Who coined the phrase? Who said, “Go West Young Man”? We know Horace Greeley wrote it and he was certainly the most prominent person to say it in a memorable way.
Horace Greeley was a self-made newspaperman, social critic, and advocate who built the influential New York Tribune into a mighty voice for change. He opposed monopolies, the death penalty, and slavery, and he advocated homestead land grants and egalitarianism. In a Tribune editorial dated July 13th, 1865, Greeley wrote, “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, Young man, go west and grow up with the country.”
Although he was a solid advocate for Western settlement, Greeley was attempting to speak to a different issue. He was addressing disgruntled civil servants in DC who has complained at length about low pay and high living costs in their city of employment. What Greeley meant was, “if you don’t like it here, go somewhere else.”
A number of historians credit the phrase to John B. Soule, writing in the Terre Haute Express in 1851. That credit lacks one key component, a specific date. If we’re sure someone said or wrote something, we usually know exactly when. With Soule, we do not, so a firm credit becomes problematic. He probably did say it, but just as likely, so did others before and after. In the 1800’s many thousands sought their fortunes out west. “ Go west,” was the era’s equivalent of saying, “apply for college.”
Greeley’s own story ended less optimistically. He ran against Ulysses S. Grant for president, was soundly defeated, lost his mind and his newspaper, and died insane. His assessment of Washington, DC, however, has in many ways endured the test of time.
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