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“A Set of Mere Money-Getters”?
Were the great business tycoons of the nineteenth century only that? A distinguished historian says no—most emphatically
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
As this conversation, or any like it, will reveal, two remarkable men can so totally misunderstand each other that neither sees his companion’s remarkable traits. Who is to say that a man is cultivated, literate, or interesting, until we agree on definitions of cultivation, literacy, and interest? The Nobel prize winner in science at Berkeley may think the Harvard classicist abysmally dull and uneducated; a sports editor of the New York Times may be bored stiff by the prospect of meeting a Chicago sociologist at dinner. What Charles Lamb called “imperfect sympathies” inevitably play a part in assessments of cultivation, or manners.
One main rebuttal to be brought against Charles Francis Adams’ indictment is that it revealed in him an unbecoming and even untenable narrowness. Had he been more tolerant, versatile, and curious, he might have found any businessman fascinating. We do not possess much reliable evidence on the question of whether Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Sr., E. H. Harriman, John D. Rockefeller, or Henry Ford were “sparkling” conversationalists; what evidence we have suggests a quieter adjective. But they certainly had much to say; and if we heard that Mr. John Doe had sat down with one of them for an hour and had a dull time, we could well suspect that the fault lay with John Doe.
Nevertheless, even allowing for Adams’ imperfect sympathies, and for a certain condescension justifiable in a man whose ancestors included two Presidents, whose father had come near nomination for the post, who himself had led a regiment in the Civil War, and who had known almost everybody worth knowing in America and Britain —even allowing for this—the central question remains: Were the great business captains really men of “low instincts,” “mere money-getters and traders,” without “humor, thought, or refinement,” and “essentially unattractive and uninteresting”? We know that Adams thought them unattractive. So, doubtless, did many other people. But on the question of low instincts, submergence in mere money-accumulation, and lack of thought and refinement, more objective tests are available. We need not confine ourselves to subjective judgments.
We open Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography , a book which the distinguished art historian John C. Van Dyke felt honored to help him polish for publication, and we read his account of the day when his native town of Dunfermline in Scotland conferred its Freedom upon him. It was “the greatest honor I ever received,” he says. And he adds: “I was overwhelmed. Only two signatures upon the roll came between mine and Sir Walter Scott’s, who had been made a Burgess.” Was there no refinement in the man whose eyes filled with tears as he saw his signature stand beside Sir Walter Scott’s? We read further Carnegie’s record of the sequel of his sale of his steel company, and his assumption of the task of disposing of his surplus. He writes: One day my eyes happened to see a line in that most valuable paper, the Scottish-American , in which I had found many gems. This was the line: “The gods send thread for a web begun.”
It seemed almost as if it had been sent directly to me. This sank into my heart, and I resolved to begin at once my first web. True enough, the gods sent thread in the proper form. Dr. J. S. Billings, of the New York Public Libraries, came as their agent, and of dollars, five and a quarter millions went at one stroke for sixty-eight branch libraries, promised for New York City. Twenty more libraries for Brooklyn followed.
My father… had been one of the five pioneers in Dunfermline who combined and gave access to their few books to their less fortunate neighbors. I had followed in his footsteps by giving my native town a library—its foundation stone laid by my mother—so that this public library was really my first gift. It was followed by giving a public library and hall to Allegheny City, our first home in America. President Harrison kindly accompanied me from Washington and opened these buildings. Soon after this, Pittsburgh asked for a library, which was given. This developed, in due course, into a group of buildings embracing a museum, a picture gallery, technical schools, and the Margaret Morrison School for Young Women.