James Gordon Bennett: Journalist

 
 
JAMES GORDON BENNETT, the journalist, is known on both sides of the Atlantic; James Gordon Bennett, the man, is hardly known outside of the Herald office. Indeed, persons who have been employed in that establishment for years have never set eyes on its famous editor and proprietor. All his power, reputation and influence exist in and through the Herald. In it, he is every thing; out of it, nothing.

Probably the history of journalism in this or any other country does not show another instance of such complete absorption by, and identification with, a newspaper as that of Bennett and the Herald. To the Herald he has devoted most of his mature life—his best, and ripest, and richest years. All that he is and has been he has poured, with mental and physical prodigality, into the great newspaper which bears his name, and has yielded him a vast fortune for his purpose and his pains.

Bennett was born of Catholic parents, in 1797, in Banffshire, Scotland, and remained at school there until he was fourteen or fifteen. He was then sent to a Catholic academy at Aberdeen, with the view of taking sacerdotal orders ; but after staying there for two or three years, during which time he devoted himself assiduously to his books, he became dissatisfied, and resolved to
surrender all priestly aspirations. His parents, said to be wealthy and influential, had set their hearts upon his leading a clerical life, and were so much opposed to his abandoning it that a rupture ensued between them and their boy, and he quitted his native land forever.

Young Bennett, in 1819, with a companion of about his own age, embarked on a vessel coming to America, and arriving at Halifax, without money or friends, took to teaching for a livelihood. He did not succeed to his satisfaction, and in a few months went to Portland, Me., and then to Boston, where he found employment as a proof-reader in Wells & Lily's publishing house. At that time he was much addicted to solitary rambles and the exercise of his imagination. He wrote a number of poems of rather a cynical, semi-sentimental kind, suggested by his lonely walks in and about the metropolis of New England.

In 1822 he came to New-York and engaged himself to some of the daily and weekly papers as a reporter and general writer. But wearying of his journalistic connections, he went to Charleston, S. C., where he was employed by the Courier as a translator of French and Spanish, occasionally contributing sketches and poems to the paper. In his early years he was singularly restless,
though very industrious and of remarkable versatility in composition. After a year or two he returned to New-York, where he undertook to set up a commercial school, but either failed or abandoned his design. He next turned his attention to political economy, and delivered a series of lectures on the subject, in the vestry of the Old Dutch Church, in Ann Street.

About this time he began to entertain the idea of adopting journalism as a profession, having come to the conclusion that it was his vocation. In 1825 he made his first effort as a proprietor, in the Sunday Courier; but not succeeding he became a reporter and writer for its columns. He left the paper, however, in a few months, began the National Advocate, a Democratic journal, and opposed the tariff and the system of banking. In 1827 he became a warm advocate of Martin Van Buren, at that time in Congress, and, on the decease of the Advocate he associated himself with M. M. Noah in the editorial management of the Enquirer, then in the Tammany Hall interest. The year following he went to Washington as correspondent of the paper, and, after serving faithfully and zealously in that capacity for about twelve months, he became the associate editor of the Courier and Enquirer, the two journals having been merged in one. Remaining two or three years in that capacity, he quarreled with James Watson Webb, the leading editor, went out of the concern, and issued the Daily Globe. The new paper lived exactly one month and expired. It did not require much capital to conduct a paper thirty-five years ago, even in the Metropolis, but the funds required for such enterprises were very difficult to raise.

Bennett, then in his thirty-fifth year, had been connected with at least a dozen papers, in different capacities, and had been any thing but prosperous. Those who knew him declared ho had mistaken his calling; that while he had decided ability and energy, he lacked tact and managing power. He, however, retained his faith in himself, and was wont to say he had never got started right. He continually talked about having a paper of his own some day, which he felt sure would be a great success. It is quite likely he had become somewhat discouraged by his failures here, for he went to Philadelphia at the latter part of 1832, raised money enough to purchase the Pennsylvanian, and assumed editorial charge of it. That city was not large enough for him, and he still believed New-York to be the best place for him to fix the lever with which he hoped to move the American world.

Consequently, after two years' residence on the Delaware, he came back to the Hudson, and in 1835 issued the first number of the Herald.

Bennett had very little money only a few hundred dollars, it is said, when he set up his last newspaper in the basement of a building in Ann Street, not far from where the present marble structure rears its costly head. His editorial desk was a board on two barrels, and on that he wrote untiringly, for the first few weeks doing all the editorial work himself, filling the little sheet with verses, aromatic gossip, pungent paragraphs, city sketches, and such light and varied matter as the public always like to read.
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Whatever the character of the contents of the Herald in those days, Bennett knew what the mass of people relished, and he catered to them zealously. The paper was a pecuniary success from the beginning. In a few weeks he was enabled to employ assistance, making a feature of city news and local events, in which he had no rivalry, the dailies being heavy, and prosy to the last degree. The Commercial Advertiser, Evening Post and Journal of Commerce were alive then, but they seemed scarcely conscious of the fact, and did nothing to dispute the more modern and novel field the Herald had opened.

The great fire in this City, soon after the birth of the new paper, gave Bennett ample opportunity to show his enterprise, and he embraced it vigorously. The following morning the little daily contained a full account of the " destructive conflagration," as the reporters would call it, with all the incidents and accidents given in a vivid and picturesque style. That was really, as the Herald is so fond of stating, a new era in journalism; and from that day to this, merely as a newspaper, it has probably had no equal anywhere.

Bennett the man is Bennett the journalist. He has breathed his individuality and all his idiosyncrasies into it. Not many persons believe in the Herald. Its influence is limited among cultivated people; and yet hardly any one denies its tact and enterprise. Bennett makes no pretension, privately, to molding public opinion: he follows it. He is inconsistent, because it is his interest; for his avowed object has been from the first to give the news and make money. Principle he has not, because he believes in no one. He has no convictions, and does not think any one has them. Nothing, in his view, deserves serious treatment. All men and all pursuits are shams. One thing is no better than another, and we are all selfish to the core when found out.

He understands the philosophy of journalism; that a newspaper is entirely a thing of to-day; that few readers care for the issue of yesterday or to-morrow, which are as if they had never been. Therefore he issues every number of the Herald as if there had been none before, and would be none after it. He believes with Emerson that " Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," and acts accordingly.

Privately, Bennett is a very honest and strictly moral man. He owes no one, and so far as I can learn, never did owe a dollar; paying his debts having always been with him the first of obligations. He was never other than industrious and abstemious, and is said to be very charitable without the least ostentation. Ever since his marriage, which was, I think, in 1837, he has been a pattern of domesticity; is extremely devoted to his wife, a highly accomplished woman, and his two children, James Gordon, Jr., the manager of the Herald, and a daughter Lily, a promising girl of sixteen. He has a very handsome house at Washington Heights, and a fine
private residence in Fifth Avenue. His income from the Herald is fully $300,000 per annum, and his fortune is estimated at $3,000,000 or $4,000,000, every penny of which he has made by his journal. He is, and has always been, the opposite of gregarious. He never went into society, and the sole instance I can remember of his presence at any festival or public occasion, was at the Sir Morton Peto dinner at Delmonico's in the Autumn of 1865. Then he seemed quite lost and ill at ease. He did not appear to know any one, nor any one to know him.


When sought, he is affable enough, but talks little, and has no relish for society of any kind. Personally, he is over six feet in height, but is now bent with age. He is rather slight, his eye gray, his hair white, and worn rather long, with a strange, half cynical, half comical expression, which makes his countenance difficult to read. He still speaks with a strong Scotch accent, which is very marked when he is irritated, and his irritation has increased with his years. His intellect is clear and vigorous, and his acquirements numerous. He writes nothing in these days; but in his working period he wrote rapidly, nervously, and gracefully on almost any subject; the skepticism, cynicism, and raillery of his temperament, always cropping out.

Of late years Bennett has shown signs of declining health. He takes excellent care of himself, however, going to bed every night at nine o'clock. He visits the Herald only two or three times a week, but is still in every respect its editor, and feels as much interest in it as when he toiled to establish it.

There is little need for his visiting the office often; for he can direct the establishment by telegraph, a wire communicating with it from Washington Heights. Whenever any event of consequence occurs his opinion is obtained in regard to its treatment for the next day's paper, the name of the required writer being frequently given by him. All the City and leading country dailies are taken to his house every morning. He reads them; marks the articles that strike his attention; makes suggestions as to the editorials; sees proofs often, in fact; supervises the Herald very much as he used to when he wrote on the head of a barrel in the Ann Street cellar. Bennett scarcely ever goes off the island; seldom comes to his elegant town-house in the Avenue. He is methodical, abstemious, industrious, isolated. He rises at five; never calls on anybody, but receives courteously and hospitably all who visit him. Mrs. Bennett and her daughter are in Europe, where they spend half their time, and J. G. B., Jr., is fond of rambling, and wedded to his yacht.

Lonely old man is he; but he has attained his sole ambition—he has made the Herald a great newspaper—and in the midst of its reputation James Gordon Bennett, the man, is hardly known, rarely esteemed, never loved. Bennett has few friends—he does not want them, I suspect—no hopes and no ambitions outside of the Herald. He can not live much longer; but while he does, he
will be its autocrat and master mind ; and his last hours will doubtless be comforted with the thought that James Gordon Bennett was to the very last the editor and proprietor of the New-York Herald.


 
Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: James Gordon Bennett: Journalist
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina

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BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Great Metropolis, A Mirror of New York: By Junius Henri Browne; American Publishing Company-Hartford (1869)
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