ames Gordon Bennett Sr. was the founder and the editor of the New York
Herald, a leading New York daily of national influence and importance. He
was one of a core group of publishers and editors who transformed and modernized
journalism in the mid-nineteenth century.
Bennett was born on September 1, 1795, in New Mill (Keith), Scotland, to a
Roman Catholic farming couple (names unknown). He attended public school, as
required by law, then at fifteen he entered Blair College, a Catholic seminary
in Aberdeen, to train for the priesthood, as his family desired. He had been
having doubts about Catholicism and organized religion in general, so he left
the seminary after four years. He later renounced his faith and was stridently
critical of the Catholic Church in his editorials. Although evidence is
limited, he apparently spent the next five years traveling to historical sights
in Scotland, reading, and occasionally writing for a periodical.
In 1819, Bennett immigrated to Nova Scotia where he taught bookkeeping, then
moved to Portland, Maine, and on to Boston by January 1820, where he was
enthralled by the historical sights of the Revolutionary War. He worked for
three years in Boston as a proofreader and a bookseller for a printing house,
and then was hired by the Charleston Courier in South Carolina. He
translated news from Spanish newspapers for the Courier, and was able to
observe the slavery system for which he gained sympathy. After ten months he
moved, in late 1823, to New York City where he worked as a freelance newspaper
writer and editorial assistant.
In late 1826, he was hired by Mordecai Noah as the Albany and Washington
correspondent for the New York Enquirer. Bennett has been credited with
introducing the French style of writing with panache and verve into American
journalism, which had been predominated by a more stolid, argumentative English
style. In 1829, the Enquirer merged with James Watson Webb’s New York
Courier and Bennett became the associate editor covering political and
banking issues. The Courier and Enquirer was the nation’s highest
circulation newspaper and placed its power behind the Andrew Jackson
administration, with Bennett writing editorials defending the president’s attack
on the National Bank. When the paper abruptly switched allegiance, he quit.
Bennett failed in attempts to start his own paper, the New York Globe,
and to buy Francis Blair’s Washington Globe. In 1833, he started a new
daily, the Philadelphia Pennsylvanian, as a pro-Jackson Democratic paper,
but he lost financial support when he criticized Martin Van Buren. He returned
to freelancing in New York City, where he noted the phenomenal success of
Benjamin Day’s New York Sun, the first penny paper, sold daily by
newsboys on the street rather than relying solely on annual subscriptions.
In May 1835, Bennett began publishing the New York Herald, which
combined public interest stories, sensational reports of crimes and disasters,
and coverage of national and international news. In April 1836, the Herald
shocked readers with front-page coverage of the murder of a prostitute, Helen
Jewett. During this episode, Bennett is credited with conducting the first
newspaper interview. That same year the Herald initiated a
cash-in-advance policy for advertisers, which would soon become standard
newspaper practice. By the end of the decade the Herald and the Sun
were the two highest-circulation dailies in America, a distinction the Herald
carried until Bennett’s retirement.
In December 1836, Bennett added a weekly edition of the paper, the Weekly
Herald, which was a precursor of nineteenth-century weeklies like
Leslie’s and Harper’s and twentieth-century newsmagazines like
Time and Newsweek. He was quick to use new technology or methods for
news transmission—railroads, news-boats, carrier pigeons, pony express,
telegraph. He added interest to his paper with illustrations produced from
woodcuts. The newspaper’s sensationalism and Bennett’s eagerness to attack
other editors in print, led to the “Great Moral War” of 1840 in which rivals
organized a boycott of the Herald by vendors, advertisers, and
subscribers. The boycott was partially successful since the Herald lost
circulation that was not regained until 1844.
The Herald was officially independent of party ties, a fact reflected
in its presidential endorsements of Whigs William Henry Harrison and Zachary
Taylor, Democrats James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce, and Republican John C.
Frémont. In his editorials, Bennett advocated America’s expansion into all of
North America and the Caribbean as its “Manifest Destiny.” In New York state
and municipal politics, he usually supported challengers against incumbents. He
defended slavery and Southern states’ rights, but balked at slavery’s expansion.
Although he had backed Frémont in 1856, Bennett threw his support to the
presidential administration of James Buchanan as sectional tensions rose. In the
1860 presidential campaign, the Herald at first endorsed Southern
Democrat John Breckinridge, but then in August shifted to Constitutional
Unionist John Bell. Even though he opposed Abraham Lincoln’s election and
presidential policies, Bennett backed the Union cause in the Civil War. He
promoted General George McClellan, but the Herald endorsed no candidate
in the 1864 presidential race. After Lincoln’s assassination, Bennett took a
lead role in transforming the late president into a martyr. The editor favored
most of President Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction proposals against
those of the Republican Congress.
In 1866, Bennett handed the reins of the Herald, still the
highest-circulation and most profitable newspaper in America, over to his
profligate, 25-year-old son, James Gordon Bennett Jr., under whose control the
paper declined steadily. On his deathbed, Bennett Sr. returned to the Catholic
faith and received last rites shortly before his death on June 1, 1872.