- Historic Sites
The Admirable Three Millions
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
On July 24, 1832, a sixty-year-old businessman in Albany, New York, drew up an explosive will. The businessman was named William James, but historians call him William of Albany to distinguish him from the elder of his two famous grandsons.
Historians have not paid much attention to William of Albany. After all, he was only a businessman. Nevertheless, his story is fascinating, and his success in business set the stage for the dazzling successes that followed his family. I learned about him in a book about his namesake, Becoming William James (Cornell University Press, 1984), written by Howard M. Feinstein, a psychiatrist and an adjunct professor of psychology at Cornell.
William was born in Ireland in 1771, the second son of a Scotch-Irish farmer who wanted him to become a minister. He resisted, choosing instead to seek his fortune in the United States, to which he emigrated in 1789. After two years as a merchant’s clerk in Albany, William opened his own store, dealing in tobacco. A second store followed, and a third in 1800. By 1805 William’s stores sold produce as well as tobacco, and he was involved, with several partners, in transatlantic trade with Ireland.
He also was an early and important advocate of the plan promoted by the New York governor DeWitt Clinton to build a canal that would link the Hudson River to Lake Erie. In 1825, at the festivities that marked the opening of the Erie Canal, he addressed the crowd that gathered to watch the first boats begin the 363-mile trip from Albany to Buffalo.
William had made investments in real estate that show how clearly he understood the economic significance of the canal. Working with various agents, he bought forty thousand acres in Illinois alone, and in 1824 he purchased sixty thousand dollars’ worth of property in New York, including a saltworks and what was to become the village of Syracuse. After the canal opened, the value of that property soared. When cholera broke out in Albany in 1832, and William sat down to think about his will, he had much to think about—eleven children, his wife, and an estate worth three million dollars.
Two of his sons especially troubled him. One, named William, had rejected a career in business, become a minister, and deliberately settled far from Albany.
Another, Henry (the eventual father of the famous William and Henry), had firmly resisted his father’s efforts to push him into a career as a lawyer. Not only had he resisted, but at one point, after lavishing one hundred dollars on “segars” and other luxuries, he had run off from Union College in Schenectady, leaving his father to complain that the young man practiced “arts of low vileness and unblushing falsehood” and that he had “so debased himself as to leave his parents’ house in the character of a swindler.” Henry himself later admitted that in this period he “scarcely ever went to bed sober, and lost my self-respect almost utterly.” In his will, Feinstein tells us, William of Albany “was torn between a desire to protect his capital from his heirs and the wish to protect his heirs from the evils of capital.” Aside from a few minor bequests, he instructed that his estate was to be held in trust for twenty-one years—the legal limit.
By placing the estate in trust, William sought to achieve the control over his children (especially the defiant Henry) that had eluded him in life. His aim, William reminded the trustees, was “to discourage prodigality and vice, and to furnish an incentive to economy and usefulness.” The trustees were allowed to provide funds for education or to prepare his sons for “any reputable profession or trade,” and they were empowered to cut off any heir who led a “grossly immoral, idle or dishonorable life.”
Participation in the final division of the estate was not automatic. If they wanted their piece of the three-million-dollar pie, William’s heirs were required to “learn some one of the professions, trades or occupations usually pursued in this country as a livelihood and [to] assiduously practice the same.”
In short, the idleness and extravagance that tempted Henry would not be countenanced. Henry was left an annuity of $1,250, but not a cent more unless he straightened out.
William of Albany died (of a stroke, not cholera) in December 1832. The will was challenged almost immediately. To his widow William had left the house in Albany and an annuity of three thousand dollars to care for herself and her six minor children. She sued for more and won.
Young Henry also sued. A preliminary victory in 1837 enabled him to drop out of the Princeton Theological Seminary and indulge his desire for a trip to Europe. A larger victory in 1843 allowed him to take his wife and two infant sons to Europe for two years. As his father had feared, he never embraced a trade or profession. A nervous breakdown in 1844 was followed by a conversion to the philosophy of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. With the help of his share of what his novelist son later described as “the admirable three millions,” he lived as purely spiritual a life as money can buy and wrote books with titles like The Secret of Swedenborg, Christianity the Logic of Creation, and Society the Redeemed form of Man .