Skip to main content

How Did They Do It?

June 2024
9min read

The lessons of their success

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.

Equally, of course, many of the super rich were anything but heroes. Russell Sage, who left a fortune estimated at seventy million dollars when he died in 1906, rarely gave to charity and regularly helped himself to pencils, pads, and other useful items at board meetings. When a fellow board member, J. P. Morgan, tried to embarrass him into stopping this pilfering, the only result was a temper tantrum. Too cheap to hire a cab, when he tried to leap aboard a moving trolley, missed his footing, and fell to the street (he was eighty-six at the time), Sage sued the trolley company. (Sage was one of only two of the forty richest to serve in Congress; the other was James G. Fair. Sage “did nothing in particular and did it very well.” Fair’s time in the Senate was largely spent dealing with one of the most spectacular divorce cases of the nineteenth century, which began when he was accused by his wife of “habitual adultery” and ended when he paid her a then-awesome five million dollars in settlement. In between, needless to say, was a gossip-column feeding frenzy. I can only add that Sage and Fair certainly had terrific names for politicians.)

Hetty Green, the sole woman to make the list, had a genius for making money and a mortal terror of being without it. Her son lost his leg to an infection when she delayed treatment while she searched for a free doctor to care for him.

Indeed, if this list of the forty richest Americans proves anything—other than the indisputable fact that this country is now and always has been a great place to make a buck—it is that those who create titanic fortunes are every bit as varied, quirky, good, bad, self-contradictory, immoral, and sublime as the rest of us.

Just look at No. 1 and No. 3 on this list, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Both began poor; both died immensely, legendarily rich. Both were superb corporate managers who never stopped looking for ways to run their companies better and more cheaply than they had been run before. Both had strong, moral mothers, whom they adored, and weak fathers, whom they did not care for.

But there the resemblance stops. John D. Rockefeller’s father was a flimflam man; Vanderbilt’s, merely unambitious. Vanderbilt’s mother, while uninterested in religion and by no means opposed to enjoying life, used the Bible to inculcate a strong sense of right and wrong in her son, while Rockefeller’s mother was dour and devoted to the Baptist faith, which she taught her son from his earliest days.

As a result, Rockefeller seems to have looked on life as an obligation while Vanderbilt saw it as an opportunity. Rockefeller did not drink, smoke, or play cards. Vanderbilt did all three. Rockefeller was devoted to his wife and children and attended church faithfully. Vanderbilt was nearly indifferent to his family and never went near a church if he could help it.

Yet both were honest men, who could be completely relied upon to keep a bargain once they had agreed to it. ”. . . the Commodore’s word is as good as his bond when it is freely given,” wrote his contemporary Matthew Hale Smith (both a lawyer and a Congregational minister). “He is equally exact in fulfilling his threats.” The very same words could be applied to Rockefeller as well.

Or consider Rockefeller and his closest associate at Standard Oil, Henry Plagier. Their complementary business talents—Rockefeller was the detail man, the bean counter; Plagier, the idea man—made them a formidable combination in the office and close friends. “It was,” wrote Rockefeller, “a friendship founded on business, which Mr. Plagier used to say was a good deal better than a business founded on friendship.”

Outside the office, however, they had little in common. It is hard to imagine John D. Rockefeller even attending a large party (and altogether impossible to imagine him enjoying himself at one). But Plagier loved parties, and he often threw lavish ones, including an annual costume ball that more than once he attended in full drag (complete with cookie-duster mustache and everpresent cigar).

Even with regard to a sense of humor, the very rich vary quite as much as the rest of us. Some—the ever-generous Peter Cooper (not in the top forty), for instance—did not have one at all. Others have been richly endowed. Nicholas Longworth, probably the richest man in Cincinnati in his time, habitually dressed so poorly that a passer-by, thinking him a beggar, dropped a quarter in his hat one day when Longworth took it off to mop his brow. “Thank you, Sir,” Longworth called after him. “I never earned a quarter so easily in my life.”

John Jacob Astor even enjoyed making fun of his own foibles, including his carefully restrained charitable instincts. One day when a man dropped by his office to solicit a contribution to some worthy cause, Astor grumpily wrote out a check. Looking at the paltry amount from the richest man in the country in some dismay, the man said that Astor’s son, William, had already given twice as much.

“Ah, well,” replied Astor, “but then William has a rich man for a father.”

When Cornelius Vanderbilt first took control of the Harlem Railroad in New York, he went to the terminal to look around and encountered a woman who did not have enough money to buy tickets for herself and her children. Vanderbilt told an employee to make up the difference and charge it to petty cash. The employee did so and asked the cause of her troubles. She replied that her husband was out of work and unable to find any.

“What?” asked the incredulous Commodore, overhearing this. “Can’t find work in New York? Your husband must be a fine specimen.” The woman explained that in fact her husband had been an employee of the Harlem Railroad and was let go without compensation when injured on the job.

“Then he’ll be my first pensioner,” responded the Commodore, who could often be spontaneously generous. But he couldn’t resist leaning over to the employee and whispering, "[And] I hope my last.”

But if these people were so varied, what characteristics united them in their ability to create great fortunes? Well, certainly one of them was luck, a handy attribute in any field of endeavor. When his boss was too busy one day, he sent the teenage Charles Schwab to deliver a daily report to Andrew Carnegie. Schwab made sure to make an impression on the great man, and by the time he was in his mid-thirties he was president of the Carnegie Steel Corporation.

John Jacob Astor landed in this country in Baltimore. He might well have stayed there had his older brother, who had come with the Hessian troops who fought in the Revolutionary War, not settled in New York. John Jacob followed him to New York and began investing in New York real estate. When the Erie Canal caused the city’s growth to explode, so did the Astor fortune. On his deathbed he was asked if he had any regrets. He is supposed to have replied that he regretted only not having bought all Manhattan.

But, of course, it takes a lot more than luck. One requirement, it seems, is a capacity for very hard work and great attention to detail. Asked his advice on how to make a great fortune, Andrew Carnegie replied, “Put all your eggs in one basket, and then WATCH THAT BASKET .”

Another maxim that has stood the creators of great fortunes in good stead is “The time to save money is when you have it.” By banking the profits in good times, men like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Rockefeller were able to take advantage of bad times to snap up bargains and enlarge their empires. By no means the least of Bill Gates’s instruments of power today is the twelve billion dollars that Microsoft—whose stock pays no dividends—has salted away in the bank, ready for instant use when opportunity knocks.

A lack of sentimentality is another important attribute of the creators of great fortunes. Henry Ford so loved his Model T that when its time had passed, after nearly two decades of awesome profits, he nearly ruined the Ford Motor Company by his insistence on keeping it in production. John Jacob Astor, on the other hand, had been in the fur business for fifty years when it began to decline in the early 183Os, and he sold out his interests without a second thought. Commodore Vanderbilt, too, made his fortune in a business, shipping, that was in serious decline toward the end of his life. Still, at nearly seventy, he sold out and moved into railroads, multiplying his fortune in the last fifteen years of his life.

None of these attributes, however, would in the long run be of much use with out a final one: courage. Rudyard Kipling admired the ability to “make one heap of all your winnings / And risk it on one turn of pitchand-toss.” He was writing about what it took to be a man, not a millionaire, but it applies all the more to the latter. Henry Plagier, who just misses being in the top forty, made a modest fortune in his youth and then went bankrupt in the salt business before making a vast fortune with Standard Oil. When John Jacob Astor learned that his largest investment, a furtrading post called (what else?) Astoria, in the Oregon wilderness, had been wiped out by the fortunes of war, he went to the theater that night anyway. When a friend expressed surprise at seeing him there, Astor merely answered, “What would you have me do? Would you have me stay at home and weep for what I cannot help?”

Of course, it must be added that the people who create great fortunes not only have courage but are also correct in their bets. The history of business is littered with the Chapter Seven petitions of those who bet wrong. Bob Herbert might consider that they, too, are businessmen.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.