Skip to content
Joseph Medill buys the Chicago Tribune
The little newspaper on Clark Street was certainly no great prize. Neither, in the eyes of Joseph Meharry Medill, was Chicago, which he viewed as a "quagmire on the lake."
The 32-year-old crusading editor of the Cleveland Morning Leader could not be blamed for being reluctant to leave the security of Cleveland; he had already made a mark as an organizer of the Republican Party. But his heart said go. So, predictably, did Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, who was prone to urge young men to go west. "Go to Chicago," Greeley advised Medill. "Buy the Tribune."And so with Dr. Charles Ray, a political firebrand and medical doctor who had newspaper experience in Galena and Springfield, Medill pieced together a partnership to buy the Tribune; the new ownership was announced on this date in the pages of the paper.
The new owners not only put the struggling 8-year-old daily on solid financial footing but also created a forceful anti-slavery voice. In March 1857, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that slaves had to be returned to their masters from non-slave territory. "Slavery is now national," the Tribune editorialized. "Freedom has no local habitation nor abiding place save in the hearts of Freemen. Illinois in law has ceased to be a free State!"
The paper's remedy was published a few days later: "Let the next President be a Republican and 1860 will mark an era kindred with that of 1776." Medill worked tirelessly for the election of Abraham Lincoln as president and grimly set himself and his newspaper to support the savage war that followed Lincoln's election. His fervor for the Union cause was put to the test: Two of his brothers were killed in the Civil War.
Ray left the paper in 1863; in 1874, Medill purchased a controlling interest. In the decades after the Civil War, Medill's Tribune sided with the working man in battles against such high-handed industrialists and monopolists as the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.
His favorite editorial writer in those years was pioneering muckraker Henry Demarest Lloyd, who dubbed the robber barons "American Pashas." And yet Medill had little use for unions and other labor causes. The eight-hour day might be practical in some industries, he felt, but not all.
Medill not only laid the foundations of one of the country's major newspapers; he also established a publishing dynasty.
Three of his grandchildren went on to run papers: Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, Joseph M. Patterson of the New York Daily News, and Eleanor M. Patterson of the Washington Times-Herald. Medill died in 1899, shortly before his 76th birthday.
But in 44 years at the Tribune, he charted the newspaper's partisan course for decades to come.