Wall Street And Social Problems
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IT is peculiarly deplorable that class distinctions should exist in this country. The whole idea is semi-barbarous in its character and unworthy of a people professing advanced civilization. It is a feeling, moreover, that a man should be ashamed to acknowledge on cool reflection, for the reason that it detracts from his own dignity as an American citizen, and deprives him in part, especially in the eyes of foreigners, of that character which is one of his greatest marks of distinction wherever he may travel. Then, too, the spirit of jealousy displayed against the East in many of the new States in the far West, because of the disparity in wealth which exists, is simply absurd. The people who cherish that animosity forget the fact that the Eastern people have had over a hundred years' start in the accumulation of wealth. The remoter new States occupy a position similar to that which young men just commencing life hold toward old men who have made their fortunes. Such starters in life should not become dissatisfied because they have to cope with powerful competitors. In assuming this attitude, they do not take into account that the older men have given three score or more years of hard work to the accumulation of wealth, and that they have the same opportunities to accomplish all that the older ones have done, providing they apply themselves to the effort with equal diligence. With the equality of opportunities in this country that most men possess, why should there be any feeling of envy simply because one part of the country has had a hundred or more years' start over others, and has become rich in comparison? England was rich, through the accretions of many centuries, before the United States came into existence. Did the people of the United States feel animosity toward the English people because they had the start of them in money-making by many generations? Take all the great fortunes in this country at the present time, - they were founded by men on the common level of all the people and without any money backing. This applies to the Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Goelets, the Mills, the Huntingtons, the Pullmans, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Havemeyers, and nearly all our other very rich men. What has been accomplished by them can be accomplished by others in the future, and there will be just as good opportunities to make money in the coming generation as there have been in the past. There is no law of primogeniture or entail in this country by which the eldest son is preferred and falls heir to the whole estate, as in England and some other countries. Here, when the head of the family dies without making a will, the property, after his debts are paid, is divided equally among his children, or among the next of kin, in the event of direct issue failing. If he makes a will, he cannot do exactly as he pleases. He cannot tie up his property longer than for the life of the survivor of two lives in existence at the time of making his will. The necessity for this restriction in the law of wills arose out of the case of the will of Mr. Thellusson, a London merchant, who lived a hundred years ago, and was possessed of a morbidly vain desire to have some one of his name very wealthy in the distant future. He died worth half a million sterling, leaving three sons and three daughters to whom he bequeathed nothing, and his property, according to the will, was to accumulate for a century. As he died in 1797, the Thellusson heir came recently into an estate which exceeds $500,000,000. Absurd as Mr. Thellusson's will was, the trusts which it created were held valid by the Court of Chancery, and the decree was affirmed in the House of Lords. Commenting on this case Chancellor Kent says, “This is the most extraordinary instance on record of calculating and unfeeling pride and vanity in a testator, disregarding the ease and comfort of his immediate descendants for the miserable satisfaction of enjoying in anticipation the wealth and aggrandizement of a distant posterity." The case gave occasion to the Statute of 39 and 40, George III., Chap. 98, prohibiting thereafter any person, by deed or will, from settling or devising real or personal property for the purpose of accumulation beyond a limited period; and it was upon this act that the New York Act, New York Revised Statutes I., Chap. 773, was founded, relating to the restriction by will of future accumulations, - a principle which holds good with slight modifications throughout the United States. It will thus be seen that real estate cannot be kept out of the channels of commerce longer than the ordinary existence of a generation, and it may be set free much sooner, as life is uncertain. Now, reflecting further on these malcontents who want to get wealthy by hops and bounds without going through the hard preliminary struggle in most cases absolutely necessary to attain the goal of this ambition, I should like to ask some young and avaricious upstarts, who are probably trying hard to make both ends meet on salaries ranging from ten to twenty-five dollars a week, if they would exchange places with some of those old and wealthy veterans who have borne the brunt of life's battle up to the present time. Would they resign their youth and the prospects of the enjoyment incident thereto, and assume the infirmities of old age and the decay that indicates proximity to the grave, for all the wealth the aged millionaires possess? A common observation very often used thoughtlessly, when a rich man happens to be the subject of discussion, is, "I wish I had his money." It seldom strikes the person who utters the wish that there is any dishonesty implied in the expression of this desire, but there is, whether the person who utters it may think so or not. The idea of stealing may be very far from that person's mind, but the remark will often bear the interpretation that the " wish is father to the thought" of theft, provided security from punishment were guaranteed. This is all wrong in a well-regulated, highly civilized, and law abiding community. Another loose observation of an analogous character is very common, especially among politicians. When people are discussing the subject of suddenly acquired wealth by a certain individual who had been poor prior to his advent in politics as a leader, perhaps some one will inquire, " Where did he get it?" This will draw out further remarks as to the only possible way in which he could get it, and some one will indignantly denounce such a corrupt state of affairs; but immediately another thoughtful individual will speak up boldly in behalf of the accused and say, "I don't blame him if he was clever enough to do it." A number of others will very likely chime in with the last speaker, and Tom, Dick, or Harry, or whoever the fortunate politician may be, is at length probably absolved by the majority of that coterie who candidly acknowledge that they would take the risks of going to state prison, if they only got the chance, for the sake of the "boodle " in question. People of this description must have formed the subject of the poetic thoughts of " rare Ben Jonson " when he wrote the following: - " He that for love of goodness hateth ill Is more crown-worthy still Than he who for sin's penalty forbears, - His heart sins, though he fears." As this style of poetry is too lofty in tone to reach the receptive faculties of the class under consideration, I shall quote another couplet, not by Ben Jonson, however, but better suited to their capacity and more to the point as a solemn warning: “He that takes what isn't his'n, When he's caught should go to prison." Regarding the evils of sectional jealousy and kindred feelings, Washington said: - "In contemplating the causes which may disturb our nation, it occurs as a matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, - Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western,- whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection." Distinctions are frequently made between "the masses and the classes," words which have a fine sound when placed in juxtaposition, and have an attractive look in headlines, but they do not exist as solid facts in the contrast intended. They do not in reality imply any definite meaning. There are no classes in this country as opposed to the masses, and we are all one mass, at least all citizens are, and that mass is composed of an aggregate of sovereign citizens of this great Republic. The name " sovereign " excludes the very idea of having anything above it. It occupies the highest possible place of political eminence. As regards distinctions, these may be acknowledged in mental, moral, and social qualifications, but not in the political status of the citizens of the United States. We are all equal before the law just in the same sense that we are "created equal," according to the language in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. This idea alone should bury in unfathomable oblivion every thought of class, as well as of money and geographical distinctions, and we should heartily adopt the motto " Each for all and all for each," and glory in the idea of one united people. Negligence of this advice was the chief cause of the Civil War. Now, I am strongly of opinion that the spirit of socialism and communism, twin relics of barbarism, have had a great deal to do in recent times with the feeling of jealousy, class distinction, and dread of the money power which we see so frequently exhibited, and which if not checked may prove deleterious to the industrial and social interests of this country. There is no true grievance for which the citizens have not ample redress through the ballot box; and when they complain that they are trampled upon by monopolies, trusts, and political bosses, the answer is, It is your own fault. The people who have votes are a hundred times stronger than all these other forces banded together, with all the money that such a powerful aggregate could command. They are competent and fully equipped to defeat the whole army of trusts, monopolies, and selfish millionaires, with the communists and anarchists at their back, if we could possibly imagine such a heterogeneous combination; for the latter elements of this supposed confederacy have no votes, as a rule, and the wealthy members only occasionally make use of their privilege of voting. Surely, this accumulation of capital is not an unmixed evil. But for capital the respectable laboring men, and even those disorganized nondescripts without classification, would be far worse off than they are. Labor is impotent without capital, and it will never be able to acquire capital so long as it listens to the disorganizers and breeders of perpetual discord. I should like to say a few more words to our Western brethren, especially the young and aspiring ones, on the subject of trying to grasp wealth too rapidly. The attempt to do so, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, ends in signal failure. Durable wealth can be acquired, as a rule, only by the method of slow and steady accretions, after the manner of constructing a coral reef. Of course there are eminent exceptions, but these are either rare instances of genius, where all ordinary rules are largely dispensed with, or of what may be regarded, for want of a better explanation, as good luck. Those who leave the regular path with such hopes will be almost sure to be disappointed, for geniuses in finance are very uncommon, and a turn of good luck may not come except at very long intervals. But young men need not despair under the impression that the chances to become wealthy are all gone. They are as good as ever. Of course competition is sharper, but the facilities for meeting it are better, and those who keep pace with the times and improve their faculties, just as the old men had to do in their time, have brilliant prospects in store. If the end is harder to attain, the means are better suited to the end; and we have the experience of all the ages to draw upon, either for the purpose of enabling us to improve on the past, or by weighing the mistakes of others to help us to avoid similar ones in the future, and to keep clear of the rocks and shoals upon which former victims of soaring ambition were wrecked. History and biography are the great charts by which we must steer our course —the philosophy that teaches by example. The trouble in the use of these instruments is that we do not benefit as much as we might by the experience of others until we apply it to our own personal action, and then it may be too late. Each must work in his own way and according to the gifts with which he is endowed; and he must proceed rationally, thoughtfully, and with premeditation. "Give thy thoughts no tongue, nor any unproportioned thought its act," says Polonius to his son in Hamlet. Commodore Vanderbilt clothed the same idea in language almost as terse, though less grammatical. "Never let nobody know what ye're goin' to do till ye do it," was one of the Commodore's pet maxims, and he often acted upon it, to the great discomfiture of his enemies and competitors, and to the building up of the Vanderbilt millions. The main objection of communists, and others of the same bent, to present conditions is on the score of the unequal distribution of wealth. I think there could be no better object lesson on this subject than that which the Vanderbilt millions afford. They have within a generation been transferred from a single owner to probably nearly a hundred possessors, either actually or in immediate prospect. There has been no tying up there. So it was with Jay Gould's hoards. They are rapidly coming under the same law of distribution, and even Paris is enjoying a part of his hard-earned gathering, when the accumulator of it all has been but a few years dead. Other parts are being divided up among workmen in various industries, while certain amounts are expended in the encouragement of art, music, and the drama. Within a few years those hundred odd millions have been wrested by the hand of death from the original owner, from the one monopolistic hand and put into the hands of dozens of liberal distributors, who are sowing them broadcast. The communists themselves could hardly do the work faster. If Gould himself left nothing to charity, his elder daughter is making up for that omission by devoting a large portion of her life work and a liberal amount of her fortune to that purpose. So "there's a divinity that shapes our ends." Gould "builded better than he knew," -for the world and for the communists also. If Commodore Vanderbilt was not a patron of letters, having no taste therefore, it must not be forgotten that he did a great thing for the Southern University by his bequest to that institution; and other Vanderbilt charities, such as the Clinic, must be taken into account in this important question of distribution. This natural method of division of property, unhampered by primogeniture, is far ahead in principle and in equity of anything that the world has ever seen. Certain socialists eulogize the Mosaic law of distribution, but according to that code the division and reversion took place only every fifty years, in the year of jubilee. Under the existing methods, which are constantly in operation, half a dozen apportionments may take place in the half century, and the diffusion is much better and more equitable. Certain theorists have suggested that the division to fill the aching void should be made during the mortal existence of the monopolists and bondholders; but the result of the experiment made in this direction by Mr. Andrew Carnegie would seem to have cast a damper on the benevolent sentiments of such philanthropists. Mr. Carnegie has been one of the best abused men in the country since he made arrangements to spend millions for the mental and moral improvement of the people. Public ingratitude is a great enemy to benevolence, and frequently closes the door against it.