Joseph Medill (April 6, 1823 – March 16, 1899) was the business manager and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. He was a major factor in the creation of the Republican Party, the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln, and the start of the American Civil War. He was also briefly mayor of Chicago, his term in office occurring during two of the most important years of the city's history as the city tried to rebuild in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. Medill took a strong stand with regard to the role of a good newspaper in society, arguing that the press must represent truth, and goodness in order to advance the intellectual, social, and moral welfare of the public. Although he rejected unproven news, abhorring rumor and gossip, especially in the form of attacks, he was vocal in his own opinions, even when they were not founded in fact. His legacy lies not only in having built the Chicago Tribune into a powerful force in moral journalism, his descendants also became major figures in the newspaper business: grandson Robert R. McCormick took over the Tribune, while grandchildren Joseph Medill Patterson founded the New York Daily News and Eleanor Medill Patterson the Washington Times-Herald.
Joseph Medill was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada as a British citizen by nativity. At the age of nine, he and his family traveled the Erie Canal to Stark County, Ohio and called his father’s farm home for 12 years.
He graduated from Massilon Village Academy in 1843, but the family could not afford to send him to college due to losses incurred from a fire. Medill was mainly self-educated, mostly by reading any books he could come across, and he had a preference for history, travel, and biography books. Medill would travel nine miles to Canton, Illinois to study Latin, logic, and natural philosophy, and he would earn money by getting subscribers for Horace Greeley’s Weekly New York Tribune.
At the age of 21, Medill began to study law in Canton, Illinois and was admitted to the bar in November 1846. He practiced law for three years in New Philadelphia, Ohio, as the partner of George W. McIlvaine, who would later become chief justice of Ohio. In this capacity, he would also come to know such men as Salmon P. Chase, who would become Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Justice of the United States, and Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War.
Despite his training as a lawyer, Medill began spending more and more time in country newspaper offices. Lawyers, teachers, and anyone else interested in politics would gather in newspaper offices. Medill would spend his fee time arguing politics with fellow townspeople and would learn to set type, operate a hand press, and contribute an occasional editorial. He would continue to practice law for several years before becoming an editor, buying or establishing small newspapers with a bias towards Whig and Free Soil leanings, frequently in the name of the anti-slavery movement.
While helping to organize abolitionist political groups with the Whig Party during the start of his newspaper career in the late 1840s, Medill met his future wife Katharine, one of his former students when he taught at a district school. The couple would marry on September 2, 1852 and later had three girls named Elinor, Katharine, and Josephine.
Later in life, after he joined the Chicago Tribune and started making a name for himself as an editor, Medill became known as a man of eccentricities. He liked to fraternize with scientists such as Thomas Edison whenever possible, but there were times when he held sunspots accountable for various calamities, such as when Chicago suffered some 700 deaths from influenza during an unusually mild January. His suspicion of sunspots faded when he read about the new discovery of microbes. When a reporter blamed a plague in India on sunspots, the reporter was unaware of Medill’s shift in view; rumor has it that Medill edited the copy to replace all mention of “sunspots” for “microbes.”
On March 16, 1899, in San Antonio, Texas, and prior to the start of the Spanish-American War, Joseph Medill wrote to President William McKinley about the importance of the United States retaining the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. A few hours after sending the letter, Medill died of organic heart trouble at the age of 76. His last words were “What is the news this morning?”
The Chicago Tribune
In the spring of 1855, at the age of 32, Medill sold his interest in the Cleveland Leader, a paper he founded, and came to Chicago. He intended to purchase the eight-year-old, nearly-bankrupt Chicago Tribune but lacked the funds for a full buyout. He bought a one-third interest and became managing editor, while his friend and colleague, Charles H. Ray, bought a one-quarter interest to become editor-in-chief. Medill, who was skilled in business and editorial manners, and Ray, an ardent reformer, sought to reverse the Tribune’s policies, including its stances against Roman-Catholics and immigrants, but had to do so in a slow, careful fashion, so as not to alienate many of its subscribers. They envisioned the Tribune as a paper who could match Chicago’s considerable growth at the time, and they believed that Chicago would become the heart of the United States. Medill and Ray took active hold of the paper on July 21, and the property made money in their first month.
After serving as managing/general manager for eight years, Medill became editor-in-chief when Ray sold his stock. Medill maintained this position from November 1863 to August 1866, with the exception of a few short runs as the paper’s Washington correspondent. As the editor-in-chief, he installed a steam press and the first copper faced type ever used by an Illinois newspaper. He also believed that preparing, inspiring, and assembling great articles would require a unique kind of skill and fortitude that good minds and honest hearts could make.
After Horace White sold his interest to purchase into the Tribune and become editor in chief in 1866, Medill left the paper to tackle more political roles, until he became mayor in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
In 1873, after his resignation as mayor, Medill toured Europe and returned to Chicago with a new desire to return to the Tribune. He befriended a young Marshall Field, head of the world-famous Marshall Field & Company department store. Medill borrowed enough money from Field to buy up controlling shares of the Tribune, resuming a command of the paper that would last until his death. It took nine years for Medill to completely repay Field for the loan, and Medill was constantly annoyed whenever Field offered advice on how to run the paper.
Despite leaving public office, Medill continued to voice political concerns through the Tribune. He disapproved of the eight-hour day, arguing that it would increase living costs by one-fifth. The paper described labor organizers as “lazy demagogues” and “filth and scum,” and argued that they were betraying honest, free laborers. Medill denounced a city councilman who proposed an eight-hour day for city employees as a Communist.
Style and approach
As an editor, Medill employed a system of “simplified spelling” of certain words, which his staff soon adopted for themselves. The system underwent various changes but its influence stayed with the paper for many years. The Tribune would spell words such as “freight” as “frate,” and “through” as “thru.”
In an editorial printed on January 22, 1864, Medill summarized what he felt made a good newspaper. He argued that no paper should ever have a niche or a faction but that it should earnestly advocate right and combat wrong, rather than get involved in politics that may arise, in order to preserve its independence and unbiased nature. Social and personal relations, wealth, high position, and past service are nothing to the nature of a paper. He argued that independent press represent truth, progress, and patriotism to advance the intellectual, social, and moral welfare of the people.
Medill disdained the reporting of scandal if proof had yet to be validated. When the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the country’s best clergyman of the day, was accused of having an extra-marital affair in 1872, newspapers across the country reported on what Medill saw as mere rumor and gossip. Medill was not against the allegations per se, but he condemned this style of reporting. He dispatched his Washington correspondent to personally interview those involved in the scandal and to investigate the matter as a means of gathering facts, rather than depending on hearsay. By extensively investigating and covering developments in the scandal, the Tribune set an example for other newspapers to compare the truth and lies in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal as a barometer for American honesty. When Beecher was being tried for infidelity, the judge greatly limited press coverage of the trial; Tribune reporters solved this problem by finding an abandoned basement underneath the courthouse, and used left-over tubes to eavesdrop on the proceedings.
When Medill temporarily left the Tribune, he still contributed material in the form of letters to the editor written under an alias. Despite signing these letters as “Protection,” it was known that Medill was the author. As such, while Medill strictly adhered to his Republican leanings and denounced almost anyone who countered his opinion, he would still try to give voice to opposite opinions if those opinions were not in the form of an attack. Medill believed that a newspaper in service to the public must have a clear preference of political affiliation. He believed that the Republican Party had a larger proportion of intelligent and educated members, many of whom he judged to be patriotic business professionals with high moral worth.
In February 1854, abolition activists held their first meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin, where many historians believe was the start of the creation of the Republican Party. Medill called a similar meeting in March in the office of the Cleveland Leader, and the meeting was attended by 20 men, who all came from the Whig, Free Soil, and Democrat Parties. Salmon P. Chase was also in attendance. At this meeting, Medill proposed the name “Republican,” with those in attendance approving the name. The Republican Party held their first convention in Jackson, Michigan, cited as the party’s birthplace. The party’s primary platform consisted of having no slave states, abolishing slave territory, resisting all forms of pro-slavery laws, and ensuring that liberty was for all men.
Medill disliked the name “Whig,” as he thought it was unappealing to many in his parties and to foreigners who wanted to join in their causes. He realized that the name “Democrat” was satisfying in that it helped symbolize what the party stood for. Prior to the Ripon meeting of 1854, Medill published a series of articles that would give the history of the Whig party and urged the change of name from “Whig” to “Republican” as an effective counter to the name “Democrat.” Medill campaigned for Horace Greeley to join the cause as well, but although Greeley favored the party platform and the union of Whigs, Free-Soilers, and anti-slavery Democrats, Greeley was against the idea of dissolving the Whig party and using the name “Republican.” He felt the name would only be used once and temporarily, and that it could not be used again in the future. Salmon P. Chase was also against the name “Republican,” preferring to use the term “Free Democrats” instead, for the sake of continuity.
Medill was an intensely partisan man who was prone to taking what were conceived to be extreme views, and he never deviated from his party’s platforms or ideals. Many of his stances came from pride in his involvement in helping to start the Republican Party.
President Abraham Lincoln and Civil War
Abraham Lincoln was an acquaintance of Medill, having first met in 1855 when Lincoln, who was still practicing law at the time, came to the Tribune to purchase a subscription. His encounter with Medill lead to many lively conversations with each of Lincoln’s visits to Chicago. At around this time as well, Medill and the Tribune would begin their fight to bring the abolitionist agenda debate to national attention, an emphasis that would run from 1855-1860.
In December 1859, the plan to nominate Lincoln was decided upon by Medill, his Tribune partners, and Republican politicians. Lincoln’s charismatic manner, ability to unite conservative and radical sentiment, and unwillingness to compromise on the anti-slavery issues made him the perfect Republican candidate. Medill went to Washington as a correspondent and wrote several letters that would help launch Lincoln as a candidate, as well as lobby for Lincoln in Congress. Medill and Illinois State Senator Norman B. Judd were largely responsible for influencing the decision to hold the 1860 Republican national convention in Chicago, and Medill later had the Chicago Tribune endorse Lincoln for president. There exists speculation that had the convention been held elsewhere, Lincoln would not have become the Republican nominee.
Medill ordered extensive coverage devoted to Lincoln. Since Lincoln himself did not actively campaign, the Tribune distributed campaign materials over the nation’s Northwest region, including biographical sketches, pamphlets, speeches, Lincoln’s letters, and reports on Lincoln’s debates with Stephen A. Douglas. The Tribune would also analyze Lincoln’s life, career, and political stances in great detail in order to make him more appealing to the public.
As part of the effort to garner support for Lincoln, Medill engineered a unique campaign. Assembling a group of editors from all over the Midwest, Medill created a progressive plan. His concept was that newspapers from the Southern region of the Whig belt would start supporting Lincoln. In a wave of positive press, each paper would then support Lincoln in a successive wave, one paper after another, with the trend slowly heading northward. Each paper would spread its news up north, and another paper would pick up the news and continually promote it, pushing the Lincoln campaign until it reached the Tribune. This organized spreading of the news would correspond with, and foster the growth of, the Midwestern population’s increasing attention to Lincoln‘s campaign.
After the 1860 Presidential election, however, Lincoln and Medill developed a difference of opinion on several issues, including what Medill saw as Lincoln‘s slow and political decisions in freeing slaves. They would later be at odds with each other throughout Lincoln’s term in office, much of it through letter correspondence and at Lincoln’s own addresses.
The Tribune had sizable power and influence, and the paper helped contribute to the start of the Civil War. Medill and the Tribune vocally supported Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Under Medill’s leadership, the Tribune’s coverage of the Civil War, including battlefield reports, published political discussions, and pro-war propaganda, helped elevate the paper to a nationally-renowned level. The Tribune lost its reputation as a quaint, Midwestern paper when it began asking sharper, more critical questions aimed at the South, through longer, more passionate editorials and careful reporting methods. The Tribune was an effective means of spreading propaganda of the North and for rallying support behind the Union’s forces. The Tribune even called on people to organize into regiments. Medill went into the recruiting business and helped form the 8th Illinois Cavalry, commanded by Col. John F. Farnsworth, and 20 Tribune employees enlisted. As a result of Medill‘s campaigns and the paper‘s coverage of the war, the Tribune’s prestige and prosperity rose, and circulation went from 18,000 prior to the start of the war, to 40,000 by 1863.
Although Medill urged citizens to join the fight, he also complained to Lincoln that Illinois was offering more than its fair share of soldiers. Lincoln countered that Medill helped bring about the Civil War, so it was expected that Illinois would be a staunch supplier of troops. Medill’s brother William, also a former Tribune employee, enlisted with the 8th Illinois, but died as a result of wounds at the Battle of Gettysburg. Despite his personal loss and his friction with Lincoln, Medill assisted in Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 by advocating soldiers’ rights to vote.
The Great Chicago Fire
On September 10, 1871, the Tribune predicted disaster. The paper reasoned that as Chicago was rapidly growing as a city, its buildings were being built with shoddy materials and workmanship (along with walls that were only a single brick in thickness) and were vulnerable to fire damage.
On the Sunday night of October 8, much of the city’s center was wiped away by the Great Chicago Fire, a fire that started in the middle of the city and eventually engulfed four square miles. During the fire, the Tribune press room filled with smoke while reporters and staff continued to work on the paper. The building had to be abandoned, and there was no edition printed to show all that effort. The Tribune building was later destroyed by the blaze.
When news of the fire broke, Medill left his home and went to the printers to take charge of the ultimately futile effort to print that evening’s edition. When Sunday night turned into Monday morning, the fire continued to burn, yet Medill rented a job printing plant from the safe West Side and produced 20,000 copies of a one-page paper. He shared the plant with the rival Chicago Journal. After the fire subsided, the Tribune’s first post-fire issue served as unofficial morale boost for the city.
Mayor Joseph Medill
Medill’s reassertion of control over the Tribune during the crisis was swift; after the fire subsided, he left command of the paper. However, his actions were visible enough for citizens to notice. He ran for mayor on the "Fireproof" ticket (to emphasize his platform of rebuilding the city with thorough and effective means). Medill was also endorsed by the American Industrial Union, despite Medill’s disapproval of organized labor.
In October 1871, one year after the fire, citizens elected Medill to launch rebuilding efforts. Under Medill’s leadership, the city granted more power for the mayor's office. He helped create Chicago's first public library, reformed the police and fire departments, the latter as a visible consequence of the Great Chicago Fire. In the same month, the Tribune moved into a new building at its old location.
As a proponent of laws designed to enforce moral standards, Medill supported temperance laws. He argued that liquor was a strong factor in the city’s increasing crime rates and demanded stricter enforcement of an ordinance that required closing saloons and beer gardens on Sundays. He pointed out the fact that two-thirds of his constituents were of European birth, but said they could not understand why it was legal to drink on Saturday but illegal to drink on Sunday.
Spinal rheumatism and a degree of hearing-loss started to take its toll on Medill, and he did not have the energy to maintain his stand on many political issues. Due to his health problems and constant criticism of his leadership skills, he resigned as mayor in 1873. He asked the City Council for a leave of absence that was to last for the rest of his term, and he cited his hearing as his official reasoning for leaving (though this reason was seen by much of the populace as the least embarrassing way for Medill to resign). He appointed Lester L. Bond as acting mayor.
When writing about Medill’s death, newspapers noted him as a leader in an era of personal journalism, when that kind of reporting corresponded with the growing and bustling United States of the time. He determined guilt or innocence in news columns and used an unrelenting tone in either assailing his opponents or advocating a cause. His monument was the Chicago Tribune itself.
Medill's country estate in Wheaton, Illinois, which was later occupied by his grandson, Robert R. McCormick and named "Cantigny," is open to the public as a public garden, picnic area, and museum for the First Division of the US Army. The Medill-McCormick home is also open for tours as a museum.
The Medill School of Journalism, one of the many schools that comprise Northwestern University, and one of the top journalism schools in the United States, is named after Joseph Medill.
The lobby of the Tribune Tower in Chicago is known as the Hall of Inscriptions. These inscriptions relate to the freedom of the press and the value of liberty. Joseph Medill is represented along with figures such as Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, the United States Constitution, and the Gospel according to Saint John. Carved into the north wall of the lobby is a quote by Medill:
I want the Tribune to continue to be better after I am gone as it has been under my direction: an advocate of political and moral progress, and in all things to follow the line of common sense.
Of Medill's three daughters, Katharine and Elinor (known as Nellie) married, while Josephine did not. Katharine married Robert Sanderson McCormick, son of Medill's rival William Sanderson McCormick, and their son Robert Rutherford McCormick took over the Chicago Tribune. Nellie married Robert W. Patterson, Jr., an influential reporter at the Tribune. Each daughter named her firstborn son after her successful father: Katie had Joseph Medill McCormick, and Nellie had Joseph Medill Patterson. Nellie's son became a successful newspaper owner himself, founding the New York Daily News and rivaling the dynasty of William Randolph Hearst. Nellie's daughter, Cissy Patterson, also achieved fame as a publisher. Joseph Medill Patterson's daughter and Medill's great-granddaughter, Alicia Patterson, founded and edited the Long Island, NY Newsday. Medill's great-great grandson, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, married future United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
- John J. McPhaul. Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism. (Prentiss-Hall, 1962)
- Philip Kinsley. The Chicago Tribune: Its First Hundred Years, Vol 3: 1880-1990. (Chicago: Chicago Tribune, 1946).
- Chicago Tribune, The History of the Chicago Tribune. (Chicago, IL: Tribune Company, 1922)
- John Tebbel. An American Dynasty: The Story of the McCormicks, Medills, and Pattersons. (New York, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1947)
- Philip Kinsley, The Chicago Tribune: Its First Hundred Years, Vol. 1: 1847-1865 (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943)
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Chicago Tribune. The History of the Chicago Tribune. Chicago, IL: Tribune Company, 1922.
- Kinsley, Philip. The Chicago Tribune: Its First Hundred Years, Vol. 1: 1847-1865. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943.
- Kinsley, Philip. The Chicago Tribune: Its First Hundred Years, Vol 3: 1880-1990. Chicago: Chicago Tribune, 1946.
- Kinsley, Philip. 1944. Liberty and the press: A history of the Chicago tribune's fight to preserve a free press for the American people. The Chicago Tribune.
- McPhaul, John J. Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism. New York: Prentiss-Hall, 1962.
- Sawislak, Karen. 1995. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226735486
- Tebbel, John. An American Dynasty: The Story of the McCormicks, Medills, and Pattersons. New York, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1947.
- Wendt, Lloyd. 1979. Chicago Tribune: The Rise of a Great American Newspaper. Chicago: Rand McNally. ISBN 0528818260
All links retrieved August 10, 2022.
- Cantigny Park official site.
- Chicago Tribune official site.
- Medill School of Journalism official site.
- Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation official site.
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