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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
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.
Perhaps a greater genius burned in E. H. Harriman; if he exhibited less organizing ability than Rockefeller and less acumen than Carnegie, he had a Napoleonic fire which they lacked. Everyone who has studied the tremendous work he so swiftly accomplished in reorganizing the Illinois Central, the Union Pacific, and other railroads agrees that he brought to his problem an intellectual flash that was unique. He saw all the ramifications of a complex situation in a glance. Californians will not forget how he saved the Imperial Valley when the Colorado River, changing its course and pouring into the Salton basin, threatened its destruction; nor the fact that after the San Francisco earthquake and fire he hauled 224,000 refugees out of the city and brought in 1,600 carloads of supplies without charging a penny.
A man of low instincts, uninteresting and unattractive? The great dream of his later years was an aroundthe-world transportation system, and to that end he tried to achieve partial control of the South Manchuria Railway, and adumbrated a scheme for a 1,200-mile railroad crossing the Gobi Desert by the old caravan route. C. Hart Merriam, then Chief of the United States Biological Survey, tells us that nobody was a more enlightening conversationalist, for his talk “covered an amazing range of subjects, while his active mind showed a philosophic grasp of many of the problems that disturb our political and industrial worlds.” But it is fitting that the warmest praise of Harriman’s constructive energies should have come from a citizen of the state he benefited most, California—from old “John of the Mountains,” the naturalist John Muir. In a little booklet published after Harriman’s death, John Muir, an idealist if one ever lived, wrote that he was a builder .
He fairly reveled in heavy dynamical work and went about it naturally and unweariedly like glaciers making landscapes—cutting canyons through ridges, carrying off hills, laying rails and bridges over lakes and rivers, mountains and plains, making the nation’s ways straight and smooth and safe. He seemed to regard the whole continent as his farm and all the people as partners, stirring millions of workers into useful action, plowing, sowing, irrigating, mining, building cities and factories, farms and homes.…