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Robber Baron

June 2024
1min read

Overrated The financier Daniel Drew (1797-1879) is remembered today as the devout founder of several Methodist churches and as the underwriter of the Drew Theological Seminary. In his own time, however, Drew was notorious on Wall Street as an outright liar and cheat, the most sinister, cynical, and self-serving of operators, a man who took savage delight in the opportunities caused by the Civil War. (He commented to friends, “It’s good fishing in troubled waters.”)

The onetime drover, who’d always salted and watered his cattle just as surely as he later watered stocks, claimed that “anybody who plays the stock market not as an insider is like a man buying cows in the moonlight.” Nevertheless, he himself came a cropper during the panic of 1873 and spent his last years living off the charity of one of his sons.

Underrated Consider the Bavarian-born Henry Vi I lard, who arrived in this country a penniless 18-year-old in 1853. By the time of his death, in 1900, Villard was world-famous as one of his age’s greatest financiers. He first started in the United States as a journalist and won distinction for his reporting on the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. The antislavery Villard, who married the daughter of William Lloyd Garrison, became one of Lincoln’s most trusted allies.

During 1879 Villard helped organize the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, thus establishing a lucrative trade in the Pacific Northwest. Moving into publishing, the former journalist purchased The Nation magazine and the New York Evening Post in 1881. That same year he obtained a controlling interest in the Northern Pacific Railroad. Then, in 1889, he merged two small firms—the Edison Lamp Company of Newark and the Edison Machine Works of Schenectady—to form the Edison General Electric Company.

Unlike Drew and other operators who dominated enterprises purely to manipulate their stocks, Villard’s aim was always to improve his firms, consolidate them, and run them at a profit. Where Drew was nothing but a leech, Villard was the consummate CEO, an inspired financial visionary. Still, today he is all but unknown, despite the considerable entities he nurtured and left behind— The Nation , the Post , thousands of miles of railroad, and the corporate behemoth General Electric.

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