impetus first given, by cider-swilling in their rural homes.”

Fair Haven, much to Greeley’s consternation, used its rye for different purposes: “the poorer of the two towns thirty years ago, producing no surplus but rye, which was readily transmuted into whiskey, and drank at home to no profit.” So, he tells us, “soon after my removal to Poultney I ‘assisted’ in organizing the first Temperance Society ever formed in that town, — perhaps the first in the county.” “But,” he quips, “I believe our first president died of intemperance some years afterward.”

Greeley thus became a proponent of “Temperance in all Things” — as he named one chapter of his autobiography — living on the Graham Diet (as in, the originator of bland Graham crackers): a spice-less, (almost) meat-less, caffeine-less and tobacco-less regimen until the not-so-ripe age of 61.
But we have jumped too far ahead.

A PROGRESSIVE CAREER

Greeley valued what he saw as progress and admired Fair Haven’s moving on from a reliance on rye farming (and rye drinking?). He writes that this town’s “natural wealth in slate” and mills for sawing marble gave her “a pretty rapid and quite substantial growth. … Fairhaven now takes rank with the more prosperous townships of Vermont.” With the influx of Welsh miners and Irish laborers, and new buildings, “Fairhaven might to-day be mistaken … for a growing township of Pennsylvania or Ohio.”

And he knew that if he were to make progress, he too must reject farming. “In the farmer’s calling… there was neither scope for expanding faculties, incitement to constant growth in knowledge, nor a spur to generous ambition. … So I turned from it in dissatisfaction, if not in disgust, and sought a different sphere and vocation.”

And so he moved to Poultney.

At 13, “having loved and devoured newspapers from childhood,” Greeley pursued but was turned down as too young for an apprenticeship in a newspaper office in Whitehall, N.Y. However, two years later he was taken on at the Northern Spectator newspaper in East Poultney after he walked 12 miles to meet the publishers. He signed on for four years in exchange for board and clothing.

And again he learnt from the hard work which, in later years, made him more an avid proponent of apprenticeships than of college educations.

“I had not been there a year before my hands were blistered and my back lamed by working off the very considerable edition of the paper on an old-fashioned, two-pull Ramage (wooden) press, a task beyond my boyish strength, and I can scarcely recall a day wherein we were not hurried by our work. I would not imply that I worked too hard; yet I think few apprentices work more steadily and faithfully than I did throughout the four years and over of my stay in Poultney. … I never fished, nor hunted, nor attended a dance, nor any sort of party or fandango, in Poultney. I doubt that I even played a game of ball.”

But he very much enjoyed it there, mostly due to the townspeople’s upstanding ways. “Her people are at once intelligent and moral; and there are few villages wherein the incitement to dissipation and vice are fewer or less obtrusive.”

The proof of their intelligence may well have been in what he discovered in town. Although Greeley had left school at age 14, he was voracious reader. Books were “abundant and accessible in Poultney, where I first made the acquaintance of a public library.”

And so, it could be said that living and working in Poultney set the stage for his later career. When he was only 15, he would draw crowds to the East Poultney green debating with adults on many different subjects.
He saw how newspapers had the power to influence politics, such as when the Spectator fully backed John Quincy Adams in the presidential race of 1828 against Andrew Jackson. When Poultney voted practically unanimously for Adams, Greeley wrote of Jackson’s ultimate — and disappointing win — “Whatever disaster the political revolution might involve, no shadow of responsibility could rest on our own Vermont.”

As the editor of the Tribune — and a stanch abolitionist — he led the opposition of Slave Power, which Greeley considered a conspiracy of slave owners to control the government and limit freedoms, it once again brings us back to his time living among the “intelligent and moral” residents of Poultney.

Greeley recalls “the fugitive slave-chase” one of the “incidents of my sojourn in Poultney that made most impression on my mind.” It occurred on East Poultney’s green, directly outside his place of work, what is now Picket Fence Antiques and commonly called The Horace Greeley House. (Notice his language, however. He was still very much a man of his time and mindset.)

When a slave escaped from a neighboring town in New York State, Greeley writes that the master “came over to reclaim and recover the goods.” He continues, “I never saw so large a muster of men and boys so suddenly on our village green … the result was a speedy disappearance of the chattel, and the return of his master, disconsolate and niggerless, to the place whence he came. Everything on our side was impromptu and instinctive. … Our people hated injustice and oppression, and acted as if they couldn’t help it.”

During the early Civil War years, Greeley’s editorials took a radical stance on slavery, demanding immediate and full emancipation — and secession — supporting the South’s right to declare independence while also calling for a compromise with the Confederacy, in opposition of President Lincoln’s more moderate position.
Many pro-Union Northerners began to see Greeley as a traitor and canceled their subscriptions to the Tribune, especially after Greeley signed a bond in 1867 for the release of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

As Greeley was always focused on forward progression and growth, and as Rutland became a booming rail town in the 19th century, I think it is interesting to note this from Greeley’s writings: “I trust I have due respect for ‘good old ways’ we often hear of; yet I feel that this earthly life has been practically lengthened and sweetened by the invention and construction of railroads.”

Complaining of the lakes and canals’ “wretched little tubs… (which are) scarcely less conducive to the increase and diffusion human misery,” Greeley mentions happily that “a railroad from Troy to Rutland now runs through West Poultney.”

And making use of his preferred mode of travel, upon a visit to his former hometown, he found that “East Poultney has fewer stores, fewer mechanics’ shops, less business, and fewer inhabitants than when I first saw it … it is a pleasant place to visit, however; and I live in hopes of spending a quiet week there ere I die.”

I wonder if he did? Even if he didn’t, some residents of Poultney — and East Poultney, where the one-room schoolhouse from Greeley’s time and the Eagle Tavern where he boarded remain to this day — still honor the man who spent his formative years there forming forward-thinking opinions and learning skills that greatly influenced the country during a time of great upheaval and transformation which still impacts us today.

Originally published 1/8/14 in Rutland Reader | (c) Joanna Tebbs Young

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