COLUMNS

As it Were: 'Sunset' Cox had a way with words as newspaper owner

Ed Lentz
Guest Columnist

Samuel Sullivan Cox was a man of extraordinary abilities.  

Cox lived in Ohio during its formative years and through a bloody Civil War before moving to New York City later in life and ably represented his part of town in Congress.

Ed Lentz

Along the way he made enemies and friends as a classic conservative War Democrat who deplored the Civil War but supported the Union.  

Today a statue of him stands in Tomkins Park in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City.  

But that is not why he is remembered as one of the most significant figures in American journalism. 

For that one must return to Columbus and an editorial flight of fancy. 

Cox was born in Zanesville in 1824. His family had been in America since the early colonial period.  

Samuel Cox

Like many other young men of his generation, Cox’s father, Ezekiel, left the family home in New Jersey and came to Ohio to seek his fortune. He married Maria Matilda Sullivan, the daughter of a local judge in Zanesville, and became editor and publisher of a couple local newspapers.  

The Cox family consisted of 13 children. Samuel was the second son and attended schools in Zanesville before attending Athens College for two years and spending two years at Brown University, where he graduated in 1846 with a bachelor’s degree, which was a quite advanced education for this time. 

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Returning to Ohio, Cox studied law in Zanesville and then went to Cincinnati to complete his studies.  

In 1849, he returned to Zanesville and married Julia Buckingham. After a lengthy honeymoon tour of Europe, the couple returned to Ohio. Convinced that his future lay in journalism rather than law, Cox bought controlling interest in the Ohio Statesman newspaper in Columbus. The Statesman was the official voice of the Ohio Democratic party and the bitter opponent of the Whig and later Republican Ohio State Journal. 

Cox entered into the political fray defending Democratic positions and attacking opposing opinions. In this he, of course, was not alone. 

At this time, it was not all that expensive to start or continue a newspaper. All that was necessary was a printer who could set type and a press to print. Cox had both and set forth.  

But it was not his political or economic views that gained him lasting fame. It was his description of the end of a day. 

On May 19, 1853, the Ohio Statesman published an editorial by Cox, and it became something of a classic. It began with a flourish: 

“What a stormful sunset was that last night! How glorious the storm, and how splendid the setting of the sun! We do not remember ever to have seen the like on our round globe …” 

The editorial went on like this for a couple of paragraphs and then proceeded to talk a bit about clouds. 

“Presently a cloud appeared in the azure belt in the form of a castellated city. It became more vivid, revealing strange forms of peerless fames and alabaster temples and glories rare and grand in this mundane sphere …” 

After quoting Wordsworth at some length, Cox went on to describe the conclusion of the storm. 

“Candles are lighted. The piano strikes up. We feel it is good to have a home, good to be on the earth where such revelations of beauty and power may be made. And as we cannot refrain from reminding our readers of everything wonderful in our city, we have begun and ended our feeble etching of a sunset which comes so rarely that its glory should be committed to immortal type.” 

And it was just that. 

Many newspapers – national, state and local – made fun of the editorial and offered parodies of it.  

Other papers and a number of readers liked both the editorial and its author. From all this, the author earned the nickname of “Sunset,” and it stayed with him for the rest of his life. 

Cox sold his newspaper in 1855 and moved on to New York City and a career in local and national law and politics.

Acquiring some influence in Congress as a legislator, he was instrumental in getting Washington, Montana and the Dakotas admitted to the union as states. He also worked to get postal workers better pay and benefits. 

After his death in 1889, the postal workers remembered him and raised $10,000 – an immense sum at the time – to commission a statue of him in New York. When it was dedicated in 1900, about 2,500 postal workers marched down Broadway to Astor Place for the ceremonies. 

The statue was move in 1924 to Tomkins Square, where it remains as a tribute to the man they called “Sunset" Cox.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.