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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
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.
Not only has immersion in large domestic affairs made their judgments and influence valuable, but they have often possessed an international experience that men of lesser range have lacked. Walter Lippmann recently remarked, “For a long time, for most of this century, there has been a large divergence inside the business world and inside the Republican party on questions of provincialism and parochialism as against nationalism and internationalism”; and he added that internationalism is championed by “the bigger industrialists and bankers in the big cities, the businessmen who have had a wider experience at home and abroad.” To some extent this was true of the greater industrialists and financiers of the nineteenth century as well. The issues did not present themselves in the shape they later assumed, but these men tended to bring a world vision into the restricted American sphere. Andrew Carnegie, who endowed the Hague World Court and a foundation for international peace, was an internationalist; so was John D. Rockefeller, whose business was world-wide, who built the New Bodleian Library and restored Rheims Cathedral, and one of whose foundations stamped out yellow fever around the globe; so was J. P. Morgan, who took risks as the Anglo-French financier in the First World War that he would not have taken had he not felt the deepest affection for England and France; and so was Henry Ford, who established manufacturing plants of huge magnitude in Windsor, Ontario, and Dagenham, England, and lesser factories in France and Germany. This aspect of the minds of our “big” industrialists ought not to be overlooked. Many of them saw further in advance of their time than Charles Francis Adams, Jr., did, or than their other critics ever peered.