19th-Century Demigods Separated by the East River

“A mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism and, what must be surprising to both these elements, they here seem to fuse and combine with the most perfect harmony.” This is how scholar Charles Eliot Norton assessed Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855, and biographer Debby Applegate sees the same fruitful combination in her subject, Henry Ward Beecher, clergyman and orator extraordinaire. The comparison is not only apt (Beecher and Whitman were close contemporaries and fellow Brooklyn residents, and the poet much admired the preacher; both conveyed optimism toward the American experiment in language brimming with roving, restless energy), it’s also useful, serving to acquaint the reader with the nearly forgotten (Beecher) via the widely familiar (Whitman).

Beecher was hugely popular, but was he, as Ms. Applegate suggests, “the most famous man in America”? Even if we limit ourselves to Beecher’s heyday in the 1850’s, we still have heavyweight contenders like Emerson, Twain, Thoreau and, by the next decade, Lincoln. And then there’s his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ms. Applegate does manage to show that Henry Ward Beecher deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of Victorian Americana, but she employs a tiresome stratagem to achieve her aim: She cites, ad nauseam, contemporaries testifying to Beecher’s fame.

And here I am, about to resort to the same stratagem to introduce another New York demigod, New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley (1811-1872), like Beecher an anti-slavery crusader, and also the subject of a new biography. In Emerson’s words, Greeley gained recognition from his readership for doing “all their thinking and theory for them, for two dollars a year.”

Beecher and Greeley both preferred New York to their native New England. Within a year of his arrival in 1847, Beecher was already sighing, “Ah! If ever I am called to leave Brooklyn, will it not be to me like rending soul from the body?” At the time, Brooklyn housed the middle class, whose patriarchs would commute into Manhattan, home of “the very rich, the very poor, and the unmarried,” as one 19th-century journalist observed. Manhattan was also home to Horace Greeley, who owned a farm on the East River, with acreage spanning what is now 34th through 50th streets. Beecher lived in Brooklyn Heights, where “Until five in the afternoon, a man of working age … seemed as rare as hen’s teeth.” As pastor to the Brooklyn bourgeois and nouveau-riche “shoddy aristocracy,” Beecher was one such tooth. (Manhattanites knew Brooklyn as the “City of Churches.”)

By the 1830’s, newspapers had proliferated in both towns, their ubiquity made possible by printing technology and the highest literacy rate in the world. Greeley began as a printer, and by 1841 would edit his very own daily, the Tribune. Beecher wrote and edited for the standard bearer of the Christian anti-slavery movement, the weekly Independent magazine.

But Beecher was primarily an orator. He eclectically blended the King James Bible and English classics with personal anecdotes and imitations of local slang and dialects to form a stunning brand of rhetoric. (Ms. Applegate, whose own prose is refreshingly supple and quaintly archaic, calls rhetoric “that most transient of arts”—a partial explanation for Beecher’s current obscurity.) In his eloquence, Beecher resembled his father, Lyman Beecher, the “last great Puritan minister in America,” known for his fire-and-brimstone speeches—though Henry Ward preferred to preach universal love. The son outgrew the father in other respects, notably in his opposition to slavery.

Beecher attended Amherst College (also Ms. Applegate’s alma mater) in the early 1830’s, when it was the center of progressive education in an era of “Newness” comparable to the late 1960’s. He was an undisciplined if enthusiastic student, embracing the Romantics, natural theology and phrenology, and was ever on the lookout for puns likening the frighteningly dissimilar, including “Conic sections and the Comics section.” The pattern for intellectual insouciance and showmanship was set.

It was evangelical businessmen eager for a minister to suit their progressive tastes who wooed Beecher to the growing suburb of Brooklyn. He imported a frontier laxity acquired during stints in Ohio and Indiana; theologically, he was so heterodox that the Congregationalists accepted him only after his more strait-laced brother, also a minister, intervened. Beecher was immensely popular. By 1850, his Plymouth Church was the largest hall in Brooklyn, barely accommodating his growing parish. After a reading there, Dickens complimented him on its “perfect” suitability for speaking.

In addition to the pulpit, Beecher pursued the other two P’s: the press and politics. On a “lyceum circuit” throughout America, Beecher mediated compromise debates between North and South. Famously, he raised funds to send Sharps rifles to “Bleeding Kansas,” where a warm-up for the Civil War was being waged over the possible extension of slavery to the West. The rifles were dubbed “Beecher’s Bibles.” He was an early Republican favoring the extinction of slavery, yet not radical enough to call himself an abolitionist.

His career peaked with an invitation to speak at Fort Sumter after its recapture in 1864. Lincoln made good on a remark to his cabinet “that if the war was ever fought to a successful issue there would be but one man—Beecher—to raise the flag at Fort Sumter, for without Beecher … there might have been no flag to raise.”

With the abolition of slavery, Beecher no longer had a convincing cause, and his career took a drubbing when he was accused of sexual foul play. Victoria Woodhull, an advocate of “free love” and women’s rights, dragged into public view his alleged infidelities with the wives of Moses Beach (Chloe), Theodore Tilton (Elizabeth) and Henry Bowen (Lucy). Ms. Applegate tracks the scandal, even hunting down traces in the language of Beecher’s sermons and writings, where she notes a decided emphasis on shattering the mythos of the perfect pastor. In The Atlantic Monthly he wrote, “Did I, when I became a minister, cease to be a man or a citizen? No! A thousand times no! Out upon this idea that a minister must dress minister, walk minister, talk minister, eat minister and wear his ministerial badge as a convict wears his stripes.” But the question is, did he copulate minister?

Horace Greeley, meanwhile, had become famous (though not most famous) for his plainspoken and slangy prose. His readers knew him as “Uncle Horace,” and even his enemies understood that he was a tremendously influential newsman. He’s credited with disseminating, if not originating, the phrases border ruffian, Copperhead and, his best, Slavocracy—as well as Manifest Destiny’s favorite slogan, “Go West, young man!”

He was a workaholic who appears to have abjured the company of all except professional colleagues (unfortunately, Mr. Williams underplays his close friendship with fellow Universalist P.T. Barnum). During one Presidential campaign, he averaged an hour of sleep a night—this despite the fact that he abstained from alcohol, coffee and tea.

Greeley’s Trib was a genuine haven for free speech: He would even print opinions he disagreed with. Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller all wrote for him. Twain briefly corresponded from Washington. Charles A. Dana, who would go on to edit The New York Sun, even enlisted Marx (who badly needed the pay) and Engels to cover for the Trib the 1848 revolutions in Europe.

Like Beecher, Greeley mediated North-South debates, in addition to other struggles over the meaning of freedom. Inspired by the “Great Pacificator,” Greeley kept a bust in his Trib office of the Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who forged early compromises between North and South. Indeed, Greeley, one of the founders of the Republican Party, was often too good at compromise: When he ran for President in the 1872 election against the crony corruption of Ulysses S. Grant, Greeley was nominated not by the Republicans, but by the third-party Liberal Republicans and the Democrats—and won primarily border states.

Days before his defeat, Greeley’s wife Molly died; before the Electoral College votes had even been cast, he suffered a mental breakdown and died.

Compared with Ms. Applegate’s Beecher, Robert Williams’ Greeley seems disappointingly drab. The problem is that Mr. Williams forces Greeley to share the spotlight with a weak discussion on how “liberty” and “freedom” were distinguished in American political discourse from 1830 to 1870. (That was his original research interest.) From the first page, Mr. Williams insists that Greeley was “a philological incendiary”: He’s credited with leading a revolution to unseat the term liberty—reserved for an elite—in favor of freedom, applicable to all Americans, including black slaves. Unfortunately, the claim that “liberty” and “freedom” were not then interchangeable is unconvincing. Worse, Greeley’s motivation, the source of his urge to support freedom (or liberty), remains mysterious.

Mr. Williams’ prose is stodgy and stilted. Poor writing is often symptomatic of poor reasoning, and that’s the case here: The author deals much too lightly in sweeping political terms and assumes without substantiation that Greeley was pretty much always right. Horace Greeley deserves better than that.

Margot Strohminger studies English literature and philosophy at McGill University.

19th-Century Demigods Separated by the East River