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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
For many years critical essayists upon the American businessman, and especially the more implacable assailants of the robber barons, have purred over a verdict once delivered by Charles Francis Adams, Jr., as predatory wildcats might purr over the discovery of a bed of catnip. “As I approach the end,” this elder brother of Henry Adams declared, “I am more than a little puzuled to account for the instances f have seen of business success—money-getting. It conies from a rather low instinct. Certainly, as far as my observation goes, it is rarely met in combination with the finer or more interesting traits of character. 1 have known, and known tolerably well, a good many ‘successful’ men—‘big’ financially—men famous during the last half-century; and a less interesting crowd I do not care to encounter. Not one that I have ever known would I care to meet again, either in this world or in the next; nor is one of them associated in my mind with the idea of humor, thought, or refinement. A set of mere money-getters and traders, they were essentially unattractive and uninteresting.” They showed a special aptitude and great concentration, Adams added; nothing more.
From frequent use, this quotation is now worn smooth as a pebble in a stream bed. Every time a lecturer or essayist wishes to descant on the meanness of business tycoons, he lugs out Adams’ biting statement. It has a special appeal for two reasons. First, nobody can question the fact that its author was an authority upon taste, refinement, and intellectual elevation. All the Adamses were, and particularly the fourth-generation Adamses: Henry, Brooks, and Charles Francis, Jr. When they spoke, no dogs barked. In the second place, Charles Francis had been a businessman himself and really knew the breed. After giving up law, he was for six years head of the Union Pacific Railroad—before being ousted by another businessman. He thus had the honor, as he later ostensibly considered it, of having failed in business. He could speak of “mere money-getters and traders,” of their “low instincts,” their lack of “humor, thought, or refinement,” and their “essentially unattractive and uninteresting” personalities as a man who knew: he had been in the midst of this repellent herd.
It is true that some people might suggest that Charles Francis Adams, Jr., would really have been less mordant about the vulgarity, illiteracy, and dullness of businessmen if he had himself succeeded in their field. He was ejected from the presidency of the Union Pacific by Jay Gould, certainly not a high type of business leader. This must have been rather humiliating, especially as Tay Gould accompanied the ejection with some caustic remarks about Adams’ lack of talent and vision. Hut any such suggestion would be unfair. Adams had great ability—even high intellectual distinction; his books, ranging from his Three Episodes of Massachusettes History to his biography of Richard Henry Dana, amply prove that. Hc was, in fact, one of the abler men of his day—the years between 1875 and 1915—in America.
A more cogent criticism of Adams’ rough and cynical verdict upon businessmen might be ventured: that alter the family’s cross-grained wont, he was rough and cynical about everything and everybody, a veritable Thersites. “I never was sympathetic or popular,” he said of his position as a citizen of Ouincy, Massachusetts, and we have abundant evidence to support the statement. Again, he once wrote his English friend Cecil Spring-Rice: “My dear fellow, I’m a crank; very few human beings can endure to have me near them.…”
But we would be unwise to base any discount of Adams’ statement upon the innate moroseiiess of the Adams tribe. Even a morose man may often hit the nail squarely on the head, and be as right in some diatribes as the cantankerous Thomas Carlyle, or the bumptious H. L. Mencken. Moreover, the critical essayists who quote Adams on businessmen, and who will keep on quoting him, so that his judgment becomes a giand national stereotype about business crassness, will not stop to recall that he made similar remarks about politicians, generals, college professors, writers, lawyers, Negroes, and Abraham Lincoln (about whom he was peculiarly nasty); they will quote him simply as an experienced authority and keen observer, bearing a much-honored name. The attack must either be met directly, or accepted as valid. We must agree that the typical American business leader, the “big” man, was a mere money-getter, a creature of low instincts, without humor, thought, or refinement, and of essentially unattractive and uninteresting personality, or we must prove the opposite.
Proof in any such matter is difficult to furnish, for reasons which we can best illustrate by imagining a conversation between Mr. Adams and one of the great business chieftains of his day. Any reasonable conversation, founded on a thorough knowledge of the two men, will do, for it will show what a complex problem in human communication is involved. Knowing Afr. Adams’ mind and experience well, and being thoroughly conversant with the mind and experience of Mr. John D. Rockefeller, f may venture to present the sort of dialogue in which the two might well have joined early in the year 1890. Let us say that, waiting for trains in Philadelphia—Adams going east to Boston, Rockefeller going west to Cleveland—they met by chance in the parlor of an exclusive hotel. They would bow to each other.