- Historic Sites
“We Are All Descended From Grandfathers!”
and… …a glimpse at the grandfathers of the candidates exhibits the wonderful diversity of American life
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
By the time the courts dissolved the huge combine in 1911, Rockefeller himself had long since retired from active participation in the business, and had found new challenges in philanthropy. He had always tithed, even when his income was a pittance, but clearly something more was needed, in those days before the income tax, to dispose of the rapidly accumulating millions. For as his philanthropic adviser, the former Baptist minister Frederick T. Gates, warned Rockefeller: “Your fortune is rolling up, rolling up like an avalanche! You must keep up with it! You must distribute it faster than it grows! If you do not, it will crush you and your children and your children’s children!”
All three generations—the father; the shy, dutiful son; the numerous grandchildren—addressed themselves to this task of distribution, with (in most cases) a notable sense of public service. They were not crushed, at least not entirely. Meanwhile the huge enterprise, however fragmented by the courts, only prospered the more. The automobile appeared, the oil-heated house, the diesel engine—there was no end to the new uses of petroleum, and the fortune could apparently never be spent.
It is, all in all, quite a creation for a Sunday school teacher. It must, if the news reaches him today, make him smile a little to hear one grandson, the candidate for the Presidency, forced to insist publicly, as he did over a year ago, that “I believe in private initiative and private enterprise.” What else, indeed, old John D. might ask, could have produced so much, for so many, for so long?
“When anybody is annoyed with me,” said Henry Cabot Lodge, the Elder, “he is sure to call me a Brahmin.” But to the late Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, whose annoyance passed all bounds, the senator from Massachusetts was much worse than that. He had defeated her husband, and defeated him on the issue dearest to his heart, the League of Nations, and so for years afterward she referred to the Senator as that “stinking snake.” Because Lodge indeed had his unforgiving and ruthless side, he has become over the years since his death in 1924 a liberal’s villain, so black-hearted and unprincipled an enemy of internationalism that the choice of his grandson and namesake to represent the United States at the United Nations came to superficial thinkers as a stroke of historical irony.
The “devil” theory of Lodge is convenient—he wore a Mephistophelian pointed beard—but it overlooks the greater intransigence of President Wilson. Lodge was fighting for reservations, not against the League in its entirety; the tragedy for humanity is that Wilson—or Mrs. Wilson during his incapacity—would not compromise at all.
One can dispense with the snake and the devil images of Lodge but the Brahmin one is truthful. On May 12, 1850, he was born into one of the few true aristocracies in America, one distinguished less by wealth than by intellect and public service. The clipper ships of his merchant father, John Ellerton Lodge, sailed out of Boston to China and the East; into his father’s granite mansion came such visitors as Longfellow, Agassiz, and Charles Sumner. Historians were familiar guests: Bancroft, who lived across the street, and Henry Adams, who took young Lodge in hand at Harvard and helped make him a historian too.
If you have the great poets read to you by your father when you are a child, if your English teacher is James Russell Lowell, if you are healthy, handsome, and mildly wealthy, if you are married to a girl so beautiful as to astound a painter like John Singer Sargent, if you are so well-travelled that you “greet the Venus of Milo like an old friend,” if interesting but untaxing jobs are found for you—if all this good fortune is handed you on a silver platter, so to speak, do you just settle back and become a dilettante?
Not if you are Henry Cabot Lodge. He made himself one career as a historian, and a popular and prolific one whose biographies of Washington, Hamilton, and Webster (all once friends of the family) were still selling fifty years after they were published.
Pressed on by a New England sense of duty as well as by bright ambition, he forced his way at the same time into the hurly-burly of politics—Harvard accent, elegant diction, cool manner, and other aristocratic handicaps notwithstanding. He made himself a superb practical politician and spent thirty-seven years in the Congress, first in the House, then in the Senate. In the former he strongly supported the so-called “Force” Bill, to protect the voting rights of Negroes in the South after Reconstruction. He fought for Civil Service reform—and through it helped bring his lifelong friend Theodore Roosevelt into national politics. He helped draft the Sherman antitrust laws and the Pure Food and Drug Act; he opposed Prohibition and votes for women. Hcesupported Roosevelt in America’s imperialistic adventures, made himself an expert on international affairs, and eventually became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He also lived to hear himself—alone of our seven grandfathers—mentioned for the Presidency (in the year that Harding won), and his response was characteristic. As he wrote his old friend, the historian John T. Morse, in 1919, “I think I should make an admirable President, [but] I am certain I should make a poor candidate. I have too long a record.” Nearly all of it befitted a Boston Brahmin.