11 July 2008

Horace Greeley

For no very good reason, I feel like writing about Horace Greeley today.

Actually, there is a reason. I've serendipitously realized that Marx' famous book, On Capital, was published in the year (1867) also marked by history's greatest real estate transaction. Marx published On Capital in 1867. I don't have a month. The US purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire in a transaction that closed on March of that year. I began speculating on a possible connection in this world or in others. But let's start with Greeley, the newspaper editor who was the best-known opponent of the sale (and, for a time, Karl Marx's employer).

SFAIK, Greeley never pretended to be anything other than what he was -- an opinionated and well-informed individual who wanted to share his take on contemporary events with anyone willing to buy his newspaper.

He never took an oath not to have or express any opinions. Nor was it common in those days to separate opinions into particular sections or pages -- his readers knew that they would encounter his take on the facts on page after page, and that is what they got.

He didn't believe that states had the power to secede from the union. Once they started to secede, he made clear his views that they were in a lawless rebellion, and his hope that the US army would quickly crush it.

When the crushing proved difficult, Greeley made known his view (long before Lincoln came around) that the best way to win the war would be to make it a war about slavery -- issuing a promise of emancipation.

Note the language there: "We think you [Lincoln] are unduly influenced by the counsels, the representations, the menaces, of certain fossil politicians hailing from the Border Slave States."

Gee, sounds like someone who is shy about the fact that he has a particular point of view, doesn't it?

After the war was over, Greeley again made his position crystalline -- the chief goal of statesmen on both sides ought to be one of reconciliation. Thus, he paid the bond for Jefferson Davis' release from federal prison.

He also believed that the prosperity of the nation depended upon western expansion. He popularized (though he did not invent) the expression, "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country."

As I say: Greeley had a point of view. He used his newspaper to inform the public, but he (and his public) took it for granted -- and IMHO they were right on both sides to take it for granted -- that he was providing them with information not as a sort of magic mirror of the world, but as a passionate observer and partisan.

One might well believe that what journalism needs today is to return to that model -- where no one professes to be a neutral magic mirror and no one feels betrayed upon making the not-so-shocking discovery that every medium carries a message.

Ah, but was he, as some have complained to me, on "the wrong side of history"? Well, not in quite the way that the secessionists were, perhaps.

Yes, he did denounce the purchase of Alaska. "Seward's folly" and all that. In part this was because he believed it would make the settlement of the contiguous western territories a slower and more hazardous matter. Any particular "young man" could go either to, say, Wyoming OR to Alaska. One or the other! No one would settle in both places. He saw Alaska not as a contribution to the western impetus but as a dilution of it.

One can always speculate on other possible worlds, including the divergent world in which Greeley's criticisms prevailed and the US didn't purchase Alaska. What happened in that world?

Here's one guess. Keep in mind that the reason the Czar was ready to sell Alaska in the 1860s was that the Czar was desperate for cash, after bearing the expenses of a war in the Crimea. In this other world, the deal doesn't close, the Czar doesn't get the cash, his government's fiscal crisis worsens, and his country ends up having its revolution in the 1870s -- forty years ahead of our world's analog events.

The 1870s Russian revolution doesn't take a Marxist-Leninist turn. How could it? Marxism as a movement is still in its infancy -- consider the chronological coincidence with which we began.

An 1870s Russian revolution might have overthrown the monarchy in favor of, say, a multi-party republic. That country might have been spared its Soviet period with all its nightmares, and the rest of the world might have been spared the Cold War.

Greeley was right.

Okay, as a form of reasoning, this is pretty unpersuasive. But I hope the minutes you've just expended on reading it have been painless.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.