Editorial: 175 years of editorials and counting

Most self-penned histories of editorial boards trumpet the obvious successes.

The legislation motivated. The bad actors removed. The scandals unearthed and decried. The endorsed officials elected. The common-sense suggestions that then became enshrined in a great city’s legacy of progress (and backsliding).

We’ve had a few of those over the last 175 years.

But the most common condition of the editorial board? The provision of advice not taken.

We’ve had rather more of those.

But as we take part in this newspaper’s 175th anniversary celebration over the next several weeks, we hope to bring you some examples of what this page has had to say at various points in the city’s history, offered up with a bit of context, maybe a puff of pride, sometimes more than a tinge of regret. The page has reflected the quotidian opinion of the city’s leading newspaper, as subject to the changing winds of time and thinking and proprietorship as the city itself and, invariably, crafted without the benefit of time of long-term reflection, this being a daily publication.

Rarely has the newspaper suffered from undue humility.

“EVERY MAN’S DUTY — READ!” trumpeted this page in 1861, decrying “lickspittles” and other undesirables. “Let no Northern man or woman tolerate in his or her presence one word of treason,” we wrote, leading at the edge of the Civil War. “There is a republic!”

The editorial is not so much a suggestion or argument as, well, a command.

Not all of our editorials, though, were written from a position of such surety. And some took more effort to produce than you might think.

That never has been truer than in the first example we share, among the most famous editorials in the newspaper’s history: a piece that strived not to change policy or officialdom but to buoy the mood of a stressed-out city.

The paper had editorialized in September 1871 about shoddy building methods in Chicago: the walls “a hundred feet high but a single brick in thickness.” (Even 150 years later, those “all sham and shingles” issues hardly have gone away, leading us to editorialize about the lack of government oversight on building safety, the fire safety problems that go undetected, the dangerous abandoned buildings that remain to haunt the city.)

Weeks later, catastrophe struck.

On Oct. 9, a Monday evening, fire surrounded the Tribune’s offices, as it did so much of Chicago, leading the paper to rush to open another newsroom at 15 Canal St. and, on Oct. 11, to put out the following editorial, accompanying our story of the fire. Histories of the day make note that the Tribune as a business entity almost went down with its city that week. But we survived. And we had a suggestion or two for a city in the throes of an existential crisis, penned with the moral authority of a fellow sufferer.

You can read it for yourself, knowing more is to come.


In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.

With woe on every hand, with death in many strange places, with two or three hundred millions of our hard-earned property swept away in a few hours, the hearts of our men and women are still brave, and they look into the future with undaunted hearts. As there has never been such a calamity, so has there never been such cheerful fortitude in the face of desolation and ruin.

Thanks to the blessed charity of the good people of the United States, we shall not suffer from hunger or nakedness in this trying time. Hundreds of train-loads of provisions are coming forward to us with all speed from every quarter, from Maine to Omaha. Some have already arrived — more will reach us before these words are printed. Three-fourths of our inhabited area is still saved. The water supply will be speedily renewed. Steam fire engines from a dozen neighboring cities have already arrived, and more are on their way. It seems impossible that any further progress should be made by the flames, or that any new fire should break out that would not be instantly extinguished.

Already contracts have been made for rebuilding some of the burned blocks, and the clearing away of the debris will begin to-day, if the heat is so far subdued that the charred material can be handled. Field, Leiter & Co., and John V. Farwell & Co. will recommence business to-day. The money and securities in all the banks are safe. The railroads are working with all their energies to bring us out of our affliction. The three hundred millions of capital invested in these roads is bound to see us through. They have been built with special reference to a great commercial mart of this place, and they cannot fail to sustain us. CHICAGO MUST RISE AGAIN.

We do not belittle the calamity that has befallen us. The world has probably never seen the like of it — certainly not since Moscow burned. But the forces of nature, no less than the forces of reason require that the exchanges of a great region should be conducted here. Ten, twenty years may be required to reconstruct our fair city, but the capital to rebuild it fire-proof will be forthcoming. The losses we have suffered must be borne; but the place, the time, and the men are here, to commence at the bottom and work up again; not at the bottom neither, for we have credit in every land, and the experience of one upbuilding of Chicago to help us. Let us all cheer up, save what is yet left, and we shall come out right. The Christian world is coming to our relief. The worst is already over. In a few days more all the dangers will be past, and we can resume the battle of life with Christian faith and Western grit. Let us all cheer up!

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