The Conservative Origins of the New York Times

Contributing editor Graeme Pente examines the founder of the New York Times.

My friends on the political left—the left proper, as distinct from liberals or the figments of Fox News’s feverish imagination—have sometimes expressed shock or dismay at the hostility The New York Times shows to elements of their program. The liberal paper of record’s efforts at providing “balance” have repeatedly tilted its editorial board to the right (consider, for example, ex-Wall Street Journal op-ed editor Bari Weiss’s attack on Democratic Socialist candidate for NY state senate Julia Salazar). Writers such as David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, and Paul Krugman are frequent apologists for the neoliberal order, which bends all aspects of life to market logic and imperatives (making truth itself into a commodity, as I recently argued). Frank Bruni recently suggested that billionaire former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg would be a wise choice for the Democrats to consider in 2020. And last month Krugman offered a spirited defense of the Affordable Care Act (while admitting that it has its shortcomings). The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald noted last year that, despite the Times’s aim to achieve diversity of opinion, the editorial board “fits squarely within the narrow, establishment, center-right to center-left range of opinion that prevails in elite opinion-making circles.” This limitation has been a part of the paper since the beginning. I do not describe its conservative origins as rightwing but rather in the traditional connotation of “conservative” as advocating cautious, gradual change while respecting existing institutions and past practice.[i] Striving for moderation at its founding during the divisive decade of the 1850s, the New York Times has long expressed opposition to radical ideas aimed at making the United States into a more just society.


Founding editor of the New York Times Henry J. Raymond.

Henry J. Raymond was the founding editor who, along with George Jones, established the paper in 1851. Raymond had cut his teeth as a journalist for Horace Greeley, the social reformer, self-made man, and founder of the widely-circulated New York Daily Tribune. Disagreeing with Greeley’s overtly political style and his reform advocacy, Raymond left the Tribune for the conservative Courier and Enquirer in the mid-1840s. A central disagreement between Raymond and Greeley revolved around the utopian socialist doctrine of Fourierism, or Association, which Greeley advocated. Association vowed to reorganize society into small communities of some 1,600 people who would do the type of work that most interested them, rendering labor attractive and economizing on domestic duties through communal living. The doctrine promised to remove domination from the lives of farmers and artisans facing an emerging industrial society by having them invest in the community’s finances through a joint-stock principle and working for the community instead of a capitalist. Popularized through the columns of the Tribune since 1842, interest in Association was widespread during the decade, especially among working and middle class Americans of the northeast who were deeply affected by the Panic of 1837. The well-educated and comfortable Raymond, by contrast, wrote frequently against the doctrine. The disagreement culminated in an exchange of twelve articles between the two journalists in their respective papers from November 1846 to May 1847. Raymond found Association’s commitment to non-domination troubling. He expressed concern that there would be “no supreme power, clothed with authority, and with the means of enforcing it.”[ii] Without such an authority, he saw threats to the sanctity of property, the family, and marriage. As one chronicler of the New York Times characterized the debate in the early twentieth century, Raymond had “succeeded in proving, to the entire satisfaction of everybody who agreed with him, that the doctrines advocated by the Tribune not only would be destructive of property right, family affection, and political association, but were contrary to the teachings of revealed religion.”[iii] Raymond’s appeal to property and marriage as the foundations of the political order put him firmly in defense of the status quo.


The Tribune‘s founder and editor Horace Greeley.

Raymond brought his brand of moderation to the New York Times in the 1850s. Where the Tribune advocated vigorously for Irish independence from British rule, Raymond appealed to people reluctant “to allow New York City to be used as an overseas base for [the] hardy perennial conflict.”[iv] Indeed, while the Tribune continued to advocate for social reform, the Times “distanced itself from radicalism” and “became the newspaper of the city’s merchant and financial elite.”[v] Raymond effected enough of a rapprochement with the proponents of Association to join the Republican Party, for the party’s tent of political interests was wide enough to accommodate both Raymond and the Fourierists. The newly formed party drew in elements from the defunct Whig Party (such as Greeley), antislavery advocates, Northern businessmen, radicals, and others. Key architects of the first Republican national platform of 1856, for instance, had been staunch supporters of Association, notably Parke Godwin and Greeley.[vi] Following the Civil War, however, Raymond’s restraint would set him against the more radical elements of the party during his term in the House of Representatives, from 1865 to 1867. He quickly cast his support behind President Andrew Johnson and a more lenient reconciliation with the traitors from the South. He also wrote the Address and Declaration of Principles for the National Union Convention of 1866, which sought to shore up the president’s flagging support in the face of Radical Republicans’ criticisms.[vii] The Radicals preferred a stricter approach to ex-Confederates and their eligibility to hold public office, and they supported federal protections of African American civil and political rights. With the tide of opinion within the party shifting toward the Radicals, Raymond retired from political life in 1867. He focused on his editorial duties with the Times until his death in 1869.

In the over twenty-five years of his career as a journalist, most of it spent at the head of the New York Times, Henry J. Raymond insisted on moderation, decency, and sobriety of manner. These characteristics—so highly prized in the respectability politics of elites[viii]—generally led Raymond and the Times to come up short of incisive critiques of the status quo and its injustices. Nearly one hundred and fifty years after its founding editor’s death, the Times tends to hold to tradition.

[i] I follow historian Adam Tuchinsky in this usage. In his Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune: Civil War-Era Socialism and the Crisis of Free Labor (Cornell University Press, 2009), Tuchinsky describes the Times as promising “conservatism in ‘political and social discussions,’” 156.

[ii] H. Greeley and H. J. Raymond, Association Discussed; or, The Socialism of the Tribune Examined, Being a Controversy between the New York Tribune and the Courier and Enquirer (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1847), 41.

[iii] Elmer Holmes Davis, History of the New York Times, 1851-1921 (New York: New York Times, 1921), 11.

[iv] Ibid., 12.

[v] Tuchinsky, Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, 156.

[vi] Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 374-375.

[vii] Eric Foner, Reconstruction, 1863-1877: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2014), 264.

[viii] Consider the numerous establishment politicians who decry President Trump’s bombastic rhetoric, vow to resist his program, and then vote in favor of his policies anyway. This phenomenon was most clearly on display in the recent bi-partisan support for a massive increase to military spending.

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