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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
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.
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.