History of the Great American Fortunes, Vol. I - Conditions in Settlement and Colonial Times
by Myers Gustavus
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse


Obviously these millionaires created nothing except the enterprise of distributing products made by the toil and skill of millions of workers the world over. But while the workers made these products their sole share was meager wages, barely sufficient to sustain the ordinary demands of life. Moreover, the workers of one country were compelled to pay exorbitant prices for the goods turned out by the workers of other countries. The shippers who stood as middlemen between the workers of the different countries reaped the great rewards. Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked that the shippers played their distinct and useful part in their time and age, the spirit of which was intensely ultra-competitive and individualistic in the most sordid sense.


[40] "Hunt's Merchant's Magazine," 11:516-517.

[41] Allen's "Biographical Dictionary," Edition of 1857:791.

[42] Hunt's "Lives of American Merchants":382.

[43] Allen's "Biographical Dictionary," Edit. of 1857:227.

[44] Stryker's "American Register" for 1849:241.

[45] "The American Almanac" for 1850:324.

[46] "An Economic and Social History of New England," 11:825.

[47] Hunt's "Lives of American Merchants":139.

[48] Life of Eli Whitney, "Our Great Benefactors":567.



Unfortunately only the most general and eulogistic accounts of the careers of most of the rich shippers have appeared in such biographies as have been published.

Scarcely any details are preserved of the underlying methods and circumstances by which these fortunes were amassed. Sixty years ago, when it was the unqualified fashion to extol the men of wealth as great public benefactors and truckle to them, and when sociological inquiry was in an undeveloped stage, there might have been some excuse for this. But it is extremely unsatisfactory to find pretentious writers of the present day glossing over essential facts or not taking the trouble to get them. A "popular writer," who has pretended to deal with the origin of one of the great present fortunes, the Astor fortune, and has given facts, although conventionally interpreted, as to one or two of Astor's land transactions,[49] passes over with a sentence the fundamental facts as to Astor's shipping activities, and entirely ignores the peculiar special privileges, worth millions of dollars, that Astor, in conjunction with other merchants, had as a free gift from the Government. This omission is characteristic, inasmuch as it leaves the reader in complete ignorance of the kind of methods Astor used in heaping up millions from the shipping trade—millions that enabled him to embark in the buying of land in a large and ambitious way. Certainly there is no lack of data regarding the two foremost millionaires of the first decades of the nineteenth century—Stephen Girard and John Jacob Astor. The very names of nearly all of the other powerful merchants of the age have receded into the densest obscurity. But both those of Girard and Astor live vivifyingly, the first by virtue of a memorable benefaction, the second as the founder of one of the greatest fortunes in the world.


Because of their unexcelled success, these two were the targets for the bitter invective or the envy of their competitors on the one hand, and, on the other, of the laudation of their friends and beneficiaries. Harsh statements were made as to the methods of both, but, in reality, if we but knew the truth, they were no worse than the other millionaires of the time except in degree. The whole trading system was founded upon a combination of superior executive ability and superior cunning—not ability in creating, but in being able to get hold of, and distribute, the products of others' creation.

Fraudulent substitution was an active factor in many, if not all, of the shipping fortunes. The shippers and merchants practiced the grossest frauds upon the unsophisticated people. Walter Barrett, that pseudonymic merchant, who took part in them himself, and who writes glibly of them as fine tricks of trade, gives many instances in his volumes dealing with the merchants of that time.

The firm of F. & G. Carnes, he relates, was one of the many which made a large fortune in the China trade. This firm found that Chinese yellow-dog wood, when cut into proper sizes, bore a strong superficial resemblance to real Turkey rhubarb. The Carnes brothers proceeded to have the wood packed in China in boxes counterfeiting those of the Turkey product. They then made a regular traffic importing this spurious and deleterious stuff and selling it as the genuine Turkey article at several times the cost. It entirely superseded the real product. This firm also sent to China samples of Italian, French and English silks; the Chinese imitated them closely, and the bogus wares were imported into the United States where they were sold as the genuine European goods. The Carneses were but a type of their class. Writing of the trade carried on by the shipping class, Barrett says that the shippers sent to China samples of the most noted Paris and London products in sauces, condiments, preserves, sweetmeats, syrups and other goods. The Chinese imitated them even to fac-similies of printed Paris and London labels. The fraudulent substitutions were then brought in cargoes to the United States where they were sold at fancy prices.


This was the prevalent commercial system. The most infamous frauds were carried on; and so dominant were the traders' standards that these frauds passed as legitimate business methods. The very men who profited by them were the mainstays of churches, and not only that, but they were the very same men who formed the various self-constituted committees which demanded severe laws against paupers and petty criminals. A study of the names of the men, for instance, who comprised the New York Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, 1818-1823, shows that nearly all of them were shippers or merchants who participated in the current commercial frauds. Yet this was the class that sat in judgment upon the poverty of the people and the acts of poor criminals and which dictated laws to legislatures and to Congress.

Girard and Astor were the superfine products of this system; they did in a greater way what others did in a lesser way. As a consequence, their careers were fairly well illumined. The envious attacks of their competitors ascribed their success to hard-hearted and ignoble qualities, while their admirers heaped upon them tributes of praise for their extraordinary genius. Both sets exaggerated. Their success in garnering millions was merely an abnormal manifestation of an ambition prevalent among the trading class. Their methods were an adroit refinement of methods which were common. The game was one in which, while fortunes were being amassed, masses of people were thrown into the direst poverty and their lives were attended by injustice and suffering. In this game a large company of eminent merchants played; Girard and Astor were peers in the playing and got away with the greater share of the stakes.


Before describing Girard's career, it is well to cast a retrospective fleeting glance into conditions following the Revolution.

Despite the lofty sentiments of the Declaration of Independence—sentiments which were submerged by the propertied class when the cause was won—the gravity of law bore wholly in favor of the propertied interests. The propertyless had no place or recognition. The common man was good enough to shoulder a musket in the stress of war but that he should have rights after the war, was deemed absurd. In the whole scheme of government neither the feelings nor the interests of the worker were thought of.

The Revolution brought no immediate betterment to his conditions; such slight amelioration as came later was the result of years of agitation. No sooner was the Revolution over than in stepped the propertied interests and assumed control of government functions. They were intelligent enough to know the value of class government—a lesson learned from the tactics of the British trading class. They knew the tremendous impact of law and how, directly and indirectly, it worked great transformations in the body social. While the worker was unorganized, unconscious of what his interests demanded, deluded by slogans and rallying-cries which really meant nothing to him, the propertied class was alert in its own interests.


It proceeded to intrench itself in political as well as in financial power. The Constitution of the United States was so drafted as to take as much direct power from the people as the landed and trading interests dared. Most of the State Constitutions were more pronounced in rigid property discriminations. In Massachusetts, no man could be governor unless he were a Christian worth a clear L1,000; in North Carolina if he failed of owning the required L1,000 in freehold estate; nor in Georgia if he did not own five hundred acres of land and L4,000, nor in New Hampshire if he lacked owning L500 in property. In South Carolina he had to own L1,500 in property clear of all debts. In New York by the Constitution of 1777, only actual residents having freeholds to the value of L100 free of all debts, could vote for governor and other State officials. The laws were so arranged as effectually to disfranchise those who had no property. In his "Reminiscenses" Dr. John W. Francis tells of the prevalence for years in New York of a supercilious class which habitually sneered at the demand for political equality of the leather-breeched mechanic with his few shillings a day.

Theoretically, religious standards were the prevailing ones; in actuality the ethics and methods of the propertied class were all powerful. The Church might preach equality, humility and the list of virtues; but nevertheless that did not give the propertyless man a vote. Thus it was, that in communities professing the strongest religious convictions and embodying them in Constitutions and in laws and customs, glaring inconsistencies ran side by side. The explanation lay in the fact that as regarded essential things of property, the standards of the trading class had supplanted the religious. Even the very admonition given by pastors to the poor, "Be content with your lot," was a preachment entirely in harmony with the aims of the trading class which, in order to make money, necessarily had to have a multitude of workers to work for it and from whose labor the money, in its finality, had to come. In the very same breath that they advised the poverty-stricken to reverence their superiors and to expect their reward in heaven, the ministers glorified the aggrandizing merchants as God's chosen men who were called upon to do His work.[50]

Since the laws favored the propertied interests, it was correspondingly easy for them to get direct control of government functions and personally exercise them. In New England rich shipowners rose at once to powerful elective and appointive officers. Likewise in New York rich landowners, and in the South, plantation men were selected for high offices. Law-making bodies, from Congress down, were filled with merchants, landowners, plantation men and lawyers, which last class was trained, as a rule, by association and self-interest to take the views of the propertied class and vote with, and for, it. A puissant politico-commercial aristocracy developed which, at all times, was perfectly conscious of its best interests. The worker was regaled with flattering commendations of the dignity of labor and sonorous generalizations and promises, but the ruling class took care of the laws.

By means of these partial laws, the propertied interests early began to get tremendously valuable special privileges. Banking rights, canal construction, trade privileges, government favors, public franchises all came in succession.


At the same time that laws were enacted or were twisted to suit the will of property, other laws were long in force oppressing the poor to a terrifying degree.

Poor debtors could be thrown in jail indefinitely, no matter how small a sum they owned. In law, the laborer was accorded few rights. It was easy to defraud him of his meager wages, since he had no lien upon the products of his labor. His labor power was all that he had to sell, and the value of this power was not safeguarded by law. But the products created by his labor power in the form of property were fortified by the severest laws. For the laborer to be in debt was equal to a crime, in fact, in its results, worse than a crime. The burglar or pickpocket would get a certain sentence and then go free. The poor debtor, however, was compelled to languish in jail at the will of his creditor.

The report of the Prison Discipline Society for 1829 estimated that fully 75,000 persons were annually imprisoned for debt in the United States and that more than one-half of these owed less than twenty dollars.[51] And such were the appalling conditions of these debtors' prisons that there was no distinction of sex, age or character; all of the unfortunates were indiscriminately herded together. Sometimes, even in the inclement climate of the North, the jails were so poorly constructed, that there was insufficient shelter from the elements. In the newspapers of the period advertisements may be read in which charitable societies or individuals appeal for food, fuel and clothing for the inmates of these prisons. The thief and the murderer had a much more comfortable time of it in prison than the poor debtor.


With the law-making mercantile class the situation was very different. The state and national bankruptcy acts, as apply to merchants, bankers, storekeepers—the whole commercial class—were so loosely drafted and so laxly enforced and judicially interpreted, that it was not hard to defraud creditors and escape with the proceeds. A propertied bankrupt could conceal his assets and hire adroit lawyers to get him off scot-free on quibbling technicalities—a condition which has survived to the present time, though in a lesser degree.[52]

But imprisonment for debt was not the only fate that befell the propertyless. According to the "Annual Report of the Managers of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in New York City," there were 12,000 paupers in New York City in 1820.[53] Many of these were destitute Irish who, after having been plundered and dispossessed by the absentee landlords and the capitalists of their own country, were induced to pay their last farthing to the shippers for passage to America. There were laws providing that ship masters must report to the Mayors of cities and give a bond that the destitutes that they brought over should not become public charges. These laws were systematically and successfully evaded; poor immigrants were dumped unceremoniously at obscure places along the coast from whence they had to make their way, carrying their baggage and beds, to the cities the best that they could. Cadwallader D. Colden, mayor of New York for some years, tells, in his reports, of harrowing cases of death after death resulting from exposure due to this horrible form of exploitation.

Now when the immigrant or native found himself in a state of near, or complete, destitution and resorted to the pawnbrokers's or to theft, what happened? The law restricted pawnbrokers from charging more than seven per cent on amounts more than $25, but on amounts below that they were allowed to charge twenty-five per cent. which, as the wage value of money then went, was oppressively high. Of course, the poor with their cheap possessions seldom owned anything on which they could get more than $25; consequently they were the victims of the most grinding legalized usury. Occasionally some legislative committee recognized, although in a dim and unanalytic way, this onerous discrimination of law against the propertyless. "Their [the pawnbrokers'] rates of interest," an Aldermanic committee reported in 1832, "have always been exorbitant and exceedingly oppressive. It has from time to time been regulated by law, and its sanctions have (as is usual upon most occasions when oppression has been legalized) been made to fall most heavily upon the poor." The committee continued with the following comments which were naive in the extreme considering that for generations all law had been made by and for the propertied interests: "It is a singular fact that the smallest sums advanced have always been chargeable with the highest rates of interest.... It is a fact worthy of consideration that by far the greater number of loans effected at these establishments are less than one dollar, and of the whole twelve-fifteenths are in sums less than one dollar and a half."[54]

On the other hand, the propertied class not only was able to raise money at a fairly low rate of interest, but, as will appear, had the free use of the people's money, through the power of government, to the extent of tens of millions of dollars.


If a man were absolutely destitute and took to theft as the only means of warding off starvation for himself or his family, the whole force of law at once descended heavily upon him. In New York State the law decreed it grand larceny to steal to the value of $25, and in other States the statutes were equally severe. For stealing $25 worth of anything the penalty was three years in prison at hard labor. The unfortunate was usually put in the convict chain-gang and forced to work along the roads. Street-begging was prohibited by drastic laws; poverty was substantially a crime. The moment a propertyless person stole, the assumption at once was that he was prima facie a criminal; but let the powerful propertied man steal and government at once refused to see the criminal intent; if he were prosecuted, the usual outcome was that he never went to jail. Hundreds of specific instances could be given to prove this. One of the most noted of these was that of Samuel Swartwout, who was Collector of the Port of New York for a considerable period and who, at the same time, was a financier and large land-speculation promoter. It came out in 1838 that he had stolen the enormous sum of $1,222,705.69 from the Government,[55] which money he had used in his schemes. He was a fugitive from justice for a time, but upon his return was looked upon extenuatingly as the "victim of circumstances" and he never languished in jail.

Money was the standard of everything. The propertied person could commit any kind of crime, short of murder, and could at once get free on bail. But what happened to the accused who was poor? Here is a contemporaneous description of one of the prisons of the period:

"In Bridewell, white females of every grade of character, from the innocent who is in the end acquitted, down to the basest wretch that ever disgraced the refuges of prostitution, are crowded into the same abandoned abode. With the white male prisons, the case is little altered.... And so it is with the colored prisoners of both sexes. Hundreds are taken up and sent to these places, who, after remaining frequently several weeks, are found to be innocent of the crime alleged and are then let loose upon the community."[56]

"Let loose upon the community." Does not this clause in itself convey volumes of significance of the attitude of the propertied interests, even when banded together in a pseudo "charitable" enterprise, toward the poverty-stricken? While thus the charitable societies were holding up the destitute to scorn and contumely as outcasts and were loftily lecturing down to the poor on the evils of intemperance and gambling—practices which were astoundingly prevalent among the rich—at no time did they make any attempt to alter laws so glaringly unjust that they practically made poverty a distinct crime, subject to long terms of imprisonment.

For instance, if a rich man were assaulted and made a complaint, all that he had to do was to give bail to insure his appearance as a witness. But if a poor man or woman were cheated or assaulted and could not give bail to insure his or her appearance at the trial as a complaining witness, the law compelled the authorities to lock up that man or woman in prison. In the debates in the New York Constitutional Convention of 1846, numerous cases were cited of this continuing barbarity in New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other states. In Maryland a young woman was assaulted and preferred criminal charges. As she could not give bail she was locked up for eighteen months as a detained witness. This was but one instance in thousands of similar cases.


For an apprenticed laborer to quit his master and job was a crime in law; once caught he was forthwith bundled off to jail, there to await the dispensation of his master. No matter how cruelly his master ill-treated him, however dissatisfied he was, the apprenticed laborer in law had no rights. Almost every day the newspapers of the eighteenth, and the early part of the nineteenth, century contained offers of rewards for the apprehension of fugitive apprentice laborers; from a survey of the Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and other colonial and state newspapers it is clear that thousands of these apprentices had to resort to flight to escape their bondage. This is a specimen advertisement:


RAN away from the subscriber, an Apprentice Boy, named William Rustes, about 18 years and 3 months old, by trade a house carpenter, of a dark complexion, dark eye brows, black eyes and black hair, about 5 feet, 8 inches high, his dress unknown as he took with him different kinds of clothes. The above reward will be paid to any person that will secure him in gaol or return him to his master.

GEORGE LORD, No. 12 First Street.[57]

In contradistinction to the scorpion-like laws which worked such injustice to the poor and which made a mockery of doctrines of equality before the law, the propertied interests endowed themselves, by their control of government, with invaluable exemptions and peculiarly profitable special privileges.

Even where, in civil cases, all men, theoretically, had an equal chance in courts of equity, litigation was made so expensive, whether purposely or not, that justice was really a one-sided pastime, in which the rich man could easily wear out the poor contestant. This, however, is not the place for a dissertation on that most remarkable of noteworthy sorcerer's arts, the making of justice an expensive luxury, while still deluding the people with the notion that the law knows no preferences. The preferences which are more to the point at present are those in which government force is used to enrich the already rich and impoverish the impoverished still further. At the very time that property was bitterly resisting enlightened pleas for the abolition of imprisonment for debt, for the enactment of a mechanic's lien law, and for the extension of the suffrage franchise it was using the public money of the whole people for its personal and private enterprises. In works dealing with those times it is not often that we get penetration into the underlying methods of the trading class. But a lucid insight is inadvertently given by Walter Barrett (who, for sixty years, was in the mercantile trade), in his smug and conventional, but quaintly entertaining, volumes, "The Merchants of Old New York." This strong instance shows like a flashlight that while the success of the shippers was attributed to a fine category of energetic qualities, the benevolent assistance of the United States Government was, in a large measure, responsible for part of their accumulations.


The Griswolds of New York owned the ship, "Panama." She carried spelter, lead, iron and other products to China and returned with tea, false cinnamon and various other Chinese goods. The duty on these was extremely high. But the Government was far more lenient to the trading class than the trader was to the poor debtor. It generously extended credit for nine, twelve and eighteen months before it demanded the payment of the tariff duties. What happened under this system? As soon as the ship arrived, the cargo was sold at a profit of fifty per cent. The Griswolds, for example, would pocket their profits and instead of using their own capital in further ventures, they would have the gratuitous use of Government money, that is to say, the people's money, for periods of from six months to a year and a half. Thus the endless chain was kept up. According to Barrett, this was the customary attitude of the Government toward merchants: it was anything but unusual for a merchant to have the free use of Government money to the sum of four or five hundred thousand dollars.[58]

"John Jacob Astor," says Barrett in a view of admiration, "at one period of his life had several vessels operating in this way. They would go to the Pacific and carry furs from thence to Canton. These would be sold at large profits. Then the cargoes of tea 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 the Government of over five millions of dollars."[59]

"One house," continues Barrett, "was Thomas H. Smith & Sons. This firm went enormously into the Canton trade, and, although possessing originally but a few thousand dollars, Smith imported to such an extent that when he failed he owed the United States three millions and not a cent has ever been paid." Was Smith imprisoned for debt? Not at all.

It is such revelations as these that indicate how it was possible for the shippers to pile up great fortunes at a time when "a house that could raise $260,000 in specie had an uncommon capital." They showed how the same functions of government which were used as an engine of such oppressive power against the poor, were perverted into highly efficient auxiliary of trading class aims and ambitions. By multifarious subtle workings, these class laws inevitably had a double effect. They poured wealth into the coffers of the merchant-class and simultaneously tended to drive the masses into poverty. The gigantic profits taken in by merchants had to be borne by the worker, perhaps not superficially, but in reality so. They came from his slender wages, from the tea and cotton and woolen goods that he used, the sugar and the coffee and so on. In this indirect way the shippers absorbed a great part of the products of his labor; what they did not expropriate the landlord did. Then when the laborer fell in debt to the middleman tradesman to jail he went.[60]


The worker denounced these discriminations as barbarous and unjust. But he could do nothing. The propertied class, with its keen understanding of what was best for its interests, acted and voted, and usually dragooned the masses of enfranchised into voting, for men and measures entirely favorable to its designs. Sometimes these interests conflicted as they did when a part of New England became manufacturing centers and favored a high protective tariff in opposition to the importing trades, the plantation owners and the agricultural class in general. Then the vested class would divide, and each side would appeal with passionate and patriotic exhortations to the voting elements of the people to sustain it, or the country would go to ruin. But when the working class made demands for better laws, the propertied class, as a whole, united to oppose the workers bitterly. However it differed on the tariff, or the question of state or national banks, substantially the whole trading class solidly combated the principle of manhood suffrage and the movements for the wiping out of laws for imprisonment for debt, for mechanic's liens and for the establishment of shorter hours of work.

Political institutions and their offspring in the form of laws being generally in the control of the trading class, the conditions were extraordinarily favorable for the accumulation of large fortunes, especially on the part of the shipowners, the dominant class. The grand climax of the galaxy of American fortunes during the period from 1800 to 1831—the greatest of all the fortunes up to the beginning of the third decade of that century—was that of Girard. He built up what was looked up to as the gigantic fortune of about ten millions of dollars and far overtopped every other strainer for money except Astor, who survived him seventeen years, and whose wealth increased during that time to double the amount that Girard left.


[49] "The Astor Fortune," McClure's Magazine, April, 1905.

[50] Innumerable were the sermons and addresses poured forth, all to the same end. To cite one: The Rev. Daniel Sharp of the Third Baptist Meeting House, Boston, delivered a sermon in 1828 on "The Tendency of Evil Speaking Against Rulers." It was considered so powerful an argument in favor of obedience that it was printed in pamphlet form (Beals, Homer & Co., Printers), and was widely distributed to press and public.

[51] Various writers assert that twenty dollars was the average minimum. In many places, however, the great majority of debts were for less than ten dollars. Thus, for the year ending November 26, 1831, nearly one thousand citizens had been imprisoned for debt in Baltimore. Of this number more than half owed less than ten dollars, and of the whole number, only thirty-four individually had debts exceeding one hundred dollars.—Reports of Committees, First Session, Twenty-fourth Congress, Vol. II, Report No. 732:3.

[52] In his series of published articles, "The History of the Prosecution of Bankrupt Frauds," the author has brought out comprehensive facts on this point.

[53] The eminent merchants who sat on this committee had their own conclusive opinion of what produced poverty. In commenting on the growth of paupers they ascribed pauperism to seven sources. (1) Ignorance, (2) Intemperance, (3) Pawnbrokers, (4) Lotteries, (5) Charitable Institutions, (6) Houses of Ill-Fame, (7) Gambling.

No documents more wonderfully illustrate the bourgeois type of temperament and reasoning than their reports. The people of the city were ignorant because 15,000 of the 25,000 families did not attend church. Pawnbrokers were an incentive to theft, cunning and lack of honest industry, etc., etc. Thus their explanations ran. In referring to mechanics and paupers, the committee described them as "the middling and inferior classes." Is it any wonder that the working class justly views "charitable" societies, and the spirit behind them, with intense suspicion and deep execration?

[54] Documents of the Board of Assistant Aldermen of New York City, 1831-32, Doc. No. 45:1.

[55] House Executive Document, No. 13, Twenty-fifth Congress, Third Session; also, House Report, No. 313.

[56] Report for 1821 of the "Society for the Prevention of Pauperism."

[57] "New York Gazette and General Advertiser", Aug. 5, 1797. The rewards offered for the apprehension of fugitive apprentices varied. An advertisement in the same newspaper, issue of July 3, 1797, held out an offer of five dollars reward for an indented German boy who had "absconded." The fear was expressed that he would attempt to board some ship, and all persons were notified not to harbor or conceal him as they would be "proceeded against as the law directs". That old apprentice law has never been repealed in New York State.

[58] The Government reports bear out Barrett's statements, although in saying this it must be with qualifications. The shippers engaged in the East India and China trade were more favored, it seems, than other classes of shippers, which discrimination engendered much antagonism. "Why," wrote the Mercantile Society of New York to the House Committee on Manufactures in 1821, "should the merchant engaged in the East India trade, who is the overgrown capitalist, have the extended credit of twelve months in his duties, the amount of which on one cargo furnishes nearly a sufficient capital for completing another voyage, before his bonds are payable?" The Mercantile Society recommended that credits on duties be reduced to three and six months on merchandise imported from all quarters of the globe.—Reports of Committees, Second Session, Sixteenth Congress, 1820-21, Vol. I, Document No. 34.

[59] "The Old Merchants of New York," 1:31-33. Barrett was a great admirer of Astor. He inscribed Vol. iii, published in 1864, to Astor's memory.

[60] The movement to abolish imprisonment for debt was a protracted one lasting more than a quarter of a century, and was acrimoniously opposed by the propertied classes, as a whole. By 1836, however, many State legislatures had been induced to repeal or modify the provisions of the various debtors' imprisonment acts. In response to a recommendation by President Andrew Jackson that the practise be abolished in the District of Columbia, a House Select Committee reported on January 17, 1832, that "the system originated in cupidity. It is a confirmation of power in the few against the many; the Patrician against the Plebeian." On May 31, 1836, the House Committee for the District of Columbia, in reporting on the debtors' imprisonment acts, said: "They are disgraceful evidences of the ingenious subtlety by which they were woven into the legal system we adopted from England, and were obviously intended to increase and confirm the power of a wealthy aristocracy by rendering poverty a crime, and subjecting the liberty of the poor to the capricious will of the rich."—Reports of Committees, Second Session, Twenty-second Congress, 1832-33, Report No. 5, and Reports of Committees, First Session, Twenty-fourth Congress, 1836, Report No. 732, ii:2.



Girard was born at Bordeaux, France, on May 21, 1750, and was the eldest of five children of Captain Pierre Girard, a mariner. When eight years old he became blind in one eye, a loss and deformity which subjected his sensibilities to severe trials and which had the effect of rendering him morose and sour. It was his lament in later life that while his brothers had been sent to college, he was the ugly duckling of the family and came in for his father's neglect and a shrewish step-mother's waspishness. At about fourteen years of age he relieved himself of these home troubles and ran away to sea. During the nine years that he sailed between Bordeaux and the West Indies, he rose from cabin-boy to mate. Evading the French law which required that no man should be made master of a ship unless he had sailed two cruises in the royal navy and was twenty-five years old, Girard got the command of a trading vessel when about twenty-two years old. While in this service he clandestinely carried cargoes of his own which he sold at considerable profit. In May, 1776, while en route from New Orleans to a Canadian port, he became enshrouded in a fog off the Delaware Capes, signaled for aid, and when the fog had cleared away sufficiently for an American ship, near by, to come to his assistance, learned that war was on. He thereupon scurried for Philadelphia, where he sold vessel and cargo, of which latter only a part belonged to him, and with the proceeds opened up a cider and wine bottling and grocery business in a small store on Water street.

Girard made money fast; and in July, 1777, married Mary Lum, a woman of his own class. She is usually described as a servant girl of great beauty and as one whose temper was of quite tempestuous violence. This unfortunate woman subsequently lost her reason; undoubtedly her husband's meannesses and his forbidding qualities contributed to the process. One of his most favorable biographers thus describes him: "In person he was short and stout, with a dull repulsive countenance, which his bushy eyebrows and solitary eye almost made hideous. He was cold and reserved in manner, and was disliked by his neighbors, the most of whom were afraid of him."[61]

During the British occupation of Philadelphia he was charged by the revolutionists with extreme double-dealing and duplicity in pretending to be a patriot, and taking the oath of allegiance to the colonies, while secretly trading with the British. None of his biographers deny this. While merchant after merchant was being bankrupted from disruption of trade, Girard was incessantly making money. By 1780 he was again in the shipping trade, his vessels plying between American ports and New Orleans and San Domingo; not the least of his profits, it was said, came from slave-trading.


A troublous partnership with his brother, Captain Jean Girard, lasted but a short time; the brothers could not agree. At the dissolution in 1790 Stephen Girard's share of the profits amounted to $30,000. Girard's greatest stroke came from the insurrection of the San Domingo negroes against the French several years later. He had two vessels lying in the harbor of one of the island ports. At the first mutterings of danger, a number of planters took their valuables on board one of these ships and scurried back to get the remainder. The sequel, as commonly narrated, is represented thus: The planters failed to return, evidently falling victims to the fury of the insurrectionists. The vessels were taken to Philadelphia, and Girard persistently advertised for the owners of the valuables. As no owners ever appeared, Girard sold the goods and put the proceeds, $50,000, into his own bank account. "This," says Houghton, "was a great assistance to him, and the next year he began the building of those splendid ships which enabled him to engage so actively in the Chinese and West India trades."

From this time on his profits were colossal. His ships circumnavigated the world many times and each voyage brought him a fortune. He practiced all of those arts of deception which were current among the trading class and which were accepted as shrewdness and were inseparably associated with legitimate business methods. In giving one of his captains instructions he wrote, as was his invariable policy, the most explicit directions to exercise secretiveness and cunning in his purchases of coffee at Batavia. Be cautious and prudent, was his admonition. Keep to yourself the intention of the voyage and the amount of specie that you have on board. To satisfy the curious, throw them off the scent by telling them that the ship will take in molasses, rice and sugar, if the price is very low, adding that the whole will depend upon the success in selling the small Liverpool cargo. If you do this, the cargo of coffee can be bought ten per cent cheaper than it would be if it is publicly known there is a quantity of Spanish dollars on board, besides a valuable cargo of British goods intended to be invested in coffee for Stephen Girard of Philadelphia.

By 1810 we see him ordering the Barings of London to invest in shares of the Bank of the United States half a million dollars which they held for him. When the charter expired, he was the principal creditor of that bank; and he bought, at a great bargain, the bank and the cashier's house for $120,000. On May 12, 1812, he opened the Girard Bank, with a capital of $1,200,000, which he increased the following year by $100,000 more.[62]


His wealth was now overshadowingly great; his power immense. He was a veritable dictator of the realms of finance; an assiduous, repellent little man, with his devil's eye, who rode roughshod over every obstacle in his path. His every movement bred fear; his veriest word could bring ruin to any one who dared cross his purposes. The war of 1812 brought disaster to many a merchant, but Girard harvested fortune from the depths of misfortune. "He was, it must be said," says Houghton, "hard and illiberal in his bargains, and remorseless in exacting the last cent due him." And after he opened the Girard Bank: "Finding that the salaries which had been paid by the government were higher than those paid elsewhere, he cut them down to the rate given by the other banks. The watchman had always received from the old bank the gift of an overcoat at Christmas, but Girard put a stop to this. He gave no gratuities to any of his employees, but confined them to the compensation for which they had bargained; yet he contrived to get out of them service more devoted than was received by other men who paid higher wages and made presents. Appeals to him for aid were unanswered. No poor man ever came full-handed from his presence. He turned a deaf ear to the entreaties of failing merchants to help them on their feet again. He was neither generous nor charitable. When his faithful cashier died, after long years spent in his service, he manifested the most hardened indifference to the bereavement of the family of that gentleman, and left them to struggle along as best they could."

Further, Houghton unconsciously proceeds to bring out several incidents which show the exorbitant profits Girard made from his various business activities. In the spring of 1813, one of his ships was captured by a British cruiser at the mouth of the Delaware. Fearing that his prize would be recaptured by an American war ship if he sent her into port, the English Admiral notified Girard that he would ransom the ship for $180,000 in coin. Girard paid the money; and, even after paying that sum, the cargo of silks, nankeens and teas yielded him a profit of half a million dollars. His very acts of apparent public spirit were means by which he scooped in large profits. Several times, when the rate of exchange was so high as to be injurious to general business, he drew upon Baring Bros. for sums of money to be transferred to the United States. This was hailed as a public benefaction. But what did Girard do? He disposed of the money to the Bank of the United States and charged ten per cent. for the service.


The reestablishment and enlarged sway of this bank were greatly due to his efforts and influence; he became its largest stockholder and one of its directors. No business institution in the first three decades of the nineteenth century exercised such a sinister and overshadowing influence as this chartered monopoly. The full tale of its indirect bribery of politicians and newspaper editors, in order to perpetuate its great privileges and keep a hold upon public opinion, has never been set forth. But sufficient facts were brought out when, after years of partizan agitation, Congress was forced to investigate and found that not a few of its own members for years had been on the payrolls of the bank.[63]

In order to get its charter renewed from time to time and retain its extraordinary special privileges, the United States Bank systematically debauched politics and such of the press as was venal; and when a critical time came, as it did in 1832-34, when the mass of the people sided with President Jackson in his aim to overthrow the bank, it instructed the whole press at its command to raise the cry of "the fearful consequences of revolution, anarchy and despotism," which assuredly would ensue if Jackson were reelected. To give one instance of how for years it had manipulated the press: The "Courier and Enquirer" was a powerful New York newspaper. Its owners, Webb and Noah, suddenly deserted Jackson and began to denounce him. The reason was, as revealed by a Congressional investigation, that they had borrowed $50,000 from the United States Bank which lost no time in giving them the alternative of paying up or supporting the bank.[64]

Girard's share in the United States Bank brought him millions of dollars. With its control of deposits of government funds and by the provisions of its charter, this bank swayed the whole money marts of the United States and could manipulate them at will. It could advance or depress prices as it chose. Many times, Girard with his fellow directors was severely denounced for the arbitrary power he wielded. But—and let the fact be noted—the denunciation came largely from the owners of the State banks who sought to supplant the United States Bank. The struggle was really one between two sets of capitalistic interests.

Shipping and banking were the chief sources of Girard's wealth, with side investments in real estate and other forms of property. He owned large tracts of land in Philadelphia, the value of which increased rapidly with the growth of population; he was a heavy stockholder in river navigation companies and near the end of his life he subscribed $200,000 toward the construction of the Danville & Pottsville Railroad.


He was at this time a solitary, crusty old man living in a four-story house on Water street, pursued by the contumely of every one, even of those who flattered him for mercenary purposes. Children he had none, and his wife was long since dead. His great wealth brought him no comfort; the environment with which he surrounded himself was mean and sordid; many of his clerks lived in better style. There, in his dingy habitation, this lone, weazened veteran of commerce immersed himself in the works of Voltaire, Diderot, Paine and Rousseau, of whom he was a profound admirer and after whom some of his best ships were named.

This grim miser had, after all, the one great redeeming quality of being true to himself. He made no pretense to religion and had an abhorrence of hypocrisy. Cant was not in his nature. Out into the world he went, a ferocious shark, cold-eyed for prey, but he never cloaked his motives beneath a calculating exterior of piety or benevolence. Thousands upon thousands he had deceived, for business was business, but himself he never deceived. His bitter scoffs at what he termed theologic absurdities and superstitions and his terrific rebuffs to ministers who appealed to him for money, undoubtedly called forth a considerable share of the odium which was hurled upon him. He defied the anathemas of organized churchdom; he took hold of the commercial world and shook it harshly and emerged laden with spoils. To the last, his volcanic spirit flashed forth, even when, eighty years old, he lay with an ear cut off, his face bruised and his sight entirely destroyed, the result of being felled by a wagon.

In all his eighty-one years charity had no place in his heart. But after, on Dec. 26, 1831, he lay stone dead and his will was opened, what a surprise there was! His relatives all received bequests; his very apprentices each got five hundred dollars, and his old servants annuities. Hospitals, orphan societies and other charitable associations all benefited. Five hundred thousand dollars went to the City of Philadelphia for certain civic improvements; three hundred thousand dollars for the canals of Pennsylvania; a portion of his valuable estate in Louisiana to New Orleans for the improvement of that city. The remainder of the estate, about six millions, was left to trustees for the creation and endowment of a College for Orphans, which was promptly named after him.

A chorus of astonishment and laudation went up. Was there ever such magnificence of public spirit? Did ever so lofty a soul live who was so misunderstood? Here and there a protesting voice was feebly heard that Girard's wealth came from the community and that it was only justice that it should revert to the community; that his methods had resulted in widows and orphans and that his money should be applied to the support of those orphans. These protests were frowned upon as the mouthings of cranks or the ravings of impotent envy. Applause was lavished upon Girard; his very clothes were preserved as immemorial mementoes.[65]


All of the benefactions of the other rich men of the period waned into insignificance compared to those of Girard. His competitors and compeers had given to charity, but none on so great a scale as Girard. Distinguished orators vied with one another in extolling his wonderful benefactions,[66] and the press showered encomiums upon him as that of the greatest benefactor of the age. To them this honestly seemed so, for they were trained by the standards of the trading class, by the sophistries of political economists and by the spirit of the age, to concentrate their attention upon the powerful and successful only, while disregarding the condition of the masses of the people.

The pastimes of a king or the foibles of some noted politician or rich man were things of magnitude and were much expatiated upon, while the common man, singly or in mass, was of absolutely no importance. The finely turned rhetoric of the orators, pleasing as it was to that generation, is, judged by modern standards, well nigh meaningless and worthless. In that highflown oratory, with its carefully studied exordiums, periods and perorations can be clearly discerned the reverence given to power as embodied by possession of property. But nowhere do we see any explanation, or even an attempt at explanation, of the basic means by which this property was acquired or of its effect upon the masses of the people. Woefully lacking in facts are the productions of the time as to how the great body of the workers lived and what they did. Facts as to the rich are fairly available, although not abundant, but facts regarding the rest of the population are pitifully few. The patient seeker for truth—the mind which is not content with the presentation of one side—finds, with some impatience, that only a few writers thought it worth while to give even scant attention to the condition of the working class. One of these few was Matthew Carey, an orthodox political economist, who, in a pamphlet issued in 1829[67], gave this picture which forms both a contrast and a sequel to the accumulations of multimillionaires, of which Girard was then the archetype:


"Thousands of our laboring people travel hundreds of miles in quest of employment on canals at 62-1/2 cents to 87-1/2 cents per day, paying $1.50 to $2.00 a week for board, leaving families behind depending upon them for support. They labor frequently in marshy grounds, where they inhale pestiferous miasmata, which destroy their health, often irrevocably. They return to their poor families broken hearted, and with ruined constitutions, with a sorry pittance, most laboriously earned, and take to their beds, sick and unable to work. Hundreds are swept off annually, many of them leaving numerous and helpless families. Notwithstanding their wretched fate, their places are quickly supplied by others, although death stares them in the face. Hundreds are most laboriously employed on turnpikes, working from morning to night at from half a dollar to three-quarters a day, exposed to the broiling sun in summer and all the inclemency of our severe winters. There is always a redundancy of wood-pilers in our cities, whose wages are so low that their utmost efforts do not enable them to earn more than from thirty-five to fifty cents per day.... Finally there is no employment whatever, how disagreeable or loathsome, or deleterious soever it may be, or however reduced the wages, that does not find persons willing to follow it rather than beg or steal."


[61] "Kings of Fortune":16—The pretentious title and sub-title of this work, written thirty odd years ago by Walter R. Houghton, A.M., gives an idea of the fantastic exaltation indulged in of the careers of men of great wealth. Hearken to the full title: "Kings of Fortune—or the Triumphs and Achievements of Noble, Self-made men.—Whose brilliant careers have honored their calling, blessed humanity, and whose lives furnish instruction for the young, entertainment for the old and valuable lessons for the aspirants of fortune." Could any fulsome effusion possibly surpass this?

[62] "Mr. Girard's bank was a financial success from the beginning. A few months after it opened for business its capital was increased to one million three hundred thousand dollars. One of the incidents which helped, at the outstart, to inspire the public with confidence in the stability of the new institution was the fact that the trustees who liquidated the affairs of the old Bank of the United States opened an account in Girard's Bank, and deposited in its vaults some millions of dollars in specie belonging to the old bank."—"The History of the Girard National Bank of Philadelphia," by Josiah Granville Leach, LL.B., 1902. This eulogistic work contains only the scantiest details of Girard's career.

[63] The First Session of the Twenty-second Congress, 1831, iv, containing reports from Nos. 460 to 463.

[64] Ibid.

An investigating committee appointed by the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1840, reported that during a series of years the Bank of the United States (or United States Bank, as it was more often referred to) had corruptly expended $130,000 in Pennsylvania for a re-charter.—Pa. House Journal, 1842, Vol. II, Appendix, 172-531.

[65] In providing for the establishment of Girard College, Girard stated in his will: "I enjoin and require that no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatsoever in the said college; nor shall any such person be admitted for any purpose, or as a visitor within the premises appropriated to the purposes of said college."—The Will of the Late Stephen Girard, Esq., 1848:22-23.

An attempt was made by his relatives in France to break his will, one of the grounds being that the provisions of his will were in conflict with the Christian religion which was a part of the common law of Pennsylvania. The attempt failed.

[66] For example, an address by Edward Everett, at the Odeon, before the Mercantile Library Association in Boston, September 13, 1838: "Few persons, I believe, enjoyed less personal popularity in the community in which he lived and to which he bequeathed his personal fortune.... A citizen and a patriot he lived in his modest dwelling and plain garb; appropriating to his last personal wants the smallest pittance from his princely income; living to the last in the dark and narrow street in which he made his fortune; and when he died bequeathed it for the education of orphan children. For the public I do not believe he could have done better," etc., etc.—Hunt's "Merchant's Magazine," 1830, 1:35.

[67] "The Public Charities of Philadelphia."





In point of succession and importance the next great fortunes came from ownership of land in the cities. They far preceded fortunes from established industries or from the control of modern methods of transportation. Long before Vanderbilt and other of his contemporaries had plucked immense fortunes from steamboat, railroad and street railway enterprises, the Astor, Goelet, and Longworth fortunes were counted in the millions. In the seventy years from 1800 the landowners were the conspicuous fortune possessors; and, although fortunes of millions were extracted from various other lines of business, the land fortunes were preeminent.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century and until about 1850, survivals of the old patroon estates were to be met with. But these gradually disintegrated. Everywhere in the North the tendency was toward the partition of the land into small farms, while in the South the condition was the reverse. The main fact which stood out was that the rich men of the country were no longer those who owned vast tracts of rural land. That powerful kind of landowner had well-nigh vanished.


For more than two centuries the manorial lords had been conspicuous functionaries. Shorn of much power by the alterations of the Revolution they still retained a part of their state and estate. But changing laws and economic conditions drove them down and down in the scale until the very names of many of them were gradually lost sight of. As they descended in the swirl, other classes of rich men jutted into strong view. Chief among these nascent classes were the landowners of the cities, at first grabbling tradesmen and land speculators and finally rising to the crowning position of multimillionaires. Originally, as we have seen, the manorial magnate himself made the laws and decreed justice; but in two centuries great changes had taken place. He now had to fight for his very existence.

Thus, to give one example, the manorial men in New York were confronted in 1839 by a portentous movement. Their tenants were in a state of unrest. On the Van Rensselaer, the Livingston and other of the old feudal estates they rose in revolt. They objected to the continuing system which gave the lords of these manors much the same rights over them as a lord in England exercised over his tenants. Under the leases that the manorial lords compelled their tenants to sign, there were oppressive anachronisms. If he desired to entertain a stranger in his house for twenty-four hours, the tenant was required to get permission in writing. He was forced to obligate himself not to trade in any Commodities except the produce of the manor. He could not get his flour ground anywhere else than at the mill of the manor without violating his lease and facing ejectment, nor could he buy anything at any place except at the store of the manorial magnate. These were the rights reserved to the manorial lords after the Revolution, because theirs were the rights of private property; and as has often been set forth, property absolutely dominated the laws and greatly nullified the spirit of a movement made successful by the blood and lives of the masses in the Revolutionary Army. Tardily, subsequent legislatures had abolished all feudal tenures, but these laws were neither effective nor were enforced by the authorities who reflected and represented the interests of the proprietors of the manors.

On their part the manorial men believed that self-interest, pride and adherence to ancient traditions called for the perpetuation of their arbitrary power of running their domains as they pleased. They refused to acknowledge that law had any right to interfere in the managing of what they considered their private affairs. Eager to avail themselves of the police power of the law in dispossessing any fractious or impecunious tenant and in suppressing protest meetings, they, at the same time, denounced law as tyrannical when it sought to inject more modern and humane conditions in the managing of their estates. They stubbornly insisted upon a tenantry, and as obstinately contested any forfeiture of what they deemed their property rights.


A long series of reprisals and an intense agitation developed. The Anti-Renters mustered such sympathetic political strength and threw the whole state into such a vortex of radical discussion, that the politicians of the day, fearing the effects of such a movement, practically forced the manorial magnates to compromise by selling their land in small farms,[68] which they did at exorbitant prices. They made large profits on the strength of the very movement which they had so bitterly opposed. Affrighted at the ominous unrest of a large part of the people and hoping to stem it, the New York Constitutional Convention in 1846 adopted a Constitutional inhibition on all feudal tenures, an inhibition so drafted that no legislature could pass a law contravening it.[69]

So, in this final struggle, passed away the last vestiges of the sway of the all-powerful patroons of old. They had become archaic. It was impossible for them to survive in the face of newer conditions, for they represented a bygone economic and social era. Their power was one accruing purely from the extent of their possessions and discriminative laws. When these were wrenched from their grasp, their importance as wielders of wealth and influence ceased. They might still boast of their lineage, their aristocratic enclosure and culture and their social altitude, but these were about the only remnants of consolation left.

The time was unpropitious for the continuation of great wealth based upon rural or small-town land. Many influences conspired to make this land a variable property, while these same influences, or a part of them, fixed upon city land an enhancing and graduating permanency of value. The growth of the shipping trade built up the cities and attracted workers and population generally. The establishment of the factory system in 1790 had a two-fold effect. It began to drain country sections of many of the younger generations and it immediately enlarged the trading activities of the cities. Another and much more considerable part of the farming population in the East was constantly migrating to the West and Southwest with their promising opportunities. Some country districts thinned out; others remained stationary. But whether the rural census increased or not, there were other factors which sent up or down the value of farming lands. The building of a canal would augment the value of land in section and cause stimulation, and depress conditions in another section not so favored. Even this stimulation, however, was often transient. With each fresh settlement of the West and with the construction of each pioneer railroad, new and complex factors turned up which generally had a depreciating effect upon Eastern lands. A country estate worth a large sum in one generation might very well succumb to a mortgage in the next.


But fortunes based upon land in the cities were indued with a mathematical certainty and a perpetuity. City real estate was not subject to the extreme fluctuating processes which so disordered the value of rural land. All of the tendencies and currents of the times favored the building up of an aristocracy based upon ownership of city property. Compared to their present colossal proportions the cities were then mere villages. There was a nucleus of perhaps a mile or two of houses, beyond which were fields and orchards, meadows and wastes. These could be bought for an insignificant sum. With the progressing growth of commerce and population, with immigration continually going on, every year witnessing a keener pressure for occupation of the land, the value of this latter was certain to increase. There was no chance of its being otherwise.

Up to 1825 it was a mooted question whether the richest landowners would arise in New York, Philadelphia, Boston or Baltimore. For many years Philadelphia had been far in the lead in extent of commerce. But the opening of the Erie Canal at once settled this question. At a bound New York attained the rank of the foremost commercial city in the United States, completely outstripping its competitors. While the trade of these fell off precipitately, the population and trade of New York City nearly doubled in a single decade. The value of land began to increase stupendously. The swamps, rocky wastes and flats and the land under water of a few years before became prolific sources of fortunes. Land which had been worth a paltry sum ten or twenty years before sprang to a considerable value and, in course of time, with the same causes in a more intense ratio of operation, was vested with a value of hundreds of millions of dollars. This being so, it was not surprising that the richest landowners should appear first in New York City and should be able to maintain their supremacy.

The wealth of the landowners soon completely eclipsed that of the shippers. Enormous as were the profits of the shipping business, they were immediate only. In the contest for wealth it was inevitable that the shippers should fall behind. Their business was one of peculiar uncertainties. The hazards of the sea, the fluctuations and vicissitudes of trade, the severe competition of the times, exposed their traffic to many mutations. Many of the rich shipowners well understood this; the surplus wealth derived from commerce on the seas they invested in land, banks, factories, turnpikes, insurance companies, railroads and in some instances, lotteries. Those shipping millionaires who clung exclusively to the sea fell in the scale of the rich class, especially as the time came when foreign shipping largely supplanted the trade hitherto carried in American cutters. Other shippers who applied their surplus capital to investments in other forms of trade and ownership advanced rapidly in wealth.


Between land ownership and other forms, however, there was a great difference. Trade was then extremely individualistic; the artificial controlling power called the corporation was in its earliest infantile condition. The heirs of the owner of sixty line of sail might not possess the same astuteness, the same knowledge, adroitness, and cunning—or let us say, unscrupulousness—the same severe application as the founder. Consequently the business would decay or fall into the hands of others shrewder or more fortunate. As to factories the condition was somewhat the same; and, after the organization of labor unions the possibility of strikes was an ever-present danger to the constant flow of profits. Banks were by no means fixed, unchangeable establishments. Like other media of profit-making, the extent of their power and profits depended upon prevailing conditions and very largely upon the favoritism or policy of Government. At any time the party controlling government functions might change and a radically different policy in banking, tariff or other laws be put in force.

These changing laws did not, it is true, vitally benefit the masses of the people, for one set or other of the propertied interests almost invariably benefited. The laws enacted were usually in response to a demand made by contending propertied interests. The trade and political struggles carried on by the commercial interests were a series of incessant wars, in which every individual owner, firm or combination was fiercely resisting competitors or striving for their overthrow.


But the landowner occupied a superior position which neither political conditions nor the flux of changing circumstances could materially assail. He was ardently individualistic also in that he demanded, and was accorded, the unimpaired right to get land in any way that he legally could, hold a monopoly of as much of it as he pleased, and dispose of it as he willed. In the very act of asserting this individualism he called upon Society, through its machinery of Government, for the enactment of particular laws, to guarantee him the sole possession of his land and uphold his claims and rights by force if necessary. These were all the basic laws that he needed and these laws did not change. From generation to generation they remained fixed, immovable. The interests of all landowners were identical; those of the traders were varying and conflicting. For long periods the landowner could expect the continuance of existing fundamental laws regarding the ownership of land, while the shipper, the factory owner, the banker did not know what different set of laws might be enacted at any time.

Furthermore, the landowner had an efficient and never-failing auxiliary. He yoked society as a partner, but it was a partnership in which the revenue went exclusively to the landowner. The principal factor he depended upon was the work of collective humans in adding greater and greater values to his land. Broadly speaking, his share consisted in merely looking on; he had nothing to do except hold on to his land. His sons, grandsons, his descendants down to remotest posterity need do even less; they could leisurely hold on to their inheritance, enlarge it, hire the necessary ability of superintendence and vast and ever vaster riches would be theirs. Society worked feverishly for the landowner. Every street laid and graded by the city; every park plotted and every other public improvement; every child born and every influx of immigrants; every factory, warehouse and dwelling that went up;—all these and more agencies contributed toward the abnormal swelling of his fortune.


Under such a system land was the one great auspicious, facile and durable means of rolling up an overshadowing fortune. Its exclusive possession struck at the very root of human necessity. At a pinch people can do without trade or money, but land they must have, even if only to lie down on and starve. The impoverish, jobless worker, with disaster facing him, must first perforce give up his precious few coins to the landlord and take chances on food and the remainder. Especially is land in demand in a complicated industrial system which causes much of the population to gravitate to centers where industries and trade are concentrated and congest there.

A more formidable system for the foundation and amplification of lasting fortunes has not existed. It is automatically self-perpetuating. And that it is preeminently so is seen in the fact that the large shipping fortunes of a century ago are now generally as completely forgotten as the methods then used are obsolete. But the land has remained land; and the fortunes then incubated have grown into mighty powers of great national, and some of considerable international, importance.

It was by favor of these propitious conditions that many of the great fortunes, based upon land, were founded. According to the successive census returns of the United States, by far the greater part of the wealth of the country as regards real estate was, and is, concentrated in the North Atlantic Division and the North Central Division, the one taking in such cities as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, the other Chicago, Cincinnati and other cities.[70] It is in the large cities that the great land fortunes are to be found. The greatest of these fortunes are the Astor, Goelet and Rhinelander estates in the East and, in the West, the Longworth and Field estates are notable examples. To deal with all the conspicuous fortunes based upon land would necessitate an interminable narrative. Suffice it for the purposes of this work to take up a few of the superlatively great fortunes as representatives of those based upon land.


The foremost of all American fortunes derived from land is the Astor fortune. Its present bulk, embracing all the collateral family branches, is estimated by some authorities at about $300,000,000. This, it is generally believed, is an underestimate. As long ago as 1889, when the population of New York City was much less than now, Thomas G. Shearman, a keen student of land conditions, placed the collective wealth of the Astors at $250,000,000.[71] The stupendous magnitude of this fortune alone may at once be seen in its relation to the condition of the masses of the people. An analysis of the United States census of 1900, compiled by Lucien Sanial, shows that while the total wealth of the country was estimated at about $95,000,000,000, the proletarian class, composed chiefly of wage workers and a small proportion of those in professional classes, and numbering 20,393,137 persons, owned only about $4,000,000,000. It is by such a contrast, bringing out how one family alone, the Astors, own more than many millions of workers, that we begin to get an idea of the overreaching, colossal power of a single fortune. The Goelet fortune is likewise vast; it is variously estimated at from $200,000,000 to $225,000,000, although what its exact proportions are is a matter of some obscurity.

In the case of these great fortunes it is well nigh impossible to get an accurate idea of just how much they reach. All of them are based primarily upon ownership of land, but they also include many other forms such as shares in banks, coal and other mines, railroads, city transportation systems, gas plants, industrial corporations. Even the most indefatigable tax assessors find it such a fruitless and elusive task in attempting to discover what personal property is held by these multimillionaires, that the assessment is usually a conjectural or haphazard performance. The extent of their land holdings is known; these cannot be hid in a safe deposit vault. But their other varieties of property are carefully concealed from public and official knowledge. Since this is so, it is entirely probable that the fortunes of these families are considerably greater than is commonly estimated. The case of Marshall Field, a Chicago Croesus, who left a fortune valued at about $100,000,000, is a strong illustration. This man owned $30,000,000 worth of real estate in Chicago alone. There was no telling, however, what his whole estate amounted to, for he refused year after year to pay taxes on more than a valuation of $2,500,000 of personal property. Yet, after his death in 1906, an inventory of his estate filed in January, 1907, disclosed a clear taxable personal property of $49,977,270. He was far richer than he would have it appear.

Let us investigate the careers of some of these powerful landed men, the founders of great fortunes, and inquire into their methods and into the conditions under which they succeeded in heaping up their immense accumulations.


[68] In 1847 and 1849 the Anti-Renters demonstrated a voting strength in New York State of about 5,000. Livingston's title to his estate being called into question, a suit was brought. The court decision favored him. The Livingstons, it may be again remarked, were long powerful in politics, and had had their members on the bench.—"Life of Silas Wright," 179-226; "Last Leaves of American History":16-18, etc.

[69] The debates in this convention showed that the feudal conditions described in this chapter prevailed down to 1846.—New York Constitution; Debates in Convention, 1846; 1052-1056. This is an extract from the official convention report: "Mr. Jordan [a delegate] said that it was from such things that relief was asked: which although the moral sense of the community will not admit to be enforced, are still actually in existence."

[70] Of a total of $39,544,333,000, representing wealth in real estate and improvements, the census of 1890 attributed $13,905,274,364 to the North Atlantic Division and a trifle more than $15,000,000,000 to the North Central Division.

[71] The Forum (Magazine), November, 1889.



The founder of the Astor fortune was John Jacob Astor, a butcher's son. He was born in Waldorf, Germany, on July 17, 1763. At the age of eighteen, according to traditional accounts, he went to London, where a brother, George Peter, was in the business of selling musical instruments. Two years later with "one good suit of Sunday clothes, seven flutes and five pounds sterling of money"[72] he emigrated to America. Landing at Baltimore he proceeded to New York City.

Here he became an apprentice to George Dieterich, a baker at No. 351 Pearl street, for whom he peddled cakes, as was the custom. Walter Barrett insists that this was Astor's first occupation in New York. Later, Astor went into business for himself. "For a long time," says Barrett, "he peddled [fur] skins, and bought them where he could; and bartered cheap jewelry, etc., from the pack he carried on his back."[73] Another story is that he got a job beating furs for $2 a week and board in the store of Robert Bowne, a New York merchant; that while in this place he showed great zest in quizzing the trappers who came in to sell furs, and that in this fashion he gained considerable knowledge of the fur animals. The story proceeds that as Bowne grew older he entrusted to Astor the task of making long and fatiguing journeys to the Indian tribes in the Adirondacks and Canada and bargaining with them for furs.


Astor got together enough money to start in the fur business for himself in 1786 in a small store on Water street. It is not unreasonable to suppose that at this time he, in common with all the fur dealers of the time, participated in the current methods of defrauding the Indians. It is certain that he contrived to get their most valuable furs for a jug of rum or for a few toys or notions. Returning from these strokes of trade, he would ship large quantities of the furs to London where they were sold at great profit.

His marriage to Sarah Todd, a cousin of Henry Brevoort, brought him a good wife, who had the shining quality of being economical, and an accession of some means and considerable family connections. Remarkably close-fisted, he weighed over every penny. As fast as his means increased he used them in extending his business. By 1794 he was somewhat of an expansive merchant. Scores of trappers and agents ravaged the wilderness at his command. Periodically he shipped large quantities of furs to Europe. His modest, even niggardly, ways of living in rooms over his store were not calculated to create the impression that he was a rich man. It was his invariable practice habitually to deceive others as to his possessions and plans. But when, in 1800, he removed to No. 223 Broadway, at the corner of Vesey street, then a fashionable neighborhood, he was rated, perforce, as a man of no inconsiderable means. He was, in fact, as nearly as can be gathered, worth at this time a quarter of a million dollars—a monumental fortune at a period when a man who had $50,000 was thought rich; when a good house could be rented for $350 a year and when $750 or $800 would fully defray the annual expenses of the average well-living family.

The great profits from the fur trade naturally led him into the business of being his own shipowner and shipper, for he was a highly efficient organizer and well understood the needlessness of middlemen. A beaver skin bought for one dollar from the Indian or white trappers in Western New York could be sold in London for six dollars and a quarter. On all other furs there were the same large profits. But, in addition to these, Astor saw that his profits could be still further increased by investing the money that he received from the sale of his furs in England, in English goods and importing them to the United States. By this process, the profit from a single beaver skin could be made to reach ten dollars. At that time the United States depended upon British manufactures for many articles, especially certain grades of woolen goods and cutlery. These were sold at exorbitant profit to the American people. This trade Astor carried on in his own ships.


It is of the greatest importance to ascertain Astor's methods in his fur trade, for it was fundamentally from this trade that he reaped the enormous sums that enabled him to become a large landowner. What these methods were in his earlier years is obscure. Nothing definite is embodied in any documentary evidence. Not so, however, regarding the methods of the greatest and most successful of his fur gathering enterprises, the American Fur Company. The "popular writer" referred to before says that the circumstances of Astor's fur and shipping activities are well known. On the contrary, they are distinctly not well known nor have they ever been set forth. None of Astor's biographers have brought them out, if, indeed, they knew of them. And yet these facts are of the most absolute significance in that they reveal the whole foundation of the colossal fortune of the Astor family.

The pursuit and slaughter of fur animals were carried on with such indefatigable vigor in the East that in time that territory became virtually exhausted. It became imperative to push out into the fairly virgin regions of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and of the Rocky Mountains. The Northwest Company, a corporation running under British auspices, was then scouring the wilds west and northwest of the Great Lakes. Its yearly shipments of furs were enormous.[74] Astor realized the inconceivably vaster profits which would be his in extending his scope to the domains of the far West, so prolific in opportunities for furs.

In 1808 he incorporated the American Fur Company. Although this was a corporation, he was, in fact, the Company. He personally supplied its initial capital of $500,000 and dictated every phase of its policy. His first ambitious design was to found the settlement of Astoria in Oregon, but the war of 1812 frustrated plans well under way, and the expedition that he sent out there had to depart.[75] Had this plan succeeded, Astor would have been, as he rightly boasted, the richest man in the world; and the present wealth of his descendants instead of being $450,000,000 would be manifold more.


Thwarted in his project to get a monopoly of the incalculable riches of furs in the extreme Northwest, he concentrated his efforts on that vast region extending along the Missouri River, far north to the Great Lakes, west to the Rocky Mountains and into the Southwest. It was a region abounding in immense numbers of fur animals and, at that time, was inhabited by the Indian tribes, with here and there a settlement of whites. By means of Government favoritism and the unconcealed exercise of both fraud and force, he obtained a complete monopoly, as complete and arbitrary as ever feudal baron held over seignorial estates. Nominally, the United States Government ruled this great sweep of territory and made the laws and professed to execute them. In reality, Astor's company was a law unto itself. That it employed both force and fraud and entirely ignored all laws enacted by Congress, is as clear as daylight from the Government reports of that period.

The American Fur Company maintained three principal posts or depots of receiving and distribution—one at St. Louis, one at Detroit, the third at Mackinac. In response to an order from Lewis Cass, Secretary of War, to send in complete reports of the fur trade, Joshua Pilcher reported from St. Louis, December 1, 1831:

About this time [1823] the American Fur Company had turned their attention to the Missouri trade, and, as might have been expected, soon put an end to all opposition. Backed, as it was, by any amount of capital, and with skillful agents to conduct its affairs at every point, it succeeded by the year 1827, in monopolizing the trade of the Indians on the Missouri, and I have but little doubt will continue to do so for years to come, as it would be rather a hazardous business for small adventurers to rise in opposition to it.[76]

In that wild country where the Government, at best, had an insufficient force of troops, and where the agents of the company went heavily armed, it was distinctly recognized, and accepted as a fact, that no possible competitor's men, or individual trader, dare intrude. To do it was to invite the severest reprisals, not stopping short of outright murder. The American Fur Company overawed and dominated everything; it defied the Government's representatives and acknowledged no authority superior to itself and no law other than what its own interests demanded. The exploitation that ensued was one of the most deliberate, cruel and appalling that has ever taken place in any country.


If there was any one serious crime at that time it was the supplying of the Indians with whisky. The Government fully recognized the baneful effects of debauching the Indians, and enacted strict laws with harsh penalties. Astor's company brazenly violated this law, as well as all other laws conflicting with its profit interests. It smuggled in prodigious quantities of rum. The trader's ancient trick of getting the Indians drunk and then swindling them of their furs and land was carried on by Astor on an unprecedented scale. To say that Astor knew nothing of what his agents were doing is a palliation not worthy of consideration; he was a man who knew and attended to even the pettiest details of his varied business. Moreover, the liquor was despatched by his orders direct by ship to New Orleans and from thence up the Mississippi to St. Louis and to other frontier points. The horrible effects of this traffic and the consequent spoliation were set forth by a number of Government officers.

Col. J. Snelling, commanding the garrison at Detroit, sent an indignant protest to James Barbour, Secretary of War, under date of August 23, 1825. "He who has the most whisky, generally carries off the most furs," wrote Col. Snelling, and then continued:

The neighborhood of the trading houses where whisky is sold, presents a disgusting scene of drunkenness, debauchery and misery; it is the fruitful source of all our difficulties, and of nearly all the murders committed in the Indian country.... For the accommodation of my family I have taken a house three miles from town, and in passing to and from it, I have daily opportunities of seeing the road strewed with the bodies of men, women and children, in the last stages of brutal intoxication. It is true there are laws in this territory to restrain the sale of whisky, but they are not regarded....[77]

Col. Snelling added that during that year there had been delivered by contract to an agent of the North American Fur Company, at Mackinac (he meant the American Fur Company which, as we have seen, had one of its principal headquarters at that post and maintained a monopoly there), 3,300 gallons of whisky and 2,500 gallons of high wines. This latter liquor was preferred by the agents, he pointed out, as it could be "increased at pleasure." Col. Snelling went on: "I will venture to add that an inquiry into the manner in which the Indian trade is conducted, especially by the North American Fur Company, is a matter of no small importance to the tranquillity of the borders."[78]


A similar report was made the next winter by Thomas L. McKenney, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, to the Secretary of War. In a communication dated Feb. 14, 1826, McKenney wrote that "the forbidden and destructive article, whisky, is considered so essential to a lucrative commerce, as not only to still those feelings [of repugnance] but lead the traders to brave the most imminent hazards, and evade, by various methods the threatened penalties of law." The superintendent proceeded to tell of the recent seizure by General Tipton, Indian Agent at Fort Wayne, of an outfit in transit containing a considerable supply of whisky, which was owned in large part, he says, by the American Fur Company. He then continued: "The trader with the whisky, it must be admitted, is certain of getting the most furs.... There are many honorable and high-minded citizens in this trade, but expediency overcomes their objections and reconciles them for the sake of the profits of the trade."[79]

In stating this fact, McKenney was unwittingly enunciating a profound truth, the force of which mankind is only now beginning to realize, that the pursuit of profit will transform natures inherently capable of much good into sordid, cruel beasts of prey, and accustom them to committing actions so despicable, so inhuman, that they would be terrified were it not that the world is under the sway of the profit system and not merely excuses and condones, but justifies and throws a glamour about, the unutterable degradations and crimes which the profit system calls forth.

Living in a more advanced time, in an environment adjusted to bring out the best, instead of the worst, Astor and his henchmen might have been men of supreme goodness and gentleness. As it was, they lived at a period when it was considered the highest, most astute and successful form of trade to resort to any means, however base, to secure profits. Let not too much ignominy be cast upon their memories; they were but creatures of their time; and their time was not that "golden age," so foolishly pictured, but a wild, tempestuous, contending struggle in which every man was at the throat of his fellowman, and in a vortex which statesmen, college professors, editors, political economists, all praised and sanctified as "progressive civilization."

Like all other propertied interests, Astor's company regarded the law as a thing to be rigorously invoked against the poor, the helpless and defenseless, but as not to be considered when it stood in the way of the claims, designs and pretensions of property. Superintendent McKenney reported that all laws in the Indian country were inoperative—so much dead matter. Andrew S. Hughes, reporting from St. Louis, Oct. 31, 1831, to Lewis Cass, Secretary of War, wrote:

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse