One winter night,” Joseph Medill would recall of the evening of February 22, 1844, “I saw a light on the Western horizon, distant seven miles, and a couple of hours later learned it was my father’s house and home which had made it, and there was no insurance.” Although there had been no loss of life, the conflagration and the devastation it wrought would utterly change young Medill’s situation, his prospects, and the course of his life—much as that Great Fire nearly three decades later would forever recast the fortunes of the extinguished prairie town of Chicago and the magisterial city that sprang from its ashes, with which Joseph Medill and his Tribune were to become so inextricably associated. Medill was not yet twenty-one in the winter of 1844; his plans to attend college were among the luxuries with which his family would be forced to dispense in the aftermath of the calamity. They “were left in no condition,” he remembered, “to pay the expenses of a college course, or even to spare my labors on the place, as my father was bedridden by inflammatory rheumatism.”
The ruined family farm, near the settlement of Massillon in Stark County, Ohio, some five miles from Canton, had not been Joseph Medill’s birthplace. Despite the ferocity with which he would later champion the preservation of the Union—by force and bloodshed if necessary—and demand unsparing retribution against those who had sought to sunder it, he had not been born on United States soil. Rather, he had entered the world near the town of St. Johns, on the then-uncertain border between New Brunswick, Canada, and northern Maine, on April 6, 1823. By delineating in perpetuity the disputed frontier in 1842, in a stroke the Webster-Ashburton Treaty relegated Medill’s birthplace to a colony of the abhorred Crown and disqualified the nineteen-year-old farm boy from ever becoming president of the United States.
A Belfast shipwright, Joseph Medill’s father, William Madill, had been raised in austere Presbyterianism. Madill married Margaret Corbett, the daughter of a captain of the English yeomanry, and a lifelong Methodist, in 1819. A woman who “read only sensible books,” Margaret Corbett Madill possessed a “vigorous and analytical mind.” She held “decided opinions on all subjects that interested her” and would be noted until the end of her eighty-seven years for her “sterling moral qualities and inflexible adherence to convictions of duty and right.” Almost immediately after their wedding, the young couple cast off the yoke of monarchy and sailed west from their native northern Ireland to the New World, changing the spelling of their surname upon arrival. They would impart to their American children their intelligence, their rigor, their unbending righteousness, and with these characteristics, perhaps, some vestige of unquiet Ulster, the site and source of so many centuries of bloody strife. Although the Medills had landed and established themselves first in New Brunswick, they moved their growing family to the farm outside Canton, Ohio, in 1832. Redheaded Joseph Meharry Medill was the eldest of the nine children that his mother, “a little more than twenty years my senior,” was to deliver. Of these, four boys and two girls would survive to adulthood.
What little formal education Joseph Medill obtained “came by self- denial and application.” The Medill children attended the Massillon Village Academy during the winter months, but the eldest, a voracious reader with an aptitude for composition, supplemented his education with the help of a well-disposed Quaker neighbor with a good library. After school and chores, Medill walked the three miles to the neighboring farm to return the latest volume he had consumed, borrow another, and walk the three miles home again. On Saturdays he made his way to Canton to take additional instruction from a local minister in mathematics, Latin, natural law, and the sciences. He read extensively in history, philosophy, and literature and developed a particular admiration for both Benjamin Franklin’s works (as well as for the man himself) and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. If the former provided him with something of the pattern for the self-made man he was becoming, the latter inculcated in him a lifelong reverence for Roman order and centralized republican government.
In addition to these pursuits, the teenaged Medill became an avid reader of Horace Greeley’s recently launched New York Tribune. With a lively intellect, a broad-ranging curiosity, and an inclination for radical politics, Greeley had thrown himself with gusto into the reform movements and iconoclastic fads of the mid-nineteenth century— vegetarianism, utopianism, Fourierist socialism, abolitionism, and many others. The Tribune, New York City’s leading Whig daily, grew to be the most influential newspaper in the nation. Greeley would become a legendary mentor to younger journalistic talent; those he cultivated came not only from the Northeast but from the far-flung states and territories, and indeed from abroad as well. Over the course of its existence the New York Tribune would host an admirable and heterogeneous succession of associate editors and correspondents, Charles Anderson Dana, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and, briefly, Karl Marx among them. The collective efforts of hundreds like young Joseph Medill, who helped organize local readers’ groups and sold subscriptions to earn pocket money, ensured that the weekly edition of that legendary “Journal of Politics, Literature and General Intelligence” would be read by tens of thousands before their copies were passed along to still larger numbers of readers in the remotest reaches of the growing Republic.
Although the scholar’s hopes of continuing his education in college had, in effect, gone up in flames, Medill adapted his accustomed academic practices to the study of law, in pursuit of a career that might eventually support him and his family. About once a month through 1845 and 1846 he walked into Canton to the law offices of Hiram Griswold, an eminence in local Whig circles, to return the law books he had recently finished studying, pick up new ones, and submit himself for recitation and examination. To help earn a living in the meantime, he sought to capitalize on his hard-won educational attainments by teaching school.
While teaching proved to be not only badly paid, but thankless, stul- tifying, and occasionally violent, it had introduced the handsome red- headed schoolmaster and aspiring lawyer to a pretty redheaded pupil eight years his junior, from New Philadelphia, in neighboring Tuscarawas County, Ohio. Like her admirer, Katherine Patrick was the daughter of an Ulsterman. James Patrick was a former associate judge of the court of common pleas, the local Indian agent and land commissioner, an elder of the Presbyterian church, a local Whig grandee, and editor and publisher of the county’s first newspaper, the Tuscarawas Chronicle. He had come to New Philadelphia to become a publisher in his own right after working as a printer and compositor in Norfolk, New York. Although Judge Patrick desperately missed the comparative cultivation of Belfast, stubbornly retaining a vestigial elegance of dress and expression into old age, he had endured the discomforts of the prairie because he had fallen in love with beautiful Katherine Westfall. After bearing him six children she died when her youngest (and her namesake) was a year old.
Little Katherine Patrick, “Kitty,” would be reared largely by two older sisters. All of the Patrick children would remain close throughout their lives, united in fear of their father’s awesome temper. Judge Patrick had brought the children into the family business by teaching them composition and typesetting, but it was his youngest, according to family lore, who was being groomed to remain with him as “the comfort of his old age.” That is, until young Joseph Medill began to take an interest in newspapers, composition, and typesetting, and came to spend a growing portion of his scant leisure time at the Tuscarawas Chronicle office, learning the craft under Kitty’s direction—and the dubious eye of her father. When the proposal came, Judge Patrick had no intention of allowing her to marry the son of a ruined farmer, whose own prospects were at best uncertain. But he was also unwilling to inflame youthful passion to the recklessness of elopement by responding with a flat no. Instead he demurred: the couple would be permitted to marry in the (unlikely) event that the prospective bridegroom should earn enough money to comfortably support a wife and family. “That,” Judge Patrick estimated complacently, “would settle it.”
Family lore notwithstanding, in old age Medill informed the Chicago Daily News that he had learned the rudiments of his craft not from his sweetheart at the Tuscarawas Chronicle, but from his friend J. T. Elliott, publisher of New Philadelphia’s only other newspaper and the Chronicle’s bitter rival. Hearing Elliott complain that the paper was short-staffed, Medill, still juggling legal studies with pedagogical duties but curious about publishing, offered to pay his own board in return for “the privilege of being taught.” The work absorbed him. “Elliott had me grind off his papers and ink the rollers and set type, and, in short, I hustled for him in every sense of the word.” It was as this point, Medill claimed almost half a century later (still resentful of Judge Patrick’s snub), that the management of the Tuscarawas Chronicle “got mad and sent for me, declaring that it was only fair that I come and help them out.” Not only did he effectively turn out both of New Philadelphia’s rival papers, Medill professed, but over the coming months both publications would extend his duties to include drafting and typesetting editorials as well. “Well, I worked all that winter and by the time half a year had rolled away was something of a printer. I could set type in good shape, do a fairly good piece of job work, and understood much of the inner workings of a newspaper office,” he recalled. “I liked it, and what I had taken up in fun proved to be my life work afterward.”
Finishing his legal training in Canton in November 1846, Medill was examined and admitted to the Ohio bar. The following spring he entered into a law partnership, hung out his shingle, and began to practice in the county seat, New Philadelphia. Given William Medill’s declining health, much of the responsibility for the younger Medill children had devolved to the eldest son. In an effort to establish his brothers in a career, Joseph Medill took a step that changed the direction not only of their lives but of his own as well. With some understanding of newspaper production, he conceived the idea of taking a year’s leave of absence from his law partnership, buying a newspaper, setting his brothers up in business, and teaching them what he knew. In 1849, with a loan of $500 that his infirm father had managed to scrape together, Medill bought the weekly Democratic Whig in neighboring Coshocton County. Then he established himself as editor. With his brothers he arrived at an arrangement much like his own earlier agreement with Elliott. They would be, in effect, unpaid apprentices, in exchange for his instruction in their new craft. Mindful of the Roman civic virtues that had captivated him since boyhood, Medill then renamed the paper the Coshocton Republican.
Despite the change of name, the newspaper would reaffirm its Whig connections while repudiating any previous association with the Democratic Party. Under its new editorship the paper’s relentless denunciations of slavery goaded local Whigs and Free Soilers to coalesce; the county Democratic Party suffered its first defeats at the ballot box as a result. Medill found himself called out frequently to answer for his incendiary editorial stances, occasionally with his fists. Bodily injury notwithstanding, the Coshocton Republican not only afforded Medill a platform on which to reinforce his journalistic inclinations, but presented him with a bullhorn for his political convictions.
One year’s leave of absence from the practice of law turned to two; at the end of his second year at the Coshocton Republican, Medill would recall, “I was launched for life on a newspaper career.” Propitiously, at that moment, a buyer in search of a country newspaper appeared bearing a letter for Medill from the editor of the Whig New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, who had taken notice of his younger colleague’s journalistic and political exertions. Medill sold the buyer the Coshocton Republican “at a fairly good price,” uprooted his siblings and parents, and made for Cleveland, which had grown prosperous and elegant in the two decades since the opening of the Ohio and Erie Canal. Ever watchful for far-flung and like-minded journalistic talent, Horace Greeley engaged Medill as the New York Tribune’s correspondent in the Western Reserve and came to know the young journalist personally on his visits west. In the meantime, when the Medills discovered that Cleveland was already home to two anti- slavery evening newspapers—one Whig, the other Free Soil—the brothers made their first foray into daily (or, more specifically, morning) newspaper publishing with the launch of the Daily Forest City in the spring of 1852.
In establishing the Forest City Medill had committed the proceeds from the Coshocton Republican and borrowed more money from old friends and associates. As he approached the age of thirty, he was not rich or even solvent. His editorial and political successes had reinforced his native unwillingness to compromise (at the expense, perhaps, of jocularity). He had not forgotten pretty, auburn-haired Kitty Patrick back in New Philadelphia—or the obstacles Judge Patrick had laid on the path to matrimony. According to the story handed down in Cissy Patterson’s branch of the family, having waited three years, Medill returned to New Philadelphia to claim his bride. With a grim authoritarian streak and a temper to equal his prospective son-in- law’s, Judge Patrick was furious, and the two men argued. On September 2, 1852, the young lovers married nevertheless. Judge Patrick refused to visit the couple afterward; Medill refused to correspond with his father-in-law for a decade. Considering the situation from more than a century’s distance, one descendant maintained that in leaving her father for her husband, Katherine Patrick Medill had merely substituted one tyrant for another.
However despotic Medill might have been domestically, he devoted his editorial and political energies increasingly to the overthrow of oppression. “The honor of giving birth to the Republican Party ought to be divided between Steve Douglas and myself,” he chortled later on the subject of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, its most notorious architect, Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, and his own role in the political aftermath: “I began by preaching the death of the Whig party in my little Whig paper; Douglas hastened it by pulling down the bars and letting the South into the free territory.”
While waging the battle for Katherine Patrick in New Philadelphia, Medill had been engaged on a second front in Cleveland, attempting to build upon the twin editorial and political triumphs he had engineered on a small scale back in Coshocton County. In the election of 1852 the Forest City exhorted Ohio’s Whigs and Free Soilers to join in supporting both the Whig platform and the party’s candidate, Mexican War hero General Winfield Scott. Scott’s ignominious loss (by some thirty thousand votes in Ohio alone, despite Medill’s vigorous efforts) to the dark horse Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce, and the national calamities that were to follow under the latter’s administration, however, had set in motion the fracture of the old Whig Party.