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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

James Gordon Bennett

From: Appletons' Journal: a magazine of general literature. Volume 8, Issue 173
D. Appleton and Company, New York, July 20, 1872.
Reprinted from London Saturday Review.

James Gordon Bennett (the elder), whose obituary appears here, was the founder of the New York Herald newspaper and the father of James Gordon Bennett (the younger), co-founder of the Commercial Cable Company. From published accounts, it appears that the son was held in just as high regard as his father.

James Gordon Bennett,
daguerreotype by
Mathew Brady Studio, 1851/52.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-USZ62-109995

James Gordon Bennett

New York may be congratulated on having within a short period lost two of its foremost citizens. Fisk was shot a few months ago, and it is perhaps from one point of view an encouraging circumstance that there should be such general reluctance to hang the murderer. James Gordon Bennett has died a natural death, but unfortunately his newspaper survives him. In his own way he was quite as great a man - we are thinking of greatness in its Jonathan Wild sense - as Fisk; but he kept on the safe side of the law, and he was spared the expense of having to share his plunder with the judges. His career is a conspicuous example of prosperous infamy. An American apologist has suggested that his character might be described as good so far as it went, but “defective.” He was shrewd, enterprising, audacious, liberal; “visit him, and you see before you a quiet-mannered, courteous, and good-natured old gentleman, who is on excellent terms with himself and with the world.” But beyond that there was a blank. “That region of the mind where convictions, the sense of truth and honor, public spirit, and patriotism, have their sphere, is in this man mere vacancy.” He was, in fact, an utterly unscrupulous person, who had no desire to do evil for its own sake, but who had made up his mind to push his way in the world, and who was ready to follow any road that seemed to suit his purpose.

It was his combination of rare shrewdness and profligate audacity which rendered his example so corrupting and dangerous. When, in the course of some quarrel, his adversary called him a pedler, he at once adopted the name. He “peddled,” he said, in thoughts, and feelings, and intellectual truths, and he was going in for a wholesale business in the same line. A pedler has a prescriptive right to call his wares by such names as he pleases, but the commodities out of which Bennett began to make his fortune were, in plain language, obscenity and personal defamation: The New-York Herald, which he invented and continued to manage to the last hour of his life, was at first an obscene, scurrilous print, sold at a cent, printed by stealth on other people's types, and published in a cellar. The office of the Herald is now one of the grandest houses in Broadway; the paper itself is one of the richest literary properties in the world, and it has cast off the revolting grossness of its early years. But it has always been conducted on the same principle - the principle of providing any thing that seemed likely to pay, without regard to the moral texture of the article. The justification of the commodity was simply that people were willing to buy it, and Bennett never troubled himself about any thing else. He was, as his admirers were accustomed to boast, peculiarly exempt from prejudices. He had no prejudice in favor of filth; he would just as soon sell honest, wholesome literature if more customers could be found for it. The Herald in its original form was akin to the Age and Satirist, except that its nastiness and personalities were more daring and abominable. Bennett, however, was quite shrewd enough to see that this sort of thing could not be made permanently remunerative, and he gradually toned down the open indecency of his journal, at the same time paying great attention to general and especially to commercial news. Bennett had only one object in view, to please the public so that they should buy his paper, and he had early come to the conclusion that the best method of doing so was to gratify the passions and echo the opinions of the hour. “I wish never to be a day in advance of the people,” he used to say. “A journal to be great must be with the people, and must work in the sphere of their instincts,” was another of his maxims; and he laid it down that the “best intelligence and wisdom is no more than what they (the masses) are willing to have exist in society.”

He deliberately and for a purely selfish purpose appealed to the worst side of a democratic society, fawning upon the multitude, exalting its prejudices and caprices, and ministering eagerly to its prurient appetites and mean jealousies, and it can hardly be doubted that the result of his labors was to intensify the despotism of majorities and the truculence of the mob. No reputation was safe from his attacks: he sided with every party in turn, and was true to none. He boasted of his independence. “We are independent of every one,” he used to say; “like Luther, like Paul, we go on our own hook.” His independence extended equally to principles and convictions. One opinion was just as good in his eyes as another; he had no invidious preferences, no embarrassing belief in right and wrong; all be wanted was the sort of opinion that would sell his paper, and if at any time be found he had made a mistake and laid in the wrong article, he never hesitated to change it instantly. His open cynicism and contempt for what be deemed the affectations of sincerity and earnestness perhaps did more harm than his outrages on good taste and public morality. His abominable attacks on private character had not even the justification of honest indignation; they had no other motive than to make sport for the public, and possibly to add to the profits of his paper in another way.

- London Saturday Review

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