HENRY VILLARD, FROM A PENNILESS IMMIGRANT TO THE JOURNALIST WHO COVERED ABRAHAM LINCOLN.
13 Years Old
His father stayed loyal to the old aristocratic regime, but other relatives sympathized with the revolutionists. Henry expressed his views when he refused to pray for the King during a service at school. Facing expulsion for his disobedience, Henry’s conservative father saw him as a disgrace to his family.
|The failed German Revolutions of 1848-1849 led to a large exodus of refugees.|
Henry was later sent off to study technology at a polytechnic school in Munich. Without telling his father, he instead enrolled in the University of Munich in the literature and writing program. At the end of his term, the eighteen-year-old was confronted with the reality that he soon had to face his father with the news that he had deceived him. He took the money he had left and decided to immigrate to the United States in 1853. It was more appealing to risk death on the high seas than the wrath of his father.
Henry Villard wrote of his first day in America, after disembarking in New York:
“My landing upon American soil took place under anything but auspicious circumstances. I was utterly destitute of money, had but a limited supply of wearing apparel, and that not suited to the approaching cold season, and I literally did not know a single person in New York or elsewhere in the Eastern States to whom I could apply for help and counsel. To crown all, I could not speak a word of English."
|Immigrants arriving in New York in the 1850s typically disembarked at South Street.|
Like many newly arrived immigrants, Villard found lodging in the city’s German community, among people who spoke his language. “Our landlord was Max Weber, an ex-officer of the Baden army, who had emigrated in consequence of his participation in the revolutionary outbreak of 1849,” Villard recalled, “He afterward rose to prominence in the War of the Rebellion. Among his regular boarders were several political exiles. These two circumstances made [Weber’s house] a favorite resort of the German refugees then still numerous in New York. Almost every evening there was a gathering of them in the tap-room, where there were noisy political discussions in true German beer-house style. They dwelt upon the Fatherland as well as the United States, and I listened to them with intense interest.” Villard found that the refugees were intensely interested in American politics and society, although they often had little actual experience of the United States beyond the Hudson River.
Villard decided that as intriguing as New York City was, he wanted to see the world to the west:
“I left New York on November 19, with eighteen dollars in my pocket and all my other possessions in a large hand-bag. I had decided to go via Philadelphia and Pittsburg to Cincinnati. My reason for choosing this city as my destination was solely the fact, gathered from my guide-book, that it had a large German population, including a considerable percentage of Bavarians.”
As Villard continued to move across the country he sought out German refugees along the way. Some were warm and friendly, others seemed locked in thoughts of Germany and showed no interest in America. A few were bitterly disappointed by the reality of American democracy.
When Villard got to Chicago he was visited by a step-uncle who reconciled him with the parents Villard had abandoned back in Germany and invited him to Belleville, in St. Clair County, Illinois. Belleville, founded in 1814, was the largest city in Illinois with a population of 2,941 in 1850 (part of the St. Louis Metro Area today) in the southern part of the state at the Mississippi River. At the time, it was a growing center for German immigrants who arrived after the failed Revolution of 1848. The population would more than double between 1850 and 1860. By 1870, 90% of the people living in Belleville would be German immigrants and their children.
Villard placed himself under the care of his uncle Theodore, a Belleville farmer, and his wife. He had never met them before, and his sudden arrival at their home must have been a surprise to them. He remembered his uncle behaving stiffly towards him on their first encounter. As they came to know each other, his uncle and aunt, and their eight children provided a surrogate family for the teenaged Villard. He had difficulties with his own parents in Germany that he did not have here with his immigrant family. “I found myself in a family circle again,” Villard wrote in his Memoirs, “I now felt the softening, elevating influences of this sweet home-life, and a sense of inner peace and happiness awoke in me that I had not felt for years.”
Villard threw himself into farm work and “with these occupations in the daytime, and reading, games, and music in the evening — my aunt and the eldest daughter were very musical — time passed very quickly, and Christmas, 1854, was at hand before we knew it.” The immigrant family brought their Christmas customs from their homeland, “The observance of it was in true German style, with a great tree which the whole family helped to decorate, and there were presents for everybody.”
Belleville was not only home to German immigrants, but it was also a center of German culture in Southern Illinois. Its stores and businesses were modeled on those found in Germany. Villard later recalled the many German beer halls where the men met for an hour or two each week to socialize and talk politics. Villard wrote that “The town had but six or seven thousand inhabitants, and had no special external attractions except that it contained an almost purely German community. I was told that the population included only a few hundred native Americans. We hardly ever heard any English spoken. The business signs were almost exclusively in German.” The fact that it was so German led to its rapid growth; “this very German character of the place and the adjacent settlements made Belleville peculiarly attractive to people of that nationality.”
One of the leading figures of this community was Gustav Koerner. He was a man of the law in Germany who became a refugee following a failed uprising in 1833 that he participated in. Koerner resumed the practice of law in the United States, and took a “lively interest in politics.” He became active in the Democratic Party and “rendered valuable service as a party manager and effective speaker both in English and in German,” according to Villard. American political parties routinely campaigned in English and German in those days. Villard charts Koerner’s amazing career:
“He was elected to both houses of the Legislature, made a circuit judge, and subsequently a member of the Supreme Court, and, finally, Lieutenant-Governor and ex officio President of the Senate. He was then holding that office. When the proslavery tendencies of his party became so pronounced under Presidents Pierce and Buchanan, he assisted in the formation of the Republican party, and remained one of its leaders till after the Civil War.”
Villard writes that Koerner was “intimately acquainted with Abraham Lincoln” and that he represented the U.S. during the Civil War in Madrid.
While Villard loved life in Belleville, he sought a bigger stage. He moved to Chicago in 1856, and that same year he joined the newly emerging anti-slavery party, the Republicans. The city was in the midst of a mayoral election. “I had no right to vote,” Villard tells us in his memoirs, “but that did not prevent me from enlisting as a violent partisan on the anti-Democratic side. The contest was fought directly over slavery.” There were rioting and street fighting at the polls as partisans of each side tried to obstruct their opponents from voting. When the pro-slavery Democrats won, Villard wrote that he “felt woefully depressed in spirit. It seemed to me almost as if the world would come to an end.”
That same year, the Territory of Kansas was becoming a place of conflict between pro- and anti-slavery forces. The territory would soon become a state and the Congress had decreed that the decision on whether slavery would be allowed there would be made by the people living in the territory. Abolitionists and slaveowners began to move to the state to give their side the most votes. Villard conceived a scheme:
“My project was nothing less than the forming of a society among the young Germans throughout the Northwest to secure a large tract of land in Kansas and settle the members upon it. The colony was to be, like the other Northern settlements, a vanguard of liberty, and to fight for free soil, if necessary. Of course, I aspired to be the head of the organization.”
Villard raised a lot of money in Chicago for the project, but not enough to start the colony. He decided to use some of the money to travel East on a fundraising swing through New York and Philadelphia. As his money ran low in he realized he had to abandon his dream. He also came to the grudging conclusion that his financial failure left him in an “awkward position.”
Villard was prevailed upon to take over a failing German-language newspaper in Racine. Wisconsin. A third of the people in the city of 12,000 was German and he thought the paper could succeed. It had been a Democratic Party paper and the Racine Republicans financed the purchase to turn it into a Republican outlet to the German immigrants they hoped to convert.
Most immigrants to the United States in the mid-1800s spoke languages other than English. Many lived and died in the U.S. without ever becoming fluent in English. They wanted to read news of their homelands and their adopted country in the languages they knew from birth. Newspapers in French, Dutch, German, and other languages abounded.
According to Leah Weinryb Grohsgal, the Senior Program Officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities and Coordinator of the National Digital Newspaper Program:
“The first German newspaper printed on American shores predated the Revolution by almost half a century! In fact, the first foreign-language newspaper in the United States was in German—Die Philadelphische Zeitung, begun by Benjamin Franklin in 1732 in his Philadelphia printing shop…these newspapers were critical for maintaining German American identity. For many German immigrants, the emphasis was on the first part of that identity—they were Germans first, and sought to become Americans without relinquishing their German-ness. The group established a pattern that other immigrant groups followed later. They came to America, settled into cultural enclaves, and constructed microcosms of their society in the new country.”
By 1860 there were an estimated 67 German newspapers just in the Old Northwest. Even Lincoln bought a German newspaper in Illinois to try to influence immigrant voters. Multilingual campaigning was an accepted part of American politics by every party except for the Know-Nothings.
When Villard took possession of the paper, he saw what a mess it was. “There was only an old-style hand press, on which six hundred copies could be printed in a working-day of twelve hours,” he wrote, “The appearance of the paper was indeed wretched, and its contents no better.” The readership itself was suspect. Villard reports that “There were nominally about three hundred and eighty names on the books, but a close examination proved that many of the rural subscribers had either not paid at all for years, or paid in farming produce — butter, eggs, chickens, potatoes, corn, and the like.”
Villard was editing one of only three German Republican newspapers in Wisconsin. There were more than twenty German Democratic papers arrayed against him in the state. The paper was particularly important because Villard published it during the Presidential Election of 1856, the first time a major party candidate, Republican John C. Freemont, ran on an explicitly anti-slavery platform. Villard’s job, he said, was “to persuade the local German voters to go with the Republican party.”
Villard was a practitioner of advocacy journalism. He became totally absorbed in the political campaign and particularly in the organization of immigrant voters. He took on the role of a campaigner to the German-speakers:
“I volunteered to organize a German wing of the local Republican club, and, although this was no easy task, owing to the stolid allegiance of my countrymen to the other party, I succeeded in working up the membership of nearly fifty from the smallest beginnings. We held frequent meetings, which gave me the long-desired opportunity to practice public speaking. I readily got over the first embarrassment, common to all beginners in that art, and acquired considerable fluency. I even addressed some gatherings of German voters especially brought together to listen to me. I was so much encouraged that I even ventured on two occasions on the bold experiment of speaking in English before general meetings of the Republican club.”
Villard’s growing popularity in Wisconsin brought him to the attention of a German paper in New York. He was soon hired as a Western political correspondent with the Neue Zeit, a progressive paper with a strong women’s rights focus. He was then hired as a contributor by the Staats-Zeitung in New York. This was a German paper of national renown, with the third-largest circulation of any newspaper in any language in New York City. In the male world of newspapers, it was unique in having a woman, Anna Uhl, at its helm. No figurehead, Anna Uhl “was the active business-manager” in Villard’s words. She sent him to cover the Lincoln Douglas Debates in 1858. His reporting there would endear him to Lincoln and make his career.
WHEN ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND STEPHEN DOUGLAS DEBATED HENRY VILLARD WAS THERE TO REPORT TO THE GERMAN COMMUNITY.
|There were seven debates between Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the race for the Senate seat from Illinois.|
When he saw the previously unknown Lincoln for the first time, Villard thought that by his appearance “there was nothing in favor of Lincoln.” Lincoln was a “lean, lank, indescribably gawky figure, [with] an odd-featured, wrinkled, inexpressive, and altogether uncomely face,” he wrote. The urbane Villard remarked that when speaking, Lincoln “used singularly awkward, almost absurd up-and-down and sidewise movements of his body to give emphasis to his arguments.” Villard remembered later that Lincoln’s “voice was naturally good,” but Lincoln “frequently raised it to an unnatural pitch.”
These deficits of physical presentation would be serious impediments in a campaign that hinged on a series of debates between Lincoln and Douglas on slavery and the future of the country. Lincoln stood against the spread of slavery beyond those states where it already existed. Douglas argued that each new state admitted to the Union should be permitted to decide for itself whether it would be slave or free, whether blacks were people or property.
|Lincoln followed Douglas from town to town in Illinois, challenging him at every stop to debate him. The better-known Douglas finally agreed to seven public debates.|
Villard met Lincoln at Freeport and would meet him “frequently afterward in the course of the campaign.” While put-off by Lincoln’s rural style, Villard wrote that Lincoln was “most approachable, good-natured, and full of wit and humor.” Some of Lincoln’s “humor” gave Villard doubts about the Illinois lawyer. “I could not take a real personal liking to the man,” Villard says, “owing to an inborn weakness for which he was even then notorious and so remained during his great public career. He was inordinately fond of jokes, anecdotes, and stories.”
|Huge crowds turned out for the debates. Held in the summer and fall of 1858, each debate opened with a one-hour argument from one candidate, followed by a ninety-minute response from the other. Then the first speaker would have another thirty minutes to reply. Unlike modern presidential “debates” there were no questions from journalists, although audiences frequently yelled questions, comments, and insults to Lincoln and Douglas.|
|Henry Villard, 1866|
While Villard was traveling the countryside, he wrote later, Lincoln “and I met accidentally, about nine o’clock on a hot, sultry evening, at a flag railroad station about twenty miles west of Springfield.” Lincoln “had been driven to the station in a buggy and left there alone. I was already there. The train that we intended to take for Springfield was about due. After vainly waiting for half an hour for its arrival, a thunderstorm compelled us to take refuge in an empty freight car standing on a side track, there being no buildings of any sort at the station.”
Two refugees from the weather, Lincoln, and Villard had a frank discussion. Here is how Villard recalled their conversation:
“We squatted down on the floor of the car and fell to talking on all sorts of subjects. It was then and there he told me that, when he was clerking in a country store, his highest political ambition was to be a member of the state Legislature. ‘Since then, of course,’ he said laughingly, ‘I have grown some, but my friends got me into THIS business [meaning the canvass]. I did not consider myself qualified for the United States Senate, and it took me a long time to persuade myself that I was. Now, to be sure,’ he continued, with another of his peculiar laughs, ‘I am convinced that I am good enough for it; but, in spite of it all, I am saying to myself every day: “It is too big a thing for you; you will never get it.” Mary [his wife] insists, however, that I am going to be Senator and President of the United States, too.’ These last words he followed with a roar of laughter, with his arms around his knees, and shaking all over with mirth at his wife’s ambition. ‘Just think,’ he exclaimed, ‘of such a sucker as me as President!’”Lincoln would, of course, be elected president just two years later and Henry Villard would develop a close journalistic relationship with him. Villard, who had arrived penniless in the United States in 1853, would one day own both The New York Post and the Nation Magazine, and a good deal more besides. These are stories we will develop in the next installment of The Immigrants’ Civil War.
GERMAN IMMIGRANT HENRY VILLARD WAS BECOMING ONE OF THE MOST PROMINENT JOURNALISTS IN CIVIL WAR ERA AMERICA.
|Lincoln's Farewell Address to Springfield, Illinois.|
|Lincoln Outside his Springfield House October of 1860. Illustration by Rees Print & Lithograph Company.|
Villard remembered Lincoln as a careful listener at these public receptions. The journalist wrote that when he met with visitors, Lincoln “showed remarkable tact in dealing with each of them, whether they were rough-looking Sangamon County farmers still addressing him familiarly as “Abe,” sleek and pert commercial travelers, staid merchants, sharp politicians; or preachers, lawyers, or other professional men.” Lincoln “showed a very quick and shrewd perception of and adaptation to individual characteristics and peculiarities. He never evaded a proper question or failed to give a fit answer,” according to Villard.
In February 1861, Lincoln began his long trip to Washington. The trip would take weeks. Lincoln planned on stopping at cities throughout the North along the way to build support for his presidency and opposition to Southern secession. Henry Villard had become close to Lincoln in his months of covering the Springfield interregnum and he was the only journalist allowed to accompany the president-elect as part of his official party. Villard wrote that “The start on the memorable journey was made shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of Monday, February 11. It was a clear, crisp winter day. Only about one hundred people, mostly personal friends, were assembled at the station to shake hands for the last time with their distinguished townsman. It was not strange that he yielded to the sad feelings which must have moved him at the thought of what lay behind and what was before him, and gave them utterance in a pathetic formal farewell to the gathering crowd…”
|Photo of Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861. With Civil War just weeks away, Lincoln concluded his Inaugural Address: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”|
“My Friends,– No one not in my position can appreciate the sadness I feel at this parting. To these people, I owe all that I am. Here I have lived more than a quarter of a century; here my children were born, and here one of them lies buried. I know not how soon I shall see you again. A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and in the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support; and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance, without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain. Again I bid you all an affectionate farewell.”Along the way, Lincoln’s train stopped at every major city and town. There the president-elect would speak and local officials would offer their support. At some stops, local Republicans would hold “serenades, torchlight processions, and gala theatrical performances,” according to Villard. In one week alone, Lincoln gave more than fifty speeches at train stations and city halls. This campaign by train “was a very great strain upon his physical and mental strength, and he was well-nigh worn out when he reached Buffalo” wrote Villard.
|This photo of Lincoln was taken during President-elect Lincoln's first sitting in Washington, D.C., the day after his arrival by train, on February 24, 1861. It was taken by Scottish immigrant Alexander Gardner. The immigrant photographer would go on to record iconic images of the Civil War.|
When Lincoln reached New York City on February 20th, he was aware that the city’s mayor was sympathetic to the South. Mayor Fernando Wood hoped that if the slave states proceeded to leave the Union that the Federal government would let them go without military conflict. Lincoln met with Wood and the city council at City Hall and told them that “there is nothing that can ever bring me willingly to consent to the destruction of this Union.” He was prepared to wage war against anyone who tried to break up the United States.
|When Lincoln reached Pennsylvania he received word that there was a plot to assassinate him in Baltimore. Instead of traveling with his inaugural party, he disguised himself and traveled with just one bodyguard making a secret night trip through Baltimore on February 23, 1861, on his way to the national capital for his inauguration. The cartoonist had a field day with his supposed disguise in a Scottish Kilt and Tam.|
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.