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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
This is noteworthy not for its record of money-giving, which nowadays seems commonplace enough, but for a certain note of refinement in Carnegie’s mention of his debt to the Scottish-American , in his filial devotion to his father’s memory and to his mother, Margaret Morrison, and in his evident pride in association with the great librarian, surgeon, and educator, John Shaw Billings, and with President Harrison. Elsewhere he betrays the same pride in his friendship with the British author and statesman John Morley, for whom he bought Lord Acton’s library; with Matthew Arnold; with “my dear, dear friend, Richard Watson Gilder,” the cultivated editor who wrote a poem that led Carnegie to establish his Hero Fund; and with John Burroughs and Mark Twain. He was proud that when he made up the list of trustees for the Carnegie Institution, headed by John Hay, Elihu Root, and “my old friend,” the reformer-industrialist Abram S. Hewitt, and showed it to Theodore Roosevelt, the President commented: “You could not duplicate it.” Not even Charles Francis Adams would have dared suggest that the men on that list valued Carnegie for his wealth. They valued him for higher reasons, and they found him attractive, interesting, and elevated, as Lord Morley declared years after Carnegie’s death: His extraordinary freshness of spirit easily carried Arnold, Herbert Spencer, myself, and afterwards many others, high over an occasional crudity or haste in judgment such as befalls the best of us in ardent hours. People with a genius for picking up pins made as much as they liked of this: it was wiser to do justice to his spacious feel for the great objects of the world—for knowledge and its spread, invention, light, improvement of social relations, equal chances to the talents, the passion for peace. These are glorious things; a touch of exaggeration in expression is easy to set right.
Rockefeller had no such genius for friendship as Carnegie; and whereas Carnegie became intimate with authors and statesmen, he was content with the company of ministers, missionaries, educators, and experts in medicine and welfare work. But his parlors on West 54th Street in New York City were filled with them. Rockefeller was far less versatile than Carnegie, but far more gifted in foresight and organizing power; he was much less social and genial, but had a keener sense of humor; he was less an extrovert and individualist, but more efficient in devising co-operative undertakings. He was never for a moment dull or uninteresting to those who approached him cordially, and colorful tributes to his personal gifts were frequent. Not refinement, but something rather better, shines in this passage from his Reminiscences , as he describes the exhilarations of—what? Not of money-getting, but of begging for a cause: When I was but seventeen or eighteen I was elected as a trustee in the church. It was a mission branch, and occasionally I had to hear members who belonged to the main body speak of the mission as though it were not quite as good as the big mother church. This strengthened our resolve to show them that we could paddle our own canoe.
Our first church was not a very grand affair, and there was a mortgage of $2,000 on it which had been a dispiriting influence for years. The holder of the mortgage had long demanded that he should be paid, but somehow even the interest was barely kept up.… The matter came to a head one Sunday morning, when the minister announced from the pulpit that the §2,000 would have to be raised, or we should lose our church building. I therefore found myself at the door of the church as the congregation came and went.
As each member came by, I buttonholed him, and got him to promise to give something toward extinguishing that debt. I pleaded and urged, and almost threatened. As each one promised, I put his name and the amount down in my little book, and continued to solicit from every possible subscriber. The campaign for raising the money which started that morning after church, lasted for several months. It was a great undertaking to raise such a sum of money in small amounts ranging from a few cents to the more magnificent promise of gifts to be paid at the rate of twentyfive or fifty cents a week. The plan absorbed me. I contributed what I could, and my first ambition to earn more money was aroused by this and similar undertakings in which I was constantly engaged.
But at last the $2,000 was all in hand.
Of J. Pierpont Morgan a great deal could be and has been said in criticism; but nobody ever had the hardihood to suggest that he was uninteresting. Nor could anyone who talked with him of his student days at Göttingen, or who watched him preside over the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or who bid against him for a first edition of Milton’s Lycidas or Shelley’s Epipsychidion , have dared term him uncultivated or unrefined. He could talk as intelligently of French tapestries as of Wall Street. J. P. Morgan, Jr., who augmented his father’s library and dedicated it to research, was an almost equally striking and impressive servant of learning.