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The Truth About Robber Barons

Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Woody West is associate editor of the Washington Times.

Jean Strouse
Morgan: American Financier. Random House. 796 pages. $34.95

Ron Chernow
Titan: the Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. Random House. 774 pages. $30.00

Capitalism has never suffered from a glowing reputation, of course. This is not surprising. It does not present itself as cozily as can socialism — or, now, the "Third Way" of splitting the ideological and economic differences that the center-left is adopting since the command economies collapsed. In this country — the right auricle of democratic capitalism — there has long been a tension between admiration for material achievement and resentment of it as an insult to our fiercely egalitarian ethos. It is an ambivalence that rises nearly to the level of a national characteristic.

Sociologist Peter Berger put it neatly when he wrote that capitalism is "particularly deprived of mythic potency." That status will change, he writes, only "on the day when poets sing the praises of the Dow Jones and when large numbers of people are ready to risk their lives in defense of the Fortune 500." Berger does not assign high probability to either.

Well, droll as it may seem, let us now praise famous capitalists. Praise seldom is their portion. They must content themselves with the money — and perhaps the fawning authorized biography that celebrity of all sorts can command. Judicious appraisal, however, of those who’ve scaled the capitalistic heights is rare enough to deserve high billing on the literary marquee. Two recent biographies qualify — of J. Pierpont Morgan and John D. Rockefeller Sr.

Those two great and admirable Americans (this sentence is an Irony Free Zone) have been recognized only fitfully for their achievements, respectively as industrialist and as banker — recognized, that is, without an asterisk sourly asserting that their accomplishments were at the expense of widows and orphans, the helpless and the oppressed, and are testaments to acquisitive soulessness. "Robber Barons," as in the title of Matthew Josephson’s 1934 dyspeptic demolition job, is the label under which these individuals are usually filed away.

There indeed were rogues who worked the raw precincts of nineteenth century capitalism — Jay Gould, Daniel Drew, E.H. Harriman, and Cornelius Vanderbilt are only the top names on a long muster roll. These were hard fellows in a hard time. Their ethical standards for commerce during the feverish post-Civil War decades of innovation, accumulation, and consolidation were capable of shocking even their contemporaries, who were not known for sensitivity on the subject.

The two recent biographies are Morgan: American Financier, by Jean Strouse, and Titan: the Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow, both from Random House. Strouse on Pierpont Morgan is brilliant; Chernow on Rockefeller is impressive in its prodigious detail but less so in its grasp of the man. These biographies are also quantitatively notable, Chernow at 774 pages, Strouse at 796 pages — reading them sequentially can bulk up one’s biceps to the dimensions of an NFL linebacker’s.

Why, we’re entitled to ask, have two writers invested years of research and writing about lives that have not lacked for attention? The reason may be as basic as that each generation rewrites history, and the itch to contrast a present perspective against earlier judgments is compelling. It might be also that Americans have become less defensive about our robust economic past. In that context, and make of it what you will, note as well the recent and admiring biography of Calvin Coolidge (Coolidge: An American Enigma, by Robert Sobel), and a vigorous defense of U.S. Grant’s presidency (President Grant Reconsidered, by Frank Scaturro).

Liberals, however, are likely to buy little of this. In a combined review in the New Republic of the Morgan biography and Bill Gates’s latest offering, Business @ the Speed of Thought, Rutgers University historian Jackson Lears dismisses them as "zeitgeist books." Presumably, he would also include Chernow’s biography of Rockefeller. That is, the books are "evidence of the renewed reverence for business leaders that has come to characterize the money-culture of our time," Lears sniffs. He is particularly disdainful of the Microsoft founder — who likely will lead any liberal list of postmodern robber barons.

But to turn to our puissant principals: Neither Rockefeller nor Morgan fit conveniently into facile categories of greed and pillage (though Morgan’s baronial flair and sumptuary style are more in the conventional image of the age). In fact, they deserve to be called great Americans because each, in his way, believed that civil society had a claim on his wealth — that immense accumulation imposed commensurate responsibility. If both these capitalist giants conflated national interest with their own advantages (and the two could indeed be congruent), this does not detract from their recognition of obligation, and that they acted handsomely on that sense of obligation.

Not surprisingly, these two immensely powerful Americans in the shank of the nineteenth century and the quickening years of the twentieth did not much care for each other. Though each had an extensive American genealogy, they were hatched from very different eggs, far distant culturally and socially alien to each other in basic ways.

Rockefeller’s ancestors maintained social and economic respectability, though without particular distinction. His father, however, did not sustain that modest legacy: William Avery Rockefeller was a snake-oil salesman (literally), a glibly engaging con man who episodically deserted his family, and, finally, a bigamist. His mother, Eliza, pious by nature and nurture, was hard put to provide for her eventual brood (sons William, John, and Frank, and sisters Lucy and Mary Ann — the patriarch did return home from time to time). She ran a taut ship. Her religious faith was intense and domestic discipline was stern, as if to compensate for the restlessly eccentric father.

Pierpont Morgan, in contrast, was the descendant of an established merchant family on his father’s side and New England clergy on his mother’s (one of his maternal ancestors was the wife of the great preacher Jonathan Edwards). Morgan’s was a privileged home in which religion and social probity were enthroned — in practice, they were identical virtues. His mother, Juliet, was early a valetudinarian and on the fringe of his life; his father, Junius, was the dominant force, a man of rectitude, if sparing in warmth for a son of delicate health — but also an erratic disposition that today would probably be diagnosed as manic-depressive.

Both young Rockefeller and young Morgan were left largely to create themselves. Their educations were irregular but not unusually so for the period and, as it would turn out, quite adequate. Both young men early exhibited a capacity for mathematics, were renowned for their ability to absorb and attend to detail, and developed habits of uncommon reticence in their personal and commercial dealings. Both hired substitutes to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, a practice as accepted at that time as college deferments to avoid military service were during Vietnam. Religion was integral to the life of each. Morgan was an Episcopalian who throughout his career maintained lay participation and institutional interest in church affairs. For Rockefeller, his Baptist faith was inseparable from every other aspect of his life and constituted a primary motive force from early in his life.

Their differences were as pronounced as their similarities. Morgan in his maturity was as sensual and flamboyant as Rockefeller was abstemious and frugal. Morgan was inarticulate, restless, diffident in public, the disfiguring rhinophyma that turned his nose into a grotesque purple bulb surely contributing. He was highly susceptible to feminine charm and female company: His first wife died of tuberculosis less than six months after the wedding; he and his second wife discovered that their habits were radically different and over decades increasingly lived apart. Morgan maintained friendships, platonic and evidently otherwise, with an impressive list of women — indeed, as a man of very ripe years, he proposed to an English aristo after his wife’s death.

Rockefeller, again in contrast, spoke and wrote with precision and was civil and amiable (for the most part) in his business relations. He was a homebody and uxorious (though his biographer asserts that as a widower in his 80s, his hands were said to roam while in the back seat of chauffeured limos with female acquaintances). He delighted in his children, though he subjected them to a stifling accountability — requiring, for instance, that they record every expenditure in notebooks he would inspect weekly, well past their childhoods. His greatest indulgence was in becoming a fanatic golfer in middle age.

While the muster roll of Gilded Age big dogs is a long one, a history of that exuberant era could nearly be written with the focus essentially on these two.

For nearly half a century, J. Pierpont Morgan was the de facto central bank of the United States (the nation lacking any such institution after Andrew Jackson in 1832 vetoed a charter renewal for the Bank of the United States). Lacking what amounted to a governmental money supply regulator, the dramatic boom-and-bust cycles that battered the economy roughly every decade after the Civil War were often devastating. Twice, once under Grover Cleveland and again during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, Morgan guaranteed the financial solvency of the nation.

The vast majority of the foreign investment upon which the U.S. depended — much of it represented by the house of Morgan — was based on the discipline of gold. "Morgan couldn’t afford not to take the action he did in 1895" to prevent the federal government from declaring bankruptcy, Strouse writes. During that depression, a time also of violent social turbulence, the Treasury’s $100 million gold reserves sank to $9 million. Outstanding drafts on the government stood at $12 million. If presented, they would throw the government into default and destroy U.S. credit — which is to say that investment gold from abroad would return whence it had come.

Morgan found a legal way by which the Cleveland administration could in a national emergency buy gold to replenish reserves. He put together a syndicate to buy sufficient gold to restore solvency, saving the day for the politicians. He also made a profit, though hardly an exorbitant one. This was an instance in which the public good and Pierpont’s own interests matched. He repeated the audacious initiative in 1907 during TR’s White House tenure.

By the 1890s, Morgan was the most prominent financier in the nation, with an international reputation to match. He had established himself as a force in and of himself (looking into Morgan’s eyes, the photographer Edward Steichen would record, was like "looking into the light of an oncoming express train"). Morgan’s creations of the Northern Securities railroad trust and of the largest corporation in the world at the time, U.S. Steel, were the apex of consolidation. Coinciding as they did with the rise of the Progressive political movement and a growing national fear of concentrated wealth, these two initiatives would also loose the countervailing force of government regulation, notably the Interstate Commerce Act and the Sherman anti-trust law.

J. Pierpont Morgan was not a champion of purely free markets — what he called "ruinous competition." It is hard to argue that Morgan’s record of financial consolidation did not contribute to economic stability — or, to put it more precisely, to moderate endemic instability. In those postwar decades of phenomenal national growth, there of course was a price to be paid for the frantic cadence of capitalist development. The dependence on gold and on foreign investment precluded easier money and credit for farmers and smaller businesses, to pick two conspicuous examples, and that in turn helped swell the ranks of political opponents of laissez-faire economics and advocates of government regulation.

But a price compared to what? The U.S. would remain a debtor nation until 1913, and without the power and the personal and professional integrity of a man such as Morgan and the best of his colleagues, the incredible rise to international strength might have been a feat deferred or perhaps a destiny unfulfilled.

Rockefeller’s creativity did as much to shape the future of the national economy as Morgan’s. Starting with little more than the conviction that he would be successful, that his success was ordained, Rockefeller at the age of 14 was on his own, tithing to his church and supporting his mother and younger siblings. First clerking in a commodity house in Cleveland, he shortly went into business himself, where he displayed a rare tenacity. It was the discovery of oil in western Pennsylvania in the late 1850s that pushed Senior (as Chernow refers to him, once a junior came on the scene) toward what would be his commercial conquest of the petroleum industry. He quickly realized that refining the oil that would revolutionize the illumination industry in the U.S., rather than getting it out of the ground, was the key to major success. In a variety of partnerships that he made and unmade, Rockefeller began buying up refineries in Cleveland using little else for credit than a reputation for trustworthiness. He soon saw that vertical consolidation was the path to industrial empire: Owning the barrels to move the oil from the fields, then building the rail tanker cars to move it in bulk to his refineries (while finagling rebates from the railroads for the most advantageous fees, not illegal until the late 1880s, if not considered entirely cricket), and then selling the refined kerosene to consumers.

Rockefeller concentrated his formidable energies on rationalizing the embryonic petroleum industry, minimizing inefficiencies, and developing economies of scale. He was an implacable dynamo, buying out other refiners or beating their prices with take-no-prisoner business tactics. He was not unreasonable, however, often paying prices he knew were exorbitant. By 1880, more than 90 percent of the nation’s refining capacity was in the hands of his Standard Oil, reducing the price of kerosene to customers drastically. He was an unabashed monopolist, and if he crushed his adversaries, he did so no more brutally than his competitors, and generally stayed within the often gray boundaries of prevailing law and ethics. The final public judgement of a ruthless and predatory capitalist on Rockefeller came, as it happened, from the daughter of an oil producer whom Rockefeller had put out of business: Ida Tarbell’s articles on the rise of Standard Oil, published in 1904 in McClure’s magazine, did as much as any journalism to give the "muckrakers" their potent reputation.

Rockefeller’s inventive creation of the Standard Oil trust spread that principle of business organization across America’s landscape. Trusts blossomed in nearly every major industry and commercial sector. Power begets in time an equal and opposite power, and in 1911 the Supreme Court ordered that the Standard trust be dissolved. This chapter of political reform, of course, is known to every schoolboy. The populist antitrust assault energized by President Theodore Roosevelt also struck at Pierpont Morgan’s Northern Securities railroad combination, with the Supreme Court’s eventual decision against the banker. The age of the titans was waning.

In Morgan, Strouse summarizes the dilemma that industrial concentration presented:

On one side were those who saw the market dominance and ruthless efficiency of the new corporate giants as a sinister threat to individual liberty. Railroads and industrial leviathans were charging monopoly prices, driving competitors out of business, removing control of local enterprise from resident communities, ignoring labor’s demands for fair wages and humane working conditions, and earning enormous amounts of money. Flagrant abuses of corporate power . . . and the steady flow of commercial cash that purchased political favors, substantiated the popular conviction that big business violated the natural order of exchange in a free society. On the other side were those who saw the natural order of things in a different light. The United States was no longer a Jeffersonian nation of farmers and small producers working "perfect" competitive markets. . . . With no governmental guidance or regulation, private enterprise was opening up jobs and fostering social mobility on an unprecedented scale, and private bankers were raising previously unimaginable amounts of money. The industrialists and financiers who were shaping this new economic order regarded it as natural and inevitable, and wanted freedom to continue.

The economic and financial triumphs, and defeats, of Rockefeller and Morgan were fundamental in creating the nation’s vast muscle. The pair’s enduring legacy, however, would be their philanthropy and cultural benefactions, particularly Rockefeller’s. Both men were generous in ways modest and majestic.

Among his extensive civic and philanthropic activities, Pierpont Morgan was a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History from its founding in 1869; in the 44 years of his connection with the museum, he was treasurer, vice president, and finance committee chairman, and he donated magnificent and myriad collections he had purchased. Morgan was also a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And he built what would become the magnificent Morgan Library to house the rare art and artifacts the collection of which became his avocation.

The many millions of dollars that Morgan contributed to the nation’s cultural life, however, were exceeded by the scope of Rockefeller’s philanthropy and the corporate structure he fashioned for social-welfare benevolence, the Rockefeller Foundation. From his youthful support of the Baptist church and its affiliated organizations, he devoted vast amounts of time and energy to philanthropic activities. After the Civil War, his "special solicitude for black welfare," as Chernow writes, included continuing money and support for what would become Atlanta’s Spelman College, renowned for the education of black women. He founded the University of Chicago and was a source of development money for decades, establishing it as one of the nation’s premier schools. He established the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University), which would have a dramatic influence in modernizing medical research and under the auspices of which the scourge of South, hookworm, was eradicated.

These charitable enterprises, careers in themselves and intrinsic to his belief in the duty of religion, would in his later years help to ameliorate the reputation of capitalist exploiter that his success had hung on him. Before his death in 1937 in his ninety-eighth year, Rockefeller attained the popular image of an avuncular civic saint — which is as superficial a characterization of the man as is capitalist tyrant.

Jean Strouse’s biography was more than a dozen years in the research and writing. Previously the biographer of Alice James, the sister of William and Henry, Strouse has placed her man in vivid historical context. It was a period of monumental achievement. And of dizzying excess: In 1883, William K. Vanderbilt’s wife, Alva, held a costume ball "that gave free rein to the fantasies of New York’s social elite: Alva dressed as a Venetian princess accompanied by live doves, her husband as the Duc de Guise; her brother-in-law, Cornelius, came as Louis XVI, and his wife as Edison’s electric light. There were sixteen more Louis XVIs, eight Marie Antoinettes, seven Marys, Queen of Scots, one King Lear, one Queen Elizabeth, assorted Scottish lairds and Valkyries — and General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant in ordinary evening dress." As indefatigably as Strouse has followed Pierpont Morgan down the years, a reader may at the end find him elusive — swathed in a privacy that even so skillful a biographer cannot entirely penetrate. That reserve, as it were, speaks eloquently of the man. It is hard to conceive of any biographer being able to present him more three-dimensionally than Strouse has. Her portrait is all the more engaging for the fact that she initially found Morgan’s detractors more convincing: "I had been looking for a modified, human-scale version of the ‘boss croupier’ of Wall Street — the cynical tycoon who subjected the entire U.S. economy to the ‘psychopathology of his will’ — and that was not what I had found."

Ron Chernow, who won a National Book Award for The House of Morgan, has in Titan a fundamental problem with John D. Rockefeller Sr. This may be the result of a thoroughly contemporary secular outlook: Chernow cannot accept that Rockefeller’s omnipresent religious faith was genuine, or at least not incongruous with the intensity of his material pursuits. When he was contemplating writing this biography, Chernow says, he noted how the vast Rockefeller bibliography "betray[ed] minimal post-Freudian curiosity," especially about his private life, and that he would not be able to write about the man "unless I heard his inner voice — the ‘music of his mind.’ " (Mayday! Mayday!)

The Rockefeller he discovered in his research was not the man of stereotype, "taciturn and empty." Rather, he was analytical, articulate, witty. But Chernow’s discovery of flesh and blood behind the mask of popular presentation was not in the end sufficient to get the biographer beyond judging Rockefeller "an implausible blend of sin and sanctity." Chernow cites with seeming agreement the opinion that Rockefeller’s philanthropy was an effort to "fumigate his fortune." The biographer resorts often to a promiscuously journalistic use of such pejorative descriptions of Rockefeller as a creature of "greed" and "fiendish cunning" and even as "evil." Chernow invokes these indicting labels as if they are self-defining. Is "greed" really a useful or accurate term to encompass so extraordinary a career as Rockefeller’s?

While Chernow contends that John D. on several occasions lied about railroad rebates, for instance, and had to be aware of instances of political bribery, though mostly after he had retired from operational direction of Standard, the ambitious reach of the biographer’s indictment fails to match the evidence he adduces. Baffled by Rockefeller’s integration of faith and pursuit of wealth, Chernow summons Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) to help explain the phenomenon. But that is not satisfactory for Chernow, and he wonders if Rockefeller did not create "parallel" realities in order psychologically to keep from toppling over, so to speak, at the supposed contradictions of his character.

Finally, Chernow writes, "We are almost forced to posit, in helpless confusion, at least two Rockefellers: the good, religious man and the renegade businessman, driven by baser motives." That convenient dichotomy represents a failure of historical imagination and comes close to disfiguring Titan. Sculptor Paul Manship in 1916 was hired to execute two busts of Rockefeller. "In one, the titan seems a saintly figure, thin face upturned, eyes lifted meekly heaven-ward — a highly unusual bust for a magnate," writes Chernow. "And in the second bust, Manship sculpted Rockefeller’s harder look, face stern and lips tightly compressed. The two sculptures side by side form a composite portrait of Rockefeller, forever torn between heaven and earth, earthly gain and eternal salvation." In that sentence lies the inability of the biographer to grasp his subject. John D. Rockefeller Sr. was never "torn between heaven and earth, earthly gain and eternal salvation" — the fact that he was not is a key to his granitic strength. Missing this is a weakness of Chernow’s book.

Biography, it is said, has now displaced the novel in literary esteem and in popularity. That means biography must assume a portion of fiction’s function — of truth telling, in the sense of revealing us to ourselves. Oddly, this may be more difficult for the biographer than for the novelist. The latter is at liberty to add to or subtract from his creation to fashion the "truest" character. The biographer has only what the past is willing to tell, which is limited and frequently contradictory. Thus, the best a biographer may be able to do is conscientiously to sort out the facts and the acts of his subject’s years in the matrix of his subject’s times. If at the end, the facts still are limited and actions remain contradictory (or perplexing, much the same), that may be the deepest the biographer can validly excavate. That is no small thing, and probably as revealing as any amount of interpretation.