- Historic Sites
A knowledgeable and passionate guide takes us for a walk down Wall Street, and we find the buildings there eloquent of the whole history of American finance
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
Earlier in the century a more robust age saw the birth of financial reporting when James Gordon Bennett founded his Herald in 1835 in a basement at what was then 20 Wall. Bennett invented the “beat” and handled Wall Street on his own. “News not views” was his disingenuous motto. A determined Democrat, of distinctly Southern sympathies, Bennett used most of his investigatorial energies to expose the rigged thimbles in Whig commercial circles and for his troubles was often punched, caned, or lashed with cowhide whips. No gentleman, he was never challenged to any duels. Ever alert to his own economic interests, he knew what sold papers and set a permanent headline that read BENNETT THRASHED AGAIN.
Bennett was editor, owner, and publisher all in one, so he could indulge his belief that all “paper changers” were at bottom swindlers. His financial column began in 1837, the year of an economic panic and bust, always a good time for skeptical and probing ventures into the mysteries of Wall Street operations. The penny press of that era of Jacksonian reform unloosed itself on the princes of ‘Change, as the Stock Exchange was then known.
Broad Street is broad and, compared with Wall and New, gives a positively prairie vista. The street, originally the Heere Gracht, or “Great Canal,” was filled in 1676, when the refuse of local provisions merchants fouled the water. Across the street—on the southeast corner of Broad—is 23 Wall. This house bears no name, nor does it need to. It is the Morgan Bank or the House of Morgan, and J. P. Morgan still dominates the strategic ground as he dominated the marketing of railroad bonds in the post-Civil War economy, reorganized bankrupt roads in the 1880s, undid the spoliations of Drew, Fisk, and Gould in the eyes of European investors, and almost singlehandedly forged the system of railroads that crisscrossed the country.
Morgan turned his hand to industry in the 1890s, coordinating what was a jungle filled with price-cutting predators into the gigantic trusts and mergers that were the food and drink of the hungriest of all bull markets. The climax was the first billion-dollar corporation, United States Steel, put together by Morgan in 1901. The Stock Exchange Building across the street is as much a temple of the new age of giant enterprise as was the Homestead Steel Works that Morgan purchased from Andrew Carnegie as the centerpiece of Big Steel and a monument to what was then called “Morganization.”
Morgan thought Carnegie an egregious blowhard and a dangerous man; the Scot believed in running his mills “full” and in cutting prices to ruin competitors. Morgan, no doctrinaire believer in competition, thought that almost criminal; cutthroat competition demolished the stability and order—the “sure thing”—that the investment banker wanted.
Morgan did not achieve his titanic ends out of reverence for free competition and laissez-faire. His mind was not encumbered with that kind of ideological cant; he would have been the first to scoff at a theorist or pulpit orator who used abstractions or the arguments of the survival of the fittest to justify capitalism. He wanted to shape it and take it from the stage of mere anarchy to a new level of centralized control and planning that would make things predictable and profitable all around. He was not in business for his health, he often said, but the scent of trusts in the air was more agreeable than the reek of sweat and blood from active competition in the marketplace. He paid Carnegie off with four hundred million dollars in first mortgage bonds to get that inveterate hard-driving, production-minded, price-cutting maverick out of his way. Carnegie proceeded (since he seemed to take seriously his own essay “The Gospel of Wealth”) to give much of it away. Many of the local branch libraries in New York City are glorious pieces of architecture paid for out of the bounty the wily Scot extracted from Morgan. As Carnegie said, it took a Scot to beat a Yankee. The Yankee, however, created the most powerful of all the trusts, the Money Trust, a feat he accomplished with a personal fortune that never matched, let us say, John D. Rockefeller’s.
On September 16, 1920, a little before noon, a horse and cart were left unattended just across Wall from Morgan. A few minutes later an explosion rocked the street, and a sheet of fire erupted as the horse and cart were obliterated. Shrapnel from sash weights carried in the cart along with the explosives rocketed around the intersection, killing thirty-three people and maiming hundreds more. The explosion gouged jagged pockmarks out of the oversize limestone blocks of the Wall Street side of Morgan’s headquarters. General belief has it that an anarchist aimed to kill a great capitalist, in an assassination attempt similar to Alexander Berkman’s on Henry Clay Frick.