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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
It would be interesting to know just what comment would have been made upon Adams’ assertions by still another son of Massachusetts, who left Amherst College to go to New York: Henry C. Folger. Beginning as a clerk, he rose to be head of Standard Oil of New York. But in college he had been deeply influenced by Emerson, and particularly by Emerson’s “Remarks at the Celebration of the gooth Anniversary of the Birth of William Shakespeare.” He became an enthusiastic student of Shakespeare and an expert on the vast Shakespeare bibliography. Aided by his wife, a Vassar graduate, he began quietly gathering books until he had an almost unrivalled collection of rarities. For obvious reasons, the British knew more about it than the Americans, and placed tremendous pressure on him to give it to Stratford on Avon. No, he declared, he wished to “help make the United States a center for literary study and progress.” In 1928 he quietly announced that he would erect a library for Shakespearean studies in Washington. He then had more than eighty of the aoo-odd existing copies of the First Folio, and some 70,000 volumes besides. This has been called the “most munificent gift ever made for the study of literature,” a statement that can be challenged only by admirers of another public-spirited businessman, the public transit magnate who founded the much more distinguished Henry E. Huntington Library on the Pacific Coast.
It may be objected that even the great business leaders who founded universities and scattered libraries over the land were not themselves deeply interested in literature, art, or science. Such criticism, however, is not merely shallow, but ignorant. The titans of industry were tremendously busy men, but they used their pitiful leisure time about as well as Presidents and governors did. We may call Collis Huntington’s habit of keeping a five-volume set of George Crabbe’s poems on his desk and reading in it by snatches an eccentricity, but it was the right kind of eccentricity.
Was there any lack of versatility in the zeal with which Leland Stanford established the great university that bears his name? Or maintained and improved extensive vineyards; bred, trained, and ran fine racing horses, meanwhile raising the equine standard for all California; and made himself a pioneer in the use of instantaneous photography to study the movements of his steeds and other animals? As for Andrew Mellon, a harsh critic might dismiss his magnificent art collection, the heart of our National Gallery, as mere ostentation. But not even the neo-muckraker could shrug off his finely creative passion for the beautification of the national capital, his zeal in giving substance to the Burnham-McKim-Olmsted-Saint-Gaudens plan of 1901, and his role in making Washington one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Let history take Charles Francis Adams’ statement about the tycoons, their “low instincts,” lack of “humor, thought, or refinement,” and “essentially unattractive and uninteresting” personalities, fold it in an expired bond of the Union Pacific with a sprig of withered rosemary on top, and bury it—where? Under Asa Packer’s Lehigh University, or John D. Rockefeller’s University of Chicago, or Henry Folger’s Shakespeare Library; anywhere, just so history buries it! The question is not why Adams made these assertions, for he liked in his atrabilious way to flutter the dovecotes. The real puzzle is why so many people, including economists, political scientists, and historians, have accepted and repeated the assertions, converting them into a stereotype. Yet it is perhaps not a puzzle after all. Part of the acceptance has been grounded upon ignorance of the real nature of industrialism in this country, its demands upon ability and character, and its achievements. Altogether too little sound industrial history has been written in readable terms. Then, too, many people are consciously or subconsciously envious of the rich man, and prone to discharge that envy in an attitude of intellectual superiority. They say, quite correctly, that American society is too materialistic, and are hence ready, quite incorrectly, to believe most rich men crassly ignoble. Finally, of course, stereotypes are restful; they save everybody the pain of thinking.
One final observation may have special pertinence. The major industrialists and financiers of the country have sometimes, especially in recent years, played a special role in the shaping of opinion. Far from being mere money-grubbers, they have more and more often been men of large outlook, who profited from their familiarity with the complex forces controlling production, transportation, and investment.