Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bennett, James Gordon

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1295883Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 04 — Bennett, James Gordon1885Robert Harrison

BENNETT, JAMES GORDON (1800–1872), founder of the 'New York Herald,' was born in 1800 at New Mill, Keith, Banffshire. 'The Bennetts,' he wrote in after years, 'were a little band of freebooters in Saxony, A.D. 896. ... I have no doubt they robbed and plundered a good deal. . . . They emigrated to France, and lived on the Loire several hundred years. . . . The Earl of Tankerville is a Bennett, and sprang from the lucky side of the race.' The family being Roman catholic, James was sent to a seminary in Aberdeen to be educated for the priesthood. He became an omnivorous reader, was fascinated by the works of Lord Byron and Walter Scott, but toned down the romantic influence they exercised on his mind by the perusal of 'Benjamin Franklin's Life, written by himself,' which was published in Scotland in 1817. One day in the spring of 1819 he met a young friend in a street of Aberdeen, who said he was about to sail for America. After a short pause, Bennett said he would accompany him, as 'he wished to see the place where Franklin was born.' He first landed at Halifax, and began to earn a livelihood by teaching. Thence he went to Boston, and obtained employment as a printer's reader, a bookseller's clerk, and assistant in a newspaper office. In this last capacity he procured engagements successively on the 'Charleston Conner,' among the slave-owners, on the 'National Advocate,' the 'New York Courier,' and on the 'Enquirer.' He was at different times dramatic critic, Washington correspondent, leader-writer, editor. In the contentious times of General Jackson's election in 1828-9 as president of the United States, Bennett strongly supported the general in the 'Enquirer.' At Jackson's second election in 1832-3 a change of sides on the part of his employers took place, and Bennett quitted the 'Enquirer.' He then started a cheap paper, the 'New York Globe,' at two cents, which lived only a few months. Meanwhile he wrote literary articles and short lively stories for the 'New York Mirror.' In 1833 he bought part of the 'Pennsylvanian ' of Philadelphia, and went to reside in that city; but he met with no support from his former political associates, and withdrew from the 'Pennsylvanian' in disgust. Returning to New York in 1884, he watched the growing success of the 'penny press,' and in the following year concluded terms of partnership with a young firm of printers, Messrs. Anderson & Smith. The result of this connection was the appearance on 6 May 1835 of the first number of the 'New York Herald,' a small sheet published daily at one cent. Bennett prepared the entire contents. He was his own reporter of the police cases, of the city news, and of the money market, the last being a new feature in the ordinary American newspaper. He was up early and late, kept his own accounts, posted his own books, and made out his own bills. A fire destroyed his printing office, and his two partners died. His great endeavour was to make his paper amusing enough to attract buyers, for his want of capital prevented all competition with the rich sixpenny journals in obtaining genuine early intelligence. Paragraphs of fictitious news appeared in his paper, which he justified as legitimate hoaxes. 'I am always serious in my aims,' he said, 'but full of frolic in my means.' He quizzed and satirised most of his contemporaries, and suffered several personal assaults from rival editors. These he turned to account by narrating the circumstances in a tone of banter, which made his paper more and more popular. He had great skill, too, in ad captandum, writing, and used it against the rude and rowdy habits that then prevailed in New York. His biographer, who writing in 1855 describes Mr. Bennett as a man with lofty views for the regeneration of the press, says of him in 1836, when the 'Herald' was in its infancy: 'He could attract no public attention till he caricatured himself morally and mentally.' One element of his prosperity was the systematic employment of newsboys in the distribution of his paper. In 1838 he visited France and England, and made liberal arrangements with men of literary attainments as regular correspondents for his paper. He extended the system to many of the important cities of America. His next visit to the British Isles in 1843 was marked by an unpleasant incident at Dublin. He went to hear O'Connell address a large meeting at the Corn Exchange in that city, and the 'liberator,' on seeing his card, exclaimed aloud: 'I wish he would stay where he came from; we don't want him here. He is one of the conductors of one of the vilest gazettes ever published by infamous publishers.' Bennett replied to this public insult by a dignified letter to the 'Times,' in which he attributed the agitator's ebullition of wrath to the fact that the 'Herald' had successfully opposed the demand made by the repealers on the Irish in America for rent. 'That I can surpass every paper in New York,' he wrote, 'every person will acknowledge — that I will do so, I am resolved, determined,' He spared neither money nor labour. He availed himself of every improvement in the machinery of printing and of distributing his sheet; he chartered vessels to go and meet the incoming ships and steamers from Europe to acquire the latest news; he hired special trains or express locomotives to bring intelligence from all parts of the American continent. He was perhaps the first newspaper proprietor to employ the telegraph wires in transmitting a long political speech from a distance — Mr. Clay's speech on the Mexican war, delivered at Lexington, Kentucky, in 1840. The speech was sent by express a distance of eighty miles to Cincinnati, and then telegraphed to New York for publication in the 'Herald' next morning. Bennett acquired great wealth and a position of honour among his adopted countrymen, in spite of the obloquy to which the rough encounters of his earlier career had exposed him. Of his wealth he made a generous use. Many examples of his benevolence in private are related, but the public spirit he displayed in sending Mr. Stanley to Central Africa in search of Dr. Livingstone outshone all his other efforts of this kind. Stanley's mission lasted from January 1871 to May 1872, and cost Bennett 10,000l. sterling. In 1874 a second expedition was undertaken to Central Africa by Stanley at the joint expense of the owner of the 'New York Herald' (Bennett's son) and the owner of the London 'Daily Telegraph' (Mr. E. L. Lawson), and resulted in extensive additions to geographical knowledge. Bennett died in New York on 1 June 1872. That timid reserve was not a characteristic of Bennett's may be gathered from the following pithy description of himself: 'Since I knew myself, all the real approbation I sought for was my own. If my conscience was satisfied on the score of morals, and my ambition on the matter of talent, I always felt easy. On this principle I have acted from my youth up, and on this principle I mean to die. Nothing can disturb my equanimity. I know myself, so does the Almighty. Is not that enough?'

[Memoirs of James Gordon Bennett and his times by a Jonrnalist, New York, 1855; Foreign Quarterly Review, 1842-43; North American Review (article by Parton), 102; Stanley's How I found Livingstone.]

R. H.