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The American Peerage

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

Who Rules America? A Century of Invisible Government. By John Mc-Conaughy. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $3.00. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901. By Matthew Josephson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00.

A complete account of all those complex and varied operations which the precieux term Bumping the Boobs would be a fairly comprehensive history of the world. Ever since Abel, as you might expect of a sheepherder, was silly enough to turn his back on Cain, the Bad Men have been consistently and persistently beating up the Good Men and despoiling them of their goods and chattels. The advance of civilization is marked, not by any very notable increase in the liberty of the average man, but by the increase in ingenuity which the rapacious must display in order to keep the average man enslaved.

A thousand years ago all the villain needed was a heavy club and a brawny arm to swing it. Together these constituted divine right, and suzerainty went with them. The struggles of ten centuries have now brought us to the point at which the same sort of man, to achieve the same result, must have title deeds, stocks, bonds, debentures and other evidences of indebtedness, an enormous knowledge of the mazes of high finance, a profound knowledge of psychology, and a platoon of skillful and high-priced lawyers. Nevertheless, if he has them, he can establish himself in the position of the Scriptural centurion, saying to one go, and he goeth, and to another come, and he cometh. The idea that it is no longer possible for a modern counterpart of Pepin the Short to establish authority over the destinies and the very lives of thousands of his fellow men is, of course, arrant nonsense. Pepin never ruled as many men as J. P. Morgan rules, or Henry Ford, or John D. Rockefeller, or any one of half a dozen other great lords of money.

Yet this simple fact continues to astonish men, and even to enrage them. Among others, it enraged John McCon-aughy. Somebody did Mr. McConaughy an ill turn by suggesting to him to study American history—or maybe he evolved the idea, himself. At any rate he did study it, and his simple Irish heart was filled with an astonishment, fury, and dismay that boiled over into the book entitled “Who Rules America?”, which was published a few months after the author’s untimely death. Mr. McConaughy apparently approached his investigation filled with the idiotic sort of stuff that is crammed into the heads of American school children under the name of history. Therefore when he discovered that Hamilton’s scheme to redeem the almost worthless certificates issued to soldiers of the Revolution and pay them at par was in reality a gigantic swindling scheme, he all but went into apoplexy. The fact that if Hamilton had not lined up all the scoundrels in the country behind the new government it would certainly have collapsed, does nothing to appease Mr. McConaughy’s wrath. The fact that Hamilton was entirely aware of the nature of the scheme, and that he refused to profit by it himself, means nothing to this idealist. The scheme was rascally, and that damns it in his eyes. He is too naive to perceive that rascality has been employed, at one time or another, by practically every statesman of whom we have anything like a complete record, and that the test of a statesman is not whether he was never a scoundrel, but whether his scoundrelism was employed, on the whole, for the public good more than for his own profit.

The simplicity of this approach naturally invalidates the book as a historical treatise for any but small boys. Nevertheless, there is much entertainment to be derived from it by reason of the spectacular ferocity of the writer’s language. Needless to say, he is the predestined prey of every smooth demagogue, and, naturally enough, he finds his beau ideal of a statesman in Aaron Burr.

Matthew Josephson approaches the same phenomenon in a much more adult spirit. He is aware that this country, like every other, has been ruled by banditti from the beginning, but he isn’t particularly angry about it. His “Robber Barons” is less an exercise in polemics than an essay in natural history. He wastes no time denouncing the tigers and sharks for being tigers and sharks, but devotes his pages to a loving and exhaustive description of the life and habits of the creatures as they were exhibited in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

He is a smooth and sometimes eloquent writer as well as an industrious research worker. Therefore his book is instructive and entertaining in a high degree. His work covers the period between the hegemony of Jay Cooke and that of J. P. Morgan. It is a matter of only forty years, yet in that short time the United States of America produced an astonishing array of picturesque financial buccaneers. What other country, within a generation, has ever produced anything remotely comparable to a group including Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Daniel Drew, John W. Gates, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jim Hill, Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, E. H. Harriman, Cyrus McCormick, Philip Armour, John Garrett, Henry M. Flagler, S. V. Harkness, Elbert H. Gary, Charles M. Schwab, Henry Rogers, and William C. Whitney, not to mention Cooke and the Morgans—Junius and his son, John Pierpont?

The reason is, of course, that never before had there been a virgin continent comparable to North America to exploit, and “where the carcass is, there the eagles are gathered together.” But America produced them, and the tale of their exploits is a fantastic and incredible series of Arabian Nights adventures. Any man industrious enough to gather and set forth the facts about these astounding individuals could not fail to write a colorful book. But Mr. Josephson is more than merely an industrious chronicler—he is an artist with no small appreciation of the effects to be produced by shrewdly designed juxtaposition of contrasting and complimentary colors. Hence his book is more than merely full of color. It glows and coruscates, it is luminous.

Furthermore, he is far too intelligent to attempt to “see the onseeable, speak the onspeakable and onscrew the on-screwtable.” He has no sovereign remedy for the ill that has afflicted mankind since history began. He has no patent device guaranteed to prevent the powerful and shrewd from preying on the weak and silly. He merely reports how it has been done in the past and lets it go at that.

Yet it is far indeed from being a cynical book. After all, mankind through the ages has been advancing. Even since 1861 we have made a measurable advance. We are still in the grip of the strong and rapacious, but in order to hold us in serfdom they are today compelled to be more ingenious than Jay Cooke had to be, just as Cooke had to be much more alert than Pepin in order to maintain his power. Granting that human liberty still lies far ahead, examination of this one book is enough to show that it is conceivable that the time may come when the task of holding the masses of men in subjection may become too complex for the mind of any individual to encompass, and the average man will emerge into relative freedom.

This eventuality may be of a remoteness comparable to the theoretical release of the energy of the atom; but at any rate it furnishes the basis for endless fascinating speculation.


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