Remembering WSJ’s Vermont Royster on his 100th birthday
Vermont Connecticut Royster was the editor of The Wall Street Journal from 1958 to 1971, and he won two Pulitzer Prizes — the first in 1953 and the second in 1984.
Royster would have turned 100 today. On his 100th birthday, Marion Street Press has published my biography of Royster called “Thinking Things Over: Vermont Royster’s Legacy at The Wall Street Journal.”
Here is an excerpt:
This year, as it has every year since most people can remember, Vermont Royster’s writing will appear in The Wall Street Journal the day before Christmas with an editorial titled “In Hoc Anno Domini.”
Never mind that Royster, the editor of The Journal from 1958 to 1971, has been dead since 1996, or that few people alive today remember his writing. If you’re a journalist whose work keeps being republished long after you’re dead, then you’ve accomplished what every writer aspires to achieve: Your words outlive yourself.
The editorial, first written and published in 1949, explains the living conditions in the Roman Empire during the time after Jesus Christ’s death during the rule of Tiberius Caesar and how Christians were persecuted for their beliefs. During the rise of Christianity, a new belief spread, a belief that man should answer only to God, not to a tyrannical leader who lived in a faraway land. Royster wrote about how the apostle Paul stood fast against the Romans and stood firm in his beliefs.
Royster concluded the editorial with the following sentence: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” His intent, on the eve of the birthday of Jesus Christ, was to uplift his fellow man and to show how far we have come as civilized human beings — and what we have overcome to succeed.
The editorial is a moving piece of prose, much different from the editorials published in newspapers and on the Internet today. It combines Royster’s education in the classics and historical perspective with his graceful writing style. It includes words such as “ye” and “yoke” and “goeth” that harken back to a time in the English language when words were chosen more carefully and had great meaning.
It is a style that moves readers. Twenty years after the editorial first appeared, Paul Erickson of Aurora, Ill., wrote to Royster to let him know that he considered the editorial “beautiful, inspiring and encouraging.” Erickson concluded by telling Royster, “In the days that lie ahead, may each of us in the land of liberty have the courage to stand up to and face every threat of enslavement and bondage and say with Paul, ‘But I was free born.’”
To Royster, the enduring quality of the editorial was surprising. In a 1978 interview, he noted that most newspapers ran Christmas editorials that were messages of glad tidings, about peace and joy and the babe in the manger. “But I did not see the world that way that year,” he noted. “There was a blockade in Berlin, and war clouds were again scudding across the map of Europe. There were the first stirrings of racial unrest in the United States, and in the Soviet satellites people were learning what it was like to win the war and lose their freedom.”
The first year that the editorial ran, however, the paper received more mail about an editorial than ever before. By September 1950, the mail had not stopped. Ministers asked for copies to use in sermons. Executives wanted to use it on Christmas cards.
The editorial “In Hoc Anno Domini” has now run for more years than most people have lived their lives. Its endurance stands as a testament to the power, grace and beauty of Vermont Royster’s writing. Its message rings true today, as residents of countries throughout the world have recently overthrown oppressive governments that sought to control their every move the same way Paul defied the Roman rule. After it had run for a few years, Royster wanted to update the editorial but ended up leaving it alone. “The lessons to the United States and the world from the days of Paul and Tiberius Caesar are relevant and unchanged,” he said.
In 2012, after The Journal posted the editorial again on its website, it received 81 comments in the first week. One reader simply wrote, “I too look forward to this timeless and classic editorial each Christmas eve. May God bless the editorial staff at the WSJ as the only large written media outlet in the country that stands for the freedom provided by our founders and originalism.” Another added, “I look forward to reading this every year. The message is still fresh for me — each year I come through the battles of running my small manufacturing business with new perspectives of my wins and losses — but my hope in America lives.”
Royster was the voice of The Wall Street Journal at a time when the paper was becoming a prominent national force in business and politics. If The Journal had an opinion about an important topic or an issue from 1950 through 1970, Royster most likely wrote the editorial or column, or directed its writing. In doing so, he became one of the most important commentary journalists in the second half of the 20th century. Given all the changes in journalism in recent years, he was likely the last great column writer.
Royster is also important in the 21st century because of what has happened at his newspaper, now with the largest circulation in the United States, since he stopped writing for it. The Journal’s editorial page takes pride in the fact that Royster commanded it. Yet since 1971, when Royster ceased being involved in its day-to-day operations, the editorial page has become more and more conservative.
The editorials during Royster’s time – from the early 1950s to 1971 – were often liberal, or at least more accepting of liberal points of view. Royster did not consider himself a liberal. He saw himself as a free market thinker. The Journal has always prided itself for championing the free market. Royster himself disagreed with being called a “nineteenth-century liberal,” but he did note that his philosophical bent was that “we might often better things by changing them.”