Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Godkin, Edwin Lawrence

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1524165Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement, Volume 2 — Godkin, Edwin Lawrence1912Charles Prestwood Lucas

GODKIN, EDWIN LAWRENCE (1831–1902), editor and author, born on 2 Oct. 1831 at his maternal grandmother's house at Moyne, co. Wicklow, was eldest child of James Godkin [q. v.], presbyterian clergyman and journalist with strong nationalist sympathies. His mother, Sarah Lawrence, was of Cromwelhan ancestry. Of delicate health, he spent his early childhood mainly in Wicklow, and when seven years old was sent to a preparatory school in Armagh, where his father was then living. For over four years, from 1841 to 1846, he was at Silcoates school for the children of congregational ministers, near Wakefield in Yorkshire. In 1846 he entered Queen's College, Belfast, Sir Robert Hart [q. v. Suppl. II] being a younger contemporary. He was first president of the Undergraduates' Literary and Scientific Society; at the time (he wrote later) 'John Stuart Mill was our prophet, but America was our Promised Land' (Life and Letters, i. p. 12). In 1851 he graduated B.A. and went to London to read for the bar at Lincoln's Inn, taking rooms in the Temple. He soon turned to authorship and journalism. Godkin undertook some literary work for Cassell's publishing house, with which his father was connected. In 1853 that firm published his first book, 'The History of Hungary and the Magyars from the Earliest Period to the Close of the Late War.' In October 1853 the 'Daily News' sent him out as special correspondent to Turkey on the eve of the Crimean war. He joined Omar Pasha's army, and was in the Crimea until the end of the war, returning home in September 1855. This experience gave him a lifelong hatred of war; he held that the most important result of the Crimean war was 'the creation and development of the special correspondents of newspapers' (Life and Letters, i. 100).

After writing for a short time for the 'Northern Whig' at Belfast, he went out in November 1856 to the United States, and almost immediately made a tour in the southern states, noting the effects of the slave system. He corresponded with the London 'Daily News,' and was admitted to the bar of the state of New York in Feb. 1858. In 1860 he made a tour in Europe for his health. While he was in Europe the American civil war broke out, and he strongly supported the North, writing to the 'Daily News' in condemnation of the British attitude with regard to the Trent incident. On returning to the United States in September 1862, while continuing his letters to the 'Daily News,' he wrote for the 'New York Times,' the 'North American Review,' and 'Atlantic Monthly.' He also took charge for a short time of the 'Sanitary Commission Bulletin.' In 1864 he wrote of himself 'I am by nature rather fitted for an outdoor than an indoor life. I have not got the literary temperament' (Life and Letters, i. 229). In July 1865 he established in New York a weekly journal 'The Nation,' to represent independent thought in the United States. The paper was started by subscription, but it did not pay in its early stages, and after the first year he took it over almost entirely as his private venture. He edited and wrote most of it till 1881, when he sold it to the 'Evening Post,' of which it became a kind of weekly edition. In 1883 he became editor in chief of both papers, retiring on account of ill-health in 1899. During most of this time his sub-editor was his friend, W. P. Garrison, son of William Lloyd Garrison.

The first prospectus of the 'Nation' stated that it 'will not be the organ of any party, sect, or body' (Life and Letters, i. 238). It thus inaugurated a new departure in American journalism, and it influenced Public opinion in the United States, not by the extent of its circulation, which was comparatively small, but by its literary power and transparent honesty. Its contributors included the most accomplished men of letters on both sides of the Atlantic. (Sir) Leslie Stephen [q. v. Suppl. II], who stayed with Godkin in New York in 1868 and formed a high opinion of his character and capacity, was English correspondent of the paper from that year till 1873 (Maitlanp's Life, i. 207-237). The 'Nation' 'was read by the two classes which in America have most to do with forming political and economic opinion, editors and university teachers' (Bryce, p. 378). Its superiority was 'due to one man, Mr. E. L. Godkin, with whom,' wrote J. R. Lowell, ' I do not always agree, but whose ability, information, and unflinching integrity have made the "Nation" what it is ' (Life and Letters, i. 251). He was a determined opponent of corruption in political and municipal life in America. Though his political sympathies had lain with the republican as against the democratic party, yet on public grounds, as a civil service reformer and as a freetrader, in 1884, he supported Cleveland's candidature for the presidency as against Blaine. His paper was the recognised organ of the independents or 'Mugwumps' between 1884 and 1894. On the other hand he strongly opposed Cleveland when in 1895 he attacked England in his Venezuelan message. He was especially outspoken against Tammany Hall and its system, and was subjected in consequence to virulent attacks and constant libel actions by the leaders of Tammany. In December 1894, after the temporary defeat of Tammany, largely or mainly owing to his efforts, he was presented with a loving cup 'in grateful recognition of fearless and unfaltering service to the city of New York' (Life and Letters, ii. 181). He was opposed to the Spanish-American war, as well as to the South African war of Great Britain, and to the American annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines. He was also opposed, on economic grounds, to high tariffs, to the silver policy, and to bimetallism.

In 1870 he decHned an offer of the professorship of history at Harvard University. In 1875 he removed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, but went back to New York in 1877. In 1875 he became a member of a commission appointed to devise a 'Plan for the government of cities in the State of New York,' which reported to the New York Legislature in 1877. In 1895 he was made an unpaid civil service commissioner. In 1889 he paid a visit to England, after an interval of twenty-seven years. Thereafter he kept in close touch with men and events in the United Kingdom, among the closest of his English friends being Mr. James Bryce and Professor A. V. Dicey. He was, like his father before him, a lifelong advocate of home rule for Ireland, and contributed two articles to the liberal 'Handbook of Home Rule' (1887) edited by Mr. Bryce. As home ruler, free trader, opponent of war and annexation, and advocate of honest and economical administration, he was in line with the advanced section of the hberal party in the United Kingdom, before socialism had come to the front, and he criticised with some bitterness the leaders on the tory side. His views are fully expounded in his 'Reflections and Comments' (New York, 1895) ; 'Problems of Modern Democracy' (New York, 1 896) ; and 'Unforeseen Tendencies of Democracy' (Boston, 1898). In 1897 he was made, to his great pleasure, an hon. D.C.L. of Oxford. After serious illness in 1900 he sailed for England in May 1901, spent some time in the New Forest, died at Greenway on the Dart in Devonshire on 21 May 1902, and was buried in Hazelbeach churchyard in Northamptonshire. An inscription on his grave by Mr. Bryce describes him as 'Publicist, economist and moralist.' In Ms memory the 'Godkin Lectures,' on 'The Essentials of Free Government and the Duties of the Citizen,' were established at Harvard University.

Godkin was married twice: (1) in 1859, at Newhaven, Connecticut, to Frances Elizabeth (d. 1875), elder daughter of Samuel Edmund Foote, by whom he had three children, one of whom, a son, survived him ; (2) in 1884 to Katherine, daughter of Abraham Sands. Both wives were of American birth.

Godkin was a man of marked talent. He combined with wide reading and knowledge of many countries a personal attraction which made him the 'faithful friend and charming companion' of the leaders of thought in both England and America. He gave his life's work to his adopted country, the United States, but he was never completely assimilated. Matthew Arnold considered him 'a typical specimen of the Irishman of culture ' {Life and Letters, ii. 1). His Irish blood gave him singular frankness and buoyancy of spirits, especially in his earlier years, together with a trenchant style, powers of sarcasm and humour, and keen sympathies. His political views, which were deemed by many Englishmen the 'soundest' and 'sanest' in America, were those of a philosophic radical, though in later and more pessimistic years 'a disillusioned radical' (Life and Letters, ii. 238). He belonged to the school, without sharing the pedantry, of the early Benthamites, and he remained to the end of his life an advanced liberal in the sense which would have been given to that term between 1848 and 1870. He was not so much a man of original ideas as original in the strength and constancy with which he held by his principles and beliefs. By the mere force of his convictions and the ability with which he illustrated them he evoked a fervent enthusiasm for the commonplaces of good government and honest administration.

[Authorities cited; Life and Letters of Edwin Lawrence Godkin, edited by Rollo Ogden, 1907; James Bryce, Studies in Contemporary Biography, 1903; J. F. Rhodes, Historical Essays, 1909; Letters of Alexander Macmillan, p. 235; The Times, 23 May 1902; Annual Register, 1902; private information.]

C. P. L.