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THE PRESS-RIGHT OR WRONG
(Speech of Whitelaw Reid at the 108th annual banquet of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, May 4, 1876. Samuel D. Babcock, President of the Chamber, was in the chair, and proposed the following toast, to which Mr. Reid was called upon for a response: “The Press—right or wrong; when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be set right.”]
MR. PRESIDENT:—Lastly, Satan came also, the printer's, if not the public's devil, in propria persona! [Laughter.] The rest of you gentlemen have better provided for yourselves. Even the Chamber of Commerce took the benefit of clergy. The Presidential candidates and the representatives of the Administration and the leading statesmen who throng your hospitable board, all put forward as their counsel the Attorney-General [Alphonso Taft] of the United States. And, as one of his old clients at my left said a moment ago,
“a precious dear old counsel he was." (Laughter.]
The Press is without clergymen or counsel; and you doubtless wish it were also without voice. At this hour none of you have the least desire to hear anything or to say anything about the press. There are a number of very able gentlemen who were ranged along that platform-I utterly refuse to say whether I refer to Presidential candidates or not—but there were a number of very able gentlemen who were ranged along that table, who are very much more anxious to know what the press to-morrow morning will have to say about them [laughter), and I know it because I saw the care with which they handed up to the reporters the manuscript copies of their entirely unprepared and extempore remarks. [Laughter.]
Gentlemen, the press is a mild-spoken and truly modest institution which never chants its own praises. Unlike Walt Whitman, it never celebrates itself. Even if it did become me—one of the youngest of its conductors in New Yorkto undertake at this late hour to inflict upon you its eulogy, there are two circumstances which might well make me pause. It is an absurdity for me—an absurdity, indeed, for any of us—to assume to speak for the press of New York at a table where William Cullen Bryant sits silent. Besides, I have been reminded since I came here, by Dr. Chapin, that the pithiest eulogy ever pronounced upon the first editor of America, was pronounced in this very room and from that very platform by the man who at that time was the first of living editors in this country, when he said that he honored the memory of Benjamin Franklin because he was a journeyman printer who did not drink, a philosopher who wrote common sense, and an office-holder who did not steal. [Applause.]
One word only of any seriousness about your toast; it says: “ The Press—right or wrong; when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be set right.” Gentlemen, this is your affair. A stream will not rise higher than its fountain. The Hudson River will not flow backward over the Adirondacks. The press of New York is fed and sustained by the commerce of New York, and the press of New York to-day, bad as it is in many respects—and I take my full share of the blame it fairly deserves—is just what the merchants of New York choose to have it. If you want it better, you can make it better. So long as you are satisfied with it as it is, sustain it as it is, take it into your families and into your counting-rooms as it is, and encourage it as it is, it will remain what it is.
If, for instance, the venerable leader of your Bar, conspicuous through a long life for the practice of every virtue that adorns his profession and his race, is met on his return from the very jaws of the grave, as he re-enters the Court-room to undertake again the gratuitous championship of your cause against thieves who robbed you, with the slander that he is himself a thief of the meanest kind, a robber of defenceless women-I say if such a man is subject to persistent repetition of such a calumny in the very city he has honored
and served, and at the very end and crown of his life, it is because you do not choose to object to it and make your objection felt. A score of similar instances will readily occur to anyone who runs over in his memory the course of our municipal history for the last dozen years, but there is no time to repeat or even to refer to them here.
And so, Mr. President, because this throng of gentlemen, gathered about the doors, pay me the too great compliment by remaining standing to listen when they have started to go home-let me come back to the text you gave me, and the sentiment with which we began: “The Press—right or wrong; when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be set right.” [Applause.) The task in either case is to be performed by the merchants of New York, who have the power to do it and only need resolve that they will.
I congratulate you, gentlemen, on the continued attractions of the annual entertainment you offer us; above all, I congratulate you on having given us the great pleasure of meeting once more and seeing seated together at your table the first four citizens of the metropolis of the Empire State: Charles O'Conor, Peter Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, and John A. Dix. I thank you for the courtesy of your remembrance of the Press; and so to one and all, good-night. [Applause.]
GLADSTONE, ENGLAND'S GREATEST LEADER
(Sperch of Whitelaw Reid at a dinner given by the Irish-Americans to Justin McCarthy, New York City, October 2, 1886. Judge Edward Browne presided. Mr. Reid was called upon to speak to the toast, “ Gladstone, England's Greatest Leader."]
GENTLEMEN:-I am pleased to see that since this toast was sent me by your committee, it has been proof-read. As it came to me, it describes Mr. Gladstone as England's greatest Liberal leader. I thought you might well say that and more. It delights me to find that you have said more —that you have justly described him as England's greatest leader. [“ Hear! Hear!”] I do not forget that other, always remembered when Gladstone is mentioned, who edu
cated his party till it captured its opponents' place by first disguising and then adopting their measures. That was in its way as brilliant party leadership as the century has seen, and it placed an alien adventurer in the British peerage and enshrined his name in the grateful memory of a great party that vainly looks for Disraeli's successor. [Applause.) I do not forget a younger statesman, never to be forgotten henceforth by Irishmen, who revived an impoverished and exhausted people, stilled their dissensions, harmonized their conflicting plans, consolidated their chaotic forces, conducted a peaceful Parliamentary struggle in their behalf with incomparable pertinacity, coolness, and resources; and through storms and rough weather has held steadily on till even his enemies see now, in the very flush of their own temporary success, that in the end the victory of Parnell is sure. [Loud applause.] Great leaders both; great historic figures whom our grandchildren will study and analyze and admire.
But this man whom your toast honors, after a career that might have filled any man's ambition, became the head of the Empire whose mourning drum-beat heralds the rising sun on its journey round the world. That place he risked and lost, and risked again to give to an ill-treated powerless section of the Empire, not even friendly to his sway, Church Reform, Educational Reform, Land Reform, Liberty! (Cheers.] It was no sudden impulse and it is no short or recent record. It is more than seventeen years since Mr. Gladstone secured for Ireland the boon of disestablishment. It is nearly as long since he carried the first bill recognizing and seriously endeavoring to remedy the evils of Irish land tenure.
He has rarely been able to advance as rapidly or as far as he wished; and more than once he has gone by a way that few of us liked. But if he was not always right, he has been courageous enough to set himself right. If he made a mistake in our affairs when he said Jefferson Davis had founded a nation, he offered reparation when he secured the Geneva Arbitration, and loyally paid its award. If he made a mistake in Irish affairs in early attempts at an unwise coercion he more than made amends when he led that recent magnificent struggle in Parliament and before the English people, which ended in a defeat, it is true, but a
defeat more brilliant than many victories and more hopeful for Ireland. [Applause.]
And over what a length of road has he led the English people! From rotten boroughs to household suffrage; from a government of classes to a government more truly popular than any other in the world outside of Switzerland and the United States. Then consider the advance on Irish questions. From the iniquitous burden of a gigantic and extravagant church establishment, imposed upon the people of whom seven-eighths were of hostile faith, to disestablishment; from the principle stated by Lord Palmerston with brutal frankness that “tenant-right is landlord's wrong,” to judicial rents and the near prospect of tenant ownership on fair terms; from the arbitrary arrests of Irish leaders to the alliance of the Prime Minister and ruling party with the prisoner of Kilmainham Jail! [Loud cheers.] It has been no holiday parade, the leadership on a march like that. Long ago Mr. Disraeli flung at him the exultant taunt that the English people had had enough of his policy of confiscation; and so it proved for a time, for Mr. Disraeli turned him out. But Mr. Gladstone knew far better than his great rival did the deep and secret springs of English action, and he never judged from the temper of the House or a tour of the London drawing-rooms. Society, indeed, always disapproved of him, as it did of those kindred spirits, the anti-slavery leaders of American politics. But the frowns of Fifth Avenue and Beacon Street have not dimmed the fame of Sumner and Chase; of Seward and Lincoln [a voice: And of Wendell Phillips." Cheers]; nor does Belgravia control the future of Mr. Gladstone's career any more than it has been able to hinder his past.
More than any other statesman of his epoch, he has combined practical skill in the conduct of politics with a steadfast appeal to the highest moral considerations. To a leader of that sort defeats are only stepping-stones, and the end is not in doubt. A phrase once famous among us has sometimes seemed to me fit for English use about Ireland. A great man, a very great man, whose name sheds lasting honor upon our city said in an impulsive moment that he
never wanted to live in a country where the one-half was pinned to the other by bayonets. If Mr. Gladstone ever