Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/04
Through Politics to Journalism.—1856-7
ON applying at the store of the booksellers, at that time the leading firm in the trade in the Northwest, I was taken to the partner in charge of the subscription department. He was a gentleman in speech and manner. He took my measure at once as a youthful enthusiast with a lively imagination and but little judgment. He did not at all urge me on, but spoke very disinterestedly of the uncertainties of the canvassing business; but he failed to sober me. I told him rather proudly that I had been in the business before and knew what special capacities it required, and that I possessed them. He said, finally, that as I insisted upon it, he would be glad to let me make a trial. There would not be much risk in it for me, as I need buy only one copy of the work at a discount. He would assign me to an entirely unexplored and very promising field, the city of Milwaukee. I was to be allowed a commission of thirty-three per cent. on all subscriptions obtained. Being provided with a full equipment of subscription-books and circulars, I lost no time in starting for the scene of my future operations.
Milwaukee has always been an almost German city. In 1856, the preponderance of the German element was even greater than at present; in fact, its Americanization, which has in the meantime progressed very rapidly, had then hardly begun. It was known among German-Americans as “Deutsch-Athen,” and, comparatively speaking, deserved the name. There was a large number of educated and accomplished men among my countrymen, and in them the love of music and histrionic art was very marked. Under the leadership of Hans Balatka, who still wields the baton in Chicago, good orchestral and vocal music was more liberally provided for than in any other city in the West. There was also a very good German theatre. Another attraction was the Hotel Weltstein, the best German inn in the United States. It was named after the proprietor, who had belonged to a learned profession in the fatherland, and was a most intelligent, well-informed, and entertaining host, though too fond of a glass of good wine. He was killed twenty-five years afterwards by a fall from a window. He kept his house very neat and clean, furnished an excellent table, and his charges were reasonable.
I obtained quarters there and quickly became acquainted with a number of the leading Germans, who were either regular guests or who had the habit of enjoying a social glass there. I felt at first encouraged by the fact that my work would be mostly among my own countrymen. But I soon found out that it was, on the contrary, a disadvantage, for most of those I approached knew nothing of American literature and did not care much for it. They had not been in the country long enough for that, and, moreover, their purely German surroundings naturally kept their interest in American affairs at a low point. I was made to feel, before long, that they had not become sufficiently emancipated from their feelings of caste not to look down upon me, more or less, as a book-peddler. I strove very hard to obtain subscribers, and regularly set out every morning and devoted all the day to going about from store to store and office to office. I have a lively recollection of a very heavy snow-storm that raged for several days, and was followed by a bitter cold spell which made canvassing very irksome physically. By degrees, the meagre fruits of my efforts caused my sanguine hopes to vanish, and made me uneasy as to the final outcome. At the end of three weeks, I had sold only thirty-five copies in all, twenty-seven to Americans and eight to Germans. I believe that I am correct in saying that only one out of every twelve attempts to sell was successful. I need not mention that that meant all sorts of experiences for me, mostly of a disagreeable character. I had, as a rule, to drink continually of the cup of humiliation. I had the satisfaction of having tried my best, and enjoyed, upon the whole, a good time, socially. Of course, this did not suffice, as I had failed in my real object, which was to make money. The net pecuniary result was that I spent, all in all, five more dollars than I received during the three weeks, though I really had exhausted the field from which I expected so much.
I returned to Chicago much disheartened, and at a loss what to do. I ought to have said ere this that my confidence in the success of the venture had been so great that, before starting for Milwaukee, I had written to Messrs. Manning & Merriman that I had decided to give up the law temporarily, in order to engage in a most promising business that had unexpectedly come in my way.
I was fortunate enough to find what promised to be a suitable place in the office of a firm of real-estate agents, within a few days, by answering a “want” advertisement. The firm name was Staples & Sims, and they had a fine office at the corner of Dearborn and Clark Streets, fronting on Court-House Square. Staples was a retired merchant and capitalist, Sims a Scotch doctor who had not been able to find a satisfactory practice. It was a queer combination and did not last very long, as it turned out. The firm tried to do a commission business — that is, sell other people's real estate on commission. My special function was to attract German customers, and, accordingly, my name appeared under that of the firm, as salesman, in the advertisements in the German papers. My salary was fifty dollars a month and a small interest in the commission business secured by me. There was also a French clerk, as a bait to French buyers and sellers, who besides acted as draughtsman. I was very much set up when I secured the place, and in this hopeful frame of mind I completed my twenty-first year on April 10, 1856.
It was at this time that I received my first lesson in practical politics, so to speak, in this country. I had long before become a regular reader of newspapers, and fully understood the political questions of the day. The deliberate attempts of the Democrats in the South, aided by the bulk of their Northern sympathizers, to secure an extension of the territory open to slavery, in connection with the organization of Kansas as a Territory, was the all-absorbing and all-exciting topic. The formation of a new party out of the elements opposed to the admission of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska had already begun. Free soil was fast becoming a leading issue, not only in national and State, but even in local elections. It was also made the dividing line in the Chicago municipal election that spring. Of course, I had no right to vote, but that did not prevent me from enlisting as a violent partisan on the anti-Democratic side. The contest was fought directly over slavery. The Democratic nominee for Mayor was Thomas Dyer, and the leader of the opposition Frank C. Sherman. The canvass was made by both sides in the usual way, through public meetings, processions, and a most violent newspaper war. I engaged in it with heart and soul. Every evening I attended a meeting, used my voice as loudly as anybody in cheering and shouting, and joined in a torch-light procession. On election day, I acted as ticket-distributor, and had then my first sight of violent scenes and rioting at the polls. The “right” and “wrong” seemed to be so clearly defined that I could not understand how any intelligent mind could be at all in doubt. That the ignorant, priest-ridden Irish should support the Democratic candidates was comprehensible, but it aroused my disgust and indignation that there were Germans on the Democratic ticket, a German newspaper and prominent Germans who actually supported it. I looked upon them as contemptible apostates. I was confident, too, that the unholy combination would be overwhelmingly defeated. My unutterable humiliation and grief may be imagined, therefore, when the Democrats obtained a decisive victory. Influenced by the predictions of the dire, irremediable evils that would befall the country if the Democrats carried the day, I felt wofully depressed in spirit. It seemed to me almost as if the world would come to an end. It took me weeks to forget this grievous disappointment. A certain compensation for it lay in the extensive acquaintance which I secured through my political début.
My connection with Messrs. Staples & Sims continued only till the end of May. They were new to the business, having embarked in it only a few months before they engaged me, and they failed to secure the expected custom. They had also entertained extravagant expectations, which remained unfulfilled, of obtaining German customers through me. At the time mentioned, they proposed to change the terms of my engagement so that I should not be paid a salary, but only be allowed commissions on business secured by me. As I had so far not derived more than twenty-five dollars in this way, I could not possibly accept, and therefore left them.
The loss of my place did not at all trouble me, for I had conceived and was full of a scheme from the realization of which I expected much honor and great profit. It will be remembered that, at that time, both the proslavery and antislavery parties respectively were engaged in promoting with all their might emigration into the disputed Territory of Kansas. In the North as well as in the South, from the New England States to the Mississippi, a lively agitation was going on for the formation of “Kansas emigration societies.” Quite a number of such had already been formed and were sending settlers into Kansas. The newspapers announced almost daily the arrival of more or less numerous parties on their way West. My project was nothing less than the forming of a society among the young Germans throughout the Northwest to secure a large tract of land in Kansas and settle the members upon it. The colony was to be, like the other Northern settlements, a vanguard of liberty, and to fight for free soil, if necessary. Of course, I aspired to be the head of the organization. I wrote out a regular plan for it, and, as soon as I was free from office duties, I proceeded to push it. I had no difficulty in interesting in it quite a number of young men, “Turners” and members of political clubs. There was enough enthusiasm among us, but no capital. No one of us could do more than pay a moderate weekly contribution into the treasury. At my suggestion, it was resolved to try and interest local capitalists in our undertaking, and the task devolved upon me. I called upon a number of well-known and wealthy antislavery men, and obtained a dozen subscriptions ranging from fifty to a hundred dollars. Of course, this was not sufficient capital. It then occurred to me that we could far more readily obtain this in the large Eastern cities, which accordingly I persuaded my associates to authorize me to visit for the purpose of soliciting further subscriptions. I made them also instruct me to go to Washington, with a view to getting a donation of land for our purposes from Congress or the Government. I need not say that this feature of the venturesome enterprise was attributable to the fact that I had not the remotest idea of the insuperable difficulties of obtaining any sort of bounty from the Federal authorities.
I went direct from Chicago via Baltimore to the national capital. I had obtained letters of introduction from local political leaders to United States Senators and several members of the House from Illinois. The letters did not endorse my scheme, but said that I would explain what I wanted, simply vouching for my reliability. I devoted one day to sight-seeing before presenting them. Aside from the stately public buildings, Washington presented, thirty years ago, the appearance of a shabby, lifeless Southern town. The former dwarfed the masses of mean buildings around them, making them look shabbier and more insignificant. Intense July heat had set in, and hardly anybody was to be seen on the immense streets. The large colored population, exhibiting characteristics indicative of slavery, was a negatively interesting feature to me. But my general impression of the place was very unsatisfactory.
I had little difficulty in getting at the Illinois Senators, Lyman Trumbull and Stephen A. Douglas, and saw them both. Trumbull was a new member and had not made much of a reputation, while Douglas was at that time the most prominent political character before the American public, owing to his growing opposition to the extreme proslavery demands of his party, so that I considered the chance to see and talk with him quite a feather in my cap. Mr. Trumbull had heard of me as a former student in his brother's office; he knew my relatives, and so gave me a kindly reception. I found him very much like his brother, though of more commanding presence. I submitted our printed colonization plan to him. After reading it through, he asked what he was expected to do about it. Thereupon I dwelt as eloquently as I could upon our wishes for either executive or legislative aid from the Government. I saw a smile steal over his face, which produced a feeling of embarrassment in me; but I went through with my argument. “Young friend,” the Senator answered, “I regret that you have incurred the trouble and expense of coming to Washington, for your mission is absolutely hopeless. What you seek is contrary to law and usage, and especially ill-advised in the face of the pending party struggle, in and out of Congress, over Kansas.” He could but counsel me to abandon at once all contemplated attempts and to return home. This was a cold-water douche indeed, and I left him very crestfallen.
Nevertheless, during the day, I resolved to try my luck with Senator Douglas. Going to his hotel the next morning, I found more than a dozen callers ahead of me, and it was fully two hours before I stood before the “Little Giant,” as he was already dubbed by his party. The phrase was well suited to him. He was very small, not over four and a half feet high, and there was a noticeable disproportion between the long trunk of his body and his short legs. His chest was broad and indicated great strength of lungs. It took but a glance at his face and head to convince one that they belonged to no ordinary man. No beard hid any part of his remarkable, swarthy features. His mouth, nose, and chin were all large and clearly expressive of much boldness and power of will. The broad, high forehead proclaimed itself the shield of a great brain. The head, covered with an abundance of flowing black hair just beginning to show a tinge of gray, impressed one with its massiveness and leonine expression. His brows were shaggy, his eyes a brilliant black. He glanced at the letters I handed to him, and asked, with his deep, sonorous voice, that never failed to tell upon popular audiences, what he could do for me. I handed him our prospectus, when he remarked: “Can you tell me its substance? My time is so limited that I cannot read it.” I tried to explain, but I had hardly alluded to our object when he cut me short, saying: “Never mind, I understand it all, but I can do nothing for you. Similar requests are addressed to me almost daily by societies formed in the interest of the South, and, even if legal difficulties were not in the way, it would never do for me to favor either side in the national controversy, for political reasons.” With this brief and emphatic reply I had to be satisfied, and took my leave. It seemed useless to continue my efforts among the members of the House to whom I had recommendations, and hence I took the first train for Philadelphia.
I spent a whole week in the “City of Brotherly Love” in pursuit of my purpose. I had only one letter of introduction, to William D. Kelley, who was even then playing a leading part in the formation of the opposition to the proslavery Democracy into a new party, and who after wards achieved national distinction as a member of Congress representing the same Philadelphia district for over a generation. He received me very kindly, but did not hold out much encouragement as to local success in my mission. He went so far as to go around with me personally to wealthy political sympathizers. They were nearly all business men; among them was Mr. Drexel, the senior member of the great banking-firm of Drexel & Co. Several of them, and especially Mr. Drexel, examined me closely as to the details of my project, and particularly regarding the precise uses which we proposed to make of the capital I was trying to raise. I was much embarrassed by being unable to answer some of their questions. My plan did not cover the point whether the subscribers would get something like shares in the company in return for their money, or whether they were expected simply to make gifts. The truth was, that my business knowledge had not been sufficient to make me qualified to elaborate the scheme on a joint-stock basis, and that what I really wanted was outright donations. I remember very distinctly how confounded I was by Mr. Drexel's remark: “Supposing that your enterprise were really laudable enough to deserve pecuniary help from me and others, why should you and your associates alone have all the benefits reaped from such assistance?” I got out of the quandary as best I could by stating that the subscribers who desired it could, of course, have their contributions treated by the company as loans. But, as I was utterly unprepared to give any guarantees or to show that the proper legal forms had been provided for in that respect, I not only failed to obtain subscriptions, but evidently became an object of suspicion.
Depressed and humiliated, I proceeded to New York. I put up at the Prescott House, a well-known and well-kept German hotel, mainly patronized by the Germans of the better classes from all parts of the United States and from the old country. One of the first persons I saw among the guests was “Colonel” Blenker, who had acquired considerable notoriety, during the rising in the Palatinate in 1849, as the commander of a so-called “free corps,” an independent battalion of young ultra-radicals, who proved, however, more determined in the display of red emblems than on the battle-field. I became acquainted with him at the table d'hôte. He was tall, well-built, with fine manners, but his features, so far as they were not covered by his full beard, had the coloring of a confirmed toper. He was a very loud talker, and, when he did not brag of his martial achievements, could not say enough in denunciation of the United States, where his merits hitherto had not been recognized. I soon found out that the cause of his disgust with the country was the fact that he was obliged to eke out a precarious living as a small market-farmer in Rockland County, New York. He supplied the hotel with vegetables and fruit, and, strange to say, took his pay mostly in dinners and wine. He subsequently played quite a part on the Northern side during the War of the Rebellion.
I had a letter to Dr. Hexamer, a German physician of very high professional and social standing, and also a leader of the local German wing of the newly-formed Republican party. Had he lived, he would doubtless have had a brilliant career, but he was consumptive and had then but a short time to live, as he told me himself. He was one of the kindest and most delightful men in every way that I ever met, ready at once to help my scheme, with which he was much impressed. He introduced me personally to Friedrich Kapp, which proved the beginning of a lifelong intimacy. Kapp was engaged in the practice of law, so he seemed to be just the man I needed to put my project into legal shape. He was very willing, too, to give me the benefit of his advice. He agreed with my Philadelphia critics that I and my associates could not expect the public to place a large sum of money unconditionally in our hands, to be used as we saw fit. He advised me strongly to abandon all efforts to raise money under my original plan, and proposed to me to organize a joint-stock company. However, even a brief discussion of the details of the methods to be followed in acting on his proposition was sufficient, little as I then knew of business affairs, to satisfy me that, in the first place, having no acquaintance, no influence, and no means with which to meet the preliminary expenses, it would be utterly impossible for me to effect such an organization. Secondly, even if I succeeded in forming a company, I could not expect to realize my ambitious dream of controlling it, as I had nothing to contribute towards its capital.
Thus I was compelled to come to the conclusion that my scheme would have to be dropped. I was not inclined, however, to accept it at once, and my mind only gradually worked up to the recognition of that disagreeable necessity. But my reluctance was due as much to lack of conviction as to the recognition of the awkward position in which the miscarriage of my plans would inevitably place me — for had I not collected considerable money in Chicago, which was then spent for travelling expenses?
Meantime, I enjoyed an interesting political experience. Deep excitement over the memorable Presidential election of that year was felt throughout the country. The nomination of John C. Frémont as the candidate for the White House and the opponent of the further extension of slavery had, more than all others, produced intense enthusiasm, in which I shared. Hexamer and Kapp were very active in organizing German Republican clubs in New York and the adjoining cities. I accompanied them regularly to the meetings held for the purpose. Their propaganda was not as widely successful as they thought it would be, for the mass of our countrymen showed a stubborn adhesion (born of ignorance and their traditional voting for the Democratic ticket) to the Democratic party. I was also a regular frequenter of the Republican headquarters, which were established at Clinton Hall on Broadway, nearly opposite Clinton Place. The chairman of the Republican Central Committee was Simeon Draper, a well-known real-estate dealer. I remember well the admiration I felt every time I saw his commanding figure and heard his stentorian voice. I was also present when a serenade was given to “John and Jessie” (Colonel Frémont's wife, née Benton), who occupied a house on Clinton Place, and I had the good fortune to shake hands with them both on that occasion. I thus loitered in New York for several weeks before returning to Chicago to explain to my associates the reasons for my failure. Most of them were slow to accept my statement that I had tried my best but failed, owing to the nature of our scheme, and criticised my staying in the East longer than was necessary. In settling my account, there was strong opposition to allowing me all that I claimed for travelling expenses, in consideration of which I reduced my claim considerably, though I had charged for only part of my stay in New York. The result of it all was that I resigned and that the “land association” thereupon collapsed.
This sorry ending reduced me again to pecuniary embarrassment. I had not felt justified in drawing the monthly allowance from my father, after leaving Peoria. Thus I found myself with less than thirty dollars in my possession. I had intended to return to New York, feeling sure that, with the aid of my new acquaintances, I could find an acceptable position, but this was now out of the question. At this juncture, I learned accidentally of an opening that seemed to me especially attractive. The Republicans of Racine, Wisconsin, on the direct railroad line between Chicago and Milwaukee, were anxious to win over to their party the large German vote in their city, and for that purpose planned to buy the Democratic German paper and convert it into a Republican organ. They had asked the editors of the Illinois Staats-Zeitung to recommend a suit able person to take charge of the concern, and I had heard of the matter through one of them. I was convinced that I was sufficiently familiar with current politics, and that, as for the rest of the needed qualifications, the natural ability which I claimed for myself, together with the energy and enthusiasm that I should bring to the new occupation, would enable me to acquire them speedily. I saw a direct road to literary and political distinction before me. Accordingly, I lost no time in pursuing that great chance. I persuaded my informant to give me a letter of introduction to the Republican Executive Committee of Racine, and took the next train for that place. This was about the end of August, 1856.
Racine was then, and, I am told, still is, a beautiful town. It is situated right on the shore of Lake Michigan, of which it commands a grand view. There was one long, broad street, lined on both sides with business buildings. The residence part consisted of fine shaded avenues intersecting each other at right angles, with numerous attractive homes. The city was the seat of the county authorities, and of a well-frequented college which always enjoyed a good reputation among Western educational institutions. It contained about twelve thousand inhabitants, one-third of whom were Germans. The county population was also largely German. My first impressions of the place were so favorable as to make me doubly anxious to secure the acceptance of my services. The chairman of the Republican Committee, a bright young lawyer, received me with evident pleasure. I felt much relieved on learning from him that I had no competitor. He at once called a meeting of the committee and presented me to them. They asked no questions at all and engaged me on the spot, with expressions of great satisfaction. The committee had a secret option from the publisher of the German paper to buy it at a certain price, and they resolved to proceed at once to raise the necessary money and exercise it. I was to have eighteen dollars a week salary — princely pay, as it seemed to me — and the sole editorial and business management on behalf of the new owners. The chairman at once set out with me to find a suitable boarding-place, and I obtained a very satisfactory one in a genteel private family, for the low price of five dollars a week for a nice room and all my meals. Thus, literally, in less than twenty-four hours after leaving Chicago, I was at anchor in what appeared to be a permanent haven of rest and promise. A feeling of security and hopefulness came over me which I had not experienced to the same degree since I landed on American soil. As it took the committee several days to close the purchase, I had sufficient leisure to see the town and vicinity thoroughly and to make acquaintances. I was charmed with all I saw and heard.
This happiness was somewhat dimmed when the committee had concluded their bargain and I took possession of the weekly Volksblatt printing-office for them and ascertained the exact condition of the paper. The man who had sold it was a printer by trade, and had, with one assistant, edited and printed the paper. The supply of type was limited and nearly worn out. There was only an old-style handpress, on which six hundred copies could be printed in a working-day of twelve hours. The appearance of the paper was indeed wretched, and its contents no better. It had been edited mainly with the aid of scissors, but the selections plainly indicated absence of both taste and judgment. There was very little editorial matter, and what there was consisted of commonplace stuff expressed in ungrammatical language. Indeed, the author of it, who was not at all an educated man, confessed that he never had attempted to write out anything, but that it was his regular practice to put such thoughts as he had directly into type. Under the circumstances, it was not to be wondered at that the subscription-list always remained small. There were nominally about three hundred and eighty names on the books, but a close examination proved that many of the rural subscribers had either not paid at all for years, or paid in farming produce — butter, eggs, chickens, potatoes, corn, and the like. Further inquiries also showed that the subscribers were almost entirely made up of shopkeepers, saloon-keepers, mechanics, and farmers, and that two German doctors were the only representatives of the higher education among them. That with such readers there was not much chance for “literary distinction” was plain enough. As the paper was to raise boldly, between two issues, the Republican instead of the Democratic flag in its columns, the effect of this somersault upon the subscribers remained to be seen. It was clear that, as a preventive of numerous desertions among them, the contents of the paper ought to be very much improved; but the poor material equipment rendered this out of the question.
Still, I resolved to try my best. New as I was to the calling, the first weeks were full of hard work and nervous anxiety. I believe that I wrote and re-wrote the editorials in the first number issued under my control half a dozen times, until I could persuade myself that they would pass muster. I worked literally night and day, succeeding, I can say without self-flattery, in producing very respectable papers. There were at the time only three other German Republican papers published in Wisconsin, as against a score of Democratic, but they all complimented my work. The Democratic organs, as was to be expected, raised a great outcry against the political conversion of the Volksblatt, and at once began to abuse me as its originator, with much wrath and unanimity of feeling. The change in the politics of the paper provoked also a declaration, by about a score of old subscribers, published in a Milwaukee German paper, that the “treason” of the paper was due to the mercenariness and bad faith of the publisher, who had no right to sell it, as leading Democrats had originally supplied the capital. This added fuel to the flame, and made the war I waged in my columns against political opponents hotter from week to week. More than half of the subscribers stopped their paper; but I did not mind this, as the local managers of the campaign ordered as large an edition as we could print with our facilities, till after the election.
I was not expected to do anything except, through the newspaper, to persuade the local German voters to go with the Republican party. But I was too earnest, and too full of the intense excitement that took possession of the whole Union during the memorable Presidential contest of that year, to confine my activity to writing. I volunteered to organize a German wing of the local Republican club, and, although this was no easy task, owing to the stolid allegiance of my countrymen to the other party, I succeeded in working up a membership of nearly fifty from the smallest beginnings. We held frequent meetings, which gave me the long-desired opportunity to practise public speaking. I readily got over the first embarrassment, common to all beginners in that art, and acquired considerable fluency. I even addressed some gatherings of German voters especially brought together to listen to me. I was so much encouraged that I even ventured on two occasions on the bold experiment of speaking in English before general meetings of the Republican club. I was well prepared, and, as a double precaution against failure, spoke but briefly. It helped me very much to have the opportunity to listen to a number of prominent politicians and fine speakers from other States who came to Racine to address mass-meetings. There were also some very good speakers among the local leaders, whom I heard regularly in the club. The most prominent among them was Judge Doolittle, afterwards United States Senator.
Notwithstanding these political preoccupations, I found time to form a regular connection, as Western political correspondent, with the Neue Zeit, a weekly of the highest aspirations, founded by an enterprising German publisher in New York. It numbered among its contributors all the leading German-American writers, as well as eminent literati and journalists in the old country. It was edited with great care, and every number was replete with fine articles on politics, literature, science, music, and other subjects. I had become acquainted with its editors in New York, and had an ambitious longing to be permitted to write for it. Shortly after reaching Racine, I prepared a long letter on the general political situation in the Northwest I spent much time and labor on it and sent it to the editors at a venture. To my intense joy, there came an answer from them within a week, saying that it was gladly accepted, and that further contributions were desired from me. My compensation was to be five dollars a letter, which was not a liberal allowance, considering the hard work involved in it for me; still, it was adding just so much to my income, and, moreover, I thought it such an honor to write for the Neue Zeit that I would gladly have corresponded with it without pay.
I vividly recollect to this hour the feverish anxiety into which I had worked myself by the time of the near approach of the election. I became so restless that even my editorial duties seemed very irksome. I did outside political work from morning till midnight. The night following the elections, I stayed up with the local Republican leaders till the small hours of the morning. The election returns were not encouraging when we finally sought our quarters, but there was no ground for giving up hope. I need hardly say that I felt indescribably woful when it became a cruel certainty on the following day that, instead of achieving a sweeping victory, the Republicans had suffered an overwhelming, humiliating defeat. My inexpressible disgust made me shun the sight of everybody, and it took me nearly a week to recover my balance.
There was enough in the condition of the Volksblatt to sober me entirely. As already mentioned, its sudden political conversion had resulted in a considerable melting away of the subscription-list. The election being over, all the campaign subscriptions stopped, of course, and the fact stared me in the face that there remained only about two hundred and fifty names that could be positively relied on for the future. The advertising patronage, too, was slim. The total gross income of the paper from both sources was not more than eighteen hundred dollars. A close calculation showed that it would take nearly twice as much to pay my salary, the wages of two printers, the cost of paper, ink, etc. Moreover, the renewal of type was imperative. During the campaign, the paper had been allowed a subsidy of fifty dollars a week out of the party funds, and, in view of the condition described, it was of vital importance to me to know whether this stipend would be continued. Hence, I naturally communicated without delay with the Republican Committee on the subject, only to discover, however, that all their enthusiasm had evaporated with the lost election. I received, too, my first lesson in that common experience in this and every other free country, that there is the greatest difference between the promises of politicians before an election and their fulfilment after it. I was informed at once that not only had the campaign fund been entirely exhausted, but the committee was still in debt for electioneering expenses, and that hence they could not contribute another dollar towards the Volksblatt. Nor was this all. I now learned for the first time that the greater part of the purchase price of the paper was still unpaid — that, indeed, only one-fourth of it had been paid down in cash, and that the balance would become due in six months from the date of purchase and was secured by a mortgage on the whole concern. This revelation was accompanied by the suggestion, which, under the circumstances, sounded a good deal like mockery, that, in view of my zealous services during the campaign, the committee would be willing to waive all claim for the cash payment, and turn the paper over to me, to be dealt with as best I could, upon the sole condition that I should continue to advocate the Republican cause.
The double task was thus to be put upon me of increasing the income of the paper to a living point and making provision within less than four months for the payment of the remaining three-quarters of the purchase price a decidedly appalling outlook. But my enthusiasm and confidence in myself were greater than my business experience, so, after considering the question for a couple of days, I decided to accept the committee's proposal. I had persuaded myself that, with strong personal efforts, I might succeed in securing considerable additions to the subscription-list. Then I had reason to think that, by adding a job-printing outfit to the establishment, a new source of income might be found. As regarded the unpaid purchase money, I got over the difficulty by assuring myself that, if I was successful in my efforts in other directions and could make a small additional payment, the creditor would probably be willing to grant an extension of time. There remained the necessity of procuring a new lot of type for the paper. I had heard that it was not difficult to obtain credit from type-makers, and that was sufficient to do away with my hesitation on that score.
I can affirm that I left no stone unturned in my subsequent endeavors to establish the Volksblatt on a paying basis. I devoted all the time I could spare from my office labors as editor and publisher to a persistent canvass for new subscribers and advertisers. I solicited not only in Racine, but in three other smaller towns in the county. I even visited Milwaukee repeatedly, but at the end of the year I had secured only a hundred and thirty subscribers more and about seven hundred dollars worth of advertising — about one-third of the amount needed to keep up the paper. A good part of the new receipts, too, I had to use for travelling expenses.
This meagre result brought me to the end of my wits. I had exhausted the whole field in which anything was to be gathered. I might have bought job and ordinary type on credit, if I had made myself personally liable for it, but I was afraid to do so, and did not buy. The inevitable end of my newspaper ownership came early in January, 1857. Unable to pay the wages of the compositors any longer, I advised the chairman of the Republican Committee of my state of stress. He authorized me to turn the concern over to the former owner, who reluctantly accepted it and forthwith changed it back into a Democratic organ. He claimed at the time that the committee, and I myself as its successor in the control of the paper, were liable to him for the balance due, but he had no legal remedy and did not attempt to enforce his claim. Twenty-four years later, when at the height of my prosperity, I received a letter from this same person, saying that he had been ruined by relieving me of the paper and asking for some recognition on my part. I sent him a check for one thousand dollars.
- ↑ He “came very near joining one of the companies of Sharp's rifle men that were being formed all over the North in order to save that Territory to freedom.”