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1841 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

June 2024
2min read


William Henry Harrison, the Whig who had defeated the incumbent President Martin Van Buren in the election of 1840, died of pneumonia on April 4, after only four weeks in office. Harrison had delivered his inaugural address in a severe March chill, speaking for an hour and forty minutes. Afterward the sixty-eight-year-old President developed a lingering cold that grew into pneumonia. A month to the day after his swearing in, he was dead. Mrs. Harrison, who was also ill, had not yet even taken up residence in the White House. Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, arrived in Washington just as the sun rose on the day of the funeral. Although the constitutional rules for succession were still in doubt, Tyler took the oath of office at Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel, in time to attend the funeral as President.

“We were all a little mad that winter,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, looking back on the winter of 1841, when his transcendental theories had inspired New England gentry to take up communal farming. “Not a man of us did not have a plan for some new Utopia in his pocket.” The first of these communities was established early in April, when George and Sophia Ripley and a number of their Boston friends rode nine miles out to settle a West Roxbury farm under the principles articulated in Emerson’s Nature . One settler had been converted not by reading Emerson but while setting one of George Ripley’s articles about him into type. At the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, labor was going to be efficiently shared according to personal preferences, and everyone would have time left over to hear visiting lecturers and contribute to the collective’s magazine, the Harbinger .

The young novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne came to the farm later that first month, having quit his job at the Boston customhouse. He invested $1,000 with the Ripleys, hoping to write in the evenings and eventually to save enough to marry his fiancée, Sophia Peabody. A snowstorm met his arrival at Brook Farm, and after six weeks working the manure pile (the “gold mine” to the farmers), he complained to his future wife, “It is my opinion, dearest, that a man’s soul may be buried and perish under a dung-heap or in a furrow of the field, just as well as under a pile of money.”

Hawthorne had often been fined at college for skipping chapel, and he never became a favorite at the farm. He lasted until August and was unable to get back all of his $1,000 from the Ripleys when he left. Although the farm was not thriving, general disaffection had not yet set in, and notable speakers continued to visit, among them Margaret Fuller and Emerson himself. It wasn’t until 1843 that the farm began to fall apart. Hawthorne sued and was awarded his remaining $530, plus legal expenses, in 1846. In August of the following year the colony finally dissolved completely, leaving the Ripleys with all the farm’s debts. “I can now understand,” said George Ripley, “how a man would feel if he could attend his own funeral.” He would continue to edit the Harbinger out of New York City until 1849, when he became literary editor at Horace Greeley’s Tribune .

“No other public teacher lives so wholly in the present as the Editor,” wrote Horace Greeley, who, though not the author of the phrase for which he is best remembered—“Go west, young man”—did found a great newspaper, the New York Tribune , whose first issue appeared on April 10.

Greeley had come to New York City as a twenty-year-old, with twenty-five dollars and a few belongings in a bundle. He already had one apprenticeship at a failed newspaper behind him, and he took typesetting jobs at several New York papers before starting his own journal, The New-Yorker , in 1834. His first paper failed, but not before winning acclaim for being lively and evenhanded. Greeley went on to edit various political weeklies before founding his Tribune in a city that already supported twelve dailies. The paper’s object, he wrote in his memoirs, was to become “a journal removed from servile partisanship on the one hand, and from gagged, mincing neutrality on the other.” The Tribune would survive its founder by almost ninety-five years.

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