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 .
His attitude toward men like his self-made father was not generous. “A man of very large possessions,” he wrote, “ unless he has come into them by inheritance [italics mine], is almost wholly absorbed by them. Instead of being rendered free and careless, his life is a perpetual servitude. His whole energy becomes demanded by the care of his property, while he himself gradually lapses from unqualified manhood into the mere man of money.... As a general thing therefore we may say, the larger the possessions the smaller the man.”
He was determined, Henry told a friend at forty-one, “to take holiday for the rest of my life, and make all my work sabbatical....” His tone was not always so lighthearted, however. Sometimes he sounded remarkably like his father: “Everyone respects labor; everyone respects the man who does something more to vindicate his human quality, than just live upon his ancestral fat.” When this was written, Feinstein points out, Henry “was in his fifties ... and still living on his patrimony.”
The aversion to business persisted in the next generation. But whereas Henry, Sr., had indulged, as he himself conceded, in “a life-long career of luxury and self-indulgence,” his children did not have that option. The ancestral fat was running out.
Thus we have the spectacle of young William, the future philosopher, rather desperately trying to balance his accounts in his sophomore year at Harvard: “Theoretically in hand fifty-four cents, actually in hand eight-two [sic] cents. Gained somehow twenty-eight cents. Hallelujah!”
Two years later, in a letter to his cousin Katharine, William revealed that he was considering a career in medicine, but not because the work inspired him. “After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together, and I have to consider lucre.”
Earlier William had hoped to be a painter. In 1866, as he neared the end of his medical studies, he felt no joy at the thought of the work that awaited him. He would earn his living, he wrote to a friend, by plying the “physicking trade like any other tenth-rate man.” Instead of practicing medicine, William got sick—so sick that he ran off to Europe for eighteen months. It was the sickness, Feinstein argues, of a “young man frantically running from inauthentic labor and premature responsibility.”
As the world knows, William found at last a career he could embrace. Commerce was beneath him, of course, as it had been beneath his father. In 1906, in a letter to H. G. Wells, this grandson of a hard-nosed merchant made his most famous comment on the role of business in American life: “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS . That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease.”
William’s brother Henry was no more attracted to the world of William of Albany than his brother or father. In The American , published in 1877, when he was thirty-four, Henry took as his central character an American businessman in his thirties who has made his fortune and now seeks, in Europe, a different kind of fortune: “Throughout these rather formless meditations he sometimes thought of his past life and the long array of years … during which he had had nothing in his head but ‘enterprise.’… It struck him that if he had never done anything very ugly, he had never, on the other hand, done anything particularly beautiful. He had spent his years in the unremitting effort to add thousands to thousands, and, now that he stood well outside of it, the business of money-getting appeared extremely dry and sterile. … It had come back to him simply that what he had been looking at all the summer was a very rich and beautiful world, and that it had not all been made by sharp railroad men and stock-brokers.” (For readers who have never read the novel and who might take a look if given the proper bait, I note in passing that the poet John Berryman thought The American “the most important American novel yet written about a businessman.”)
In A Small Boy and Others , a volume of autobiography published near the end of his life, Henry, Jr., reflected on the history of his family in the decades that followed his father’s rejection of a worldly career. “The rupture with my grandfather’s tradition and attitude was complete; we were never in a single case, I think, for two generations, guilty of a stroke of business.”
But Henry’s memory was not quite accurate. His younger brother Robertson had failed in business, and also in farming, journalism, painting, and poetry. Though everyone remembers William James’s remark about the bitch-goddess, it is to Robertson, I think, that we should turn for a final perspective: “I wish,” he wrote at the age of fifty-two, looking back on three decades of frustration, “our own father had steered his sons into the soap or Baking Powder line.”