Rogue Editor Tells Truth!

To the extent the Brooklyn Daily Eagle is remembered today, it is largely because of Walt Whitman. The poet edited the Eagle from 1846 to 1848, and returned for a second stint about a decade later.

We recently stumbled upon another modest reason for remembering the Eagle: it published, on Sunday, August 5, 1883—as the ailing Whitman, 64, languished 100 miles away in Camden, New Jersey—an 1,800 word item on “The Origin and Growth” of The Twilight Club, “A Successful Club Which Has Neither Club House Nor Caterer.”

Now, the Twilight Club itself could probably be safely forgotten, had it not provided a platform for John Swinton’s most famous speech. Rest assured, dear reader, this shaggy dog we’re following is leading us to a savory bone.

John Swinton (1829 – 1901), was a Scottish-American printer, newspaper editor and publisher. While working as a compositor for South Carolina’s state printer Swinton, bold and progressive, and prone to direct action, illegally taught Black people how to read and write. He is best remembered for an incendiary speech he gave to his fellow newspapermen as he left his position as editorial writer for the New York Daily Sun, to found an independent paper of his own.

At the Twilight Club, on April 12, 1883, Swinton said: “There is no such a thing in America as an independent press, unless it is out in country towns. You are all slaves. You know it, and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to express an honest opinion. If you expressed it, you would know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid $150 for keeping honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for doing similar things. If I should allow honest opinions to be printed in one issue of my paper, I would be like Othello before twenty-four hours: my occupation would be gone. The man who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the street hunting for another job. The business of a New York journalist is to distort the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to villify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread, or for what is about the same—his salary. You know this, and I know it; and what foolery to be toasting an ‘Independent Press’! We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are jumping-jacks. They pull the string and we dance. Our time, our talents, our lives, our possibilities, are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”

Four months later, in its windy piece on the Twilight Club, the Eagle gives us a glimpse of how Swinton’s speech was received at the time:

“The public has been interested in the Twilight Club through reports of its pleasant reunions from time to time….Even with a small attendance the interest has been kept up and it is noteworthy how confidential and frank many of the speakers become and how many candid utterances are made. A five minutes’ speech by John Swinton, of the Sun, on some of the things newspapermen dare not write about, will be recalled by all who heard it as a most eloquent and refreshing specimen of [Anglo-]Saxon.”

Leave a Comment