He was a brilliant student, but the family often moved, looking for a better life—a couple of times so the father could avoid being put into debtor’s prison.
At the age of 15, he dropped out of school and became a printer’s apprentice, sending much of his wages to help his family. For several years, he worked as an apprentice and then as a printer, his hands covered by ink, his body ingesting the chemicals of that ink.
He worked hard, saved money, helped others achieve their political dreams, became the editor of newspapers, and soon became an owner. In the two decades leading to the Civil War, Horace Greeley had become one of the most powerful and influential men in America. His newspaper, the New York Tribune, was the nation’s largest circulation newspaper.
But instead of becoming even richer, he used his newspaper as a call for social action. For social justice.
In 1848, as a congressman fulfilling the last three months of the term of an incumbent who was removed from office, Greeley introduced legislation to end flogging in the Navy, argued for a transcontinental railroad, and introduced legislation to allow citizens to purchase at a reduced price land in unsettled territories as long as they weren’t speculators and promised to develop the land. The Homestead Act, which Congress finally passed 13 years later, helped the indigent, unemployed, and others to help settle the American west and Midwest.
But in his three months in office he also became universally hated by almost everyone elected to Congress. The social reformer in his soul had pointed out numerous ethical and criminal abuses by members of Congress; his party didn’t ask him to run for a full term.
He called for all American citizens—Blacks and women included—to be given the rights of the vote.
In 1854, Greeley became one of the founders of the Republican party. For more than two decades, he had been a strong abolitionist and now the new political party would make the end of slavery one of its founding principles. He was one of the main reasons why his friend, Abraham Lincoln, whom he helped become president, finally relented and two years after the civil war began, finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
More than 225,000 Americans (of a nation of about 35 million) bought his relatively objective and powerful history of the civil war, making the book one of the best-sellers in the nation’s nine decade history. In today’s sales, that would be about two million copies.
Unlike some editors who pandered to the readers and advertisers, he maintained a separation of editorial and advertising departments, and demanded the best writers and reporters, no matter what their personal opinions were. Among those he hired were Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Karl Marx. And at a time when newsrooms were restricted to men, he hired Margaret Fuller to be his literary editor.
He believed in a utopian socialism, where all people helped each other, and where even the most unskilled were given the opportunity to earn a living wage.
He demanded that all workers be treated fairly and with respect. In 1851, he founded a union for printers. When his employees said they didn’t need a union because their boss paid them well and treated them fairly, he told them that only in a union could the workers continue to be treated decently, that they had no assurances that some day he might not be as decent and generous as he was that day. The union was for their benefit, the benefit of their families, and their profession, he told them.
In 1872, Horace Greeley ran for the presidency, nominated on both the Democrat and Liberal Republican tickets. But, his opposition was U.S. Grant, the war hero running for re-election on an establishment Republican ticket.
Weeks before the electoral college met, Horace Greeley, who lost the popular vote, died, not long after his wife.
The printers, the working class, erected monuments in his honor.
And everyone knew that the man with a slight limp, who usually dressed not as a rich man but as a farmer coming into town to buy goods, who greeted everyone as a friend, who could have interesting conversations with everyone from the illiterate to the elite, was a man worthy of respect, even if they disagreed with his views. For most, Horace Greeley was just a bit too eccentric, his ideas just too many decades ahead of their time.
On this Labor Day weekend, when not one Republican candidate for president believes in unions, when CEOs often make more than 100 times what their workers earn, when millionaires and billionaires running for office pretend they are populists, when even many in the working class seem more comfortable supporting the policies and political beliefs of the elite, the nation needs to reflect upon the man who knew that without the workers, there would be no capitalism.
A longtime member of several unions, Walter Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania.