|You never know who may be living, or may have lived, in your own backyard. When my interest in history first came about, I started to discover how much local history in Westchester County alone was related to the wider scope of American history, whether it was intertwined with colonial times, the Revolution, or the Civil War. One particular person related to the era surrounding the Civil War and its aftermath was Horace Greeley, who lived right here in New Castle, also known as Chappaqua. Horace Greeley is not just a name attached to high school, but a name belonging to a “common man,” one who had connections to men such as Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Joseph Pulitzer. Greeley was a man who history has seemed to forgotten; too many have failed to acknowledge his character, his contributions, and his vital legacy. Thankfully, the members of the New Castle Historical Society (if not the entire community), have not forgotten about him.
Horace Greeley was born in Amherst, New Hampshire. How and why he made his way to, and settled in New Castle, is unknown. “He was raised on a farm, and loved farming.” says New Castle Town Historian Gray Williams. Whatever the particular reason was that led him to New Castle is not important; what is important, is that he obviously felt right at home in the farming community here. The house at 100 King Street in New Castle was the Greeley’s summer home, May through October every year, starting in 1854. He could leave the farm, but the farm could not leave him. However, the King Street location, where the New Castle Historical Society makes its home today, was not the first Greeley residence in New Castle.
The first Greeley house was occupied from 1854-64, and was further away from the then Hamlet of Chappaqua (later to be incorporated into the Town of New Castle). This home was known as “the house in the woods” according to Nancy O’Neil, Chairman of the Collections Committee for the New Castle Historical Society. “The Greeleys felt extremely isolated and decided to purchase a house right in the village, closer to people and within walking distance of the train station.” Greeley lived there from 1864 until his death in 1872. He would commute weekly via train and horse carriage to New York City, and come home for the weekends. “His commute was about two and a half hours: one hour on the train, one hour and a half by carriage.” according to Mr. Williams.
As I walked through the building, I saw many relics of a man neglected in the history textbooks. On the second floor in the old family parlor is the very desk he worked from at his office at The New York Tribune, moved to the home after his death. In the same room on the opposite wall are the presidential campaign buttons from Greeley’s 1872 bid for the White House, along with a bible that Greeley printed himself. In a bedroom is a wheelchair similar to the one Greeley’s wife used from that time. Additionally, the original flooring is still intact. It is warped and uneven, an architectural condition of its time. I walked on it as someone who was not accustomed to the surface, as though I was walking through another time and I felt as if either I or the floor was out of place. Once I walked to the rear of the building the floor becomes even and level, as this portion of the structure was a later addition when the building became a landmark.
Greeley was a man of many talents and hobbies. He was involved in the civil rights movement during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and was a radical abolitionist; he was a champion of women’s rights as well (although not going far enough to endorse women’s suffrage); he loved farming and was especially interested in horticulture, the latter of which he was willing to take progressive and unorthodox steps to improve the science; philosophy; and last but not least, his love of journalism and the lasting impact he had on the profession.
Greeley was a pioneer. Mr. Williams elaborates that “His papers were not political organs. He clearly distinguished between the ‘straight news’ and editorials.” The Tribune was started in 1841 and reached the level of national circulation. It was different from previous newspapers in that it was not a tabloid, did not cater to sensationalism, and could never be confused with the “yellow press.” The standard he established with his newspaper set the tone and format for the modern media, namely The New York Times and The Washington Post. He was also was very objective and honest to a fault, almost as outspoken as John Adams.
As one of the founders of the Republican Party, he was more than open about his views to abolish the institution of slavery, as this was one of the primary principles that party was founded for. He called for national emancipation in 1862, the year preceding Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. His public calls for immediate abolition caused much distress to Lincoln, whose own plan for emancipation was a calculated political and tactical move. As there were multiple factions within the party, Greeley was attached to the radical branch. However, Greeley would support Lincoln in his re-election campaign in 1864. He would later show favor to the policy of reconciliation with the South and was supportive of the movement to impeach President Johnson. He would be one of those posting bail for Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederate States of America, who had been held indefinitely without trial. This move would have political ramifications for him several years later, possibly the major detraction in his bid for the nation’s highest office. Interestingly enough, Greeley ran against then incumbent President, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant would later be one of the many attendees paying respects at Greeley’s funeral.
So I had to ask Mr. Williams, “Why would someone, so radical a Republican, so opposed to slavery, look to act on behalf of the man at the head of a secessionist, pro-slavery political body?”
“Horace Greeley saw black and white, right and wrong,” Williams responded. “Holding a man without trial was un-American. He [Greeley] also believed in granting amnesty for those who would reaffirm and swear their allegiance to the United States of America. He would not have made a good politician, because he could never compromise those principles.”
After researching Greeley and speaking with Mrs. O’Neil and Mr. Williams for almost two hours, I had to ask “Why, if he was so important, there are no media and or journalism awards in his name, as there is for Joseph Pulitzer?”
“Greeley was not a wealthy man,” Williams responds, “but he was a man who rose to national prominence.” Furthermore, Greeley was a working-class man, quite able and self-made, who did make it to the top in his respective era of history. Pulitzer, conversely, was more than affluent and had the advantages of the technology of his time to reach a larger audience with a higher volume of production and distribution. Under Pulitzer’s direction, the circulation of The New York World grew from 5,000 to 600,000 in the 1890’s, the largest newspaper in the country at that time. Pulitzer also caved to sensationalism, a sort of Jerry Springer to Greeley’s Oprah-style. As it turns out, Pulitzer would end up being one of Greeley’s supporters during his 1872 presidential bid.
Sadly enough, the end of Greeley’s life was almost as tragic as the end was for John Adams. Three tragedies alone would befall Greeley in 1872 (not including his own demise). In addition to losing the election, he lost control of The Tribune, and he lost his great love, Mary. Furthermore, of his seven children, only two would live to adulthood (a situation not uncommon to the time, but tragic nonetheless). His daughter, Gabrielle, married and Episcopalian minister and moved into Greeley’s house, living there until her death.
In the end, he was a man of many principles, interests, and movements. He helped redefine journalism, assisted in creating a party to abolish slavery, and stuck to his farming roots. The line between right and wrong was abundantly clear to him, and he never compromised on that line. Honesty was a lonely word to him, as Billy Joel may sing. He was a pauper who supported princes, a moralist who preached to the immoral, and a small town local who went national. Not bad for a guy who called Chappaqua, New York his home.