(The following article appeared in the April 13, 1994 issue of the now-defunct Lower East Side alternative newsweekly, Downtown).
After World War II, one of my grandfathers spent his nights lifting newspapers onto Chicago Tribune delivery trucks for over 20 years. But even before he began working for the Chicago Tribune the newspaper had already been around for a century.
The Chicago Tribune was founded in 1847 by James Kelly, John Wheeler and Joseph Forest. But in 1855 a 32-year-old Cleveland publisher named Joseph Medill purchased it and he ran the newspaper autocratically until the 1890s. Medill used the Chicago Tribune in the late 1850s as a political weapon of the newly created Republican Party and, according to An American Dynasty: The Story of the McCormicks, Medills and Pattersons by John Tebbel, “by 1859 his paper was surpassed in power nationally only by the New York Tribune, and it completely dominated his own part of the country.” The same book also noted that “the Tribune pushed the doubtful Western states into the Lincoln camp, and Medill himself, in collaboration with Dr. Ray and the Illinois politicians, was largely responsible for getting Lincoln nominated in the [Republican] convention” of 1860.
Despite its opposition to the extension of U.S. slavery and its support of Lincoln, however, “The Tribune was seldom on the side of democracy after the Civil War” and “Medill in those years set the pattern for individual, irresponsible journalism,” according to An American Dynasty. And even during the Civil War Medill privately expressed imperialist ambitions in relation to Mexico and proposed that emancipated African-Americans be exploited as cannon fodder in support of Northern white corporate interests. In a May 24, 1863 letter to his brother, William Medill, for instance, the Chicago Tribune owner wrote the following:
“We shall permit no nation to abuse Mexico but ourselves. We claim the right to turn her up on Uncle Sam’s knee and spank her bottom for not behaving herself as in 1846, but will permit no one else to touch her…In future wars, black and yellow men will be freely used to fight. We will not be so careful about spilling the blood of n—gers. England holds India with Sepoy troops who hate her. How easy for us to defeat the South with black troops who love the North…Old Abe says, `Bring on your n—gers. I want 200,000 of them to save my white boys as soon as I can get them.’"
During the 1870s and 1880s Medill’s Chicago Tribune continued to prosper and its daily circulation jumped from 40,000 to 80,000 as the newspaper apparently began functioning as a classist, anti-labor propaganda instrument in Chicago. As An American Dynasty recalled, “The decade of the 1880s in Medill history is notable chiefly for the Tribune’s bitter opposition to labor in any and all disputes” and the Chicago Tribune opposed “any politician who appeared to be on the people’s side.” Medill’s Chicago Tribune, for instance, opposed U.S. labor’s demand for an eight-hour day. When he died in 1899, Medill left $2 million to his two daughters--Elinor Medill Patterson and Katherine Medill-McCormick—while his stock in the Tribune Company was left in trust to his sons-in-law and his attorney.
Next: The Chicago Tribune’s Hidden History—Part 2