CHAPTER XXIII. JAMES GORDON BENNETT.
JAMES GORDON BENNETT was born at New Mill, Keith, in Banffshire, on the north-eastern coast of Scotland, about the year 1800. His relatives were Roman Catholics, and he was brought up in a Catholic family of French origin. In his fourteenth year, having passed through the primary schools of his native place, he entered the Roman Catholic Seminary at Aberdeen, for the purpose of studying for the priesthood of that Church. During the two or three years which he passed here he was a close student, and acquired the basis of an excellent education.
In 1817 he came into possession of a copy of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, which had been recently published in Scotland. The perusal of this little book changed the course of his whole life. It induced him to abandon all thoughts of the priesthood, and to try his fortune in the New World, in which the great philosopher had succeeded so well before him. A little more than a year later he left Glasgow, and in May, 1819, being now about twenty years old, landed at Halifax, Nova Scotia. He had less than twenty-five dollars in his purse, knew no vocation save that of a book-keeper, and had not a friend on this side of the ocean.
He secured a few pupils in Halifax, and gave lessons in book-keeping, but his profits were so small that he determined to reach the United States as soon as possible. Accordingly he made his way along the coast to Portland, Maine, where he took passage for Boston in a small schooner. He found great difficulty in procuring employment, for Boston then, as now, offered but few inducements to new-comers. He parted with his last penny, and was reduced to the most pressing want. For two whole days he went without food, and a third day would doubtless have been added to his fast had he not been fortunate enough to find a shilling on the Common, with which he procured the means of relieving his hunger. He now obtained a salesman's place in the bookstore of Messrs. Wells & Lilly, who, upon discovering his fitness for the place, transferred him to their printing-office as proof-reader; but his employers failed about two years after his connection with them began, and he was again thrown out of employment.
From Boston he went, in 1822, to New York, where he obtained a situation on a newspaper. Soon after his arrival in the metropolis he was offered, by Mr. Wellington, the proprietor of the "Charleston (S.C.) Courier," the position of translator from the Spanish, and general assistant. He accepted the offer, and at once repaired to Charleston. He remained there only a few months, however, and then returned to New York.
He now proposed to open a "Permanent Commercial School," at 148 Fulton Street, and advertised to teach the usual branches "in the inductive method." His advertisement set forth that his pupils would be taught "reading, elocution, penmanship, and arithmetic; algebra; astronomy, history, and geography; moral philosophy, commercial law, and political economy; English grammar and composition, and, also, if required, the French and Spanish languages by natives of those countries." This elaborate scheme was never put into execution, as Mr. Bennett did not receive a sufficient number of applications to warrant him in opening the school. He next attempted a course of lectures on political economy at the old Dutch Church in Ann Street, but this enterprise was also a pecuniary failure. In 1825 he purchased the "New York Courier," a Sunday paper, but did not succeed with it. He continued to write for the press, principally for one or two papers, selling his articles where he could, and in 1826 formed a regular connection with the "National Advocate," a Democratic journal. To his duties in this position he applied himself with an energy and industry never surpassed, and rarely equaled, in his profession. He took an active part in politics, and wrote regularly and constantly for his paper, acquiring considerable reputation by his articles against the tariff and on banks and banking. He now embarked in journalism as the business of his life, and with the determination to succeed. In order to win success, he knew he must first learn to master himself. He neither smoked, drank, nor gambled. He indulged in no species of dissipation, but was temperate and prudent in all things. A few years later he said of himself, "I eat and drink to live, not live to eat and drink. Social glasses of wine are my aversion; public dinners are my abomination; all species of gormandizing my utter scorn and contempt. When I am hungry, I eat; when thirsty, drink. Wine or viands taken for society, or to stimulate conversation, tend only to dissipation, indolence, poverty, contempt, and death."
In 1827 the "National Advocate" changed hands, and, under its new proprietors, supported John Quincy Adams for President. Mr. Bennett, being a supporter of Martin Van Buren, then a United States Senator, resigned his position on the paper, and soon after, in connection with the late M.M. Noah, established "The Enquirer," which warmly espoused the cause of Andrew Jackson in the Presidential canvass of 1828. About this time he became a recognized member of the Tammany Society.
In the spring of 1828 he went to Washington, where he resided for some time as the correspondent of "The Enquirer." In looking through the library of Congress one day, he found an edition of Horace Walpole's letters, which he read with a keen relish. These suggested the idea of a series of similar letters to his own paper, and he at once put his plan into execution. His letters were written and published. They were "spicy," pleasant in style, full of gossip about the distinguished personages who thronged the capital every winter, and, withal, free from any offensive personality. They were read with eagerness, and widely copied by the press throughout the country. Yet he was poorly paid for them, and at a time when he had made a "real hit" was forced to labor hard for a bare subsistence. He did all kinds of literary work. He wrote editorials, letters, sketches, poetry, stories, police reports, in short, every thing that a newspaper had use for, and yet his earnings were barely more than sufficient to afford him a decent support.
In 1829, the "Courier and Enquirer" were united under one management, and Mr. Bennett was made assistant editor, with James Watson Webb as his chief. In the autumn of that year he became associate editor. Says Mr. James Parton (by no means an ardent admirer of Mr. Bennett):
"During the great days of the 'Courier and Enquirer,' from 1829 to 1832, when It was incomparably the best newspaper on the continent, James Gordon Bennett was its most efficient hand. It lost him in 1832, when the paper abandoned General Jackson and took up Nicholas Biddle, and in losing him lost its chance of retaining the supremacy among American newspapers to this day. We can truly say that at that time journalism, as a thing by itself and for itself, had no existence in the United States. Newspapers were mere appendages of party, and the darling object of each journal was to be recognized as the organ of the party it supported. As to the public, the great public, hungry for interesting news, no one thought of it. Forty years ago, in the city of New York, a copy of a newspaper could not be bought for money. If any one wished to see a newspaper, he had either to go to the office and subscribe, or repair to a bar-room and buy a glass of something to drink, or bribe a carrier to rob one of his customers. The circulation of the 'Courier and Enquirer' was considered something marvelous when it printed thirty-five hundred copies a day, and its business was thought immense when its daily advertising averaged fifty-five dollars. It is not very unusual for a newspaper now to receive for advertising, in one day, six hundred times that sum. Bennett, in the course of time, had a chance been given to him, would have made the 'Courier and Enquirer' powerful enough to cast off all party ties, and this he would have done merely by improving it as a vehicle of news. But he was kept down upon one of those ridiculous, tantalizing, corrupting salaries, which are a little more than a single man needs, but not enough for him to marry upon. This salary was increased by the proprietors giving him a small share in the small profits of the printing-office; so that, after fourteen years of hard labor and Scotch economy, he found himself, on leaving the great paper, a capitalist to the extent of a few hundred dollars. The chief editor of the paper which he now abandoned sometimes lost as much in a single evening at the card-table. It probably never occurred to him that this poor, ill-favored Scotchman was destined to destroy his paper and all the class of papers to which it belonged. Any one who examines a file of the 'Courier and Enquirer' of that time, and knows its interior circumstances, will see plainly enough that the possession of this man was the vital element in its prosperity. He alone knew the rudiments of his trade. He alone had the physical stamina, the indefatigable industry, the sleepless vigilance, the dexterity, tact, and audacity needful for keeping up a daily newspaper in the face of keen competition."
Mr. Bennett left the "Courier and Enquirer" in 1832, the cause of his action being the desertion of General Jackson by that journal. He at once started a cheap partisan paper, called "The Globe," devoted to the interests of Jackson and Van Buren. It failed to receive the support of the Democratic party, however, and went down after a precarious existence of thirty days.
Undismayed by this failure, Mr. Bennett removed to Philadelphia, and invested the remainder of his capital in a daily Democratic journal, called "The Pennsylvanian," of which he was the principal editor, laboring hard to win for it the assistance and support of the party. He had rendered good and admitted service to the Democracy, but was to experience the ingratitude for which political organizations are proverbial. He applied to Martin Van Buren and other prominent leaders of the party to aid him in securing a loan of twenty-five hundred dollars for two years, which sum would have enabled him to establish his paper on a paying basis, but the politicians turned deaf ears to his appeals, and his paper failed, after a brief and desperate struggle.
He came back to New York about the beginning of 1835, a little sore from his unsuccessful battle with fate, but far from being dismayed or cast down. His failures to establish party organs had convinced him that success in journalism does not depend upon political favor, and he determined to make one more effort to build up a paper of his own, and this time one which should aim to please no party but the public. That there was need of an independent journal of this kind he felt sure, and he knew the people of the country well enough to be confident that if such a journal could be properly placed before them, it would succeed. The problem with him was how to get it properly before them. He had little or no money, and it required considerable capital to carry through the most insignificant effort of the kind. He made several efforts to inspire other persons with his confidence before he succeeded. One of these efforts Mr. Parton thus describes, in his Life of Horace Greeley: "An incident connected with the job-office of Greeley & Co. is perhaps worth mentioning here. One James Gordon Bennett, a person then well known as a smart writer for the press, came to Horace Greeley, and, exhibiting a fifty-dollar bill and some other notes of smaller denominations as his cash capital, wanted him to join in setting up a new daily paper, 'The New York Herald.' Our hero declined the offer, but recommended James Gordon to apply to another printer, naming one, who he thought would like to share in such an enterprise. To him the editor of 'The Herald' did apply, and with success."
The parties to whom Mr. Greeley referred Mr. Bennett were two young printers, whom he persuaded, after much painstaking, to print his paper and share with him its success or failure. He had about enough cash in hand to sustain the paper for ten days, after which it must make its own way. He proposed to make it cheap—to sell it at one penny per copy, and to make it meet the current wants of the day. The "Sun," a penny paper, was already in existence, and was paying well, and this encouraged Mr. Bennett to hope for success in his own enterprise.
He rented a cellar in Wall Street, in which he established his office, and on the 6th of May, 1835, issued the first number of "The Morning Herald." His cellar was bare and poverty-stricken in appearance. It contained nothing but a desk made of boards laid upon flour barrels. On one end of this desk lay a pile of "Heralds" ready for purchasers, and at the other sat the proprietor writing his articles for his journal and managing his business. Says Mr. William Gowans, the famous Nassau-Street bookseller: "I remember to have entered the subterranean office of its editor early in its career, and purchased a single copy of the paper, for which I paid the sum of one cent United States currency. On this occasion the proprietor, editor, and vendor was seated at his desk, busily engaged in writing, and appeared to pay little or no attention to me as I entered. On making known my object in coming in, he requested me to put my money down on the counter and help myself to a paper, all this time he continuing his writing operations. The office was a single oblong underground room; its furniture consisted of a counter, which also served as a desk, constructed from two flour barrels, perhaps empty, standing apart from each other about four feet, with a single plank covering both; a chair, placed in the center, upon which sat the editor busy at his vocation, with an inkstand by his right hand; on the end nearest the door were placed the papers for sale."
HOW THE "NEW YORK HERALD" BEGAN.
Standing on Broadway now, and looking at the marble palace from which the greatest and wealthiest newspaper in the Union sends forth its huge editions, one finds it hard to realize that just thirty-four years ago this great journal was born in a cellar, an obscure little penny sheet, with a poor man for its proprietor. Yet such was the beginning of "The New York Herald."
The prospect was not a pleasant one to contemplate, but Mr. Bennett did not shrink from it. He knew that it was in him to succeed, and he meant to do it, no matter through what trials or vicissitudes his path to fortune lay. Those who heard his expressions of confidence shook their heads sagely, and said the young man's air-castles would soon fade away before the blighting breath of experience. Indeed, it did seem a hopeless struggle, the effort of this one poor man to raise his little penny sheet from its cellar to the position of "a power in the land." He was almost unknown. He could bring no support or patronage to his journal by the influence of his name, or by his large acquaintance. The old newspaper system, with its clogs and dead-weights, was still in force, and as for newsboys to hawk the new journal over the great city, they were a race not then in existence. He had to fight his battle with poverty alone and without friends, and he did fight it bravely. He was his own clerk, reporter, editor, and errand boy. He wrote all the articles that appeared in "The Herald," and many of the advertisements, and did all the work that was to be performed about his humble office.
"The Herald" was a small sheet of four pages of four columns each. Nearly every line of it was fresh news. Quotations from other papers were scarce. Originality was then, as now, the motto of the establishment. Small as it was, the paper was attractive. The story that its first numbers were scurrilous and indecent is not true, as a reference to the old files of the journal will prove. They were of a character similar to that of "The Herald" of to-day, and were marked by the same industry, tact, and freshness, which make the paper to-day the most salable in the land.
Says Mr. Parton: "The first numbers were filled with nonsense and gossip about the city of New York, to which his poverty confined him. He had no boat with which to board arriving ships, no share in the pony express from Washington, and no correspondents in other cities. All he could do was to catch the floating gossip, scandal, and folly of the town, and present as much of them every day as one man could get upon paper by sixteen hours' labor. He laughed at every thing and every body,—not excepting himself and his squint eye,—and though his jokes were not always good, they were generally good enough. People laughed, and were willing to expend a cent the next day to see what new folly the man would commit or relate. We all like to read about our own neighborhood; this paper gratified the propensity.
"The man, we repeat, had really a vein of poetry in him, and the first numbers of 'The Herald' show it. He had occasion one day to mention that Broadway was about to be paved with wooden blocks. This was not a very promising subject for a poetical comment, but he added: 'When this is done, every vehicle will have to wear sleigh-bells, as in sleighing times, and Broadway will be so quiet that you can pay a compliment to a lady, in passing, and she will hear you.' This was nothing in itself; but here was a man wrestling with fate in a cellar, who could turn you out two hundred such paragraphs a week, the year round. Men can growl in a cellar; this man could laugh, and keep laughing, and make the floating population of a city laugh with him. It must be owned, too, that he had a little real insight into the nature of things around him—a little Scotch sense, as well as an inexhaustible fund of French vivacity. Alluding, once, to the 'hard money' cry by which the lying politicians of the day carried elections, he exploded that nonsense in two lines: 'If a man gets the wearable or the eatable he wants, what cares he if he has gold or paper money?' He devoted two sentences to the Old School and New School Presbyterian controversy: 'Great trouble among the Presbyterians just now. The question is whether or not a man can do any thing toward saving his own soul.' He had also an article upon the Methodists, in which he said that the two religions nearest akin were the Methodist and the Roman Catholic. We should add to these trifling specimens the fact that he uniformly maintained, from 1835 to the crash of 1837, that the prosperity of the country was unreal, and would end in disaster."
These things served the end for which they were intended. They brought "The Herald" conspicuously before the public. While engaged in them, the proprietor was anxiously planning the means of making his paper a great newspaper. He worked sixteen or seventeen hours each day. He rose before five o'clock in the morning, and gave three hours to writing his editorials and the witty paragraphs to which allusion has been made. At eight o'clock he went to his cellar, or "office," and was at his post there during the morning, selling his papers, receiving advertisements, and often writing them for those who were not able to prepare them, doing such other work as was necessary, and finishing his editorial labors. At one o'clock he went into Wall Street, gathering up financial news and interesting items of the street. He returned to his office at four o'clock, and remained there until six, when the business of the day was over. In the evening he went to the theater, a ball, concert, or some public gathering, to pick up fresh items for his paper.
All this while, however, he was losing money. He had a heavy load to carry, and though he bore it unflinchingly and determinedly, the enterprise seemed doomed to failure for lack of funds. At this juncture, he resolved to make the financial news of the day a special feature of "The Herald." The monetary affairs of the country were in great confusion—a confusion which was but the prelude to the crash of 1837; and Wall Street was the vortex of the financial whirlpool whose eddies were troubling the whole land. Every body was anxious to get the first news from the street, and to get it as full and reliable as possible. At this time, too, our relations with France were exceedingly critical—a circumstance which served to increase the trouble in financial matters. Appreciating the anxiety which was generally felt on this subject, Mr. Bennett resolved to create a demand for "The Herald" among the business men of the country. On the 13th of June, 1835, just five weeks after the establishment of the paper, he printed his first money article—the first that ever appeared in an American newspaper. 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.; the 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 markets 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 the impression 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."
The money article was a success, and appeared regularly in "The Herald" after this. It created a demand for the paper among the merchants, and increased its circulation so decidedly that at the end of the third month the daily receipts and expenditures balanced each other. Mr. Bennett now ventured to engage a cheap police reporter, which gave him more time to attend to other duties.
The paper now seemed on the point of becoming a success, when it received a severe and unlooked-for blow. The printing-office was burned down, and the gentlemen who had printed "The Herald" were so much discouraged that they refused to renew their connection with it. Mr. Bennett knew that he was too near to success to abandon the enterprise, and courageously put his wits to work to devise means to carry on the paper. By the greatest and most indomitable exertions he managed to secure the means of going on with it, and bravely resumed its publication alone.
A few months after this the "great fire" swept over New York, and laid nearly the whole business portion of the city in ashes. This was Mr. Bennett's opportunity. The other journals of the city devoted a brief portion of their space to general and ponderous descriptions of the catastrophe, but Mr. Bennett went among the ruins, note-book and pencil in hand, and gathered up the most minute particulars of the fire. He spent one-half of each day in this way, and the other half in writing out reports of what he thus learned. These reports he published in "The Herald." They were free, graphic, off-hand sketches of the fire and its consequences, and were so full and complete that they left little or nothing connected with the incidents they described to be added. Mr. Bennett also went to the expense of publishing a picture of the burning of the Merchants Exchange, and a map of the burnt district—a heavy expense for his little journal. The result proved the sagacity of his views. "The Herald" reports of the fire created a heavy demand for the paper, and its circulation increased rapidly. Yet its success was not assured.
When his first year closed, Mr. Bennett found his paper still struggling for existence, but with a fair prospect of success, if it could follow up the "hit" it had made with its reports of the fire. About this time he received an offer from Dr. Benjamin Brandreth to advertise his pills in "The Herald," and a contract was at once concluded between them. The money thus paid to the paper was a considerable sum, and proved of the greatest assistance to it. All the money received was conscientiously expended in the purchase of news. The circulation grew larger as its news facilities increased, and for some years its proprietor expended all his profits in making the paper more attractive.
At the close of the fifteenth month of its career Mr. Bennett increased the size of "The Herald," and raised the price of it to two cents per copy. His success was now assured, and continued to increase, as, under his able and far-seeing management, his paper expanded and enlarged its facilities for securing and making public the promptest and most reliable news of the day. Since that time his success has been unvarying. He has made "The Herald" the leading newspaper of the world, for no other journal upon the globe can compare with it in liberality and energy in the collection of news or in promptness and completeness of detail in laying it before the public. Its growth has been slow, but sure. Every step has been won by hard and conscientious labor, as well as by the force of real genius. Other journals have been compelled to follow the example of "The Herald," but none have surpassed it. It still stands at the head of the newspaper press of the world, and we are justified in believing that it will continue to stand there as long as its founder's hand controls it.
Instead of the little penny sheet of thirty-four years ago, "The New York Herald" of to-day is an immense journal, generally of twelve, and often of sixteen pages of six columns each, making a total of from seventy-two to ninety-six closely printed columns of matter. From four to nine pages are filled with advertisements, classified with the utmost exactness. No reader has to search the paper over for the article or advertisement he wishes to see; each subject has its separate place, which can be discovered at a glance. Its advertisements have reference to every trade, profession, or calling known to civilized man, and are a faithful mirror of the busy age in which we live. Its news reports are the freshest, most complete, and most graphic of any American journal, and are collected at an expenditure of more time, care, and money than any other journal sees fit to lay out. It has its correspondents in all parts of the world, and when news is worth sending, these are instructed to spare no pains or expense in transmitting it at once. During the late war it had a small army of attachés in the field, and its reports were the most eagerly sought of all by the public. During the Abyssinian war its reporters and correspondents furnished the London press with reliable news in advance of their own correspondents. Any price is paid for news, for it is the chief wish of Mr. Bennett that "The Herald" shall be the first to chronicle the events of the day.
"The Herald" office is now located at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street. The building, of white marble, is five stories in height, and is one of the handsomest in the country. It is the most complete newspaper establishment in existence. It has two cellars, in which are placed the two steam-engines that drive the huge presses which strike off the various editions of "The Herald." Every thing is in perfect order, and the machinery shines like polished gold and silver. The proprietor's eye is upon the whole establishment, and he is quick to notice and reprimand a fault. The street floor contains the business office of the journal, a magnificent room, gorgeous with marble, plate-glass, black walnut, and frescoes. The editorial rooms are above, and near them are the reporters' rooms. The top floor constitutes the finest composing room in the world, from which speaking-tubes and vertical railways communicate with all the other parts of the building. Every department of the paper has a responsible head, and the most rigid discipline prevails throughout the office. There are twelve editors, thirty-five reporters, and four hundred and fifty-three other employés, making a total force of five hundred men engaged upon "The Herald." The circulation of the various editions of the paper amounts to tens of thousands. It is to be found in every town of importance in the land, and its daily receipts from advertisements alone are counted by tens of thousands of dollars.
Mr. Bennett rarely writes for the paper now. He assembles his editors in his council at noon every day, hears their suggestions, decides what topics shall be treated in the next day's issue, and assigns to each man the subject upon which he is to write. In his absence his place at the council-board is filled by his son, or by the managing editor. Mr. Bennett in this way exercises a close supervision over all the articles that appear in "The Herald," and imparts to them a considerable share of his personality.
Mr. Bennett is married, and has two children, a son, James Gordon Bennett, jr., who will succeed his father in the ownership of "The Herald," and a daughter. He lives on Fifth Avenue at present, his favorite residence, at Washington Heights, having been recently destroyed by fire. He is said to be a courtly and agreeable host, and one who rarely fails to send away his visitors with a pleasant impression of himself.
In person he is tall and firmly built, and walks with a dignified carriage. His head is large, and his features are prominent and irregular. He has a thoroughly Scotch face, and is cross-eyed. His forehead is broad and high, betokening great capacity and force of character. His expression is firm and somewhat cold—that of a man who has had a hard fight with fortune, and has conquered it. He is reserved in his manner to strangers, but always courteous and approachable. To his friends he is genial and unreserved. He is finely educated, and is said to be a man of excellent taste. His favorite studies are history and biography, and he still pursues them with a keen relish. His home is one of the most elegant in the city. He is proud of his success, as he may well be, and very proud of the fact that he owes it to himself alone. While he was building the new "Herald" office, he was waited on by the president of one of the national banks of the city, who said to him:
"Mr. Bennett, we know that you are at great expense in erecting this building, besides carrying on your immense business. If you want any accommodation, you can have it at our bank."
"Mr. ——," replied Mr. Bennett, "before I purchased the land, or began to build, I had on deposit two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in the Chemical Bank. There is not a dollar due on 'The Herald' building that I can not pay. I would pay off the mortgage to-morrow, if the owner would allow me to do so. When the building is opened, I shall not owe one dollar to any man, if I am allowed to pay. I owe nothing that I can not discharge in an hour. I have not touched one dollar of the money on deposit in the bank, and while that remains I need no accommodation."