Godkin, E. L. (1831-1902)
E. L. Godkin (1831-1902)
Restless. Born in Moyne, Ireland, E. L. Godkin was perhaps the foremost editorial voice of post-Civil War America. He abandoned the study of law at the Middle Temple, London, to work in a publishing house, and his interest in the struggles of the people of Hungary led to the publication of his first book, The History of Hungary and the Magyars (1853). In 1856 he immigrated to New York, hoping to fulfill his long dream of starting a journal of his own. Two years later he married an American woman.
The Nation. In 1865 Philadelphia philanthropist and abolitionist James McKim helped Godkin to amass $100,000 from forty stockholders to capitalize his magazine, The Nation. Godkin wanted to write about politics and economics more accurately than the daily press and to advocate “whatever in legislation or manners seems likely to promote a more equal distribution of the fruits of progress and civilization.” Many stories in the publication emphasized the condition of blacks, the educational system, and the arts. The Nation reached a circulation often thousand, chiefly among the clergy, educators, and journalists. When the stockholders attempted to tell Godkin how to run The Nation, he reorganized it, and for fifteen years he and a handful of assistants produced the magazine.
An Unusual Political Blend. Godkin subscribed vehemently to the John Stuart Mill school of economic thought, which maintained government should never interfere with the workings of the economy. This fervent belief in economic laissez-faire, however, existed alongside popular hatred for trusts, or business monopolies. Although Godkin had little sympathy for labor’s political causes, he did believe that the government should take a larger role in social matters, such as racial equity and woman suffrage. He also supported public education and civil-service reform. Alongside his complex views. Godkin had a notably compact and precise editorial style, full of wit and irony, and he was at his best when attacking corrupt institutions.
Enter Villard. In 1881, exhausted by years of editing The Nation alone, Godkin sold the paper to railroad magnate and Civil War correspondent Henry Villard. At the same time Villard bought the New York Evening Post, which had been founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801. Along with Horace White and Carl Schurz, Villard edited the Post, and The Nation became a monthly supplement to the paper. Within two years Godkin became the chief editor of the Post.
Against Corruption. Godkin was most famous for his stand on the election of 1884 and uncovering the corruption of the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City. He labeled the 1884 Republican presidential nominee, James G. Blaine, unacceptably corrupt, even though Godkin himself was a Republican. In a famous piece that became known as the “deadly parallel” column, Godkin contrasted Blaine’s campaign promises of clean government to his long history of friendship with business magnates and special interests. In 1890 Godkin launched a spirited investigation of municipal politics in New York, including a widely reprinted series of biographies of members of the Democratic Party Executive Committee. Two of these men immediately sued Godkin for libel, but a grand jury dismissed the charges within days.
Legacy. Perhaps Godkin’s most enduring legacy is as a critic of the sensationalism that overtook daily journalism during the last decades of his career. He was a persistent voice against such “yellow journalism,” calling newspapers that engaged in it “the common sewer for public and private immorality,” emphasizing “the weakness of our poor humanity.” Godkin retired from the Post in 1899, and after a series of strokes he died in 1902.
William M. Armstrong, E. L. Godkin: A Biography (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1978);