William Randolph Hearst — American Moguls

William Randolph Hearst, American Moguls 7”x7”, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark Wyatt McGinnis

American Moguls

William Randolph Hearst


News is what people don’t want you to print. Everything else is ads.

William’s father, George, was of Scotch-Irish descent and a farmer in Missouri. In the middle of the 19th century, he caught the California gold rush fever and headed west. He had some knowledge of estimating the amount of metal in ore, which put him ahead of many of the “49’ers.” He bought a rich mine in Nevada and soon had a small fortune. At 40, George returned to Missouri to look for a wife and found Phoebe, a school teacher. He established her in a large house with servants in San Fransisco and headed back to his mines, where he would spend most of his time for the next 20 years.

William Randolph Hearst was born in 1863. Phoebe did most of the childrearing, and she doted on William; he was a spoiled, mischievous boy. She took him on tours of Europe, where William became enamored with collecting things. George’s fortunes went up and down until he invested in some hugely profitable mines in Utah, Idaho, Montana, and the famous Homestake mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He became enormously rich.

In 1882, William began his studies at Harvard, although not much studying was done. He lived in a suite of rooms that Phoebe had decorated. He kept a valet, maid, pet alligator (Champagne Charlie), and a mistress, Tessie, in Cambridge. William established his standing at Harvard by giving lavish, alcohol-soaked parties. He had a very large allowance from Phoebe but always asked for more. Hearst became the business manager for the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, expanding its advertising and circulation and making it a self-sufficient publication. Finally, in his Junior year, he was expelled from Harvard for lack of academic progress and his on-going pranks, one of which was giving his professors chamber pots with their names and photos on the interior.

His father George had been expanding his investments into real estate, including buying 40,000 acres in central California and a 240,000-acre ranch in Mexico. He also started eyeing a political future, an interesting choice for a semi-literate, hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing, gambling miner. To further his fortunes in politics, George purchased a newspaper in San Fransisco, The Examiner. William moved back to the bay area, hoping to run the paper. He brought Tessie, his Cambridge mistress, intent on marrying her; he consistently fell in love with his mistresses. Phoebe was enraged at the prospect but gave him the paper anyway. With his great wealth, George succeeded in his political goals and became a U.S. Senator.

In 1887, William Randolph Hearst, WRH, settled in a luxurious villa across the bay from San Francisco and made his daily commute to the paper in his 50-foot, early motor boat. He set out to transform The Examiner with a furious intensity. William hired Harvard friends, stole the best staff from other papers, expanded national and international news, featured sensational, lurid, and violent crime articles, sought out scandals, used his father’s political power to increase advertising, improved design and layout, and hired the best illustrators. At 24, he was a successful publisher, ready to use whatever ruthless and scheming approaches he felt were needed. The Examiner was staunchly Democratic, featuring sensational articles on corruption in politics and business. The paper was pro-labor, anti-capitalist, and also anti-Asian immigration.

George’s lifetime of heavy drinking took its toll, and he died in 1891. He wisely left his entire fortune to Phoebe, and she would control the flow to William. First, she forced William to give up his mistress, and then she bought him the New York Morning Journal. Hearst was ridiculed in NYC as a rich boy with a new toy. He would prove them wrong. WRH transformed the paper with the same intensity he had The Examiner in San Fransisco, making it a Democratic paper for the working class and again hiring away the best staff from other newspapers. He produced a 100-page Sunday edition that featured fiction, humor, sex, and a large color-comics section. Hearst was, for the most part, an authoritarian but good boss, even-tempered and praising of quality work. Hearst reveled in the wild nightlife of NYC and soon had two favored chorus girls, the sisters Anita 18, and Millicent 16. They were seen, one on each of his arms, moving from club to club and show to show.

He did everything he could to promote war with Spain in his newspapers. Hearst even called it “his war.” When war did break out, he leased a refitted steamer and took staff, friends, cooks, maids, and his chorus girls to Cuba and the war. His reports that came back to the states were great successes. Near the war’s end, Hearst’s pleasure steamer picked up 21 shipped-wrecked Spanish soldiers who were delighted to surrender. This adventure and his new popularity made him think about going into politics as his father had, only with his eyes set on the White House.

Hearst’s papers, with now a third paper in Chicago, fought for public ownership of services and utilities and against the city bosses, and he did so with some success. WRH believed his papers should be activists, not idle observers. He vehemently fought for Democrats and viciously condemned Republicans, including William McKinley, who was assassinated shortly after winning the Presidency. Because of his demonization of McKinley, Hearst was considered by many as responsible for the President’s death. In what he saw as his first step in a political career, Hearst was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1902. He gave a huge fireworks display to celebrate his victory; an enormous, accidental explosion left 12 spectators dead. He retreated to California leaving his lawyers to sort out the disaster.

Hearst decided he wanted to marry the youngest of his two chorus girls, Millicent, now 21. Phoebe was furious, but this time he went ahead with the marriage. He was 40, a member of Congress, a married man, and he did settle down a bit. In 1903 the first of their five sons was born. WRH bought two more newspapers, one in Los Angles and one in Boston. He missed 168 of 170 roll calls in Congress but was still elected to a second term. He kept his eye on the Presidency but had no luck working his way there. He was defeated twice for mayor of NYC and once for governor of New York state. Even with his wealth, he was no match for the political or city machines.

His frequent tours of Europe were primarily collecting trips where he spent vast amounts of money. The media mogul bought more newspapers and magazines and began making newsreels, serials, and cartoons for movie theaters. In 1916 took on another mistress, the chorus girl Marion Davies, 18.

In 1919, Phoebe died on Easter Sunday. It was a massive blow to the entire family, as she had done the most to raise his five sons. William inherited the rest of George’s estate, about $125 million in today’s money. Hearst was determined to make Marion a motion picture star and started his own movie company, Cosmopolitan Productions. Eventually, Millicent became aware of Marion and withdrew from William but did not ask for a divorce. Throughout the rest of his life, Hearst provided very generously for Millicent and his sons. He tried to stay involved in his son’s lives, and they took after their father in one way, none graduated from higher education.

WRH decided to build a mansion (castle), San Simeon, on the vast piece of central California land his father had bought and he now owned. It was to be of a fantastic scale and home for his collections. He selected a location overlooking the Pacific that was isolated and nearly impossible to build on and access. The problems were enormous, expensive, and never-ending, but nothing stopped him. Railroad cars of art were shipped to California from his NYC storage buildings.

In the 1920s, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon had the tax on the rich reduced from 77% to 24%, a windfall of stupendous proportions for Hearst. He bought more newspapers, more for his collections, more of everything, borrowing more money when he ran out of his own. Marion was the toast of Hollywood giving lavish parties almost nightly with all the great stars of the silent era attending. WRH built Marion a $7 million beach house with 110 rooms and 55 bathrooms. At Hearst’s birthday party, there were 2,000 guests. Hearst also built a lavish beach house for Millicent. He acquired new mansions in NYC, Long Island, and a 13th-century castle, St. Donat’s, in England. At San Simeon, WRH amassed the largest private zoo in the world. He had the castle in a never-ending chain of renovations, changes, and expansions. He kept a steady stream of Marion’s movies being produced, good and bad, and parties, parties, parties. He had strict rules for his parties; no profanity or dirty jokes, no drunkenness, and no fornication of unmarried couples. These rules seem a bit hypocritical in light of his and Marion’s relationship and Marion being an ardent alcoholic. But if guests violated the rules, they might find their bags packed, and a car was waiting for them.

The Great Depression gradually worked through Hearst’s empire, and by the late 1930s, he was near bankruptcy, owing $140 million. A trustee was appointed to take over the empire leaving Hearst with only editorial control of his publications. He was given a fixed income and had to rent San Simeon. Construction stopped on all his projects. Much of his collections began a two-year liquidation. The collections included medieval armor, tapestries, furniture, pottery, gold and silverware, glassware, stained glass, jewelry, precious stones, rugs, drawings, paintings, sculpture, autographs, manuscripts, and first editions — some good quality, and some not so good.

When Hearst turned 75, Marion quit making films and lived with him as a full-time companion. He and Marion had over 70 dachshunds at San Simeon. They had their favorites who slept, ate, and drove with them. When Marion’s favorite, Gandhi, had to be put down, she went wild with grief and became deathly ill. Later, when Hearst’s favorite died, his reaction was nearly as strong.

The boy-genius writer and actor Orson Welles decided to make a very thinly veiled film about WRH titled “Citizen Kane.” It was a mean caricature of Hearst with little understanding of his life and an even more vicious depiction of Marion. Hearst refused to sue as he felt it would bring more attention to the film, but his friends did everything they could to stop the movie from being shown but failed. When released in 1941, critics hailed it as the greatest film ever made. As a work of art, it was brilliant and would be resurrected and praised by the great European directors of the 1960s. But it was not well received at the box office. Its extreme noir and non-linear timeline were too much for the filmgoers of the time; by the end of 1942, “Citizen Kane” was out of circulation.

At 82, Hearst’s finances had finally improved, and he was back in control of his money. WRH did not retire but worked daily with his private secretary, dealing with over thirty issues every morning. Over time his health declined and he died in 1951 at the age of 88. He had set up separate trusts for Millicent, his sons, and Marion. Millicent and the sons attacked Marion’s trust with a vengeance and eventually convinced her to relinquish some of her shares in the company. The Hearst Corporation thrives to this day, and the family wealth is $21 billion.

David Nasaw, in his definitive biography of Hearst, “The Chief,” wrote, “William Randolph Hearst was a huge man with a tiny voice; a shy man who was most comfortable in crowds; a war hawk in Cuba and Mexico but a pacifist in Europe; an autocratic boss who could not fire people; a devoted husband who lived with his mistress …” Contradictions were the shape of Hearst’s life. His empire, at its height, had 26 newspapers and a strong presence in all other media of the day, and he maintained editorial control over all of it. If someone had told him that news needed to be unbiased and balanced, he would have smiled or laughed out loud. For Hearst, the news was opinion and tool to be used sometimes as a hammer and sometimes a feathery breeze that is barely noticed. In his private life, which was in no way private, he spent more money than some Saudi princes; he loved his family and mistresses but often had other priorities; he lived in excess as if there were no other options. William Randolph Hearst wove his strengths and weaknesses into the fabric of the United States.


Walt Disney — American Moguls

Walt Disney, American Moguls, 7”x7”, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark Wyatt McGinnis

American Moguls

Walt Disney


He was a legend in his time.

Walt was born to Elias and Flora and had four siblings. Elias was a carpenter in Chicago. A fundamentalist Christian he moved the family to the Kansas City, Missouri area, claiming Chicago to be a den of immorality, although he had a liking for whiskey and gambling. In their new location, Elias took up farming with his four boys as his labor force and became an ardent socialist supporter. He was a brutal father, beating his sons with a thick leather strap almost daily as the youngest, Walt, suffered the most. His older brother, Roy, would comfort his sobbing through the night. The two older brothers left the farm, with Elias pledging he would never speak their names again. His father lost the farm and bought a 1000-person newspaper delivery route in Kansas City. Roy and Walt rose very early to deliver papers and then again for the evening edition seven days a week.

In school, Walt was an average student but loved reading and drawing. He would make up little dramas with his friends, and Charlie Chaplin enthralled him. The paper route was not profitable, and Elias moved the family back to Chicago. Walt became a high school newspaper cartoonist and took some night classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. When WWI broke out, Walt ran away from home and became a driver for officers in France. Upon returning from the war, Elias wanted Walt to join his business. Walt turned him down and went to Kanas City to become a commercial artist.

He had been submitting drawings to magazines for years and had always been rejected, and again he was rejected by commercial art agencies. The truth was that Walt could not draw well enough. He started his own little business, Laugh-O-Grams Company, with his friend Ub Iwerks; they promised to be lifelong partners. The company made short, humorous films that included primitive animation, photos, news items, and jokes.The shorts played in movie theaters before the features. Iwerks and Disney Co. had some modest ups but mostly downs and went bankrupt in 1923. Walt sold his secondhand movie camera and bought a ticket to Hollywood with the dream of becoming a director.

Walt was turned away by every major studio. He was staying in a one-room apartment with his brother Roy, who was recovering from tuberculosis. At 23, Walt married an Idaho girl, Lillian, who would be his wife for 42 years. In 1926 Walt set up Walt Disney Studio, producing cartoons for theaters. Roy was in charge of financial matters. Felix the Cat had been having great success, and Walt, wanting to imitate, came up with the idea for the character Oscar the Rabbit. He was a success in theaters, but through legal complications, Walt lost the rights to Oscar. Walt remembered a fellow occupant of his old studio in Kansas City, a mouse. He did some drawings, and then Ub Iwerks, who was working for Walt as an animator, reworked the character to a professional level. Lillian suggested the name, Mikey. The first 10-minute film took 1400 drawings. Ub made hundreds of drawings a day. All the distributors rejected the cartoon. Walt shelved it. The second Mickey Mouse cartoon borrowed heavily from a Buster Keaton film and was called “Steamboat Willie.” The “talkies” were beginning, and Walt added sound using his voice for Mickey. The studio was on the verge of bankruptcy. The cartoon was a huge success, and Walt had his first hit at 26.

Walt became Hollywood’s wonder boy, and interviews poured in, and Walt didn’t once mention Ub Iwerks’ huge contribution. It was Walt’s baby. It was the roaring 20s, and Walt roared, having his studio produce 31 Mickey Mouse cartoons in the next 18 months. Their popularity soared. Ub was frustrated by his lack of recognition and left Disney to start his own studio; Walt felt utterly betrayed. By 1930 Walt’s manic working drove him to a nervous breakdown. Lillian took him on a long trip which is what he needed. He came back rested and full of ideas for new cartoons. Walt wanted to make color cartoons. Roy said it was too expensive. Walt did it anyway. The first one won an Oscar. Then the company began merchandising Mickey, cartoon strips, books, toys, and Mickey Mouse Fan clubs that had a million members the first year. He was “Uncle Walt” to countless children.

Walt was an incredible director of films and a precise editor, and his staff, now in the hundreds, made his ideas into excellent films. But it was always Walt the genius animator, no credit elsewhere. During the Great Depression, Walt forced a 15% wage reduction on his workers. He hired “apprentice” animators at $10-$15 weekly. Many workers resented Walt, but in his egotism, he imagined they loved him and should be and were grateful to be working for him. Many of his workers called his style “Waltotalitarianism.” Walt projected a squeaky clean all-American image and expected the same of all who worked for him. But Disney smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and drank whiskey to excess. Later in life, one of his favorite breakfasts was fresh donuts dunked in Scotch.

Awards and honorary dinners abounded for him, but Lillian attended few; she was a private person and did not need or want attention from others. In 1933 she gave birth to a daughter, Dianne Marie. To commemorate Dianne’s birth, Walt declared that on the first day of his films, orphans everywhere were to be admitted free.

In 1935, Disney began work on his first feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Roy worried it would be too expensive for the studio. Walt hired hundreds more animators and charged ahead again. He supervised every step of the production. His creative team was required to watch a Charlie Chaplin film every day. The teams worked three eight-hour shifts, seven days a week. The budget increased to $500,000. Some people in Hollywood began calling it “Walt’s Folly.” Disney was near another nervous breakdown; Roy talked him into another vacation. It worked. In 1937 Snow White premiered. Both high and low cultures hailed it as a masterpiece. Audiences were awed and delighted, and it evokes the same feelings 86 years later. The film grossed $8 million, with an average ticket cost of 25 cents. It was shown in 45 countries. Walt began building a $4.5 million studio complex of 20 buildings and started three new feature films.

Lillian threatened a divorce if they did not have a second child. Due to Walt’s low sperm count, they had to adopt. The fact that Sharon Mae was adopted was kept secret.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal supported the establishment of unions, and Hollywood was no exception. Disney would not permit them at his studio as he said they already had “Jesus Christ Communism.” Ub Iwerks’ studio failed, and Disney agreed to hire the prodigal son, but they were no longer friends. Ub stayed for 30 years. J. Edgar Hoover, who was looking for communists in Hollywood, recruited Disney as an FBI informant, which lasted 25 years; he eventually attained the rank of “Special Agent in Charge.” Walt believed that FDR was a communist dupe and that communists controlled the union movement. A 1941 strike at Disney studio drove Walt to the brink of another breakdown — another trip remedied the crisis. While Walt was gone, Roy yielded to the strikers and recognized the Cartoonist’s Guild.

In 1945, Walt resigned as president of Walt Disney Productions and retreated to the home he had built for Lillian. There he had built a 1/8-scale railroad that went around the house and grounds. He could sit on the engine and spent much of his time riding it. One day the train jumped the track and crashed through the side of the house. Lillian was concerned about his combining of tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and alcohol.

In 1947, Walt was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, DC. He gave committee names of Hollywood people he believed to be communists and told them the “reds” threatened the film industry. His testimony and others led to the blacklist and the rejection of screenwriters, directors, and producers; even his beloved Charlie Chaplin was exiled.

When Walt told Roy of his idea of an amusement park called Disneyland, Roy took it as a sure sign Walt was going insane; Walt surged on. He had a secret team design the park in their private building. The construction of the park was plagued with problems and worker strikes. In 1955 the park was opened prematurely, and a series of disasters unfolded during the day. Walt had invited 15,000 people — 33,000 showed up. Despite this, the park received rave reviews, and a million people visited in the first seven weeks.

When Elias and Flora, Walt’s parents, were in the eighties, Walt had a cottage built for them north of Burbank and hired a housekeeper. Elias would show up at Walt’s studio almost daily, wearing overalls and carrying a hammer. His son put him to work in the set shop.

Disney’s films had great successes over the decades, and a few not so great, but awards and accolades poured in. He increased his fame in television by producing Walt Disney Presents, the top-rated show in prime time, and the Mickey Mouse Club, a national phenomenon. By 1954 about a billion people had paid to see one of his films. The merchandising of products related to his films was an empire in itself. At the end of his life, his personal wealth was $35 million, about $3 billion today.

Long a dream, Disney began making the film Mary Poppins in 1961. He threw himself into making the film as he had his first films, guiding and directing every aspect. It debuted in 1964 with a spectacular reception. It grossed $45 million and won five Oscars. Marc Eliot, in his comprehensive biography, “Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince,” said, “Mary Poppins is Disney’s greatest depiction of the eternal triumph of hope over cynicism, of youth over old age, of life over death. It is his grand monument to immortality.” Walt himself considered it his greatest achievement.

Walt bought 27,000 acres of swampland outside Orlando, Florida in 1964. It was to be home to his second grand amusement park, Walt Disney World. The designing began for the most fabulous amusement park in the world.

In 1966, Walt’s health began a serious decline; severe back and neck pain, kidney failure, and memory loss. He washed down painkillers with shots of whiskey. He was admitted to the hospital in November, and one lung was removed. It contained tumors the size of walnuts, and cancer had spread to his lymph glands. Walt Disney, the world’s uncle, died on December 14, 1966, at 65. On Walt’s deathbed, Roy told him he would finish Walt Disney World on time. Roy did and died two months later.

Walt Disney created suffering for many people through his decades as an FBI informant and his participation in the Hollywood blacklist that ruined the careers of gifted people. His paternalist, condescending administrative style, added to underpaying his overworked staff, made a hostile workplace for many.

Walt Disney created joy and wonder for untold millions with his genius and dogged determination. His masterworks like Snow White and Mary Poppins are timeless and will bring happiness to people for the unforeseeable future.

American Moguls: Andrew Mellon

Mark W McGinnis

Andrew Mellon, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark W McGinnis

Andrew Mellon


Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks of less competent people.

Andrew Mellon was a quiet, thin industrial giant and a powerful politician who helped shape both the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. But to understand Andrew, you must understand something of Thomas, the father who shaped his life. Many of the business moguls of the 19th and early 20th centuries were true rags-to-riches stories; Andrew’s was a riches-to-enormous riches story.

Thomas was the son of Protestant Scotch-Irish immigrants. They established themselves as honest, hard-working, successful farmers in Western Pennsylvania. Thomas was a voracious reader, and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography became his secular gospel. He was a good student and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. His father wanted him to return to the farming business, but Thomas wanted a life of wealth and distinction. He studied law and was soon in his practice specializing in civil law and foreclosures. He prospered. Thomas decided he needed a wife and a “good family,” in his supreme practicality, he found a wife and considered it a successful “transaction.” They had six children, four of which survived; Andrew being the fourth born.

The family grew wealthy with an intense, serious work ethic; displays of emotion were frowned upon in the family, and laughter was rare. They lived in a drab, unadorned house, where Andrew lived until his mid-forties. Along with the law, Thomas carefully invested in businesses, growing his wealth. Andrew was his shadow, and his father would have Andrew read to him, with favorites being Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, whose “survival of the fittest” theory suited Thomas perfectly.

In 1859 Thomas was elected a judge, a post he kept for ten years, and then stepped down to pursue his business interests full-time. From that time forward, Thomas was known simply as “The Judge.” He didn’t trust public or private education, so he built a small school building on his land, hired a teacher, and had his four sons educated according to his principles. The Judge’s primary business was banking, T. Mellon & Sons. Andrew briefly attended University and then worked for his father full-time. Andrew was even-tempered, modest, secretive, shy, quiet, and inward and had few close friends, traits that were to follow him the rest of his life. It was once said that if he got religion, he wouldn’t tell God about it.

With the Judge and his four sons working, the family business expanded beyond banking to coal, real estate, construction, and railroads. The Judge introduced Andrew to a young businessman who had just lent money to a coke company, Henry Clay Frick. Frick would become one the most ruthless robber barons of the 19th century and one the few long-term friends of Andrew and his business partner in many ventures. As the century passed, The Judge entered semi-retirement, and Andrew became the head of the Mellons, as his superior business skills were evident. Andrew rode out the financial ups and downs of the last three decades of the 19th century with careful, shrewd, and skillful manipulation of their many business interests. This success was not without costs, not costs to him but to the vast labor force in his businesses. Many men were paid two dollars a day, worked 12-hour days, had no safety precautions, worked in severe pollution, and organized labor and strikes were severely repressed. It was said that every millionaire must have thousands of paupers, and by the end of the 1800s, there were 4,000 millionaires in the United States.

Mellon had been taking regular summer trips to Europe with Frick. In 1900 on the Atlantic passage, Frick introduced Mellon, now 43, to an acquaintance, Nora Mullen. The 19-year-old was beautiful, charming, and outgoing. Mellon’s reserve dissolved, and he fell hopelessly in love with the girl. He proposed to her repeatedly, but she coyly turned him down, leaving a glimmer of hope; finally, she agreed. There were signs of doom even before the wedding. Nora was complaining about gloom and dissatisfaction and how Andrew was always busy. She was everything The Judge would not want for the wife of his gifted son. Her parents did not approve either. She obviously didn’t love him. Mellon was oblivious to it; his careful calculation learned in business abandoned him. The lavish wedding took place at her parent’s beautiful English country estate. On bringing his wife back to Pittsburgh, she was horrified; by the pollution, soot everywhere, noise, and factories. She hated everything. She arrived at the home Mellon had purchased and decorated for her; she was equally appalled.

Mellon returned to his obsessive work, and his quiet, withdrawn self returned. He lavished on her everything she wished and even tried to engage in the city’s social life. In 1901 their daughter Ailsa was born. Nora was still despondent. She languished in bed and was ill with sicknesses the doctors could not diagnose. On a trip back to England, Nora met Alfred Curphey. Curphey was young, handsome, charming, and a first-class gigolo who seduced the wives of wealthy men as a profession. Nora fell for him completely. She stayed in England as much as possible, and Mellon unknowingly supported Curphey and Nora’s four lazy brothers.

In 1907 a son, Paul was born to Andrew and Nora. Also, in 1907 Nora declared she wanted a divorce and to marry Curphey. The separation and divorce painfully drug on for five years. The public scandal deeply humiliated Mellon. As expected, Nora’s marriage to the rogue did not last. Mellon supported and bailed out Nora and her brothers for the rest of his life. The dysfunctional relationship weighed heavily on Alilsa and, later, Paul.

By the turn of the century, Mellon was one of the wealthiest men in America. He was the director of 41 companies, including gigantic corporations such as Alcoa and Gulf Oil, some of which are still in the Fortune 500. Still wounded by the divorce scandal, in 1915, he began thinking about withdrawing from his active concerns in business, but his wealth kept growing and growing.

Mellon had been a lifelong Republican, as had The Judge. Mellon despised the progressive administrations of Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Taft, seeing them taking away some of the power of the great industrialists with anti-trust legislation and supporting labor. Mellon threw his mighty monetary weight into helping the Republicans in 1920 to defeat the progressives. For President, he supported Warren G. Harding. After World War One, the U.S. economy was battered. The national debt was huge, and two million demobilized soldiers were looking for work. There were foreclosures, business collapses, and social unrest. It was a very dissatisfied electorate looking for a change, and Harding won the election.

Harding offered Mellon the position of Secretary of the Treasury; he turned down the job several times but relented and then stayed in the job for 11 years under three presidents. Mellon had to relinquish control of his companies for his new position. He signed them over to his brother and declared his connections were “as if I had died.” Mellon worked at his new job as obsessively as his businesses, working late into the night. One employee said he looked like “a tired double-entry bookkeeper.” After two years in office, the economy had stabilized, and he was hailed the greatest Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton. Mellon slashed income tax rates for the rich from 65% to eventually 25%, and estate and gift taxes were also dramatically reduced. He believed that this new enormous amount of money in the hands of the rich would find its way down to the rest of society — the infamous “trickle down” that conservative have loved for a century.

While Mellon claimed to be “dead” to his businesses, he certainly was not. He was in frequent contact with them and even used his position to benefit them. This would come back to haunt him, but for now, he was the toast of Washington, and colleges showered him with honorary degrees. He used his job to decrease the government’s already limited influence on business. The Judge would have been very proud.

New technologies were transforming the U.S. economy; automobiles, electricity, airplanes, and more. The consumer society was forming, and with it, looser morals. It was the “Roaring Twenties.” The roar was for the upper and upper middle classes. The poor felt little of the trickle. 60% of the population lived below the poverty line. The rich instead took those handfuls of money and poured it into stock market speculation, focusing only on the quick money and not on the possibility of equally quick losses. The stock market soared and soared, and many people were elated with the fast money they were making. Mellon grew worried. He and his family invested carefully. Mellon advised people to buy safer bonds and not stocks. He tried to get the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates to slow the economy. They refused. In the Fall of 1929, the huge bubble broke. By November, the losses were at $26 billion. 97.5% of the population owned no stock and were not immediately affected by the crash. Mellon believed the economy would recover and just needed to go through another downturn as it had done about once a decade in most of the previous century. His advice was to do nothing and let it run its course. It didn’t. By 1930 four million people were out of work; the number would grow to 12 million. By 1931 over 2,000 banks had failed; by 1932, the number was 5,000.

President Herbert Hoover was the most hated man in America; Andrew Mellon came in a close second. By 1932, twenty percent of the workforce was unemployed; in some cities, it was 50%. Shanty towns sprung up around the nation that were called Hoovervilles. The most famous Hooverville was in Washington, DC, where 43,000 squatters and demonstrators, the Bonus Army, came to the capital demanding promised bonuses for WWI veterans. Congress denied them the bonuses, and the army, tanks, and tear gas drove the impoverished people out of town.

Mellon was denounced as a robber and much more. One congressman said, “Mellon has violated more laws, caused more human suffering, and illegally acquired more property to satisfy his personal greed than any other person on earth ….” Congress began impeachment proceedings against Mellon. With evidence of him misusing his position for his business’s benefit, the odds of him being exonerated were slim. Mellon resigned. Hoover immediately made Mellon ambassador to Great Britain.

Under the influence of Henry Clay Frick, Mellon had been collecting art since the 1890s. He began modestly but soon moved up to the old masters, collecting Rembrandt, Rubens, Halls, Gainsborough, Romney, Raphael, Goya, Tintoretto, Velazquez, Van Dyck, Botticelli, and many more. Some of his finest buys were from Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union, which was selling art from The Hermitage Museum. For decades Mellon had been thinking about creating a National Gallery of Art in Washington with his fabulous collection as the core. While ambassador in London, he began seriously working to make this a reality.

In 1933 Mellon returned to the U.S. after Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the White House in a landslide. Mellon was still despised in Washington and still under Congressional investigation for tax evasion. Nonetheless, he dove into the planning for the gallery. He hired the neoclassical architect John Russel Pope to design the building, and he did detailed planning for the project as only one of the most astute businessmen in history could do. Mellon would donate his art collection and an endowment to run the gallery, and it would be built on the national mall at taxpayer expense.

In 1936, at the age of 81, Mellon was diagnosed with cancer. He desperately wanted to conclude the gallery deal before his death. Only with FDR’s approval and promotion would the gallery be made a reality. FDR deeply disliked Mellon, seeing him as a chief villain of the Great Depression. When Mellon, weak, sick, and bent, brought his proposal to the White House, FDR eagerly accepted it and managed the Congressional passing of the necessary bills. Ground was broken for the National Gallery of Art in the summer of 1937. It was called the greatest gift in history and polished some tarnish off his reputation. Andrew Mellon died in August 1937. The massive gallery opened in the Spring of 1941, a worthy setting for Melon’s great treasures.

David Cannadine, who has written a comprehensive biography of Mellon, described him as “cold, shy, inscrutable, and inarticulate.” Of these terms, “inscrutable” fits the complexity of Mellon. He was the epitome of the hard, calculating capitalist, with little or no concern for the suffering his gains caused others. But he was a filial son, a loving husband, a devotee of great art, and, in the end, stupendously generous. His impact on the history of America was large and primarily tragic — like so many moguls, he was a multi-faceted man.

American Moguls: John D. Rockefeller

Mark Wyatt McGinnis

John D. Rockefeller, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark W McGinnis

John D. Rockefeller


God gave me the money.

America’s wealthiest man was born John Davison Rockefeller in Richford, New York. His father, William, was also known as “Devil Bill.” He was a con and confidence man who loved fine horses, fine rifles, and any woman who would have him. “Devil Bill” mixed his own elixirs to cure any ailment. He was home with his family rarely, but he had other families and had to keep moving when the law was looking for him. He bragged, “I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want ‘em sharp.”

John’s mother, Eliza, could not have been more different. She was a respectable daughter of a prosperous farmer who vehemently opposed her marriage to Bill, but Bill seems to have had unlimited charm. With a mostly absent husband and six children, Eliza was a disciplined, diligent worker and expected the same of her children, not sparing the willow switch when necessary. She was a devote Northern Baptist, and the austere faith stayed with John until his death. Late in his life, he said, “From the beginning, I was trained to work, to save, and to give.” John’s giving began early, saving his dimes for the church; he worked hard for those dimes. He raised turkeys and chickens for sale and sold pieces of candy at school and potatoes to the neighbors. At 12, John worked for a farmer hoeing his crops, saving $50 with his farm-work and other enterprises. He then loaned the $50 to the farmer at the going interest rate. John was a boney, small-eyed, silent, reserved, and self-controlled boy. He did well in the early education he had, excelling in mathematics.

The Rockefeller family moved to Cleveland, where John attended the first free high school west of the Alleghenies. After high school, he took a ten-week course in bookkeeping. It was 1855, and jobs were scarce, but John was persistent, often trying the same business several times. He dressed well in a dark suit and black tie; finally, he had success and was delighted. Throughout his life, he celebrated September 26th as “Job Day.” At 16, he had his first formal job in business as an assistant bookkeeper. The pay was 50 cents a day, but John was engrossed in learning all aspects of the firm. His employers soon recognized their good luck and had John handling transportation costs, negotiations, and collecting debts. At this time, he said his goals were to make a fortune and live to 100. John began keeping what he called Ledger A. In it he kept a precise record of his income, expenses, savings, and giving. Later in life, he called the ledger his most treasured possession and often showed it to his Sunday school students.

While his frugal employers continually gave John more responsibility, they did not compensate him proportionately. In 1859, John D. Rockefeller and a partner opened a business dealing in grain, hay, meats, and other goods. To fund the venture, they used their savings and took out a $1,000 loan from “Devil Bill” (at an inflated high-interest rate, still cheating the boys). As might be expected, the business was a great success. When the Civil War began, the business thrived even more. Rockefeller received a notice that he was drafted into the army. As was common with men of some wealth, he hired a man to take his place. Had he gone to war and been killed, the business history of America would have been distinctly different.

During the war, the demand for kerosene used in lamps grew, causing crude oil derricks to dapple areas in Pennsylvania. Production went from 2,000 barrels in 1859 to 4,000,000 in 1869. Rockefeller understood the potential of the black resource that was to make him a fortune beyond his dreams. He switched his business interests to oil, building, with partners, a refinery in Cleveland. In oil refining at the time, 60% of the barrel was refined to kerosene, and 40% “waste” was dumped into rivers and sludge piles. Remembering his mother’s motto, “willful waste makes woeful want,” Rockefeller hired a chemist. Soon, the oil waste was being processed into lubricants, petroleum jelly, and paraffin wax. In time he would be making 300 products from oil, including gasoline. Rockefeller envisioned owning the complete supply and production elements of his business. He bought stands of white oak to make the oil barrels, built kilns to dry the oak, and made the barrels with his own workers. He built similar systems for each step of production.

In 1870, he abolished his partnership and formed Standard Oil. In the following decade, Rockefeller would execute what might be the greatest business consolidation and expansion in America’s history. Two years after the founding of Standard Oil, he took over 22 of the 26 competing refineries in Cleveland. It was called “The Cleveland Massacre.” And this was just the beginning. Standard Oil “absorbed” refineries and related businesses with incredible speed. Rockefeller saw Standard Oil as an “angel of mercy,” taking the weak companies and making them part of something strong and productive, creating order from chaos. He said, “Competition is a Sin.” When a company was approached to be purchased, they had no real choice. Standard Oil offered them cash or Standard shares. Rockefeller always recommended the shares, and many of those who were wise enough to do so became very wealthy. If the business Standard wished to buy, probably at a low price, refused to be purchased, Standard Oil would crush them and then buy it for a fraction of the original offer. Ruthlessness would be an understatement.

By 1879 Standard Oil refined 90% of the oil in the United States. They owned 20,000 oil wells, 4,000 miles of pipeline, 5,000 railroad tanker cars, tanker ships that carried huge amounts of oil overseas and employed over 100,000 people. In 1893 Rockefeller further centralized his empire into the Standard Oil Trust, creating the largest, richest, most feared company in the world. The company’s covert business dealings put them in court continuously for 40 years, where their high-paid lawyers could often tie up cases indefinitely. All Standard executives signed pledges of secrecy and were held to them. One of Rockefeller’s mottos was “Hide the profits, say nothing.”

The mega-monopoly was under constant criticism in the press. A leading newspaper called them “the most cruel, impudent, pitiless, grasping monopoly that has ever fastened upon a country.” But as with most great power, Standard Oil was viewed by many people with awe. And the ordinary person interacted with Standard Oil regularly. Every town of any size had a Standard Oil tank wagon drawn by horses, delivering kerosene and other oil products to businesses and homes. They, too, strove to have a monopoly in the communities.

John D. Rockefeller himself was a remarkable enigma. He was mild-mannered, amicable, free of any vanity, modest in lifestyle, quiet, deliberate, unaffected by criticism, and a constant planner. He heaped wealth and praise on his top managers. Rockefeller was not an autocrat and knew how to delegate responsibilities. He trusted the decisions of his most talented associates, even if he sometimes disagreed. He felt he was creating a new way of business that helped the American people by making the means of production far more efficient and orderly, eliminating waste, and bringing prices down. Rockefeller believed that the time of the individual in business was over; it was now the time of centralization and collective ventures. It was capitalistic heresy. He introduced the super-corporation that has dominated the American economy from his time onward. Rockefeller sincerely believed that God had given him the power to make money, that he had a talent as an artist or musician might have, and he needed to use that divine bequest to its fullest.

Stories of Rockefeller’s mildness with his employees are abundant. He kept an exercise machine in an often unused office. Unknown to him a new accountant was assigned to the space. One day Rockefeller came to use the device. The new worker, not knowing what the richest man in America looked like, said, “Get that thing out of here!” Rockefeller meekly replied, “All right,” and removed the equipment. After learning who he had been talking to, the account felt he would quickly be fired. Rockefeller never mentioned it to anyone. On another occasion, he was reviewing the mathematics one his employees. Rockefeller said, “Fine work!” He then quietly pointed out several small mistakes and said, “Well done.”

In 1890 the Sherman Anti-Trust Act passed the U.S. Congress. A primary reason it was created was to break up Standard Oil. It took ten years, but it did. Rockefeller came out richer than ever.

While the titan of industry had a mild, controlled demeanor, but turmoil was below the surface. In 1892 he suffered a nervous breakdown. Among the symptoms was the loss of all body hair, causing him to wear a hairpiece later in life. He withdrew from business life, worked with his gardeners, played golf, read religious writings, and recovered. He returned to work, but in 1897, at 58, he secretly retired, giving considerable input to his son, who was running his affairs.

What came to be known as the Standard Oil “Gang” greatly impacted the economy. They diversified into banking, insurance, public utilities, iron, coal, copper, and more.

In retirement, Rockefeller had one primary goal; to give his money away. It was a huge job. His fortune reached its peak in 1912 at $900 million. That is about $280 billion now– $100 billion more than any of the 21st Century’s super-billionaires. When he died in 1937 his worth was $26 million, around 2.5 billion today. He gave away a stupendous amount of money. He tried to distance himself from much of his philanthropy, staying in the background, even when the press often vilified him as stingy. Rockefeller hired Fredrick Gates, a Baptist minister, to help manage his giving. Education was one focus of the philanthropy, supporting education on all levels. Rockefeller is considered The University of Chicago’s founder, donating $35 million between 1892 and 1910. He also founded Spelman College, a free college for African-American women. The institution was named for Rockefeller’s wife’s family, who were diligent abolitionists.

Another of the major philanthropy efforts was The Rockefeller Foundation, which funded hospitals and medical programs not only in the U.S. but around the world, impacting world health. But there was one tragic area they supported. Rockefeller was a supporter of the practice of eugenics, the belief that human beings could be improved by correct breeding and the systematic suppression of undesirable traits in the race. This included sterilization of the cognitively different, restricting immigration of groups and races seen as unfit, outlawing mixed marriages, and some people supported more drastic means. In America, 30 states had laws that forced sterilization on people in mental institutions. Between 1907 and 1963, approximately 64,000 people were forcibly sterilized. What made Rockefeller’s support even more tragic was that his foundation gave 7 million dollars to support German research on eugenics, contributing to the horrors of the Holocaust. This terrible facet of his support of research does not negate the positive impact of his philanthropy for many millions of people around the globe that continues today. But eugenics is a chilling reminder of how easily a profoundly immoral practice can become embedded in a culture.

Rockefeller lived a very long, mostly healthy life. This may be attributed to what could be called his Baptist lifestyle. He did not smoke or drink alcohol, ate moderately and thoroughly chewed his food, exercised daily, was early to bed, and kept a strict daily schedule. He disliked doctors and preferred homeopathic medicines, possibly a leftover influence from “Devil Bill.” The story is told of a young reporter coming to his house for an interview and finding Rockefeller, then in his early 90s, in full golfing outfit. He asked the reporter to join him and fit the young man in his clothes. Through the game, Rockefeller pulled shiny dimes from his pocket and gave one to everyone he met. It was a practice he had been doing for decades and may have been motivated by the dimes he saved for the church 80 years before. At the end of the game, the reporter took a dime from his pocket and gave it to Rockefeller, who responded, “Young man, that is the first money anyone has given me in a very long time.”

James Davison Rockefeller died in 1937 at 98, two years short of the goal he had set for himself in his 20s. He died suddenly in his bed. No family was around him as they didn’t know anything was direly wrong. This may have been his preferred way to go. He wouldn’t have wanted to bother anyone.

American Moguls: Andrew Carnegie

Mark Wyatt McGinnis

Andrew Carnegie, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark W McGinnis

Andrew Carnegie


Brilliant. Charming. Generous. Brutal.

Andrew was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, the son of a hand-loom weaver and a diligent, hard-working mother. He received some education at the town’s “free school” donated by a local philanthropist. His uncle instilled in Andrew a love of Scottish and English literature, leading to a lifetime of reading and learning.

Dire economic conditions drove the family to immigrate to the United States. They had to borrow the money for transport and across the Atlantic, crammed into the hold of a ship on bunks with horrible food and no privacy for 50 days. In Pittsburgh, conditions were worse than in Scotland. Their small house was dark and flimsy, everything was covered with soot and grime. Pittsburgh was called “Hell with the lid off.”

At 12, Andrew went to work in a cotton mill, twelve hours a day, six days a week, for $1.20 a week. When he was 14, he found a job as a telegraph messenger, doubling his wages. Andrew’s intelligence, quickness, and diligence were apparent, and he was soon promoted to telegraph operator. A local retired Colonel had a small, 400-book library that he opened up to working boys on Saturday nights. Andrew was a regular borrower and never forgot the value he found in having books for self-education. As an eighteen-year-old, he worked as a telegraph operator and secretary to Thomas Scott, an executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Scott was an intelligent and cunning businessman. Carnegie could not have had a better mentor. Scott called Andrew his “white-haired Scotch devil.” Carnegie was soon put in charge of the western division of the railroad, where he ran it with an iron hand. There he honed his skills in management and cost control. A life-long motto for Carnegie was, “Watch the costs, and the profits will take care of themselves.”

When the Civil War loomed, President Lincoln made Thomas Scott the Deputy Secretary of War, and Scott put Carnegie in charge of Union railroads and telegraph. There Carnegie efficiently managed the systems and furthered the war effort. He liked to tell the story of cutting himself on a telegraph wire and considering himself the first causality of the Civil War.

During the war and after the demand for iron multiplied, Carnegie saw the potential for large profits. He gradually shifted his investments to iron and steel when new technology improved its production. By the age of 33, he was a millionaire. In 1872 Carnegie established Thompson Steel Works, and in the 1880s, he bought and built more iron and steel production facilities. Carnegie was a brilliant dealmaker and created efficient and streamlined supply lines of raw materials. A shrewd and hard man, Henry Clay Frick, was his operations manager.

Unlike most of the robber barons of the 19th century, Carnegie was not obsessed with work. His contemporaries said he divided his time 50% work and 50% play. He traveled the world and nurtured relationships with the elite of New York City. His charm and well-read intelligence made him popular with the “old money” establishment. At 45, he began courting Louise Whitfield, 23. Carnegie’s mother had remained attached to him so tightly he was rarely seen without her, and he was wholly devoted to her. His mother was intensely jealous of Louise, and Carnegie knew he could not marry. When his mother died seven years later, he married Louise.

In the 1880s, Carnegie became heavily influenced by the teaching of the contemporary British libertarian, capitalist philosopher Herbert Spencer. Spencer was adamantly opposed to any government intervention in business and entirely against welfare for the poor. He coined the phrase “Survival of the Fittest.” This is not in Darwin’s teaching on evolution, which implied the survival of the most adaptable. Spencer turned his distortion against the poor with a vengeance. He believed to help them would be a disservice to humanity as the weaker were not to survive, so the stronger would evolve and strengthen the workforce. There was also “natural selection” in business, where the financially fittest would dominate. Wealth was a sign of superiority, and poverty was a sign of weakness. The term “Social Darwinism” inappropriately came to describe Spencer’s teachings. Spencer thought there were divergent varieties of men, some superior to others.

Carnegie considered himself a disciple of Herbert Spencer. He once said, “Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution.” Carnegie invited Spencer to Pittsburgh to tour his steel mills, which he considered to embody Spencer’s philosophy. Spencer found the factories dirty, polluted, and oppressive. He said, “Six months residence here would justify suicide.”

His “discipleship” did not prohibit Carnegie from considering himself to be a champion of the working man. He even talked of supporting unions, but unions that were not in his factories. He forced long working hours, a six-day week, and as low a wage as he could pay. He thought that if he paid the men more, they would “just buy better cuts of meat and more drink for their tables.” Cutting costs brought him enormous profits, and wages were one of the greatest costs.

Carnegie’s fortune was immense by 1889, and being a man of great wealth, he felt the need to express how people with such a surplus should use their money. He published an article that came to be known as “The Gospel of Wealth.” In the essay, he promotes the virtues of the individual and evolution and vehemently condemns socialism, anarchism, and communism. Carnegie says the rich and the poor should live in a harmonious relationship, and the rich must labor for the brotherhood of all. He believed the wealthy should be trustees for the poor and use their superior wisdom, experience, and ability to “administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.” But he clarifies that “neither the individual nor the race is improved by almsgiving.” He piously points out that it is the duty of the wealthy to set an example for the less advantaged by leading lives of “modesty, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance.” This might seem somewhat hypocritical coming from a man who built a 56,000 square foot mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and expanded a castle in Scotland to 60,000 square feet on an estate of 8,000 acres.

In 1892 Carnegie’s reputation suffered a blow. The union contract at his Homestead Steel mill was about to expire, and instead of offering the men the pay raises they wanted, he offered them a 22% pay cut and left for Scotland. His manager, Frick, was determined to break the worker’s union and locked out the workers. He built and tall barbwire fence around the plant with towers, searchlights, and snipers. Frick planned to reopen the mill with strikebreakers (scabs) and hired 300 armed Pinkerton agents to protect the new workers. The Pinkerton men were secretly brought down the river to the plant, but it was no secret. The strikers learned of the planned arrival and attacked the barges before they could dock. A bizarre, violent battle ensued. The strikers and townspeople numbered in the thousands. The strikers fired on the barges, threw rocks at them, floated burning rafts at them, drove a burning railroad car at them, and created an oil slick and lit it. Most Pinkerton men were terrified and tried to surrender, but the strikers continued their attack. Finally, the agents were allowed to surrender. The strikers and townspeople formed a gauntlet the Pinkerton men had to walk to get to the opera house, which was used as a temporary jail. All along the path, they were pelleted with rocks, beaten, and spit on. Several men were beaten unconscious. The brutality of the attack was recorded by reporters, and public support for the strikers largely evaporated. Seven workers and three Pinkerton men had died in the battle.

With the violent victory of the strikers, Frick realized he needed major outside help. He contacted the Pennsylvania Governor, who gained power through Carnegie’s political machine. The governor sent in 4,000 militia troops, with 2,000 more on the high ground around the town. Within a week, the mill was opened with non-union labor. Carnegie had been in contact with Frick, via telegraph, through the entire ordeal and continuously supported and encouraged him. After the Homestead “battle,” steel industry unions dwindled to nearly nothing by 1900.

In 1901, at 65, Carnegie decided to retire. He sold his steel company to mega-financier J.P. Morgan. The selling price was $492 million. Carnegie’s share was $225 million, over seven billion dollars today. He had a special vault built for it.

Carnegie’s goal in retirement was to give away his money, and that he did. One of his favorite sayings was, “The man who dies rich, dies in disgrace.” But he did it in a way that fit Herbert Spencer’s philosophy. In his “Gospel of Wealth,” he wrote, “It is better for mankind that the millions of the rich be dumped in the sea than spent to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.” Carnegie was not going to give his money away but spend it in ways he felt benefited the people. The most famous of his philanthropy was his construction of 1,689 free libraries across the country. The importance of the availability of books in his self-education was likely the impetus of this remarkable legacy to America. The benefit of this bequest is inestimable. The spreading of his immense wealth did not end with libraries. He gave vast amounts of money to teaching, higher education, international peace, the sciences, the arts, and museums. He gave 7,000 pipe organs to churches.

Unfortunately, one area of his philanthropy had a dark side, a very dark side. His Carnegie Institution was an avid promoter of eugenics. Eugenics is the practice of controlling human reproduction to increase desirable traits and eliminate undesirable traits. It was a theory developed and promoted by Sir Francis Galton, who Herbert Spencer influenced. Eugenics made perfect sense to Carnegie. It was aiding and quickening the natural selection of human beings to higher evolutionary standards. It was a theory embraced by many highly placed men of the early 20th century. Established in 1902 under his direction, the Carnegie Institution explored many research areas. Eugenics was a sub-department of the Evolution Department. In 1911, they set forth 18 methods for removing defective genetic attributes from the American population. Number 8 was euthanasia. A recommended method was local gas chambers. But it was thought America was not ready for such drastic matters. Others tried their own methods. A mental institution in Illinois infected incoming patients’ milk with tuberculosis bacterium. Other doctors imposed euthanasia by medical neglect for the “unfit.”

The two eugenic methods that gained wide use in the United States were forced sterilization and restricted immigration. Codified into U.S. law, restricted immigration was applied to races seen as inferior and polluting to the American gene pool. Those included were Chinese, Japanese, Eastern and Southern Europeans, and Jews. The small number of Jews allowed into the United States led to the rejection of thousands of Jewish applications for immigration during WWII, condemning many to Hitler’s gas chambers. American public opinion supported these restrictions and continued to do so after the war.

Forced sterilization was a widespread practice. Eventually, thirty U.S. states enacted compulsory sterilization laws for the mentally “ill.” The Supreme Court upheld the laws. From 1907-1963 approximately 64,000 people were forcibly sterilized, mostly the poor and African-Americans. The promotion of eugenics by men like Andrew Carnegie, J.D. Rockefeller, John Harvey Kellogg, and President Teddy Roosevelt made it seem acceptable and appropriate. It also fit many people’s prejudices against the groups targeted. In Hitler’s 1924 “Mein Kapf,” regarding eugenics, he wrote, “….the model is not our German Republic, but the United States.”

Andrew Carnegie may be the ultimate “rags to riches story,” from working for $1.20 a week in slave-like conditions to the wealthiest man in America. He has been considered by many to have the “good” robber baron. His unparalleled distribution of his wealth was not matched until the present day. His library philanthropy lives on over a century after his death, with some still functioning as libraries and others fulfilling other civic functions. But under the masonry of those libraries lie the gains of a ruthless businessman and a promoter of one of the most tragic practices in American history.

American Moguls: Jay Gould

Mark Wyatt McGinnis

Jay Gould, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark W McGinnis

Jay Gould


The Mephistopheles of Wall Street. The Most Hated Man in America.

Jason Gould, later Jay, was born to farming parents in Roxbury, New York. His mother died when he was four. His father remarried twice, each wife lasting two years before they died. Then his sister suddenly died. Jay had to grow up in a hurry. He dreaded farm work, but he loved reading and learning. Jay went to a local school when he could get away from farming and was then accepted at Hobart Academy, paying his fees by bookkeeping for a local blacksmith. At Hobart, he wrote a well-received essay titled “Honesty is the Best Policy,” in the following decades, this would have brought his competitors to tears of laughter.

He taught himself the trade of surveying and struck out on his own. Gould met Zadock Pratt, who owned the largest tanning business in the country. Gould had a manner that quickly won over many people; he was polite, quiet, and obviously very intelligent. Pratt offered the young man a partnership in a new tannery, with Pratt providing the funding. Gould jumped at the opportunity.

The tannery was built in the pristine forest of Pennsylvania. The 20-year-old Gould was 5’1″ tall and had the face of a 12-year-old. This appearance did not impress the burly tanners. Gould grew a full beard and a mustache that covered his youthful mouth. This seemed to solve his appearance problem. He was to keep the facial hair for the rest of his life.

The business became successful, but Gould began using company funds to make other investments without informing Pratt. Pratt inspected the company books and found high sales and very little profit. Gould’s dishonesty was apparent. Pratt dissolved the partnership and demanded Gould buy him out for $60,000. With his persuasive ways, Gould secured a loan from a New York City leather merchant and formed a new partnership. Again, Gould started using company funds for personal speculations, and his partners demanded he pay them for their part in the business. Gould raised the money but put some shady wording into the contract. His opponents stormed the tannery with armed men and occupied it. Gould assembled a larger force, lubricated them with whiskey, and they took the tannery back. The incident came to be known by the inflated name “The Battle of Gouldsboro.” A protracted legal battle ensued for the tannery, and Gould finally abandoned the controversy and left for New York City and Wall Street, where he could engage in serious speculation.

And engage he did. He saw the great stock investors as magicians, and he rapidly learned their tricks and more. His quiet, reserved demeanor cloaked the most cut-throat investor that haunted Wall Street. He began to accumulate one of the greatest fortunes in the country. In 1869, he decided to corner the country’s gold market by purchasing large amounts to manipulate the price and advance his business interests. He convinced some government officials that he was doing so for patriotic reasons and gained their assistance. But his government conspirators panicked, and his complex plans began to collapse. It fell apart on September 24, 1869, called Black Friday, and gold and most stocks plummeted. Gould’s maneuvering managed to save most of his investment, but many others were ruined— they rallied to lynch him. He quietly escaped out the back door. This incident sealed his reputation as a ruthless, selfish, cold-blooded demon of New York’s financial world. It was said he was “one of the most sinister figures that have ever flitted bat-like across the vision of the American people.” None of this bothered Gould in the least. Money on its own does not seem to be the primary motive for his titanic financial and business ventures; he was focused on power and winning, and money was the means.

One of Gould’s favored tactics was to buy companies’ stocks at bargain basement prices, often driving the prices down himself before buying, taking control of the company, dressing them up and reselling, or fusing them with his other assets. He was the master of this with railroads. 1867 marked one of his famous adventures. He was on the board of directors of the Erie Railroad, but he did not have a controlling interest. Along with two other infamous robber barons, Jim Fisk and Daniel Drew, they were determined to have the railroad. A major problem arose when the even more infamous robber baron, Cornelius Vanderbilt, decided he wanted the railroad too. All of them bought as much stock as they could find. When it looked like Vanderbilt was going to win, as a director of the Erie, Gould had the railroad issue 50,000 new shares. Vanderbilt lost $2,000,000. The share offering was illegal, but Gould and his partners-in-crime bought the entire New York State Senate and several judges, who legalized the shenanigans. Gould and his cronies escaped to New York City with $6 million in cash stuffed in suitcases. It was a very rare defeat for Vanderbilt, and he offered a $25,00 reward for kidnapping the three villains. In the long run, Gould repaid Vanderbilt for his losses; after all, Gould had the railroad. The convoluted conflict became known as “The War of the Erie.”

In the 1870s, he turned his attention to the west and bought and combined railroads, eventually controlling 10,000 miles of railway. In his vast holdings, he employed 100,000 men. He paid the lowest possible wages, always looked for new ways to decrease the labor, cut wages whenever he could, often doubled workloads, made workers sign pledges not to join unions, and had blacklists of workers who belonged to unions.

Gould bought and consolidated nearly all the country’s lucrative telegraph companies into the Western Union Company. He built a $2 million headquarters of Western Union in New York City. It was a bomb-proof citadel where his offices provided him with protection along with his armed guards. He had made many enemies, great and small. Gould created an army of spies and agents gathering information on the weakness and strengths of companies he could exploit, ever-growing his empire.

Many considered him the most powerful person in the United States, bar none, and one of the wealthiest men in the world. Gould purchased a castle on the Hudson River for a fraction of its value. Its walls were constructed of thick white and gray marble; it had towers, embattlement, and turrets situated on 550 acres. With around-the-clock armed guards, it provided near complete security for Gould and his family. It was also where his wife and six children could escape from the condescending elite of New York City. Its greenhouses were the home to one of most extensive orchid collections in the world (his one hobby). Nearly every morning, Gould would cruise in his luxury steam yacht down the Hudson to his NYC offices.

In the 1880s, a group of wealthy people he had wounded over the years began to see some cracks forming in his monstrous organization, and they used their financial chisels to widen the cracks. They came to the brink of bringing him down when he threatened to take them all with him, and he could. They backed off and left him with some resources; that he then turned against them and gave them a pecuniary thrashing. He escaped and toned his dealings down to a more conservative approach.

Gould had long suffered from poor health and chronic pain. In 1889 he contracted tuberculosis, then called consumption, and died in 1892 at the age of 56, still having grand plans to increase his enormous fortune of 77 million, over two billion today. He had next to no interest in charity and had most of his wealth divided into six trust funds for his children. There was no public mourning after his passing. The New York Times wrote a scathing obituary deploring his career.

Some consider Jay Gould the worst of the 19th-century robber barons. This is due to his nature as both predator and scavenger. He was an economic sociopath who was concerned for no one. He would ruin an associate as readily as an enemy if it advanced his objectives. Gould did not have a morsel of concern about how his cut-throat adventures impacted the country or economy unless feigned concern also brought him gains. Gould was one of the originators of unbridled, unproductive wealth. There was no meaningful trickle-down. His attitude toward the tens of thousands of men who worked for him was that of a wicked feudal lord. His complete lack of safety precautions was the path to the greatest profits. How many hundreds might be killed or maimed was unimportant. The workers could be quickly replaced.

Yes, Jay Gould may have been the worst of the worst.

American Moguls: Cornelius Vanderbilt

Mark Wyatt McGinnis

Cornelius Vanderbilt, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark W McGinnis

Cornelius Vanderbilt


What do I care about the law? Hain’t I got the power?

Cornelius was born on Staten Island to a blunt, straightforward father who owned a small ferry business and a mother who frugally and carefully ran the household. At 11, Cornelius quit school and joined his father in the family business. When 16, he co-owned a small, two-masted boat with his father. He was so enthusiastic and hardworking that the older captains on the dock sarcastically called him “The Commodore,” a nickname that stuck with him for life. The docks were his education. Throughout his life, his grammar-less speech was heavily laced with profanity, and his handwriting was nearly illegible.

In 1813, at 19, he married his first cousin, Sophia Johnson. She would bear him 13 children in the next 25 years. Vanderbilt was a life-long misogynist, a harsh husband, a distant and ridiculing father, and a frequent user of prostitutes.

By 23, he owned a number of ferries and caught the attention of ferry entrepreneur Thomas Gibson. Gibson offered Vanderbilt a job, and seeing an opportunity, Cornelius took it. With Gibson, he received the next phase of his education. He learned how to fight monopolies, use the courts, undercut the competition, and, most importantly, run a large, complicated business.

After Gibson died, Vanderbilt began buying steamships and then steamship lines. By 1840 he had 100 ships. He jumped on President Andrew Jackson’s populism bandwagon and called his steamship line “The Peoples Line.” He was a multimillionaire in his 40’s. Vanderbilt was a meticulous planner and analyst who had a genius for building companies and then had his competitors buy him out for enormous amounts of money. Vanderbilt kept all his bookkeeping in his head as he trusted no one.

He built a large brick home in Manhattan but kept to a very frugal lifestyle, with threadbare rugs and modest furniture. He was shunned by New York society for his poor beginnings, disdain for luxury, and his crude and vulgar persona. He didn’t care. It seems his only extravagances were racehorses and prostitutes.

The California gold rush began in 1849, and there was a huge demand from people wanting to get to the American West Coast. Vanderbilt went into the oceangoing steamboat business. Instead of a Panama crossing to the Pacific, he used a Nicaragua route. The steamboats would use the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua and then a nineteen-mile stagecoach ride to the Pacific, where another ship awaited them. The laborers working on the route were driven to breaking point in tropical heat, plagued by diseases, and working 14-16 hour days. When Vanderbilt was there, he worked the same hours. He made enormous money with the passage, including $900,000 a year from the U.S. government to transport the mail. Later he let another company take over the lucrative mail route, and they paid him $56,000 a month to do so. Vanderbilt had a very large steam-powered yacht and sailed it to Europe to show off his wealth and American technology. The tour was a great success. When he returned, he found that two of his close associates had conspired against him during his absence. He wrote them a letter that said:

“Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I will not sue you, for the law takes too long. I will ruin you.” And he did.

An American adventurer, William Walker, led a military expedition that took over Nicaragua in 1856. He threatened Vanderbilt’s lucrative business. Vanderbilt sent secret agents to Costa Rica to encourage them to war against Walker. El Salvador and Honduras joined Costa Rica and defeated Walker, who was later executed by firing squad.

Profits from Vanderbilt’s vast steamboat empire were severely diminished by the Civil War. To the great acclaim of the public, he donated a massive steamship to the Union Navy that was fitted with an enormous battering ram. At the same time, he was renting ships to the government for $800 to $900 a day. It was said that some of the ships were in such bad shape and rotten that their masts could not hold a nail. He was given the Congressional Gold Medal at the end of the war.

Vanderbilt began buying railroads connected to his steamships but soon realized that the railroad was the future of transportation for freight and people. He bought up small unprofitable lines and made them profitable, eventually joining his small companies, including the larger New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. He continued to add lines until it came to adding the Erie Railroad, where he met a rare defeat that came to be called “The Erie Railroad War of 1868.” His adversaries were three other famous “robber barons,” Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, and James Frisk. In a convoluted fight to win enough stocks to control the railroad, his opponents did some illegal maneuvers that they had made legal by bribing state legislators and judges. It is said Vanderbilt lost between 5 to 7 million dollars. His adversaries scampered off with suitcases crammed with 6 million in cash, surrounded by armed guards. In a rare public show of emotion, Vanderbilt told a reporter regarding Gould, “Never kick a skunk.”

An aspect of the 19th-century railroads not frequently discussed is the conditions of the workers. On some lines, 1 in 20 workers was killed or disabled; with brakemen, the ratio was 1 in 7. There was no consideration given to worker safety as it might cut into profits for the shareholders. The pay was so paltry that in 1877 wage decreases led to the Great Railroad Strike and spread through the country. One hundred thousand railroad workers rose in sometimes violent demonstrations, sometimes burning railroad property. State national guards and militia were called up, sometimes brutally putting the protests down.

Vanderbilt’s long-suffering wife, Sophia, died in 1868. He quickly married another cousin, 45 years his junior. Before this time, Vanderbilt had no interest in philanthropy, but his very young wife seemed to loosen his purse strings a bit. His most significant legacy was one million dollars to found Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, an interesting choice considering his disdain for education. Vanderbilt went through years of ill health before his death. Speculations on when he would die became an ongoing fascination for the public, and reporters were permanent fixtures under his windows. It is said one day, not long before his dying, he got out of bed, opened a window, and shouted down, “I’m not dying!”

Vanderbilt did die in 1877 at the age of 82. The cause of the death seemed basically old age, possibly complicated by syphilis. His vast fortune was approximately 105 million dollars upon his death, about 2.8 billion today. Of this amount, he gave 95 million to his son, William. To his nine daughters, he gave $500,000 each. The daughters challenged the will because of the old man’s mental state. Since the late 1860s, Vanderbilt was involved in Spiritualism, communicating with the spirits of the dead through mediums. This practice was widespread in the late 19th and early 20th century with believers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Queen Victoria, and Thomas Edison. The sisters claimed that their brother, William, had been bringing a medium, in his pay, to the old man. The medium would conjure up a spirit that told Vanderbilt to leave his money to William. The sisters lost the case, but William, in his largess, gave them each an additional $200,000.

As were all the 19th-century robber barons, Vanderbilt was idolized by many common people. They were mesmerized by enormous wealth with swooning envy. The newspapers amplified this by trying to follow the barons’ every move and making something up when there was a lull. There were dissenters, and one of the most outspoken was Mark Twain. He expressed himself to Vanderbilt as follows:

“You seem to be the idol of only a crawling swarm of small souls, who love to glorify your most flagrant unworthiness in print or praise of your vast possessions worshippingly; or sing of your unimportant private habits and sayings and doings, as if your millions gave them dignity.”

The adoration somewhat died down in the 20th with scholarship on the many abuses of the barons and their negative impact on the country’s development. But in the 1960s, this trend was reversed, and a whitewashing of the 19th-century robber barons’ reputations began. This coincided with the obscene concentration of wealth among the elite in the last decades of the century. In the 21st century, the hoarding of wealth reaching an absurd level once again. Three multibillionaires in the United States own more than the bottom 50% of the population— 80 million people. 45% of new wealth in the country goes to the top 1%, the new robber barons.

American Moguls: John Jacob Astor

Mark Wyatt McGinnis

John Jacob Astor, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark W McGinnis

John Jacob Astor


Opium has harm. Opium is poison, undermining our customs and morality. Chinese Qing Dynasty Emperor Daoguang

Johann Jakob Astor was born in Waldorf, Germany. He was the son of a butcher and the youngest of four brothers. At 16, Johann went to England to work for his uncle, who made pianos and flutes. There he anglicized his name to John Jacob Astor.

After the American Revolutionary War ended, he sailed to Baltimore, where one of his brothers was a butcher. On the passage, the ship was frozen in the ice for two months. He struck up a friendship with a fellow passenger who sang the praises for the fur trade as a way to quick fortune.

In Baltimore, he went to work for his brother but also began buying raw pelts from upper New York, preparing them himself and selling them for large profits. This led to buying more pelts and hiring agents and processors; by 1800, he was a very wealthy man.

After the Louisiana Purchase, with praise and admiration from President Thomas Jefferson, Astor was permitted to establish the American Fur Company and the Pacific Fur Company. Astor sent a ship around Cape Horn to the mouth of the Columbia River and a land expedition to reach the same point. The land expedition found a southern pass through the Rocky Mountains, the same path thousands of white immigrants would use in the 19th century.

The ship reached the Columbia River first and set up Fort Astoria in 1811. The fort was to be a base for the fur trading business, with the furs shipped to China. The War of 1812 led the fearful occupants of the fort to sell the fort to a British fur company. When a British warship arrived to take the fort, they found it was already British. The fort was renamed Fort George.

In 1817 a law forbade non-Americans from the fur trade in the U.S. This was a huge boon for Astor. He absorbed his competitors, expanding to become the premiere fur company in America. He employed 750 agents and earned half a million dollars annually. He structured his enterprises very carefully and efficiently, more modern than other businesses of the time.

Astor himself never set an animal trap. The great majority of pelts came from American Indians. The trade goods the Indians were interested in were weapons, blankets, cookware, liquor, and more. The trade dramatically impacted the native people’s way of life and the environment. Liquor detrimentally changed the traditional social structure of some villages, European diseases ravaged the population, when animals became scarce, tribes went into other groups’ territories, and conflicts arose. Some estimates have the early beaver population of North America at 400 million; by the end of the 19th century, there were approximately 100 thousand. This slaughter made an enormous difference in waterways and flooding. Other species were equally decimated.

Astor’s shipping empire was worldwide, trading not only furs but whatever goods brought a hefty profit. One of those goods was opium. The opium trade to China was dominated by the British, who fought two wars against China in the mid-19th century in part to force the Chinese to allow British opium into the country. Astor saw the vast profits to be made and had 10 tons of Turkish opium sent to China. At the time, it was illegal to import the drug, so smaller Chinese ships would meet the large trading vessels at sea and bring it into the harbor. Chinese officials were then paid handsomely to look the other way. Addiction of the Chinese people was rampant, destroying tens of thousands people’s lives and weakening the country.

Astor also sold opium to Europe and America, where the drug was legal. He even advertised the drug for consumer purchase in newspapers. During the U.S. Civil War, 10 million opium pills and 2.8 million ounces of opium were given to the troops as the only effective painkiller available. In the later 19th century, opium became the first serious addiction problem America would suffer. The problem was caused by physicians prescribing the drug for pain and other uses. It was often used for “women’s nervous problems.” The majority of addicts were middle and upper-class women.

In 1830, Astor sold his fur company and other ventures to focus his energy on real estate, New York City in particular. He bought his friend Aaron Burr’s NYC property that Burr needed to sell quickly to get to Europe after his fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton. Astor purchased 70-acres of land and had Astor Mansion erected. He was a multi-millionaire, ready to use money to speculate. He bought land piece by piece, always looking for the bargains. He purchased land outside the city limits knowing that they would soon be in the city limits. When the Panic of 1837 hit, he bought property that people couldn’t afford to keep anymore or had been foreclosed. Astor became known as the “Landlord of Manhattan.” He had no leniency for tenants late on their rent, and had the reputation of being hard-hearted, cold, and calculating. He came to own 1/20th of New York City.

John Jacob Astor died at the age of 84. His will left money to build the Astor Library that became the great New York Library. He left funds to establish an orphanage and poorhouse in his hometown of Waldorf, Germany. Astor’s enormous fortune went to his eight children, with the bulk going to his second son, William.

Astor was a cunning capitalist and visionary in shaping his businesses. He was said to be quiet, secretive, ready for calculated risk, decisive, patient, a master of details, and shrewd. John Jacob Astor was a master of making money but had little, or no thought of how amassing his fortune would impact others, and it negatively impacted untold thousands.

American Moguls: Stephen Girard

Mark Wyatt McGinnis

Stephen Girard, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark W McGinnis

Stephen Girard


When Death comes for me, he will find me busy unless I am asleep in my bed. If I thought I was going to die tomorrow, I should plant a tree.

Stephen Girard was born in the seaport city of Bordeaux, France. His father was a port captain and a prosperous merchant. At age 8, he was at the seaside with his companions, sitting around a bonfire. One of the boys threw wet oyster shells into the fire and they exploded. A shell fragment sliced through Stephens’ eye, leaving the area severely disfigured. From that time on, the other children ridiculed and ostracized him. Later in life, this wound continued to repulse some people. It was a factor that strongly impacted how he interacted with people throughout his life and may explain the extraordinary compassion he was to show to the outcast and the sick.

When he was 12, his mother died. She bore a child nearly every year, and she was spent. His father remarried, and Stephen often quarreled with his stepmother. When he was 14, he approached his father about going to sea. His father agreed and arranged a cabin boy position for him. His father placed $3,000 of merchandise on the ship, making the cabin boy’s very unusual role as part of the venture owner.

Stephen rapidly rose to the rank of lieutenant. On the sea, he seemed to have the confidence and sense of authority he had lacked on land. With the help of his father, Stephen became captain at 23. His trading voyages took him to the West Indies, New Orleans, and New York City. His trading was very successful, and he became known and admired.

In 1776, with the British blockading colony ports, Girard was going to run the blockade with a shipment to New York when he became trapped in Delaware Bay. He decided his best chance of escaping was to go up the Delaware River to Philadelphia. He needed to hire a pilot to guide the ship up the river, but when he found one, he discovered he did not have $5.00 cash to pay the pilot. An American officer on the ship loaned him the money. They started up the river, and a British Man-of-War was in the bay within an hour. Later, he joked that a five-dollar loan started his life in Philadelphia and saved him from a British prison. American history would have been altered if that had happened.

In Philadelphia, he started a business to sell merchandise from the ship and help supply the American army. He rapidly grew to like the city, became a patriot, and a citizen of Pennsylvania. His business prospered, and he returned to the shipping business, having a ship built by a man named Lum. They became good friends, and Girard was dazzled by his beautiful 18-year-old daughter, Mary. In 1776, they were married. Eight years later, Mary gradually began showing signs of acute mental illness, possibly severe bipolar disease, with bouts of violence. Girard was devastated and for five years, tried everything possible at the time to help her with no success. In 1790 Mary was committed to an asylum. She had a suite of rooms, her own attendants, and every comfort. She became pregnant in the asylum. Girard denied paternity. When Mary had the child and was nursing it, her mental illness disappeared, according to her doctors. Girard had the child taken from her and sent to the country to be nursed. He feared the mother’s madness would be transferred to the child through the milk. Mary’s illness returned, and the baby died several months later. When Mary died at the age of 56, and by Girard’s instructions, Mary was buried beneath the lawn at the asylum and no marker set.

Girard took a series of mistresses through the rest of his life and took in three orphaned nieces and two nephews he raised. As with nearly all “men of means,” he had household slaves but never engaged in the slave trade with his ships. From 21st-century eyes, all slavery appears barbarous, which it was and is. But to Girard’s time and place, it was the norm as it had been in countless cultures since men first gathered in groups. This in no way justifies slavery. It was one of the deplorable ways human beings treated and treat one another. With his employees, he was unusually fair and tolerant. He was a well-respected businessman who gave lavishly to charities, including benevolent religious groups, though he lived as an atheist.

Philadelphia suffered a severe outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1793 that was to kill 5,000 citizens. Those with the means fled the city. Girard not only did not flee but became a hero of the tragedy. He took a mansion near a poor area of the city, converted it into a hospital, and staffed it at his expense. He did not think the sickness was contagious, and time proved him correct as mosquito bites spread it. He was against bleeding and purging the patients and instead gave them wine and lemonade. He staffed the hospital with mostly French doctors and nurses. If this were not enough, he also directly nursed some of the sickest patients. A story is told of him caring for a patient who violently vomited all over himself and Girard. Girard calmly cleaned the patient and then comforted him. After working 6-8 hours at the hospital, it was said he would take his carriage into the poor neighborhoods and drag the sickest out of their houses, put them in his carriage, and take them to his hospital. Girard had been one of the most respected businessmen in Philadelphia; he was now the most heroic. The love of the people followed him for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, his businesses flourished, and his already large fortune grew. His shipping empire grew, now trading with China and with some involvement in opium smuggling. He purchased vast areas of Pennsylvania with huge holdings of timber and coal. He bought up large areas of Philadelphia. He became one of the wealthiest men in U.S. history.

In 1811 Congress failed to renew the 1st Bank of the United States. Girard bought it and all its assets. When the War of 1812 broke out, he credited the government the incredible sum of 8 million dollars of his own money and kept the war financed and the country afloat until the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.

He had a farm on the south edge of the city where he went nearly every day doing manual labor. He said he liked to work hard daily to sleep well nightly. At 80, he was walking from his offices to his home when a horse and wagon ran him down. A wheel went over his head; cutting his face and good eye. He picked himself up and walked the rest of the way home. The wound was treated, and after several months he returned to work. But later the following year, 1831, he caught influenza that developed into pneumonia and died. His funeral procession was the largest Philadelphia had experienced.

His Will shocked many. Expectedly, he gave large amounts to charities and generously to the public schools. It also gave 6 million dollars (144 million today!) to build and support Girard College. Expecting large inheritances, his relatives, mainly in France, sued to have the Will nullified. The case was argued before the Supreme Court with the famous Daniel Webster representing the relatives. He lost.

Girard had planned the college for many years, from curriculum to design. The school was for orphan or poor one parent white boys. He instructed that no clergy be allowed on the staff or even on campus grounds. He wanted the highest moral virtues taught, not religious doctrine. He ordered a ten-foot brick wall be erected around the 45-acre campus to protect the boys from the vices of the community. When the college was completed in 1844, his remains were moved into a sarcophagus in the foyer of the Parthenon-like Founder’s Building. The Supreme Court integrated the school in 1968, and girls were allowed shortly after that.

There is conflicting information in accounts of some details of Girard’s life. But there is unanimity in the essentials, as reflected in the eulogies of his life. He was plain in appearance, he was frugal in all habits, he was a stranger to social circles, he was indifferent to political distinction, he shunned all luxury, he whole-heartedly cared for the poor, his enjoyment was in labor, and he always worked as if he had nothing.

American Moguls: Robert Morris

Robert Morris


Did Morris bankroll the Revolution, or did the Revolution bankroll him?

Born the (probably illegitimate) son of a shipping agent in Liverpool, England, he was raised by his maternal grandmother. His father immigrated to Oxford, Maryland, where he prospered in the tobacco trade. He sent for Robert to join him in 1749. Robert attended school for a year and told his father the instructor had nothing more to teach him. His father arranged an apprenticeship for him in Philadelphia with a shipping firm. Shortly thereafter, his father died in a freak accident involving a fly and a canon during a drunken celebration on one of his ships.

Robert thrived in his position in Philadelphia, and after his seven-year apprenticeship was complete, he quickly became a partner in the firm in 1757. He was a hard-drinking carouser at night, fathering at least one illegitimate child, but during the day, he was a hard-working, innovative businessman. The shipping firm traded with the Caribbean, Europe, India, and Africa (including several ventures in the slave trade) and grew to be one of the most prosperous in the colonies.

He was a capitalist even before Adam Smith coined the term. He was opposed to tariffs, taxation, and government interference in business. Morris focused on self-interest and business and believed to do otherwise was naive. By 1775 he was the wealthiest man in the American colonies.

When Britain began increasing taxation on the colonies, he became a leader in the resistance and the boycotting of British goods. As a representative to the 2nd Continental Congress, he used his shipping expertise and arranged for gunpowder and other supplies to be smuggled to the colonies. But he argued for reconciliation with the British, as he pragmatically did not think the poorly armed colonies could defeat the world’s greatest empire. While he did not support the Declaration of Independence, he endorsed and signed it once it was passed, stating, “I am not one of those politicians that run testy when my own plans are not adopted. I think it is the duty of a good citizen to follow when he cannot lead.”

Morris used his extensive knowledge of shipping to set up a trading system that exchanged colony goods for war goods. When the British attacked his ships, he commissioned and outfitted privateers to attack the British ships. Rampant inflation swept the war-poor colonies, and Morris supported price controls to halt the economic plunge. Mobs rose against the controls, forcing him to go into hiding, where the Continental army rescued him. The financial crisis continued, with some states refusing to support the war effort. The army fell into desperate straits lacking clothing, food, and wages. Ten army regiments demanded better conditions, and some threatened to mutiny.

In 1781 with the financial situation at a near breaking point, the Continental Congress realized it did not have the skills to prevent the rapidly approaching disaster. Morris was appointed the Superintendent of Finance with near total control (and no oversight) of the fledgling country’s finances. He established a private bank of wealthy investors to help finance the war. Morris created a new currency backed by his fortune that came to be known as “Morris notes.” With his unchecked power, he became the master of backroom dealings, where he was the government official and sometimes the defense contractor with no bids.

All in all, he stabilized the government enough for it to survive. Still, there was a crisis with the unpaid soldiers who nearly rose against the government. Washington managed to calm the ferment with promises of imminent money for them.

In 1783, when the peace agreement was signed with Britain, the new United States had a staggering 42 million dollar debt. The army was disbanded, but again protests and violence broke out to try to procure back wages that had never been paid.

George Washington offered Morris the Secretary of the Treasury job when the new constitutional government was being formed. Morris turned the position down and recommended conservative Alexander Hamilton for the job. Morris instead accepted a U.S. Senate seat from the state of Pennsylvania. He was not welcomed with open arms. A group of Senators accused him of war profiteering, and the first, but certainly not the last, Senate inquiry was opened. The inquiry was never completed, and a short report was drawn up that found Morris not guilty, although it was evident that he had profited from his position.

Morris left the Senate and returned to his business interests, and he did so with a passion and a vast fortune. He built a factory town, started two canal ventures, and launched silkworm and maple sugar operations. He also started building an enormous mansion for himself in Philadelphia that was to encompass a complete city block made of red brick lined with marble. His largest endeavor was in land purchases. He purchased one million acres in Pennsylvania and six million acres in the South, primarily land taken from the Indians. He was the largest landowner America has ever had. Morris was convinced that there would be a land rush in America by immigrants ready to be part of the new country, and he would make a colossal fortune by quickly selling the land. He was wrong. Instead, Morris had created an enormous real estate bubble that burst with the post-war recession and instabilities in Europe, including the French Revolution.

Morris had not only invested his fortune but also borrowed heavily. When his creditors closed in, he owed an enormous three million dollars. He retreated to his country estate but could not avoid them. He lost all his properties, his furniture was sold at auction, his incomplete mansion was stripped of its marble, and Morris was sent to debtor’s prison for three and a half years. A friend arranged a $1,500 (about $24,000 today) annual annuity for Morris’ wife, and she rented a small house where they lived.

Morris’ financial savvy, and Benjamin Franklin’s adroit diplomacy that gained French support for the war, saved the Revolution. He was one of the most important of the Founding Fathers, and he was almost entirely abandoned and shunned by those same “Fathers.”

When he died in that little rented house in 1806, he received a five-line obituary in the newspaper. There were no memorials, ceremonies, or recognition. He was simply buried in the church graveyard, and the shunning of Morris continues to this day.

It could be said that Morris rose as a capitalist, fell as a capitalist, and in the capitalist tradition, no one picked him up from that fall.