- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 3, 2006

Horace Greeley, the most influential editor of his day, was not for everyone. An early biographer called him “experimental, self-contradictory, explosive, irascible, and often downright wrongheaded.” Another contemporary wrote in his diary, “Had God granted him a little practical sense, Horace Greeley would have been a great man.”

The 19th-century editor is now the subject of a thoughtful biography by Davidson College historian Robert C. Williams, Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom (New York University Press, $34.95, 410 pages, illus.).

Greeley was born in New Hampshire in 1811, and compensated for his minimal schooling by becoming an avid reader. At age 20 he went to New York City where he was employed as a typesetter and printer for two years before founding his own weekly newspaper. Greeley was a Whig in politics, and his writing in the presidential campaign of 1840 called him to the attention of the powerful Whig boss, Thurlow Weed.

In 1841 Greeley launched the New York Tribune, the first Whig daily in the city. Over the next two decades, he made his paper a leader of public opinion and himself a prominent spokesman for the antislavery movement. He did it with energy rather than charisma; Greeley’s round face, flapping linen duster and generally disheveled appearance at times invited ridicule.

As did some of his causes. Over the years he crusaded against alcohol and capital punishment while espousing westward expansion (“Go west, young man?”), spiritualism, communes, women’s rights and vegetarianism. Notwithstanding these quixotic crusades, the Tribune became America’s most widely read newspaper. Mr. Williams notes that by publishing Abraham Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union speech, Greeley helped make Lincoln a national figure.

The secession crisis of 1861 overwhelmed Greeley. He first favored allowing the South to secede peacefully, but when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter he demanded a military response and the Tribune trumpeted “On To Richmond.” As the war wore on, Greeley vacillated between demands for bold offensives and calls for a negotiated peace.

In July 1864 Greeley participated in a “peace meeting” with Confederate agents in Canada. This action could easily have resulted in his arrest — Greeley had no authority to speak for the administration — but Lincoln did not wish to make him a martyr.

The Tribune initially opposed Lincoln’s reelection but eventually endorsed the Republican ticket. In the postwar years, Greeley supported civil rights for the freedmen but also favored leniency toward Confederate leaders. In a highly controversial action, Greeley put up bail money to free the imprisoned former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

Soon, Greeley split with the Republican Party over President Grant’s failure to deal with corruption in his administration. In 1872 Republican dissidents and the Democratic Party each nominated Greeley for president in opposition to Grant. The editor ran a vigorous campaign, delivering far more speeches than was then the norm, but was overwhelmingly defeated. He died a few weeks later.

In Mr. Williams’ hands, Greeley comes through as a warm-hearted eccentric whose influence was greater than that of any editor today.

The Crystal Palace, site of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, captured the imagination of the British Empire. The temporary glass and iron structure, six times the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral, was the brainchild of Joseph Paxton, an untrained engineer and architect who had landscaped, propagated exotic plants and trees, and built innovative greenhouses on the sixth Duke of Devonshire’s magnificent estate, Chatsworth, until he had turned it into a botanic wonder.

The Crystal Palace was such a success that when it was dismantled after the exhibition closed, Paxton was immediately commissioned to build a stronger, better version of the building in Sydenham, which stood until much of it was destroyed by fire in 1936.

As author Kate Colquhoun demonstrates in her biography The Busiest Man in England: A Life of Joseph Paxton, Gardener, Architect & Victorian Visionary (David R. Godine, $35, 320 pages, illus.), Paxton threw himself into every task — horticultural, architectural, journalistic — and apparently managed to charm not just the Duke but everyone he met, from Charles Dickens to Queen Victoria.

Paxton left school at age 13 to become a gardener and was only 23 when he became the Duke’s head gardener. As Ms. Colquhoun notes, he had the “imagination, unremitting energy, motivation, and enthusiasm” that made him England’s greatest horticulturalist.

Meanwhile, the Duke enjoyed Paxton’s company so much that he insisted on taking him along on extended travels to Ireland and the Continent, where he introduced Paxton to Europe’s cultural treasures — Paris, Venice, Pompeii, Greece, Constantinople — from which he drew inspiration for his work in England.

Paxton proved to be a man on whom nothing was lost. He launched first one gardening magazine and then another, more ambitious one. He wrote a book about cultivation of the dahlia and a botanical dictionary, he built “the apotheosis of all greenhouses” to house the rare plants collected at his direction by an assistant in Calcutta, and he organized a dazzling fireworks and fountains display for the Queen at Chatsworth. Everything he turned his hand to was successful.

As his reputation grew, so did his private commissions beyond Chatsworth, and once he had won the competition to build the great exhibition hall that became the Crystal Palace, he must have indeed been what Dickens called “one of the busiest men in England.”

Between travels to work in Ireland, Scotland and France, he became a Liberal member of Parliament, where he tackled traffic and sanitation problems, particularly around Westminster. But Paxton never forgot his primary patron and closest friend, the Duke, who, until his death in 1858, continued to require his company wherever he traveled (to the dismay of Paxton’s wife throughout her life).

Paxton himself died in 1865 at age 61, apparently widely beloved. His design philosophy, says the author, led to that of Le Corbusier in the 1930s and of R. Buckminster Fuller in the 1950s.

Ms. Colquhoun, a contributor to such varied publications as the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times and the Garden Magazine, has thoroughly researched her subject and persuasively demonstrates why Joseph Paxton should be better known today.

Incidentally, the publisher would have done well to stick with the original title of the book as published last year in England — “A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton” — because another biography titled “The Busiest Man in England” about yet another Victorian gentleman came out in 2005.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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