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James Gordon Bennett — Beneficent Rascal

May 2024
10min read

A young man bearing a parcel called at the New York Herald office one day in 1854, and insisted that he must deliver it to the proprietor, James Gordon Bennett himself. Having passed muster in an anteroom (a procedure made advisable by a bomb Bennett had received in an innocent looking package not long before), the messenger was escorted into the presence of a lean, gnarled man, a bit over six feet tall, with a crown of curling white hair, florid complexion, large aquiline beak, and eyes so terribly crossed that while one of them surveyed his caller, the other appeared to glare out the window at the City Hall. There were no pleasantries.

“Who fr-r-rum?” (Bennett’s “r” was pure Aberdeen.)

“Mr. Isaac C. Pray.”

“Noth-ing to do with Mr. Isaac C. Pray! Noth-ing to do with Mr. Isaac C. Pray! ” At a bound, Bennett seized the parcel and ripped off the wrapping, disclosing a sheaf of printed matter. The messenger (one William A. Croffut) would not soon forget its fate: “With savage finality he flung it out the door and into the hall, fixed me with one good eye, and shouted, ‘I don’t want it! I won’t have it! Carry it back and tell him to keep his stuff!’ ”

The scattered proof sheets in the hall represented Pray’s worshipful attempt at a biography, Memoirs of James Gordon Bennett and His Times , but Bennett’s reaction was altogether in character.

A strange, lonely crag of a man, this Bennett. “He had no friends at the beginning, he has made none since, and he has none now,” James Parton wrote of him a few years before the end. Bennett, with the swaggering self-reliance that set him apart even in an age of individualists, professed indifference. “I care for no man’s friendship or enmity,” he wrote in the Herald years before. “If I cannot stand upon my own merits, let me fall.” Cursed by fellow editors, loathed by polite society, boycotted, kicked and caned in his office and on the streets, anathematized from platform and pulpit for the better part of forty years, he stood; and in the process the old Caledonian contrived to give journalism such a shaking up that the American newspaper has never been the same.

What Bennett gave it pre‘minently was a shattering example of independence; and with it, gradually, the logical corollary of independence—a new and wonderfully comprehensive concept of news. During the middle years of the last century, no newspaper in the world, not excepting The Times of London, surpassed Bennett’s daily miracle in circulation or wealth of information. Stock and money market news, religious news, society news, news from abroad by regular correspondents, full reporting of criminal court news and of the doings of Congress—all these, as we conceive them today, were Herald firsts.

Not many men have more profoundly influenced our outlook upon the world, yet James Gordon Bennett is not to be found among the 83 Americans in the Hall of Fame (which overlooks the Hudson not far from the site of his old home at Fort Washington); nor is it likely that he ever will be. The scholarly burghers who cast the ballots have long memories.

“I have been a wayward, self-dependent, resolute, self-thinking being, from my earliest days,” Bennett wrote, and that seems a fair summation. Born of Catholic parents of French extraction in Scotland, he was placed in a seminary to study for the priesthood. The boy bridled, and left after a few years with a strong distaste for theology and an interest in literature, particularly in Scott and Byron. At the age of 24, still with no clear notion of what he was to do with himself, he came to America on pure impulse. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography , just then appearing in Scotland, had fascinated him, and upon arrival at Halifax in 1819, he gravitated to the printing press.

Had the Autobiography ’s simple formula of hard work and sober habits worked for Bennett from the outset, he might have been a very different man. But for sixteen long and bitter years it most emphatically did not work. First as proofreader and newspaper space-writer, later as correspondent and editor, he stumbled from Portland to Boston to New York to Charleston to New York again to Washington to Philadelphia, dogged by misfortune. When, finally, his increasingly trenchant pen began to make a name for him as associate editor and guiding light of the Morning Courier and New York Enquirer , the leading Jackson paper, it was only to learn in 1832 that a change in management had changed its politics, and he quit.

On three occasions during these years Bennett tried to establish himself as a publisher, each time failing for lack of the political subsidies to which all newspapers of the time looked for their support. It was not that the politicos failed to perceive his talents: as one of Martin Van Buren’s friends explained to him, they simply didn’t trust this bright meteor to follow a charted course.

The sixteen years of drudgery and disappointment were the making of Bennett. They hammered the bright young apprentice who quoted Franklin’s aphorisms, the eager editor who caught the enthusiasm of Jacksonian democracy, into a disillusioned, toughminded opportunist with deep convictions as to the cussedness of the species, and a sure instinct for what was readable about it.

On May 6, 1835, Bennett first threw out upon the sidewalks of New York the bundle of firecrackers he styled The Morning Herald . The office at 20 Wall Street, on the testimony of an early subscriber, consisted of two empty flour barrels four feet apart, with Bennett ensconced behind a plank he had propped upon them. Here, eighteen hours a day, he scribbled editorial paragraphs, sold papers, took down news items, read proof, made up the dummy to take to his printers several blocks away, wrote advertising copy, fired the stove, took in subscriptions—literally, as he put it later, “one poor man in a cellar against the world.”

It was an unequal battle, for the world was illprepared. There were 270,089 people in New York, and fifteen other newspapers to serve them. Of these, the only ones of consequence save the Sun , Benjamin Day’s new penny sensation (begun twenty months earlier), were sixpenny “blanket” sheets, all of them the creatures of faction. It was against this system of “kept” journalism, as newsmen would call it today, that Bennett now rebelled with calculated fury. “Our only guide,” his announcement read, “shall be good, sound, practical common sense, applicable to the busiiess and bosoms of men engaged in everyday life. We shall support no party—be the organ of no faction or coterie, and care nothing for any election or any candilate from president down to a constable.”

More than one hundred attempts to start daily newspapers in the city of New York, many of them better heeled and some worthier than this one, were to come to grief in Bennett’s lifetime. How explain his success? It was not independence alone, nor, in the beginning, news.

Captain Joseph Patterson is said to have remarked that he built the immense circulation of the New York Daily News upon legs; and then draped them. Bennett, lacking the advantages of photography, to say nothing Df visible legs, rather outdid the bold Captain a century before him, by combining sex with sacrilege. Bennett knew well the truth behind Oscar Wilde’s witticism, that there is one thing worse than being talked about—not being talked about; and he knew also, to perfection, what made people talk. Ergo, Bennett proceeded to pepper the Herald with items of this sort:

“Five hundred dollars reward will be given to any handsome woman, either lovely widow or single sempstress, who will set a trap for a Presbyterian parson, and catch one of them flagrante delicto .”

One can imagine the Mrs. Grundys sputtering their morning coffee over that one. Or this provocative (and libel-proof) tidbit:

“An Episcopal clergyman of hitherto unimpeachable character, with a fine family of his own—clever sons, pretty daughters, and prettier horses—is charged with making love too suddenly—without due preparation—to a lovely and accomplished widow, who lets out schoolrooms, takes in sewing, and owns a fine pair of eyes, and a bust unmatchable on Broadway on its sunniest day.”

Saucy, risqu», piquant, full of odd surprises and solid chunks of information, the Herald had half the town tittering or tut-tutting within its first year. Even business news was given a characteristic fillip: “The New York and Erie Railroad is to break ground in a few days. We hope they will break nothing else.” There were precarious moments. Twice the paper’s printing plant was burned out. Once Bennett was facing bankruptcy when Dr. Benjamin Brandreth, maker of Universal Vegetable Pills, saved him with a lucrative advertising contract.

Bennett cultivated a personality in print which contrasted oddly with the cynical, almost dour, curmudgeon he sometimes appeared to be in fact. He strutted before the world with an air of jaunty optimism, dispensing humorous braggadocio about his little paper, taunting his “big-bellied” rivals into noticing him, figuratively sticking his thumbs in his vest and saying, “A very dickens of a fellow am I,” so that one hardly knew whether to laugh at him or believe it. This was the Bennett who could face the world after what must have seemed utter disaster four months after his start—fire and a nineteen-day suspension—and write:

“We are again in the field, larger, livelier, better, prettier, saucier, and more independent than ever. The Ann Street conflagration consumed types, presses, manuscripts, paper, some bad poetry, subscription books—all the outward material appearance of the Herald , but its soul was saved—its spirit as exuberant as ever.”

In putting on this air of gay deviltry, Bennett was willing to go pretty far—he once ridiculed the doctrine af transubstantiation as “the delicious luxury of creating and eating our divinity,”—so that it was not surprising that his respectable but ponderous rivals organized what he called “the Holy Alliance” against him. The boycotts of this “Moral War,” launched in 1840 and continued for several years, did check the Herald ’s growth for a time; but Bennett’s resourcefulness in hustling news (his own accounts of the great fire of 1835 and of the Ellen Jewett murder mystery are accounted classics) and his freedom from commitments of any kind as to what was fit to print, had already enabled him to far outstrip his rivals, and he was soon able to crow again that circulation was increasing “like smoke.”

The draping process, to borrow Patterson’s figure, began as Bennett saw the possibilities inherent in the telegraph and devoted more and more space to legitimate news from all over the country. In 1836 he had hired an eighteen-year-old boy whom he proceeded to train as his chief editor—Frederic Hudson, who in time developed a talent for organization and news presentation that contributed as much to the paper’s success as the color and force of the proprietor himself.

Henry J. Raymond, the able editor of the New York Times , once remarked to a friend, “It would be worth ny while, sir, to give a million dollars, if the Devil would come and tell me every evening, as he does Bennett, what the people of New York would like to read about next morning.” Bennett’s strength lay in an almost fiendish rapport with the man in the street. It was not enough, the Scot knew, simply to please him, or as a Hearst editor put it, to make him say “Gee Whiz!” The Herald must not only please and excite, but provoke laughter, indignation, wonderment, disgust, curiosity—anything but ennui. “An editor,” he wrote several years before launching his paper, “must always be with the people—think with them—feel with them—and he need fear nothing, he will always be right—always be strong—always popular—always free .”

Bennett followed this credo both in matters of taste (like Joseph Pulitzer after him, he was wont to remark privately that he would publish quite a different paper for himself), and even more doggedly in matters political.

“We have never been in a minority, and we never shall be,” he boasted in the early days. With two exceptions, the Herald supported the winning candidate in every presidential election in Bennett’s lifetime, backing Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans according to the direction of the wind. This principle—the only one the Herald ever acknowledged as a guidecaused as much disgust among contemporaries as Bennett’s early penchant for gossip and crime news. It was opportunism, pure and undisguised. He dismissed the inconsistencies that resulted with: “I print my paper every day.” At other times he defended the policy as consistency itself: was not the country governed by majority rule? Well, then, so was the Herald .

In the hands of a less ornery individual, such a policy must have produced a characterless, inconsequential sheet. But Bennett remained the salty iconoclast even while following what he deemed to be the popular will, hooting with Mephistophelian glee at uplifters, social conventions, rivals, and often at those he seemed to support.

Readers chuckled in spite of themselves at Massa Greeley, “the small-beer philanthropist,” or Henry J. Raymond, “the monkey editor, chattering and skipping about, and playing the very mischief among the crockery,” of the fat and famous British war correspondent, “Bull Run” Russell, “riding a foaming steed, foremost in the line of retreat.”

Were the brothers Harper, those pious Methodists, shocked during the Civil War when one issue of their illustrated paper was suppressed by the War Departnent? The picture in question was hard to make head or tail of, said the Herald , “but if it violated the Articles of War, let Mr. Secretary Stanton hang up James, John and Fletcher, all in a row. The spectacle ,vould make a capital subject for another bird’s-eye view in Harper’s Weekly for the next week after the hanging.”

Such mischievous perversity reduced strong men to raging idiots. Parton knew two young Republicans who seriously contemplated murdering Bennett—but, he noted, they went right on buying the Herald . The volume of its news, particularly during the Civil War, when Bennett and Hudson threw as many as sixteen men into a single battle and poured out more than half a million dollars for special coverage, made it required reading no matter what black thoughts the old man inspired.

Nonetheless, Bennett’s excesses seem to have had one serious drawback not mentioned by his biographers JT the historians of journalism. As Edward Dicey, the British correspondent, noted, “The result of Mr. Bennett’s social disrepute, whether deserved or not, is that respectable literary men do not like being connected with the Herald .” The Herald had volume, it displayed its news smartly, and Bennett rewarded reporters with a lavishness that was legendary; but with few exceptions they were a sorry lot. Henry Villard and George Alfred Townsend, two of its best Civil War newsmen, soon switched to more reputable sheets. Most of the rest, judging from other reporters’ private comments ("the most drunken, irresponsible crew that ever squandered a newspaper’s money,” wrote one, and another, “many of them would pick pockets”) and judging also from their work, were a barely literate set of brigands. Admiral Louis Goldsborough described one Herald man to the Navy Department as “a creature whose mere looks excite disgust and whose mind is in full sympathy with his degraded appearance”—and that is only a sample.

Still, half a million people (like modern publications, the Herald estimated about four readers for every copy) could not be wholly wrong. Bennett’s production reflected the new metropolitan America—its lusty materialism, buoyancy, love of sensation, curiosity, irreverence, crudity, and egalitarianism—more knowingly than any other.

Visitors at Fort Washington, or at Bennett’s Fifth Avenue town house, were usually surprised to find the infamous Scot a well-mannered, thoughtful host, in late years almost stately. His speech was larded with classical allusion and wry wit; when some new sensation in the Herald was brought up, he liked to tell of Alcibiades’ dog having his tail cut off, that Athens might talk of his master.

Normally as civil in his office as at home, he would all but crack the plaster on occasion with denunciations of the “nigger-worshippers,” his brogue corning so thick and fast as to be quite incomprehensible. Hc expected the Civil War to end in disaster, and invested heavily in gold until dose to the end-one of his rare misjudgments where money was concerned. After the war, he seems to have come to a sort of truce with the world, and the Herald attained a certain dignity and the prestige of long popularity. By the time he turned it over to his son and namesake, whom he had had educated in France to escape the odium of his own reputation, the Herald was as much an institution of American life as Pulitzer’s World at the turn of the century, or the New York Times today.

When Bennett died in 1872, every obituary published in the metropolis of journalism acknowledged him as the master. It was inevitable, the New York World said, that sooner or later the newspaper would have responded to the age of steam and the electric telegraph and mass education, Bennett or no Bennett. “But ... all that the best of our race have done is to be a little in advance of their time . . . Mr. Bennett was the Columbus, the Luther, the Napoleon, the what you will, of modern journalism.”

That such a scabrous old buccaneer should have been the man who in many respects remains the greatest of the American newspaper’s pioneers—that is just the kind of paradox that would have brought a mischievous gleam in one strabismic eye, with the other ever fixed on the main chance.

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