- Historic Sites
How Did They Do It?
The lessons of their success
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
Imagine the uproar that would ensue if a columnist for The New York Times —one of the most prestigious posts in American journalism—were to include in a column a flat-out bigoted statement of the all-X-are-Y variety. Fortunately we have reached a point in this country where it is almost inconceivable that such a statement would appear in such a venue.
Or have we?
“In business, of course,” Bob Herbert wrote in The New York Times on November 21, 1993, “it is dollars above all. If you have to step over corpses to collect your cash, so be it. Money excuses everything.” In other words, all businesspeople are money-mad and ruthless. Now Mr. Herbert surely did not mean to say that his own employers—who try their level best to see to it that the New York Times Company is as profitable as possible—would step over dead bodies to maximize that profit. But that is exactly what he did say, by converting an ugly stereotype into a universal truth.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that Mr. Herbert is a bigot. Far from it. I have no doubt that—to alter slightly a notorious phrase —some of his best friends are businessmen. The problem lies in the fact that his image of the businessmen he knows and admires is at serious odds with his image of businessmen in general, and he has not yet had his consciousness raised regarding that fact.
That image of the businessman was formed at the turn of the century, when Americans were piling up fortunes of unprecedented scale in the Industrial Revolution and the left was a rising force in American politics, calling for increased government supervision of business. Such historians as Ida Tarbell, Gustavus Meyers, Upton Sinclair, and Matthew Josephson depicted all these men as ruthless, diabolical, power-mad automatons of greed. Cartoonists depicted them as top-hatted, pig-snouted, moneybag-bodied manipulators of politicians and the public. Christian preachers, the heirs to two thousand years of animosity to “moneychangers,” warned against excessive worship of the false god Mammon.
To give an example of just how intellectually dishonest some of these people were, consider a quote from Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons , a book first published in 1934 and in print ever since. “In seeking quickened activity, great volume and lower prices—instead of honest but limited services at high tariffs—he [Cornelius Vanderbilt] gave intimations of a new personal departure from the older bourgeois order.” Isn’t that neat? Josephson manages to make Commodore Vanderbilt look dishonest for offering the public cheap, safe, convenient transportation and making a fortune on the resulting high volume.
Compare this with what Vanderbilt’s contemporaries thought of his deeds. When he died, on January 4, 1877, The New York Times , then, as now, no cheering section for plutocrats (it was, in fact, the first to apply the image, if not the term, of the “robber baron” to men such as Vanderbilt), wrote in an editorial: “His one foible of opposition was an immense boon to the public, for wherever his keen eyes detected a monopoly he pounced down upon the offenders and literally drove them from the rivers. Nor did he, when he had vanquished them, establish a monopoly of his own. His principle of low rates, founded upon acute reasoning, was never violated, so that in every way the public were the gainers. . . . Commodore Vanderbilt never stopped improving, but went on developing, maturing and ripening his system until death called him away from the scene where he had reigned so long without equal.”
In many ways we have come as far from the days of Ida Tarbell and her ilk as Ron Chernow’s new and altogether splendid biography of John D. Rockefeller, Titan , is from her tendentious 1904 History of the Standard Oil Company . But the image created a century ago lingers on. For instance, a sizable fraction of the murders depicted in prime-time entertainment shows on network television are committed by businessmen. If there has ever been a movie in which a businessman was a hero, I am unaware of it.
Yet some of them were heroes. Stephen Girard and J. P. Morgan both came to the rescue of the federal government itself in times of extreme financial distress.
Charles Schwab, controlling stockholder of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation during World War I (he doesn’t make the top forty because he later lost his fortune), was offered one hundred million dollars by the Germans for his shares in the corporation, so that its productive capacities could be withheld from the British. It was far more than the market price and would have made Schwab in a stroke one of the richest men in the world. But he turned them down out of hand and told the British that their contracts would be fulfilled to the letter and ahead of schedule. Adm. Lord Fisher, the father of the modern Royal Navy and First Sea Lord at the outbreak of the war, wrote in his autobiography, “If any man deserves the gratitude of England Mr. Schwab does.”
Andrew Carnegie gave away virtually his entire fortune before he died, including the money for building more than two thousand public libraries in the United States, Canada, Britain, and France so that a poor child, such as he had once been, could get the education needed to prosper in the modern world.