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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
Ah, yes! defenders of Charles Francis Adams’ muchquoted passage will say; this is all very true of Carnegie and Rockefeller, Morgan and Harriman. They were leaders of consummate talents and strength, moving in the largest sphere of action, stimulated by the most dynamic forces of national life. Naturally they took on bigness. But Adams was thinking of businessmen of secondary and tertiary rank; the Jay Goulds who wrecked railroads, the Collis P. Huntingtons who manipulated legislatures, the William A. Clarks who bought their way into the Senate, the Henry Clay Fricks who ground the face of labor into the dust. Surely all would agree that they were vulgar moneygrubbers, uncultivated, uninteresting, and uninspiring. And in part we must agree. But for every business leader whose career supports Charles Francis Adams’ indictment, it is easy to identify ten of his time who do not.
It is plain that in his own special group of transportation executives, Charles Francis Adams did not know, or at least know well, Daniel Willard of the Baltimore & Ohio. Adams was head of the Union Pacific for six years; Willard was head of his road nearly thirty-two years. He began his career as a laborer on the Vermont Central, and worked his way up. In the First World War he was chairman of the War Industries Board. Near the close of the war, Pershing chose him to reorganize the French railway system. His influence with Congress, unapproached by that of any other railroad president, was largely responsible for the passage of the Transportation Act of 1920. In Baltimore he became chairman of the board of trustees of Johns Hopkins University, and a member of the board of the Municipal Art Society. He was one of the Board of Visitors of the Naval Academy. He relaxed with books and music; and, writes President R. W. Brown of the Reading Company, “he always looked more like a college professor than a railroad man. All of us remember the neatness and perfection of his dress—the well-known derby hat and umbrella, and always: books .”
One railroad builder and industrialist of his own era that Adams must have known well was Henry Villard. While he does not mention the man in his memoirs, it was impossible for him not to know Villard. It is not enough to say that Villard completed the Northern Pacific Railroad, anticipated James J. Hill in a massive campaign to stimulate immigration to the Northwest—he established 831 local immigration agents in Great Britain, and 124 on the Continent- and that he later helped organize the Edison General Electric Company. This son-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison became owner of the New York Evening Post and the Nation , giving the editors complete freedom; he paid the debts of the struggling University of Oregon when it was about to go under in 1883, and supported it for two ensuing years of legislative default. He wrote one of the best books of Civil War memoirs; he made important gifts to Harvard and Columbia. Villard, too, was assailed for certain transactions; but it would be preposterous to call this fine champion of many causes in political and social progress narrow, low, unrefined, or uninteresting.
If Adams had been looking for a truly typical businessman of secondary rank in his own transportation field, he might well have lighted upon that fellow Yankee Asa Packer. Leaving a Connecticut farm, Packer arrived at seventeen in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and set to work as a carpenter and joiner. For ten years he lived in a cabin of his own construction so that he could save money to buy a canal boat and begin transporting coal from Mauch Chunk to Philadelphia. He became chief builder of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Having made a fortune as president of that line, and having broadened his outlook by sitting in Congress, Judge Packer, as one of the original directors of the Bethlehem Iron Company, was struck by the fact that science was revolutionizing industry. Problems of metallurgy, chemistry, and engineering as well as economics challenged young men to master new complexities of science. To help meet the challenge he established Lehigh University, saw it well launched, and at his death left it nearly all of those accumulations that he did not give to the Episcopal Church.
Among his Massachusetts contemporaries, Adams must have heard all about the Chickerings. The first Chickering, son of a blacksmith, was a shy, retiring man who perfected the iron frame for pianos, made many of the best instruments in the country, and became president of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston. His two sons, carrying on the business, were diligent promoters of musical taste in America.