"your extraordinary fortitude with new wonder at every new misfortune. Often, after reflecting on this subject, you appear to me so superior, so elevated above all other men; I contemplate you with such a strange mixture of humility, admiration, reverence, love, and pride, that very little superstition would be necessary to make me worship you as a superior being; such enthusiasm does your character excite in me. When I afterward revert to myself, how insignificant do my best qualities appear! My vanity would be greater if I had not been placed so near you; and yet my pride is our relationship. I had rather not live than not be the daughter of such a man."
Mr. Madison was President then. In other days her father had been on terms of peculiar intimacy with Madison and his beautiful and accomplished wife. Burr, in his later years, used to say that it was he who had brought about the match which made Mrs. Madison an inmate of the Presidential mansion. With the members of Madison's Cabinet, too, he had been socially and politically familiar. When Theodosia perceived that her father had no longer a hope of success in his Mexican project, she became anxious for his return to America. But against this was the probability that the Administration would again arrest him and bring him to trial for the third time. Theodosia ventured to write to her old friend, Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, asking him to interpose on her father's behalf. A letter still more interesting than this has recently come to light. It was addressed by Theodosia to Mrs. Madison. The coldest heart cannot read this eloquent and pathetic production without emotion. She writes:—
"MADAM,—You may perhaps be surprised at receiving a letter from one with whom you have had so little intercourse for the last few years. But your surprise will cease when you recollect that my father, once your friend, is now in exile; and that the President only can restore him to me and his country.
"Ever since the choice of the people was first declared in favor of Mr. Madison, my heart, amid the universal joy, has beat with the hope that I, too, should soon have reason to rejoice. Convinced that Mr. Madison would neither feel nor judge from the feelings or judgment of others, I had no doubt of his hastening to relieve a man whose character he had been enabled to appreciate during a confidential intercourse of long continuance, and whom [he] must know incapable of the designs attributed to him. My anxiety on this subject, has, however, become too painful to be alleviated by anticipations which no events have yet tended to justify; and in this state of intolerable suspense I have determined to address myself to you, and request that you will, in my name, apply to the President for a removal of the prosecution now existing against AARON BURR. I still expect it from him as a man of feeling and candor, as one acting for the world and for posterity.
"Statesmen, I am aware, deem it necessary that sentiments of liberality, and even justice, should yield to considerations of policy; but what policy can require the absence of my father at present? Even had he contemplated the project for which he stands arraigned, evidently to pursue it any further would now be impossible. There is not left one pretext of alarm even to calumny; for bereft of fortune, of popular favor, and almost of friends, what could he accomplish? And whatever may be the apprehensions or the clamors of the ignorant and the interested, surely the timid, illiberal system which would sacrifice a man to a remote and unreasonable possibility that he might infringe some law founded on an unjust, unwarrantable suspicion that he would desire it, cannot be approved by Mr. Madison, and must be unnecessary to a President so loved, so honored. Why, then, is my father banished from a country for which he has encountered wounds and dangers and fatigue for years? Why is he driven from his friends, from an only child, to pass an unlimited time in exile, and that, too, at an age when others are reaping the harvest of past toils, or ought at least to be providing seriously for the comfort of ensuing years? I do not seek to soften you by this recapitulation. I only wish to remind you of all the injuries which are inflicted on one of the first characters the United States ever produced.
"Perhaps it may be well to assure you there is no truth in a report lately circulated, that my father intends returning immediately. He never will return to conceal himself in a country on which he has conferred distinction.
"To whatever fate Mr. Madison may doom this application, I trust it will be treated with delicacy. Of this I am the more desirous as Mr. Alston is ignorant of the step I have taken in writing to you, which, perhaps, nothing could excuse but the warmth of filial affection. If it be an error, attribute it to the indiscreet zeal of a daughter whose soul sinks at the gloomy prospect of a long and indefinite separation from a father almost adored, and who can leave unattempted nothing which offers the slightest hope of procuring him redress. What, indeed, would I not risk once more to see him, to hang upon him, to place my child on his knee, and again spend my days in the happy occupation of endeavoring to anticipate all his wishes.
"Let me entreat, my dear Madam, that you will have the consideration and goodness to answer me as speedily as possible; my heart is sore with doubt and patient waiting for something definitive. No apologies are made for giving you this trouble, which I am sure you will not deem irksome to take for a daughter, an affectionate daughter, thus situated. Inclose your letter for me to A.J. Frederic Prevost, Esq., near New Rochelle, New York.
"That every happiness may attend you,
"Is the sincere wish of
"THEO. BURR ALSTON."
This letter was probably not ineffectual. Certain it is that government offered no serious obstacle to Burr's return, and instituted no further proceedings against him. Probably, too, Theodosia received some kind of assurance to this effect, for we find her urging her father, not only to return, but to go boldly to New York among his old friends, and resume there the practice of his profession. The great danger to be apprehended was from his creditors, who then had power to confine a debtor within limits, if not to throw him into prison. "If the worst comes to the worst" wrote this fond and devoted daughter, "I will leave everything to suffer with you." The Italics are her own.
He came at length. He landed in Boston, and sent word of his arrival to Theodosia. Rejoiced as she was, she replied vaguely, partly in cipher, fearing lest her letter might be opened on the way, and the secret of her father's arrival be prematurely disclosed. She told him that her own health was tolerable; that her child, then a fine boy of eleven, was well; that "his little soul warmed at the sound of his grandfather's name"; and that his education, under a competent tutor, was proceeding satisfactorily. She gave directions respecting her father's hoped-for journey to South Carolina in the course of the summer; and advised him, in case war should be declared with England, to offer his services to the government. He reached New York in May, 1812, and soon had the pleasure of informing his daughter that his reception had been more friendly than he could have expected, and that in time his prospects were fair of a sufficiently lucrative practice.
Surely, now, after so many years of anxiety and sorrow, Theodosia—still a young woman, not thirty years of age, still enjoying her husband's love—-might have reasonably expected a happy life. Alas! there was no more happiness in store for her on this side of the grave. The first letter which Burr received from his son-in-law after his arrival in New York contained news which struck him to the heart.
"A few miserable weeks since," writes Mr. Alston, "and in spite of all the embarrassments, the troubles, and disappointments which have fallen to our lot since we parted, I would have congratulated you on your return in the language of happiness. With my wife on one side and my boy on the other, I felt myself superior to depression. The present was enjoyed, the future was anticipated with enthusiasm. One dreadful blow has destroyed us; reduced us to the veriest, the most sublimated wretchedness. That boy, on whom all rested,—our companion, our friend,—he who was to have transmitted down the mingled blood of Theodosia and myself,—he who was to have redeemed all your glory, and shed new lustre upon our families,—that boy, at once our happiness and our pride, is taken from us,—is dead. We saw him dead. My own hand surrendered him to the grave; yet we are alive. But it is past. I will not conceal from you that life is a burden, which, heavy as it is, we shall both support, if not with dignity, at least with decency and firmness. Theodosia has endured all that a human being could endure; but her admirable mind will triumph. She supports herself in a manner worthy of your daughter."
The mother's heart was almost broken.
"There is no more joy for me," she wrote.
"The world is a blank. I have lost my boy. My child is gone forever. May Heaven, by other blessings, make you some amends for the noble grandson you have lost! Alas! my dear father, I do live, but how does it happen? Of what am I formed that I live, and why? Of what service can I be in this world, either to you or any one else, with a body reduced to premature old age, and a mind enfeebled and bewildered? Yet, since it is my lot to live, I will endeavor to fulfil my part, and exert myself to my utmost, though this life must henceforth be to me a bed of thorns. Whichever way I turn, the same anguish still assails me. You talk of consolation. Ah! you know not what you have lost. I think Omnipotence could give me no equivalent for my boy; no, none,—none."
She could not be comforted. Her health gave way. Her husband thought that if anything could restore her to tranquillity and health it would be the society of her father; and so, at the beginning of winter, it was resolved that she should attempt the dangerous voyage. Her father sent a medical friend from New York to attend her.
"Mr. Alston," wrote this gentleman,
"seemed rather hurt that you should conceive it necessary to send a person here, as he or one of his brothers would attend Mrs. Alston to New York. I told him you had some opinion of my medical talents; that you had learned your daughter was in a low state of health, and required unusual attention, and medical attention on her voyage; that I had torn myself from my family to perform this service for my friend."
And again, a few days after:—
"I have engaged a passage to New York for your daughter in a pilot-boat that has been out privateering, but has come in here, and is refitting merely to get to New York. My only fears are that Governor Alston may think the mode of conveyance too undignified, and object to it; but Mrs. Alston is fully bent on going. You must not be surprised, to see her very low, feeble, and emaciated. Her complaint is an almost incessant nervous fever."
The rest is known. The vessel sailed. Off Cape Hatteras, during a gale that swept the coast from Maine to Georgia, the pilot-boat went down, and not one escaped to tell the tale. The vessel was never heard of more. So perished this noble, gifted, ill-starred lady.
The agonizing scenes that followed may be imagined. Father and husband were kept long in suspense. Even when many weeks had elapsed without bringing tidings of the vessel, there still remained a forlorn hope that some of her passengers might have been rescued by an outward-bound ship, and might return, after a year or two had gone by, from some distant port. Burr, it is said, acquired a habit, when walking upon the Battery, of looking wistfully down the harbor at the arriving ships, as if still cherishing a faint, fond hope that his Theo was coming to him from the other side of the world. When, years after, the tale was brought to him that his daughter had been carried off by pirates and might be still alive, he said: "No, no, no; if my Theo had survived that storm, she would have found her way to me. Nothing could have kept my Theo from her father."
It was these sad events, the loss of his daughter and her boy, that severed Aaron Burr from the human race. Hope died within him. Ambition died. He yielded to his doom, and walked among men, not melancholy, but indifferent, reckless, and alone. With his daughter and his grandson to live and strive for, he might have done something in his later years to redeem his name and atone for his errors. Bereft of these, he had not in his moral nature that which enables men who have gone astray to repent and begin a better life.
Theodosia's death broke her husband's heart. Few letters are so affecting as the one which he wrote to Burr when, at length, the certainty of her loss could no longer be resisted.
"My boy—my wife—gone both! This, then, is the end of all the hopes we had formed. You may well observe that you feel severed from the human race. She was the last tie that bound us to the species. What have we left? ... Yet, after all, he is a poor actor who cannot sustain his little hour upon the stage, be his part what it may. But the man who has been deemed worthy of the heart of Theodosia Burr, and who has felt what it was to be blessed with such a woman's, will never forget his elevation."
He survived his wife four years. Among the papers of Theodosia was found, after her death, a letter which she had written a few years before she died, at a time when she supposed her end was near. Upon the envelope was written,—"My husband. To be delivered after my death. I wish this to be read immediately, and before my burial." Her husband never saw it, for he never had the courage to look into the trunk that contained her treasures. But after his death the trunk was sent to Burr, who found and preserved this affecting composition. We cannot conclude our narrative more fitly than by transcribing the thoughts that burdened the heart of Theodosia in view of her departure from the world. First, she gave directions respecting the disposal of her jewelry and trinkets, giving to each of her friends some token of her love. Then she besought her husband to provide at once for the support of "Peggy," an aged servant of her father, formerly housekeeper at Richmond Hill, to whom, in her father's absence, she had contrived to pay a small pension. She then proceeded in these affecting terms:—
"To you, my beloved, I leave our child; the child of my bosom, who was once a part of myself, and from whom I shall shortly be separated by the cold grave. You love him now; henceforth love him for me also. And oh, my husband, attend to this last prayer of a doting mother. Never, never listen to what any other person tells you of him. Be yourself his judge on all occasions. He has faults; see them, and correct them yourself. Desist not an instant from your endeavors to secure his confidence. It is a work which requires as much uniformity of conduct as warmth of affection toward him. I know, my beloved, that you can perceive what is right on this subject as on every other. But recollect, these are the last words I can ever utter. It will tranquillize my last moments to have disburdened myself of them.
"I fear you will scarcely be able to read this scrawl, but I feel hurried and agitated. Death is not welcome to me. I confess it is ever dreaded. You have made me too fond of life. Adieu, then, thou kind, thou tender husband. Adieu, friend of my heart. May Heaven prosper you, and may we meet hereafter. Adieu; perhaps we may never see each other again in this world. You are away, I wished to hold you fast, and prevented you from going this morning. But He who is wisdom itself ordains events; we must submit to them. Least of all should I murmur. I, on whom so many blessings have been showered,—whose days have been numbered by bounties,—who have had such a husband, such a child, and such a father. O pardon me, my God, if I regret leaving these. I resign myself. Adieu, once more, and for the last time, my beloved. Speak of me often to our son. Let him love the memory of his mother, and let him know how he was loved by her. Your wife, your fond wife,
"Let my father see my son sometimes. Do not be unkind toward him whom I have loved so much, I beseech you. Burn all my papers except my father's letters, which I beg you to return him. Adieu, my sweet boy. Love your father; be grateful and affectionate to him while he lives; be the pride of his meridian, the support of his departing days. Be all that he wishes; for he made your mother happy. Oh! my heavenly Father, bless them both. If it is permitted, I will hover round you, and guard you, and intercede for you. I hope for happiness in the next world, for I have not been bad in this.
"I had nearly forgotten to say that I charge you not to allow me to be stripped and washed, as is usual. I am pure enough thus to return to dust. Why, then, expose my person? Pray see to this. If it does not appear contradictory or silly, I beg to be kept as long as possible before I am consigned to the earth."
JOHN JACOB ASTOR.
We all feel some curiosity respecting men who have been eminent in anything,—even in crime; and as this curiosity is natural and universal, it seems proper that it should be gratified. JOHN JACOB ASTOR, surpassed all the men of his generation in the accumulation of wealth. He began life a poor, hungry German boy, and died worth twenty millions of dollars. These facts are so remarkable, that there is no one who does not feel a desire to know by which means the result was produced, and whether the game was played fairly. We all wish, if not to be rich, yet to have more money than we now possess. We have known many kinds of men, but never one who felt that he had quite money enough. The three richest men now living in the United States are known to be as much interested in the increase of their possessions, and try as hard to increase them, as ever they did.
This universal desire to accumulate property is right, and necessary to the progress of the race. Like every other proper and virtuous desire, it may become excessive, and then it is a vice. So long as a man seeks property honestly, and values it as the means of independence, as the means of educating and comforting his family, as the means of securing a safe, dignified, and tranquil old age, as the means of private charity and public beneficence, let him bend himself heartily to his work, and enjoy the reward of his labors. It is a fine and pleasant thing to prosper in business, and to have a store to fall back upon in time of trouble.
The reader may learn from Astor's career how money is accumulated. Whether he can learn from it how money ought to be employed when it is obtained, he must judge for himself. In founding the Astor Library, John Jacob Astor did at least one magnificent deed, for which thousands unborn will honor his memory. That single act would atone for many errors.
In the hall of the Astor Library, on the sides of two of the pillars supporting its lofty roof of glass, are two little shelves, each holding a single work, never taken down and seldom perused, but nevertheless well worthy the attention of those who are curious in the subject of which they treat, namely, the human face divine. They are two marble busts, facing each other; one of the founder of the Library, the other of its first President, Washington Irving. A finer study in physiognomy than these two busts present can nowhere be found; for never were two men more unlike than Astor and Irving, and never were character and personal history more legibly recorded than in these portraits in marble. The countenance of the author is round, full, and handsome, the hair inclining to curl, and the chin to double. It is the face of a happy and genial man, formed to shine at the fireside and to beam from the head of a table. It is an open, candid, liberal, hospitable countenance, indicating far more power to please than to compel, but displaying in the position and carriage of the head much of that dignity which we are accustomed to call Roman. The face of the millionaire, on the contrary, is all strength; every line in it tells of concentration and power. The hair is straight and long; the forehead neither lofty nor ample, but powerfully developed in the perceptive and executive organs; the eyes deeper set in the head than those of Daniel Webster, and overhung with immense bushy eyebrows; the nose large, long, and strongly arched, the veritable nose of a man-compeller; the mouth, chin, and jaws all denoting firmness and force; the chest, that seat and throne of physical power, is broad and deep, and the back of the neck has something of the muscular fulness which we observe in the prize-fighter and the bull; the head behind the ears showing enough of propelling power, but almost totally wanting in the passional propensities which waste the force of the faculties, and divert the man from his principal object. As the spectator stands midway between the two busts, at some distance from both, Irving has the larger and the kinglier air, and the face of Astor seems small and set. It is only when you get close to the bust of Astor, observing the strength of each feature and its perfect proportion to the rest,—force everywhere, superfluity nowhere,—that you recognize the monarch of the counting-room; the brain which nothing could confuse or disconcert; the purpose that nothing could divert or defeat; the man who could with ease and pleasure grasp and control the multitudinous concerns of a business that embraced the habited and unhabited globe,—that employed ships in every sea, and men in every clime, and brought in to the coffers of the merchant the revenue of a king. That speechless bust tells us how it was that this man, from suffering in his father's poverty-stricken house the habitual pang of hunger, arrived at the greatest fortune, perhaps, ever accumulated in a single lifetime; you perceive that whatever thing this strong and compact man set himself to do, he would be certain to achieve unless stopped by something as powerful as a law of nature.
The monument of these two gifted men is the airy and graceful interior of which their busts are the only ornament. Astor founded the Library, but it was probably his regard for Irving that induced him to appropriate part of his wealth for a purpose not in harmony with his own humor. Irving is known to us all, as only wits and poets are ever known. But of the singular being who possessed so remarkable a genius for accumulation, of which this Library is one of the results, little has been imparted to the public, and of that little the greater part is fabulous.
A hundred years ago, in the poor little village of Waldorf, in the duchy of Baden, lived a jovial, good-for-nothing butcher, named Jacob Astor, who felt himself much more at home in the beer-house than at the fireside of his own house in the principal street of the village. At the best, the butcher of Waldorf must have been a poor man; for, at that day, the inhabitants of a German village enjoyed the luxury of fresh meat only on great days, such as those of confirmation, baptism, weddings, and Christmas.
The village itself was remote and insignificant, and though situated in the valley of the Rhine, the native home of the vine, a region of proverbial fertility, the immediate vicinity of Waldorf was not a rich or very populous country. The home of Jacob Astor, therefore, seldom knew any medium between excessive abundance and extreme scarcity, and he was not the man to make the superfluity of to-day provide for the need of to-morrow; which was the more unfortunate as the periods of abundance were few and far between, and the times of scarcity extended over the greater part of the year. It was the custom then in Germany for every farmer to provide a fatted pig, calf, or bullock, against the time of harvest; and as that joyful season approached, the village butcher went the round of the neighborhood, stopping a day or two at each house to kill the animals and convert their flesh into bacon, sausages, or salt beef. During this happy time, Jacob Astor, a merry dog, always welcome where pleasure and hilarity were going forward, had enough to drink, and his family had enough to eat. But the merry time lasted only six weeks. Then set in the season of scarcity, which was only relieved when there was a festival of the church, a wedding, a christening, or a birthday in some family of the village rich enough to provide an animal for Jacob's knife. The wife of this idle and improvident butcher was such a wife as such men usually contrive to pick up,—industrious, saving, and capable; the mainstay of his house. Often she remonstrated with her wasteful and beer-loving husband; the domestic sky was often overcast, and the children were glad to fly from the noise and dust of the tempest.
This roistering village butcher and his worthy, much-enduring wife were the parents of our millionaire. They had four sons: George Peter Astor, born in 1752; Henry Astor, born in 1754; John Melchior Astor, born in 1759; and John Jacob Astor, born July 17, 1763. Each of these sons made haste to fly from the privations and contentions of their home as soon as they were old enough; and, what is more remarkable, each of them had a cast of character precisely the opposite of their thriftless father. They were all saving, industrious, temperate, and enterprising, and all of them became prosperous men at an early period of their career. They were all duly instructed in their father's trade; each in turn carried about the streets of Waldorf the basket of meat, and accompanied the father in his harvest slaughtering tours. Jovial Jacob, we are told, gloried in being a butcher, but three of his sons, much to his disgust, manifested a repugnance to it, which was one of the causes of their flight from the parental nest. The eldest, who was the first to go, made his way to London, where an uncle was established in business as a maker of musical instruments. Astor and Broadwood was the name of the firm, a house that still exists under the title of Broadwood and Co., one of the most noted makers of pianos in England. In his uncle's manufactory George Astor served an apprenticeship, and became at length a partner in the firm. Henry Astor went next. He alone of his father's sons took to his father's trade. It used to be thrown in his teeth, when he was a thriving butcher in the city of New York, that he had come over to America as a private in the Hessian army. This may only have been the groundless taunt of an envious rival. It is certain, however, that he was a butcher in New York when it was a British post during the revolutionary war, and, remaining after the evacuation, made a large fortune in his business. The third son, John Melchior Astor, found employment in Germany, and arrived, at length, at the profitable post of steward to a nobleman's estate.
Abandoned thus by his three brothers, John Jacob Astor had to endure for some years a most cheerless and miserable lot. He lost his mother, too, from whom he had derived all that was good in his character and most of the happiness of his childhood. A step-mother replaced her, "who loved not Jacob," nor John Jacob. The father, still devoted to pleasure, quarrelled so bitterly with his new wife, that his son was often glad to escape to the house of a schoolfellow (living in 1854), where he would pass the night in a garret or outhouse, thankfully accepting for his supper a crust of dry bread, and returning the next morning to assist in the slaughter-house or carry out the meat. It was not often that he had enough to eat; his clothes were of the poorest description; and, as to money, he absolutely had none of it. The unhappiness of his home and the misconduct of his father made him ashamed to join in the sports of the village boys; and he passed much of his leisure alone, brooding over the unhappiness of his lot. The family increased, but not its income. It is recorded of him that he tended his little sisters with care and fondness, and sought in all ways to lessen the dislike and ill-humor of his step-mother.
It is not hardship, however, that enervates a lad. It is indulgence and luxury that do that. He grew a stout, healthy, tough, and patient boy, diligent and skilful in the discharge of his duty, often supplying the place of his father absent in merry-making. If, in later life, he overvalued money, it should not be forgotten that few men have had a harder experience of the want of money at the age when character is forming.
The bitterest lot has its alleviations. Sometimes a letter would reach him from over the sea, telling of the good fortune of a brother in a distant land. In his old age he used to boast that in his boyhood he walked forty-five miles in one day for the sole purpose of getting a letter that had arrived from England or America. The Astors have always been noted for the strength of their family affection. Our millionaire forgot much that he ought to have remembered, but he was not remiss in fulfilling the obligations of kindred.
It appears, too, that he was fortunate in having a better schoolmaster than could generally be found at that day in a village school of Germany. Valentine Jeune was his name, a French Protestant, whose parents had fled from their country during the reign of Louis XIV. He was an active and sympathetic teacher, and bestowed unusual pains upon the boy, partly because he pitied his unhappy situation, and partly because of his aptitude to learn. Nevertheless, the school routine of those days was extremely limited. To read and write, to cipher as far as the Rule of Three, to learn the Catechism by heart, and to sing the Church Hymns "so that the windows should rattle,"—these were the sole accomplishments of even the best pupils of Valentine Jeune. Baden was then under the rule of a Catholic family. It was a saying in Waldorf that no man could be appointed a swineherd who was not a Catholic, and that if a mayoralty were vacant the swineherd must have the place if there were no other Catholic in the town. Hence it was that the line which separated the Protestant minority from the Catholic majority was sharply defined, and the Protestant children were the more thoroughly indoctrinated. Rev. John Philip Steiner, the Protestant pastor of Waldorf, a learned and faithful minister, was as punctilious in requiring from the children the thorough learning of the Catechism as a German sergeant was in exacting all the niceties of the parade. Young Astor became, therefore, a very decided Protestant; he lived and died a member of the Church in which he was born.
The great day in the life of a German child is that of his confirmation, which usually occurs in his fourteenth year. The ceremony, which was performed at Waldorf every two years, was a festival at once solemn and joyous. The children, long prepared beforehand by the joint labors of minister, schoolmaster, and parents, walk in procession to the church, the girls in white, the boys in their best clothes, and there, after the requisite examinations, the rite is performed, and the Sacrament is administered. The day concludes with festivity. Confirmation also is the point of division between childhood and youth,—between absolute dependence and the beginning of responsibility. After confirmation, the boys of a German peasant take their place in life as apprentices or as servants; and the girls, unless their services are required at home, are placed in situations. Childhood ends, maturity begins, when the child has tasted for the first time the bread and wine of the Communion. Whether a boy then becomes an apprentice or a servant depends upon whether his parents have been provident enough to save a sum of money sufficient to pay the usual premium required by a master as compensation for his trouble in teaching his trade. This premium varied at that day from fifty dollars to two hundred, according to the difficulty and respectability of the vocation. A carpenter or a blacksmith might be satisfied with a premium of sixty or seventy dollars, while a cabinet-maker would demand a hundred, and a musical instrument maker or a clock-maker two hundred.
On Palm Sunday, 1777, when he was about fourteen years of age, John Jacob Astor was confirmed. He then consulted his father upon his future. Money to apprentice him there was none in the paternal coffers. The trade of butcher he knew and disliked. Nor was he inclined to accept as his destiny for life the condition of servant or laborer. The father, who thought the occupation of butcher one of the best in the world, and who needed the help of his son, particularly in the approaching season of harvest, paid no heed to the entreaties of the lad, who saw himself condemned without hope to a business which he loathed, and to labor at it without reward.
A deep discontent settled upon him. The tidings of the good fortune of his brothers inflamed his desire to seek his fortune in the world. The news of the Revolutionary War, which drew all eyes upon America, and in which the people of all lands sympathized with the struggling colonies, had its effect upon him. He began to long for the "New Land," as the Germans then styled America; and it is believed in Waldorf that soon after the capture of Burgoyne had spread abroad a confidence in the final success of the colonists, the youth formed the secret determination to emigrate to America. Nevertheless, he had to wait three miserable years longer, until the surrender of Cornwallis made it certain that America was to be free, before he was able to enter upon the gratification of his desire.
In getting to America, he displayed the same sagacity in adapting means to ends that distinguished him during his business career in New York. Money he had never had in his life, beyond a few silver coins of the smallest denomination. His father had none to give him, even if he had been inclined to do so. It was only when the lad was evidently resolved to go that he gave a slow, reluctant consent to his departure. Waldorf is nearly three hundred miles from the seaport in Holland most convenient for his purpose. Despite the difficulties, this penniless youth formed the resolution of going down the Rhine to Holland, there taking ship for London, where he would join his brother, and, while earning money for his passage to America, learn the language of the country to which he was destined. It appears that he dreaded more the difficulties of the English tongue than he did those of the long and expensive journey; but he was resolved not to sail for America until he had acquired the language, and saved a little money beyond the expenses of the voyage. It appears, also, that there prevailed in Baden the belief that Americans were exceedingly selfish and inhospitable, and regarded the poor emigrant only in the light of prey. John Jacob was determined not to land among such a people without the means of understanding their tricks and paying his way. In all ways, too, he endeavored to get a knowledge of the country to which he was going.
With a small bundle of clothes hung over his shoulder upon a stick, with a crown or two in his pocket, he said the last farewell to his father and his friends, and set out on foot for the Rhine, a few miles distant. Valentine Jeune, his old schoolmaster, said, as the lad was lost to view: "I am not afraid of Jacob; he '11 get through the world. He has a clear head and everything right behind the ears." He was then a stout, strong lad of nearly seventeen, exceedingly well made, though slightly undersized, and he had a clear, composed, intelligent look in the eyes, which seemed to ratify the prediction of the schoolmaster. He strode manfully out of town, with tears in his eyes and a sob in his throat,—for he loved his father, his friends, and his native village, though his lot there had been forlorn enough. While still in sight of Waldorf, he sat down under a tree and thought of the future before him and the friends he had left. He there, as he used to relate in after-life, made three resolutions: to be honest, to be industrious, and not to gamble,—excellent resolutions, as far as they go. Having sat awhile under the tree, he took up his bundle and resumed his journey with better heart.
It was by no means the intention of this sagacious youth to walk all the way to the sea-coast. There was a much more convenient way at that time of accomplishing the distance, even to a young man with only two dollars in his pocket. The Black Forest is partly in Astor's native Baden. The rafts of timber cut in the Black Forest, instead of floating down the Rhine in the manner practised in America, used to be rowed by sixty or eighty men each, who were paid high wages, as the labor was severe.
Large numbers of stalwart emigrants availed themselves of this mode of getting from the interior to the sea-coast, by which they earned their subsistence on the way and about ten dollars in money. The tradition in Waldorf is, that young Astor worked his passage down the Rhine, and earned his passage-money to England as an oarsman on one of these rafts. Hard as the labor was, the oarsmen had a merry time of it, cheering their toil with jest and song by night and day. On the fourteenth day after leaving home, our youth found himself at a Dutch seaport, with a larger sum of money than he had ever before possessed. He took passage for London, where he landed a few days after, in total ignorance of the place and the language. His brother welcomed him with German warmth, and assisted him to procure employment,—probably in the flute and piano manufactory of Astor and Broadwood.
As the foregoing brief account of the early life of John Jacob Astor differs essentially from any previously published in the United States, it is proper that the reader should be informed of the sources whence we have derived information so novel and unexpected. The principal source is a small biography of Astor published in Germany about ten years ago, written by a native of Baden, a Lutheran clergyman, who gathered his material in Waldorf, where were then living a few aged persons who remembered Astor when he was a sad and solitary lad in his father's disorderly house. The statements of this little book are confirmed by what some of the surviving friends and descendants of Mr. Astor in New York remember of his own conversation respecting his early days. He seldom spoke of his life in Germany, though he remembered his native place with fondness, revisited it in the time of his prosperity, pensioned his father, and forgot not Waldorf in his will; but the little that he did say of his youthful years accords with the curious narrative in the work to which we have alluded. We believe the reader may rely on our story as being essentially true.
Astor brought to London, according to our quaint Lutheran, "a pious, true, and godly spirit, a clear understanding, a sound youthful elbow-grease, and the wish to put it to good use." During the two years of his residence in the British metropolis, he strove most assiduously for three objects: 1. To save money; 2. To acquire the English language; 3. To get information respecting America. Much to his relief and gratification, he found the acquisition of the language to be the least of his difficulties. Working in a shop with English mechanics, and having few German friends, he was generally dependent upon the language of the country for the communication of his desires; and he was as much surprised as delighted to find how many points of similarity there were between the two languages. In about six weeks, he used to say, he could make himself understood a little in English, and long before he left London he could speak it fluently. He never learned to write English correctly in his life, nor could he ever speak it without a decided German accent; but he could always express his meaning with simplicity and force, both orally and in writing. Trustworthy information respecting America, in the absence of maps, gazetteers, and books of travel, was more difficult to procure. The ordinary Englishman of that day regarded America with horror or contempt as perverse and rebellious colonies, making a great to-do about a paltry tax, and giving "the best of kings" a world of trouble for nothing. He probably heard little of the thundering eloquence with which Fox, Pitt, Burke, and Sheridan were nightly defending the American cause in the House of Commons, and assailing the infatuation of the Government in prosecuting a hopeless war. As often, however, as our youth met with any one who had been in America, he plied him with questions, and occasionally he heard from his brother in New York. Henry Astor was already established, as a butcher on his own account, wheeling home in a wheelbarrow from Bull's Head his slender purchases of sheep and calves. But the great difficulty of John Jacob in London was the accumulation of money. Having no trade, his wages were necessarily small. Though he rose with the lark, and was at work as early as five in the morning,—though he labored with all his might, and saved every farthing that he could spare,—it was two years before he had saved enough for his purpose. In September, 1783, he possessed a good suit of Sunday clothes, in the English style, and about fifteen English guineas,—the total result of two years of unremitting toil and most pinching economy; and here again charity requires the remark that if Astor the millionaire carried the virtue of economy to an extreme, it was Astor the struggling youth in a strange land who learned the value of money.
In that month of September, 1783, the news reached London that Dr. Franklin and his associates in Paris, after two years of negotiation, had signed the definitive treaty which completed the independence of the United States. Franklin had been in the habit of predicting that as soon as America had become an independent nation, the best blood in Europe, and some of the finest fortunes, would hasten to seek a career or an asylum in the New World. Perhaps he would have hardly recognized the emigration of this poor German youth as part of the fulfilment of his prophecy. Nevertheless, the news of the conclusion of the treaty had no sooner reached England than young Astor, then twenty years old, began to prepare for his departure for the "New Land," and in November he embarked for Baltimore. He paid five of his guineas for a passage in the steerage, which entitled him to sailors' fare of salt beef and biscuit. He invested part of his remaining capital in seven flutes, and carried the rest, about five pounds sterling, in the form of money.
America gave a cold welcome to the young emigrant. The winter of 1783-4 was one of the celebrated severe winters on both sides of the ocean. November gales and December storms wreaked all their fury upon the ship, retarding its progress so long that January arrived before she had reached Chesapeake Bay. Floating ice filled the bay as far as the eye could reach, and a January storm drove the ship among the masses with such force, that she was in danger of being broken to pieces. It was on one of those days of peril and consternation, that young Astor appeared on deck in his best clothes, and on being asked the reason of this strange proceeding, said that if he escaped with life he should save his best clothes, and if he lost it his clothes would be of no further use to him. Tradition further reports that he, a steerage passenger, ventured one day to come upon the quarter-deck, when the captain roughly ordered him forward. Tradition adds that that very captain, twenty years after, commanded a ship owned by the steerage passenger. When the ship was within a day's sail of her port the wind died away, the cold increased, and the next morning beheld the vessel hard and fast in a sea of ice. For two whole months she remained immovable. Provisions gave out. The passengers were only relieved when the ice extended to the shore, and became strong enough to afford communication with other ships and with the coasts of the bay. Some of the passengers made their way to the shore, and travelled by land to their homes; but this resource was not within the means of our young adventurer, and he was obliged to stick to the ship.
Fortune is an obsequious jade, that favors the strong and turns her back upon the weak. This exasperating delay of two months was the means of putting young Astor upon the shortest and easiest road to fortune that the continent of America then afforded to a poor man. Among his fellow-passengers there was one German, with whom he made acquaintance on the voyage, and with whom he continually associated during the detention of the winter. They told each other their past history, their present plans, their future hopes. The stranger informed young Astor that he too had emigrated to America, a few years before, without friends or money; that he had soon managed to get into the business of buying furs of the Indians, and of the boatmen coming to New York from the river settlements; that at length he had embarked all his capital in skins, and had taken them himself to England in a returning transport, where he had sold them to great advantage, and had invested the proceeds in toys and trinkets, with which to continue his trade in the wilderness. He strongly advised Astor to follow his example. He told him the prices of the various skins in America, and the prices they commanded in London. With German friendliness he imparted to him the secrets of the craft: told him where to buy, how to pack, transport, and preserve the skins; the names of the principal dealers in New York, Montreal, and London; and the season of the year when the skins were most abundant. All this was interesting to the young man; but he asked his friend how it was possible to begin such a business without capital. The stranger told him that no great capital was required for a beginning. With a basket of toys, or even of cakes, he said, a man could buy valuable skins on the wharves and in the markets of New York, which could be sold with some profit to New York furriers. But the grand object was to establish a connection with a house in London, where furs brought four or five times their value in America. In short, John Jacob Astor determined to lose no time after reaching New York, in trying his hand at this profitable traffic.
The ice broke up in March. The ship made its way to Baltimore, and the two friends travelled together to New York. The detention in the ice and the journey to New York almost exhausted Astor's purse. He arrived in this city, where now his estate is valued at forty millions, with little more than his seven German flutes, and a long German head full of available knowledge and quiet determination. He went straight to the humble abode of his brother Henry, a kindly, generous, jovial soul, who gave him a truly fraternal welcome, and received with hospitable warmth the companion of his voyage.
Henry Astor's prosperity had been temporarily checked by the evacuation of New York, which had occurred five months before, and which had deprived the tradesmen of the city of their best customers. It was not only the British army that had left the city in November, 1783, but a host of British officials and old Tory families as well; while the new-comers were Whigs, whom seven years of war had impoverished, and young adventurers who had still their career to make. During the Revolution, Henry Astor had speculated occasionally in cattle captured from the farmers of Westchester, which were sold at auction at Bull's Head, and he had advanced from a wheelbarrow to the ownership of a horse. An advertisement informs us that, about the time of his brother's arrival, this horse was stolen, with saddle and bridle, and that the owner offered three guineas reward for the recovery of the property; but that "for the thief, horse, saddle, and bridle, ten guineas would be paid." A month after, we find him becoming a citizen of the United States, and soon he began to share in the returning prosperity of the city.
In the mean time, however, he could do little for his new-found brother. During the first evening of his brother's stay at his house the question was discussed, What should the young man do in his new country? The charms of the fur business were duly portrayed by the friend of the youth, who also expressed his preference for it. It was agreed, at length, that the best plan would be for the young man to seek employment with some one already in the business, in order to learn the modes of proceeding, as well as to acquire a knowledge of the country, The young stranger anxiously inquired how much premium would be demanded by a furrier for teaching the business to a novice, and he was at once astonished and relieved to learn that no such thing was known in America, and that he might expect his board and small wages even from the start. So, the next day, the brothers and their friend proceeded together to the store of Robert Bowne, an aged and benevolent Quaker, long established in the business of buying, curing, and exporting peltries. It chanced that he needed a hand. Pleased with the appearance and demeanor of the young man, he employed him (as tradition reports) at two dollars a week and his board. Astor took up his abode in his master's house, and was soon at work. We can tell the reader with certainty what was the nature of the youth's first day's work in his adopted country; for, in his old age, he was often heard to say that the first thing he did for Mr. Bowne was to beat furs; which, indeed, was his principal employment during the whole of the following summer,—furs requiring to be frequently beaten to keep the moths from destroying them.
Perhaps among our readers there are some who have formed the resolution to get on in the world and become rich. We advise such to observe how young Astor proceeded. We are far from desiring to hold up this able man as a model for the young; yet it must be owned that in the art of prospering in business he has had no equal in America; and in that his example may be useful. Now, observe the secret. It was not plodding merely, though no man ever labored more steadily than he. Mr. Bowne, discovering what a prize he had, raised his wages at the end of the first month. Nor was it merely his strict observance of the rules of temperance and morality, though that is essential to any worthy success. The great secret of Astor's early, rapid, and uniform success in business appears to have been, that he acted always upon the maxim that KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! He labored unceasingly at Mr. Bowne's to learn the business. He put all his soul into the work of getting a knowledge of furs, fur-bearing animals, fur-dealers, fur-markets, fur-gathering Indians, fur-abounding countries. In those days a considerable number of bear skins and beaver skins were brought directly to Bowne's store by the Indians and countrymen of the vicinity, who had shot or trapped the animals. These men Astor questioned; and neglected no other opportunity of procuring the information he desired. It used to be observed of Astor that he absolutely loved a fine skin. In later days he would have a superior fur hung up in his counting-room as other men hang pictures; and this, apparently, for the mere pleasure of feeling, showing, and admiring it. He would pass his hand fondly over it, extolling its charms with an approach to enthusiasm; not, however, forgetting to mention that in Canton it would bring him in five hundred dollars. So heartily did he throw himself into his business.
Growing rapidly in the confidence of his employer, he was soon intrusted with more important duties than the beating of furs. He was employed in buying them from the Indians and hunters who brought them to the city. Soon, too, he took the place of his employer in the annual journey to Montreal, then the chief fur mart of the country. With a pack upon his back, he struck into the wilderness above Albany, and walked to Lake George, which he ascended in a canoe, and having thus reached Champlain he embarked again, and sailed to the head of that lake. Returning with his furs, he employed the Indians in transporting them to the Hudson, and brought them to the city in a sloop. He was formed by nature for a life like this. His frame was capable of great endurance, and he had the knack of getting the best of a bargain. The Indian is a great bargainer. The time was gone by when a nail or a little red paint would induce him to part with valuable peltries. It required skill and address on the part of the trader, both in selecting the articles likely to tempt the vanity or the cupidity of the red man, and in conducting the tedious negotiation which usually preceded an exchange of commodities. It was in this kind of traffic, doubtless, that our young German acquired that unconquerable propensity for making hard bargains, which was so marked a feature in his character as a merchant. He could never rise superior to this early-acquired habit. He never knew what it was to exchange places with the opposite party, and survey a transaction from his point of view. He exulted not in compensating liberal service liberally. In all transactions he kept in view the simple object of giving the least and getting the most.
Meanwhile his brother Henry was flourishing. He married the beautiful daughter of a brother butcher, and the young wife, according to the fashion of the time, disdained not to assist her husband even in the slaughter-house as well as in the market-place. Colonel Devoe, in his well-known Market Book, informs us that Henry Astor was exceedingly proud of his pretty wife, often bringing her home presents of gay dresses and ribbons, and speaking of her as "de pink of de Bowery." The butchers of that day complained bitterly of him, because he used to ride out of town fifteen or twenty miles, and buy up the droves of cattle coming to the city, which he would drive in and sell at an advanced price to the less enterprising butchers. He gained a fortune by his business, which would have been thought immense, if the colossal wealth of his brother had not reduced all other estates to comparative insignificance. It was he who bought, for eight hundred dollars, the acre of ground on part of which the old Bowery Theatre now stands.
John Jacob Astor remained not long in the employment of Robert Bowne. It was a peculiarity of the business of a furrier at that day, that, while it admitted of unlimited extension, it could be begun on the smallest scale, with a very insignificant capital. Every farmer's boy in the vicinity of New York had occasionally a skin to sell, and bears abounded in the Catskill Mountains. Indeed the time had not long gone by when beaver skins formed part of the currency of the-city. All Northern and Western New York was still a fur-yielding country. Even Long Island furnished its quota. So that, while the fur business was one that rewarded the enterprise of great and wealthy companies, employing thousands of men and fleets of ships, it afforded an opening to young Astor, who, with the assistance of his brother, could command a capital of only a very few hundred dollars. In a little shop in Water Street, with a back-room, a yard, and a shed, the shop furnished with only a few toys and trinkets, Astor began, business about the year 1786. He had then, as always, the most unbounded confidence in his own abilities. He used to relate that, at this time, a new row of houses in Broadway was the talk of the city from their magnitude and beauty. Passing them one day, he said to himself: "I'll build some time or other a greater house than any of these, and in this very street." He used also to say, in his old age: "The first hundred thousand dollars—that was hard to get; but afterward it was easy to make more."
Having set up for himself, he worked with the quiet, indomitable ardor of a German who sees clearly his way open before him. At first he did everything for himself. He bought, cured, beat, packed, and sold his skins. From dawn till dark, he assiduously labored. At the proper seasons of the year, with his pack on his back, he made short excursions into the country, collecting skins from house to house, gradually extending the area of his travels, till he knew the State of New York as no man of his day knew it. He used to boast, late in life, when the Erie Canal had called into being a line of thriving towns through the centre of the State, that he had himself, in his numberless tramps, designated the sites of those towns, and predicted that one day they would be the centres of business and population. Particularly he noted the spots where Rochester and Buffalo now stand, one having a harbor on Lake Erie, the other upon Lake Ontario. Those places, he predicted, would one day be large and prosperous cities, and that prediction he made when there was scarcely a settlement at Buffalo, and only wigwams on the site of Rochester. At this time he had a partner who usually remained in the city, while the agile and enduring Astor traversed the wilderness.
It was his first voyage to London that established his business on a solid foundation. As soon as he had accumulated a few bales of the skins suited to the European market, he took passage in the steerage of a ship and conveyed them to London. He sold them to great advantage, and established connections with houses to which he could in future consign his furs, and from which he could procure the articles best adapted to the taste of Indians and hunters. But his most important operation in London was to make an arrangement with the firm of Astor & Broadwood, by which he became the New York agent for the sale of their pianos, flutes, and violins. He is believed to have been the first man in New York who kept constantly for sale a supply of musical merchandise, of which the annual sale in New York is now reckoned at five millions of dollars. On his return to New York, he opened a little dingy store in Gold Street, between Fulton and Ann, and swung out a sign to the breeze bearing the words:—FURS AND PIANOS.
There were until recently aged men among us who remembered seeing this sign over the store of Mr. Astor, and in some old houses are preserved ancient pianos, bearing the name of J.J. Astor, as the seller thereof. Violins and flutes, also, are occasionally met with that have his name upon them. In 1790, seven years after his arrival in this city, he was of sufficient importance to appear in the Directory thus:—ASTOR, J.J., Fur Trader, 40 Little Dock Street (now part of Water Street).
In this time of his dawning prosperity, while still inhabiting the small house of which his store was a part, he married. Sarah Todd was the maiden name of his wife. As a connection of the family of Brevoort, she was then considered to be somewhat superior to her husband in point of social rank, and she brought him a fortune, by no means despised by him at that time, of three hundred dollars. She threw herself heartily into her husband's growing business, laboring with her own hands, buying, sorting, and beating the furs. He used to say that she was as good a judge of the value of peltries as himself, and that her opinion in a matter of business was better than that of most merchants.
Of a man like Astor all kinds of stories will be told, some true, some false; some founded upon fact, but exaggerated or distorted. It is said, for example, that when he went into business for himself, he used to go around among the shops and markets with a basket of toys and cakes upon his arm, exchanging those articles for furs. There are certainly old people among us who remember hearing their parents say that they saw him doing this. The story is not improbable, for he had no false pride, and was ready to turn his hand to anything that was honest.
Mr. Astor still traversed the wilderness. The father of the late lamented General Wadsworth used to relate that he met him once in the woods of Western New York in a sad plight. His wagon had broken down in the midst of a swamp. In the melee all his gold had rolled away through the bottom of the vehicle, and was irrecoverably lost; and Astor was seen emerging from the swamp covered with mud and carrying on his shoulder an axe,—the sole relic of his property. When at length, in 1794, Jay's treaty caused the evacuation of the western forts held by the British, his business so rapidly extended that he was enabled to devolve these laborious journeys upon others, while he remained in New York, controlling a business that now embraced the region of the great lakes, and gave employment to a host of trappers, collectors, and agents. He was soon in a position to purchase a ship, in which his furs were carried to London, and in which he occasionally made a voyage himself. He was still observed to be most assiduous in the pursuit of commercial knowledge. He was never weary of inquiring about the markets of Europe and Asia, the ruling prices and commodities of each, the standing of commercial houses, and all other particulars that could be of use. Hence his directions to his captains and agents were always explicit and minute, and if any enterprise failed to be profitable it could generally be distinctly seen that it was because his orders had not been obeyed. In London, he became most intimately conversant with the operations of the East-India Company and with the China trade. China being the best market in the world for furs, and furnishing commodities which in America had become necessaries of life, he was quick to perceive what an advantage he would have over other merchants by sending his ships to Canton provided with furs as well as dollars. It was about the year 1800 that he sent his first ship to Canton, and he continued to carry on commerce with China for twenty-seven years, sometimes with loss, generally with profit, and occasionally with splendid and bewildering success.
It was not, however, until the year 1800, when he was worth a quarter of a million dollars, and had been in business fifteen years, that he indulged himself in the comfort of living in a house apart from his business. In 1794 he appears in the Directory as "Furrier, 149 Broadway." From 1796 to 1799 he figures as "Fur Merchant, 149 Broadway." In 1800 he had a storehouse at 141 Greenwich Street, and lived at 223 Broadway, on the site of the present Astor House. In 1801, his store was at 71 Liberty Street, and he had removed his residence back to 149 Broadway. The year following we find him again at 223 Broadway, where he continued to reside for a quarter of a century. His house was such as a fifth-rate merchant would now consider much beneath his dignity. Mr. Astor, indeed, had a singular dislike to living in a large house. He had neither expensive tastes nor wasteful vices. His luxuries were a pipe, a glass of beer, a game of draughts, a ride on horseback, and the theatre. Of the theatre he was particularly fond. He seldom missed a good performance in the palmy days of the "Old Park."
It was his instinctive abhorrence of ostentation and waste that enabled him, as it were, to glide into the millionaire without being observed by his neighbors. He used to relate, with a chuckle, that he was worth a million before any one suspected it. A dandy bank-clerk, one day, having expressed a doubt as to the sufficiency of his name to a piece of mercantile paper, Astor asked him how much he thought he was worth. The clerk mentioned a sum ludicrously less than the real amount. Astor then asked him how much he supposed this and that leading merchant, whom he named, was worth. The young man endowed them with generous sum-totals proportioned to their style of living. "Well," said Astor, "I am worth more than any of them. I will not say how much I am worth, but I am worth more than any sum you have mentioned." "Then," said the clerk, "you are even a greater fool than I took you for, to work as hard as you do." The old man would tell this story with great glee, for he always liked a joke.
In the course of his long life he had frequent opportunities of observing what becomes of those gay merchants who live up to the incomes of prosperous years, regardless of the inevitable time of commercial collapse. It must be owned that he held in utter contempt the dashing style of living and doing business which has too often prevailed in New York; and he was very slow to give credit to a house that carried sail out of proportion to its ballast. Nevertheless, he was himself no plodder when plodding had ceased to be necessary. At the time when his affairs were on their greatest scale, he would leave his office at two in the afternoon, go home to an early dinner, then mount his horse and ride about the Island till it was time to go to the theatre. He had a strong aversion to illegitimate speculation, and particularly to gambling in stocks. The note-shaving and stock-jobbing operations of the Rothschilds he despised. It was his pride and boast that he gained his own fortune by legitimate commerce, and by the legitimate investment of his profits. Having an unbounded faith in the destiny of the United States, and in the future commercial supremacy of New York, it was his custom, from about the year 1800, to invest his gains in the purchase of lots and lands on Manhattan Island.
We have all heard much of the closeness, or rather the meanness, of this remarkable man. Truth compels us to admit, as we have before intimated, that he was not generous, except to his own kindred. His liberality began and ended in his own family. Very seldom during his lifetime did he willingly do a generous act outside of the little circle of his relations and descendants. To get all that he could, and to keep nearly all that he got,—those were the laws of his being. He had a vast genius for making money, and that was all that he had.
It is a pleasure to know that sometimes his extreme closeness defeated its own object. He once lost seventy thousand dollars by committing a piece of petty injustice toward his best captain. This gallant sailor, being notified by an insurance office of the necessity of having a chronometer on board his ship, spoke to Mr. Astor on the subject, who advised the captain to buy one.
"But," said the captain, "I have no five hundred dollars to spare for such a purpose; the chronometer should belong to the ship."
"Well," said the merchant, "you need not pay for it now; pay for it at your convenience."
The captain still objecting, Astor, after a prolonged higgling, authorized him to buy a chronometer, and charge it to the ship's account; which was done. Sailing-day was at hand. The ship was hauled into the stream. The captain, as is the custom, handed in his account. Astor, subjecting it to his usual close scrutiny, observed the novel item of five hundred dollars for the chronometer. He objected, averring that it was understood between them that the captain was to pay for the instrument. The worthy sailor recalled the conversation, and firmly held to his recollection of it. Astor insisting on his own view of the matter, the captain was so profoundly disgusted that, important as the command of the ship was to him, he resigned his post. Another captain was soon found, and the ship sailed for China. Another house, which was then engaged in the China trade, knowing the worth of this "king of captains," as Astor himself used to style him, bought him a ship and despatched him to Canton two months after the departure of Astor's vessel. Our captain, put upon his mettle, employed all his skill to accelerate the speed of his ship, and had such success, that he reached New York with a full cargo of tea just seven days after the arrival of Mr. Astor's ship. Astor, not expecting another ship for months, and therefore sure of monopolizing the market, had not yet broken bulk, nor even taken off the hatchways. Our captain arrived on a Saturday. Advertisements and handbills were immediately issued, and on the Wednesday morning following, as the custom then was, the auction sale of the tea began on the wharf,—two barrels of punch contributing to the eclat and hilarity of the occasion. The cargo was sold to good advantage, and the market was glutted. Astor lost in consequence the entire profits of the voyage, not less than the sum named above. Meeting the captain some time after in Broadway, he said,—
"I had better have paid for that chronometer of yours."
Without ever acknowledging that he had been in the wrong, he was glad enough to engage the captain's future services. This anecdote we received from the worthy captain's own lips.
On one occasion the same officer had the opportunity of rendering the great merchant a most signal service. The agent of Mr. Astor in China suddenly died at a time when the property in his charge amounted to about seven hundred thousand dollars. Our captain, who was not then in Astor's employ, was perfectly aware that if this immense property fell into official hands, as the law required, not one dollar of it would ever again find its way to the coffers of its proprietor. By a series of bold, prompt, and skilful measures, he rescued it from the official maw, and made it yield a profit to the owner. Mr. Astor acknowledged the service. He acknowledged it with emphasis and a great show of gratitude. He said many times:—
"If you had not done just as you did, I should never have seen one dollar of my money; no, not one dollar of it."
But he not only did not compensate him for his services, but he did not even reimburse the small sum of money which the captain had expended in performing those services. Astor was then worth ten millions, and the captain had his hundred dollars a month and a family of young children.
Thus the great merchant recompensed great services. He was not more just in rewarding small ones. On one occasion a ship of his arrived from China, which he found necessary to dispatch at once to Amsterdam, the market in New York being depressed by an over-supply of China merchandise. But on board this ship, under a mountain of tea-chests, the owner had two pipes of precious Madeira wine, which had been sent on a voyage for the improvement of its constitution.
"Can you get out that wine," asked the owner, "without discharging the tea?"
The captain thought he could.
"Well, then," said Mr. Astor, "you get it out, and I'll give you a demijohn of it. You'll say it's the best wine you ever tasted."
It required the labor of the whole ship's crew for two days to get out those two pipes of wine. They were sent to the house of Mr. Astor. A year passed. The captain had been to Amsterdam and back, but he had received no tidings of his demijohn of Madeira. One day, when Mr. Astor was on board the ship, the captain ventured to remind the great man, in a jocular manner, that he had not received the wine.
"Ah!" said Astor, "don't you know the reason? It isn't fine yet. Wait till it is fine, and you'll say you never tasted such Madeira." The captain never heard of that wine again.
These traits show the moral weakness of the man. It is only when we regard his mercantile exploits that we can admire him. He was, unquestionably, one of the ablest, boldest, and most successful operators that ever lived. He seldom made a mistake in the conduct of business. Having formed his plan, he carried it out with a nerve and steadiness, with such a firm and easy grasp of all the details, that he seemed rather to be playing an interesting game than transacting business. "He could command an army of five hundred thousand men!" exclaimed one of his admirers. That was an erroneous remark. He could have commanded an army of five hundred thousand tea-chests, with a heavy auxiliary force of otter skins and beaver skins. But a commander of men must be superior morally as well as intellectually. He must be able to win the love and excite the enthusiasm of his followers. Astor would have made a splendid commissary-general to the army of Xerxes, but he could no more have conquered Greece than Xerxes himself.
The reader may be curious to know by what means Mr. Astor became so preposterously rich. Few successful men gain a single million by legitimate commerce. A million dollars is a most enormous sum of money. It requires a considerable effort of the mind to conceive it. But this indomitable little German managed, in the course of sixty years, to accumulate twenty millions; of which, probably, not more than two millions was the fruit of his business as a fur trader and China merchant.
At that day the fur trade was exceedingly profitable, as well as of vast extent. It is estimated that about the year 1800 the number of peltries annually furnished to commerce was about six millions, varying in value from fifteen cents to five hundred dollars. When every respectable man in Europe and America wore a beaver skin upon his head, or a part of one, and when a good beaver skin could be bought in Western New York for a dollar's worth of trash, and could be sold in London for twenty-five English shillings, and when those twenty-five English shillings could be invested in English cloth and cutlery, and sold in New York for forty shillings, it may be imagined that fur-trading was a very good business. Mr. Astor had his share of the cream of it, and that was the foundation of his colossal fortune. Hence, too, the tender love he felt for a fine fur.
In the next place, his ventures to China were sometimes exceedingly fortunate. A fair profit on a voyage to China at that day was thirty thousand dollars. Mr. Astor has been known to gain seventy thousand, and to have his money in his pocket within the year. He was remarkably lucky in the war of 1812. All his ships escaped capture, and arriving at a time when foreign commerce was almost annihilated and tea had doubled in price, his gains were so immense, that the million or more lost in the Astorian enterprise gave him not even a momentary inconvenience.
At that time, too, tea merchants of large capital had an advantage which they do not now enjoy. A writer explains the manner in which the business was done in those days:—
"A house that could raise money enough thirty years ago to send $260,000 in specie, could soon have an uncommon capital, and this was the working of the old system. The Griswolds owned the ship Panama. They started her from New York in the month of May, with a cargo of perhaps $30,000 worth of ginseng, spelter, lead, iron, etc., and $170,000 in Spanish dollars. The ship goes on the voyage, reaches Whampoa in safety (a few miles below Canton). Her supercargo in two months has her loaded with tea, some china ware, a great deal of cassia or false cinnamon, and a few other articles. Suppose the cargo, mainly tea, costing about thirty-seven cents (at that time) per pound on the average.
"The duty was enormous in those days. It was twice the cost of the tea, at least: so that a tea cargo of $200,000, when it had paid duty of seventy-five cents per pound (which would be $400,000), amounted to $600,000. The profit was at least fifty per cent on the original cost, or $100,000, and would make the cargo worth $700,000.
"The cargo of teas would be sold almost on arrival (say eleven or twelve months after the ship left New York in May) to wholesale grocers, for their notes at four and six months,—say for $700,000. In those years there was credit given by the United States of nine, twelve, and eighteen months! So that the East-India or Canton merchant, after his ship had made one voyage, had the use of government capital to the extent of $400,000, on the ordinary cargo of a China ship.
"No sooner had the ship Panama arrived (or any of the regular East-Indiamen), than her cargo would be exchanged for grocers' notes for $700,000. These notes could be turned into specie very easily, and the owner had only to pay his bonds for $400,000 duty, at nine, twelve, and eighteen months, giving him time actually to send two more ships with $200,000 each to Canton, and have them back again in New York before the bonds on the first cargo were due.
"John Jacob Astor at one period of his life had several vessels operating in this way. They would go to the Pacific (Oregon) and carry from thence furs to Canton. These would be sold at large profits. Then the cargoes of tea to New York would pay enormous duties, which Astor did not have to pay to the United States for a year and a half. His tea cargoes would be sold for good four and six months paper, or perhaps cash; so that for eighteen or twenty years John Jacob Astor had what was actually a free-of-interest loan from Government of over five millions of dollars."
But it was neither his tea trade nor his fur trade that gave Astor twenty millions of dollars. It was his sagacity in investing his profits that made him the richest man in America. When he first trod the streets of New York, in 1784, the city was a snug, leafy place of twenty-five thousand inhabitants, situated at the extremity of the Island, mostly below Cortlandt Street. In 1800, when he began to have money to invest, the city had more than doubled in population, and had advanced nearly a mile up the Island. Now, Astor was a shrewd calculator of the future. No reason appeared why New York should not repeat this doubling game and this mile of extension every fifteen years. He acted upon the supposition, and fell into the habit of buying lands and lots just beyond the verge of the city. One little anecdote will show the wisdom of this proceeding. He sold a lot in the vicinity of Wall Street, about the year 1810, for eight thousand dollars, which was supposed to be somewhat under its value. The purchaser, after the papers were signed, seemed disposed to chuckle over his bargain.
"Why, Mr. Astor," said he, "in a few years this lot will be worth twelve thousand dollars."
"Very true," replied Astor; "but now you shall see what I will do with this money. With eight thousand dollars I buy eighty lots above Canal Street. By the time your lot is worth twelve thousand dollars, my eighty lots will be worth eighty thousand dollars"; which proved to be the fact.
His purchase of the Richmond Hill estate of Aaron Burr was a case in point. He bought the hundred and sixty acres at a thousand dollars an acre, and in twelve years the land was worth fifteen hundred dollars a lot. In the course of time the Island was dotted all over with Astor lands,—to such an extent that the whole income of his estate for fifty years could be invested in new houses without buying any more land.
His land speculations, however, were by no means confined to the little Island of Manhattan. Aged readers cannot have forgotten the most celebrated of all his operations of this kind, by which he acquired a legal title to one third of the county of Putnam in this State. This enormous tract was part of the estate of Roger Morris and Mary his wife, who, by adhering to the King of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War, forfeited their landed property in the State of New York. Having been duly attainted as public enemies, they fled to England at the close of the war, and the State sold their lands, in small parcels, to honest Whig farmers. The estate comprised fifty-one thousand one hundred and two acres, upon which were living, in 1809, more than seven hundred families, all relying upon the titles which the State of New York had given. Now Mr. Astor stepped forward to disturb the security of this community of farmers. It appeared, and was proved beyond doubt, that Roger and Mary Morris had only possessed a life-interest in this estate, and that, therefore, it was only that life-interest which the State could legally confiscate. The moment Roger and Mary Morris ceased to live, the property would fall to their heirs, with all the houses, barns, and other improvements thereon. After a most thorough examination of the papers by the leading counsel of that day, Mr. Astor bought the rights of the heirs, in 1809, for twenty thousand pounds sterling. At that time Roger Morris was no more; and Mary his wife was nearly eighty, and extremely infirm. She lingered, however, for some years; and it was not till after the peace of 1815 that the claims of Mr. Astor were pressed. The consternation of the farmers and the astonishment of the people generally, when at length the great millionaire stretched out his hand to pluck this large ripe pear, may be imagined. A great clamor arose against him. It cannot be denied, however, that he acted in this business with moderation and dignity. Upon the first rumor of his claim, in 1814, commissioners were appointed by the Legislature to inquire into it. These gentlemen, finding the claim more formidable than had been suspected, asked Mr. Astor for what sum he would compromise. The lands were valued at six hundred and sixty-seven thousand dollars, but Astor replied that he would sell his claim for three hundred thousand. The offer was not accepted, and the affair lingered. In 1818, Mary Morris being supposed to be at the point of death, and the farmers being in constant dread of the writs of ejectment which her death would bring upon them, commissioners were again appointed by the Legislature to look into the matter. Again Mr. Astor was asked upon what terms he would compromise. He replied, January 19, 1819:—
"In 1813 or 1814 a similar proposition was made to me by the commissioners then appointed by the Honorable the Legislature of this State, when I offered to compromise for the sum of three hundred thousand dollars, which, considering the value of the property in question, was thought very reasonable; and, at the present period, when the life of Mrs. Morris is, according to calculation, worth little or nothing, she being near eighty-six years of age, and the property more valuable than it was in 1813, I am still willing to receive the amount which I then stated, with interest on the same, payable in money or stock, bearing an interest of—per cent, payable quarterly. The stock may be made payable at such periods as the Honorable the Legislature may deem proper. This offer will, I trust, be considered as liberal, and as a proof of my willingness to compromise on terms which are reasonable, considering the value of the property, the price which it cost me, and the inconvenience of having so long laid out of my money, which, if employed in commercial operations, would most likely have produced better profits."
The Legislature were not yet prepared to compromise. It was not till 1827 that a test case was selected and brought to trial before a jury. The most eminent counsel were employed on the part of the State,—Daniel Webster and Martin Van Buren among them. Astor's cause was entrusted to Emmet, Ogden, and others. We believe that Aaron Burr was consulted on the part of Mr. Astor, though he did not appear in the trial. The efforts of the array of counsel employed by the State were exerted in vain to find a flaw in the paper upon which Astor's claim mainly rested. Mr. Webster's speech on this occasion betrays, even to the unprofessional reader, both that he had no case and that he knew he had not, for he indulged in a strain of remark that could only have been designed to prejudice, not convince, the jury.
"It is a claim for lands," said he,
"not in their wild and forest state, but for lands the intrinsic value of which is mingled with the labor expended upon them. It is no every-day purchase, for it extends over towns and counties, and almost takes in a degree of latitude. It is a stupendous speculation. The individual who now claims it has not succeeded to it by inheritance; he has not attained it, as he did that vast wealth which no one less envies him than I do, by fair and honest exertions in commercial enterprise, but by speculation, by purchasing the forlorn hope of the heirs of a family driven from their country by a bill of attainder. By the defendants, on the contrary, the lands in question are held as a patrimony. They have labored for years to improve them. The rugged hills had grown green under their cultivation before a question was raised as to the integrity of their titles."
A line of remark like this would appeal powerfully to a jury of farmers. Its effect, however, was destroyed by the simple observation of one of the opposing counsel:—
"Mr. Astor bought this property confiding in the justice of the State of New York, firmly believing that in the litigation of his claim his rights would be maintained."
It is creditable to the administration of justice in New York, and creditable to the very institution of trial by jury, that Mr. Astor's most unpopular and even odious cause was triumphant. Warned by this verdict, the Legislature consented to compromise on Mr. Astor's own terms. The requisite amount of "Astor stock," as it was called, was created. Mr. Astor received about half a million of dollars, and the titles of the lands were secured to their rightful owners.
The crowning glory of Mr. Astor's mercantile career was that vast and brilliant enterprise which Washington Irving has commemorated in "Astoria." No other single individual has ever set on foot a scheme so extensive, so difficult, and so costly as this; nor has any such enterprise been carried out with such sustained energy and perseverance. To establish a line of trading-posts from St. Louis to the Pacific, a four-months' journey in a land of wilderness, prairie, mountain, and desert, inhabited by treacherous or hostile savages; to found a permanent settlement on the Pacific coast as the grand depot of furs and supplies; to arrange a plan by which the furs collected should be regularly transported to China, and the ships return to New York laden with tea and silks, and then proceed once more to the Pacific coast to repeat the circuit; to maintain all the parts of this scheme without the expectation of any but a remote profit, sending ship after ship before any certain intelligence of the first ventures had arrived,—this was an enterprise which had been memorable if it had been undertaken by a wealthy corporation or a powerful government, instead of a private merchant, unaided by any resources but his own. At every moment in the conduct of this magnificent attempt Mr. Astor appears the great man. His parting instructions to the captain of his first ship call to mind those of General Washington to St. Clair on a similar occasion. "All the accidents that have yet happened," said the merchant, "arose from too much confidence in the Indians." The ship was lost, a year after, by the disregard of this last warning. When the news reached New York of the massacre of the crew and the blowing-up of the ship, the man who flew into a passion at seeing a little boy drop a wineglass behaved with a composure that was the theme of general admiration. He attended the theatre the same evening, and entered heartily into the play. Mr. Irving relates that a friend having expressed surprise at this, Mr. Astor replied:—
"What would you have me do? Would you have me stay at home and weep for what I cannot help?"
This was not indifference; for when, after nearly two years of weary waiting, he heard of the safety and success of the overland expedition, he was so overjoyed that he could scarcely contain himself.
"I felt ready," said he, "to fall upon my knees in a transport of gratitude."
A touch in one of his letters shows the absolute confidence he felt in his own judgment and abilities, a confidence invariably exhibited by men of the first executive talents.
"Were I on the spot," he wrote to one of his agents when the affairs of the settlement appeared desperate,
"and had the management of affairs, I would defy them all; but, as it is, everything depends upon you and the friends about you. Our enterprise is grand and deserves success, and I hope in God it will meet it. If my object was merely gain of money, I should say: 'Think whether it is best to save what we can and abandon the place'; but the thought is like a dagger to my heart."
He intimates here that his object was not merely "gain of money." What was it, then? Mr. Irving informs us that it was desire of fame. We should rather say that when nature endows a man with a remarkable gift she also implants within him the love of exercising it. Astor loved to plan a vast, far-reaching enterprise. He loved it as Morphy loves to play chess, as Napoleon loved to plan a campaign, as Raphael loved to paint, and Handel to compose.
The war of 1812 foiled the enterprise. "But for that war," Mr. Astor used to say, "I should have been the richest man that ever lived." He expected to go on expending money for several years, and then to gain a steady annual profit of millions. It was, however, that very war that enabled him to sustain the enormous losses of the enterprise without injury to his estate, or even a momentary inconvenience. During the first year of the war he had the luck to receive two or three cargoes of tea from China, despite the British cruisers. In the second year of the war, when the Government was reduced to borrow at eighty, he invested largely in the loan, which, one year after the peace, stood at one hundred and twenty.
Mr. Astor at all times was a firm believer in the destiny of the United States. In other words, he held its public stock in profound respect. He had little to say of politics, but he was a supporter of the old Whig party for many years, and had a great regard, personal and political, for its leader and ornament, Henry Clay. He was never better pleased than when he entertained Mr. Clay at his own house. It ought to be mentioned in this connection that when, in June, 1812, the merchants of New York memorialized the Government in favor of the embargo, which almost annihilated the commerce of the port, the name of John Jacob Astor headed the list of signatures.
He was an active business man in this city for about forty-six years,—from his twenty-first to his sixty-seventh year. Toward the year 1830 he began to withdraw from business, and undertook no new enterprises, except such as the investment of his income involved. His three daughters were married. His son and heir was a man of thirty. Numerous grandchildren were around him, for whom he manifested a true German fondness; not, however, regarding them with equal favor. He dispensed, occasionally, a liberal hospitality at his modest house, though that hospitality was usually bestowed upon men whose presence at his table conferred distinction upon him who sat at the head of it. He was fond, strange as it may seem, of the society of literary men. For Washington Irving he always professed a warm regard, liked to have him at his house, visited him, and made much of him. Fitz-Greene Halleck, one of the best talkers of his day, a man full of fun, anecdote, and fancy, handsome, graceful, and accomplished, was a great favorite with him. He afterward invited the poet to reside with him and take charge of his affairs, which Mr. Halleck did for many years, to the old gentleman's perfect satisfaction. Still later Dr. Cogswell won his esteem, and was named by him Librarian of the Astor Library. For his own part, though he rather liked to be read to in his latter days, he collected no library, no pictures, no objects of curiosity. As he had none of the wasteful vices, so also he had none of the costly tastes. Like all other rich men, he was beset continually by applicants for pecuniary aid, especially by his own countrymen. As a rule he refused to give: and he was right. He held beggary of all descriptions in strong contempt, and seemed to think that, in this country, want and fault are synonymous. Nevertheless, we are told that he did, now and then, bestow small sums in charity, though we have failed to get trustworthy evidence of a single instance of his doing so. It is, no doubt, absolutely necessary for a man who is notoriously rich to guard against imposture, and to hedge himself about against the swarms of solicitors who pervade a large and wealthy city. If he did not, he would be overwhelmed and devoured. His time would be all consumed and his estate squandered in satisfying the demands of importunate impudence. Still, among the crowd of applicants there is here and there one whose claim upon the aid of the rich man is just. It were much to be desired that a way should be devised by which these meritorious askers could be sifted from the mass, and the nature of their requests made known to men who have the means and the wish to aid such. Some kind of Benevolent Intelligence Office appears to be needed among us. In the absence of such an institution we must not be surprised that men renowned for their wealth convert themselves into human porcupines, and erect their defensive armor at the approach of every one who carries a subscription-book. True, a generous man might establish a private bureau of investigation; but a generous man is not very likely to acquire a fortune of twenty millions. Such an accumulation of wealth is just as wise as if a man who had to walk ten miles on a hot day should, of his own choice, carry on his back a large sack of potatoes. A man of superior sense and feeling will not waste his life so, unless he has in view a grand public object. On the contrary, he will rather do as Franklin did, who, having acquired at the age of forty-two a modest competence, sold out his thriving business on easy terms to a younger man, and devoted the rest of his happy life to the pursuit of knowledge and the service of his country. But we cannot all be Franklins. In the affairs of the world millionaires are as indispensable as philosophers; and it is fortunate for society that some men take pleasure in heaping up enormous masses of capital.
Having retired from business, Mr. Astor determined to fulfil the vow of his youth, and build in Broadway a house larger and costlier than any it could then boast. Behold the result in the Astor House, which remains to this day one of our most solid, imposing, and respectable structures. The ground on which the hotel stands was covered with substantial three-story brick houses, one of which Astor himself occupied; and it was thought at the time a wasteful and rash proceeding to destroy them. Old Mr. Coster, a retired merchant of great wealth, who lived next door to Mr. Astor's residence, was extremely indisposed to remove, and held out long against every offer of the millionaire. His house was worth thirty thousand dollars. Astor offered him that sum; but the offer was very positively declined, and the old gentleman declared it to be his intention to spend the remainder of his days in the house. Mr. Astor offered forty thousand without effect. At length the indomitable projector revealed his purpose to his neighbor.