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Edwin Lawrence Godkin (1831 - 1902):
Journalist and editor

Godkin was a student at Queen’s College, Belfast (later Queen's University) who became a prominent and celebrated journalist in the United States of America.

He was born at Moyne, County Wicklow, son of James Godkin, Congregationalist minister, journalist and newspaper editor. He was educated at a Congregationalist school at Wakefield, Yorkshire and entered Queen’s as a scholar at its opening in 1849. He was very active in College life, being the first President of the Queen’s College Literary and Scientific Society, founded in 1850. Known as the “Literific”, its membership included many of the ablest students in the College. Godkin was also involved – as the injured party – in one of the very rare cases of assault within the College; his assailant was disciplined and required to make a public apology to him.

Pace the 1907 biography by Rollo Ogden, Moody and Beckett in their history of Queen’s specifically contest the statement that Godkin attained a BA in 1851 and write that Godkin, though one of the more gifted students at the College, left in 1853 without taking a degree; one description of him in the Dictionary of American Biography noted his “marked intellectual ability, along with a disinclination to apply himself steadily to the required work of the college.”

Later, he would recall and describe his intellectual environment and outlook while at Queen’s:

I and the young men of my acquaintance were liberals, in the English sense. John Stuart Mill was our prophet, and Grote and Bentham were our daily food.

...whatever its value or defects, I and my friends were filled with the teachings of the laissez-faire school and had no doubt that its recent triumph in the abolition of the corn laws was sure to lead to wider ones in other countries. I have sqid thqt John Stuqrt Mill was our prophet, but America was our promised land. To the scoffs of the tories that our schemes were unpracticable, our answer was that in America, barring slavery, they were actually at work.

Instead, after a brief period at Lincoln’s Inn, London he became a journalist and writer; his first book, A History of Hungary and the Magyars, had appeared in 1853 while his first major journalistic assignment was covering the Crimean War (1854 - 1856) for the London Daily News. After the war he had a brief spell editing the Belfast newspaper the Northern Whig before moving across the Atlantic to his “promised land” in November 1856.

He toured the southern states which were soon to compose the Confederacy, writing articles on what he observed, particularly slavery of which he was unsurprisingly very critical, for the Daily News. In February 1858 he was called to the New York Bar, though he was not successful in making a legal career; he also married Francis Elizabeth Foote, daughter of an insurance millionaire. He returned to Europe in 1860 for reasons of health. When the American Civil War broke out he was emphatically pro-Union and returned to the United States in September 1862, continuing his reports to the Daily News, but also contributing to the New York Times, the North American Review, and Atlantic Monthly. He was for short spell editor of the Sanitary Commission Bulletin. In July 1865 came probably the most significant event in his career when he co-founded and was first editor of The Nation, an independent weekly political journal. The following year, the owners withdrew from the enterprise, Godkin assumed full charge, and retained an editorial role after the publication was sold to the New York Evening Post in 1881; in fact he became editor-in-chief of both publications until his health forced his resignation in 1899.

Godkin disseminated his clearly-held views not just in newspapers and journals but also in books: Reflections and Comments (1895), Problems of Modern Democracy (1896), and Unforeseen Tendencies of Democracy (1898). He was a soi-disant Liberal, and widely regarded as such. He was opposed to expansionist foreign policies, was anti-war, for example opposing the Spanish-American War of 1898; regarding Ireland, he followed his father’s preference for Home Rule, deeply disputatious in Ulster (on one occasion he had an interview on the subject with arh-Home Ruler William Gladstone, four-times British Prime Minister; he was relentless in his criticism of corruption and sharp practice in public office not least the New York City government of Tammany Hall. He did however embrace views which no “presentist” would find liberal: he leant in an anti-immigration direction, advocating a ban on immigration from southern and eastern Europe as he thought such populations brought corruption with them; he was opposed to female suffrage; and he proposed that immigrants and blacks should be made to pass intelligence tests in order to have the franchise.

Godkin was widely admired in British Liberal opinion and was friendly with constitutional lawyer and historian AV Dicey; the jurist, historian and politician, Belfast-born Viscount James Bryce; and the Anglophile (and later naturalised British citizen) American novelist Henry James OM. Godkin was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Oxford (the highly distinguished Doctor of Civil Law or DCL, June 1897). He received also an honorary degree from Harvard (MA); though he had declined that university's offer of a chair in History in 1870. The Edwin L. Godkin Lecture is an annual lecture hosted by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and was founded in 1903 in honour of Godkin.

He fell seriously ill with an apoplectic stroke in 1900, and returned to England in May 1901, and died at Greenway House, Brixham, on the Dart in south Devon, on 21 May 1902; he was buried on 28 May in Hazelbeach churchyard, near Market Harborough, Northamptonshire. Viscount Bryce’s inscription on his grave described him as a “Publicist, economist, moralist” and a “steadfast champion of good causes and high ideals”.

A memorial tablet to Godkin is located in the main entrance porch in the Lanyon Building, the main building of Queen’s University. Its text reads:

Scholar of this College, First President of the Literary and Scientific Society, Hon. M.A. Harvard, Hon. D.C.L. Oxford. In New York founded and edited The Nation through which he exercised a profound influence on American life and thought; A steadfast champion of good causes and high ideals, he wrought unceasingly to strengthen the ties between the nation whence he sprang, and that to which his services were given.

Sapere Aude

Born: 2 October 1831
Died: 21 May 1902
Richard Froggatt

TW Moody & JC Beckett: Queen’s Belfast 1845-1949, The History of a University (Faber & Faber, 1959); BM Walker & A McCreary: Degrees of Excellence: The Story of Queen’s Belfast 1845-1995 (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1994; quotation page 19); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Dictionary of Irish Biography; Kate Newmann: Dictionary of Ulster Biography (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1993)