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Business Bourbons

ISSUE:  Spring 1928

“No well-born man,” remarked the cultivated elderly gentleman, a stockholder who had just issued, rather puzzled, from his first session with the president of one of our great corporations, “was ever so jealous of his dignity as all that!”

Whether the surmise of an obscure origin was correct in this case or not, not a few of our business leaders assume imperious views primarily, no doubt, for the reason that they never feel quite sure of themselves in the exalted places to which their acquisitive or other special aptitudes have brought them. The most formidable business man of my acquaintance, one whose subordinates must fairly crawl into and back out of his presence, started life in a shanty beside a New England railroad track and began his business career by rubbing down livery, horses. We find, however, too many examples of unbridled arrogance, to say nothing of downright ruffianism when their business ways or opinions are called into question, among representatives of our great business families—some of them now in the second or third, even fourth generation—men who have enjoyed social consideration from birth, to be able to attribute this type of behavior wholly, or even very largely, to any secret sense of social inferiority.

Is it not, rather, that our great men of business and finance are under too small compulsion to be pleasing to make much progress in this very special art? Contrast the implacable joyless glance—that “steel” face, hall-mark of American business success all over the world ~ the indomitable bearing of our typical business Bourbon—not of Babbitt, mind you, but of Babbitt’s big brother—with the kindly cheerful looks, the unpretentious demeanor of the kings of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England, Belgium, Italy, of the late Czar, even of the king of Spain. Stripped of his regalia, separated from his entourage, almost any of the latter might pass for an amiable professor. The only royal monarch of our own day who bears, or bore, any resemblance in physiognomy, not to mention psychology, to our business kings, is the one crumpled in the twilight of Doom.

Progress in pretty manners on the part of our business Bourbons has, without doubt, been retarded for the reason, among others, that for the last decade or so at least they have not been subjected to the curative effects of laughter at their assumptions. Time was, even in this country, that a certain stigma attached to fortunes made in trade. Our “leading” families were descended from professional men or land owners. I recall a dowager in the Southern city where I grew up remarking in amused scorn of a local magnate, inclined to strut, “And, my dear, he made his money in—crackers!” Today a man may make his money in roach exterminator, so long as he makes enough of it, without any gaiety at his expense, whatever his behavior. Babbitt, to be sure, has been laughed at till he has begun to laugh at himself. By the same token his reform is assured and a reaction has set in in his favor. But baiting a simple noisy fellow whose worst fault is crudeness was, after all, about as rare sport, from the standpoint of risk, as shooting into a prairie-dog village. To attack the sacred citadels of big business, poke fun at the less attractive tendencies in those master business builders who pull the strings to which Babbitt is attached, is a vastly different affair. A man whose income approximates a million, or even a hundred thousand, in an age of unparalleled money worship, can not, to start with, be touched by ridicule. He is above and beyond all criticism save of the most guarded, highly qualified, and urbane variety. The average man feels to-day that it is safer to laugh at God than at a fellow mortal who wields financial power.

It is not only the average man, however, that holds the new gods in the same superstitious awe as did his father the old. All classes prostrate themselves. We lack, of course, in this country, a Dean Inge. We have no man wearing the livery of Christ who has ever come out quite so boldly on the side of the money barons as the Dean in England’s late crisis, when he defended them with blasting strokes against those “incorrigible sentimentalists” (the Dean’s words) who were laboring, as they, have been laboring for generations, that England’s children may wear ribbons in their hair and pretty frocks, instead of being turned into prematurely-aged beasts of burden. We have no such learned and able theologian to defend the doctrine of privilege, none who can scold his fellow parsons with such telling fury, should they presume to suggest the application of Christian principles to an industrial problem when it merges into a national problem. But this is not to deny that we have, in America, highly talented ecclesiastics, men who are able to juggle the teachings of the lowly Galilean into complete conformity with the most monstrous greed of powerful parishioners. We have those bishops, so acceptable to Bourbon households—at the farthest possible remove from Gantrys—socially finished products, imposing men who head the dinner talk with sonorous and devastating comments on pink socialists and pacifists, who can prop a host with comforting texts tossed off as casually as a cocktail. . . . “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” . . . more abundant life for Bourbons already oozing with abundance. And we have—a national speciality, indeed— those jovial divines to be found, as business requires, on the payrolls of our large corporations, who thunder through megaphones their “talks to workmen” that, liberally spiced with profanity, are counted on to allay discontent and aid production. A priest or a cardinal, a clergyman, a rabbi, has from time to time fought in the face of mockery and derision for justice in the field of American industry. The Federal Council of Churches took its notable stand in the matter of steel. But taking it all in all, our religious leaders have been, as one of them lately admitted, “discreetly mute.”

Nor have our colleges and universities lagged far behind in helping to maintain the business Bourbons in constant good odor with themselves. I do not allude to the feverish rivalry among our universities to confer LL. D.’s on business kings, but to their feverish anxiety to rid themselves of any faculty member whose teaching is suspected of being subversive of sound business doctrine. Not a university, not a little jerk-water college in the land, but has had a sight of the big business stick. Sanctioned speculation on the perfectability, no less than the perfection, of the existing order, and courses on business ethics; or a big endowment. They can take their choice. And they’ve taken it. Hardly a Bourbon of any real business importance but has a suave and serviceable university president numbered among his chief henchmen and hangers-on. Is it singular, really, that our business dictators have come to take themselves so seriously, to look upon their business opinions as inviolable, their business conduct as sanctified?

They have apologists, moreover, in every field. Most of our business Bourbons are not men of ready words. The fact does them no discredit. Their gifts are in other lines, as their training has been. But what need have they, in any event, of personal utterance, when they have at their command biographers to paint them as blameless as Saint Francis of Assisi; disarming and plausible defenders at every point; scathing critics of “idealists,” “humanitarians,” “uplifters,”—of “meddlers” in general with Bourbon policies; shrill voices to proclaim that whoever examines critically the dicta of our business overlords is “half-baked”; when there are organs—their number is legion—to instruct the plain people, as well as to preserve our business Bourbons in their quaint Bourbon conceit, that only the best business minds are capable of understanding business or of directing, indeed, the destinies of the nation? Weekly, daily, it is broadcast into millions of American homes that the big men in America are the business men, and that all other men may consider themselves by comparison more or less well-meaning failures. “Big Business knows best”— this is the pap, sweetened and flavored to slip down easily, on which we are all, consciously or unconsciously, being nourished, as certainly as were the German masses on militaristic provender for decades prior to the Great War. As a man feeds—

And the last to protest will be our erstwhile liberals. Under the specious plea of “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” our American liberals—all but a handful—have lain down on their job. Judging from the evidence, and speaking in the vernacular, they were unable to stand the gaff. However successfully religious appeal may have been employed to further American business ends, the fact remains that the worst blight a man may have upon him in this country at the present time, as for several years past, is to be known, especially among his business associates, as a bona-fide idealist. From Maine to the Gulf, East, West —the whole United States has been innoculated with the doctrine that business must not be mixed with idealism. Even our still half-bucolic Southern business centres have had their shot of this powerful and insidious serum. Not long ago, on a business trip, I called at the chamber of commerce in one of our small Southern towns. On leaving, the secretary, a grave old-fashioned man, not wanting me, apparently, to think them behind the times, gave me this bit of gratuitous information, “We’re not interested in ‘welfare,’ ‘betterment’—that sort of thing. This chamber promotes only cold-blooded, hard-boiled business propositions.” He pronounced cold-blooded and hard-boiled with naive unction. Such an emphasis, indeed such a speech, twenty, or even ten years ago, coming from a Southerner of obviously gentle antecedents, would have been unthinkable.

So long ago as Roosevelt’s day, however, the word “idealist” connoted something so distasteful to this business nation, that, to take some of the curse off of it, Roosevelt invented the term “practical idealist,” applying it to himself and to others frankly concerned with the common weal. Since Roosevelt, the word has made immense progress in gathering to itself odious significations. To-day, it is in such utter disrepute that even the prefix “practical” will not gain it respect in the best business circles. Our business Bourbons, to speak plainly, wear the charge of being cold-blooded, with all its implications of ruthlessness and greed, as a badge of honor. They display it more proudly than French patriots their ubiquitous little buttons and ribbons. It is, in fact, the highest decoration big business bestows on its loyal adherents, the supreme citation.


This is far from asserting, however, that our business Bourbons have no standards. I remember hearing a great corporation leader arraign a prominent man in public life because, he asserted, the man in question was not honest. No one would charge, I suppose, that traction and textile kings are any less honest, man for man, than green grocers and butchers. It is, none the less, a trifle piquant, in time of unprecedented corporate rapacity, and corporate evasion of law, when a great corporation leader talks of honesty and honest men. And there is nothing of which he talks with apparently greater inner conviction. Dishonesty, as you listen, becomes the sin against the Holy Ghost. Yet he may have just finished conferring with counsel “hired” (according to the now classic business example) to tell him “how to do” what he “wants to do.” Nor is he actually conscious, in all probability, of inconsistency, any more than is the matron who smuggles Paradise aigrettes and pearls into the port of New York, then self-righteously discharges a maid for pilfering. There is honesty and honesty. There are codes and codes. Your true Bourbon may be trusted in a thousand punctilious personal matters, if not always with the laws, the resources, and the future of his country. Furthermore, if he has grasped hotly with one hand, as often as not it is only to bestow nobly with the other.

In any case, there is not the remotest chance that he will ever be called upon to contemplate his own inconsistency. Nobody—unless in a law-suit—ever seriously challenges a business Bourbon’s position on any vital issue. At most he is subjected to a little playful banter, as when ex-Speaker Tom Reed used to twit Judge Gary with, “How’s the ‘good trust’ this morning?” though seldom do liberties with our great business leaders go this far, and it is on record that the Judge, celebrated for his affability, was always very sober in the face of levity that touched big business fundamentals.

From the moment a man is perceived to be a power in the business world he is removed from reality. This is particularly true if he has become fabulously rich and developed with the growth of his power more and more autocratic behavior. The president of an internationally known corporation was at variance with one of his high executives on an important business policy, and although the associate was an expert in the line involved, the president overrode the protests he offered. When the result was a loss, the president summoned his associate and asked with considerable heat why he had not prevented any such ruinous policy being carried out. “Why, I did protest!” replied the astonished executive. “Did you?” exclaimed the president, equally astonished, “I don’t remember it. Well, you ought to have protested more vigorously. You ought to have stood up on your hind legs and roared!” Few men will run the risk, however, of roaring at a business dictator. They are more apt to coo as gently as any sucking dove whenever they find themselves within his purlieus. In the corporation referred to, another executive confided to me, “For twenty years no one has told the president anything they thought might be unpleasing.” Men so set apart, so spared the jostling that ordinary mortals receive, can hardly fail of a distorted view of things.

The drugged atmosphere which our business dictators breathe is the more serious in its effect for the reason that business life, in particular big business life, is, at best, narrowing. Professors, always suspects, from the business point of view, are at present in high disrepute with the business world, some of their number having imputed less than supernal wisdom in one thing and another to big business leadership. They are charged by big business spokesmen with being utterly incompetent to pass judgment on such national, international, or purely business affairs as big business undertakes to direct, because of the professors’ “narrow” outlook, product of their “cloistered” life. The cloistered life is too pure a poetic fancy to cavil at, but when it comes to limitations in the professors’ outlook, it can hardly be overlooked that the orthodox big business point of view is conditioned as strictly by a social structure favorable to Bourbon interests as the cosmography of an inhabitant of Dayton, Tennessee, by, a literal interpretation of Genesis.

As a case in point, a professional man of my acquaintance who had always been a social favorite returned a few months ago from a protracted stay in Europe. When he refused, in the light of his own knowledge of Italy, to join the business and social leaders of his native city in their worship of Mussolini, his dinner invitations suddenly fell off to zero. Although this man is of Mayflower stock, he is now called un-American and has become as unpopular with his old associates as if he had defended Debs or praised Jane Addams. “It would be extremely amusing,” he said, in telling of the situation, “if it were not almost tragic that things have come, in this country, to such a pass!”

Nor will the business Bourbons’ reading do much to broaden their horizon. Their taste may in some instances run to first editions or the classics, but in respect to contemporary affairs, they rarely follow such sagacious counsel, if indeed it is ever proffered them, as Bradlaugh, the English radical, urged upon his political disciples, “Confine your reading to the organs of the opposition.” Who has ever seen “The Nation,” for example, or “The New Statesman” in a business Bourbon’s office or home? Incidentally, I may mention a young man who was turned down for the job of under-secretary of a chamber of commerce, because he admitted, under an artful examination, that he read “The New Republic.” I have the Chamber’s word for the fact. The young man is still wondering why he failed to qualify. The business Bourbon himself, accustomed to having everyone in business jump at the crook of his finger, and to equal servility in society, can not sit still for exasperation when he comes across, accidentally, some piece of writing that flouts his cherished Bourbon ideas.

In society, the defect in his situation is, that he selects his associates. People of no importance have their social acquaintances to some extent thrust upon them and must often listen to opinions unflattering to their own. Our great men of business and finance, surrounded by those that echo and applaud every sentiment they express, may indeed, in their years of greatest vigor, despise those natural-born flunkies that attach themselves to the rich and powerful as barnacles to a ship’s bottom. They may see through the sycophants that fawn upon them for favors that men with yachts and private cars, castles in Scotland, chateaux in France, can always bestow. But they become in time so accustomed to a chorus forever chanting their benefits and graces that they can not do without it. They become anaesthetized to ordinary flattery, must have fresh and ever more adroit adorers. Personal friends of Mr. Carnegie have told me that while, in his prime, no man had greater contempt for time-servers, the most nauseating trucklers gained access to his age. Anyone who has studied at close range the type of men who dominate American business must feel that unless they can free themselves from their cramped situation, and are willing to invite—as they now very generally resist—contact with men of diverse views, they are almost hopelessly doomed to a more or less feudal perspective.

Of course, if government of the people, by the people, and for the people has been given up as a fizzle in this country, such an outlook on the part of our business leaders is entirely in order. One of our ex-ambassadors dismisses parliamentary government with a gesture. People are weary of it, he says. We are faced, in that event, with one of two alternatives—hereditary transmission of power, or a dictatorship. Signs point rather strongly, it must be admitted, to a dictatorship, not in some vaguely visioned future, but as a fait accompli. But there are still those among us who cling to the old idea of the sovereignty of the people. It was one of these, a woman and an octogenarian, always keenly interested in current affairs, who recently, commented, “It is easy to understand how preachers and college presidents have been disciplined by big business, and how the lesser business world has been whipped into line, but what do our business leaders’ wives think about all this? Surely they have not been rendered supine through any unholy fears!”


No class of women, it must be admitted, ever stood in less awe of their husbands or were more prone to form independent judgments. But is there any subject on which the alert, well-educated, otherwise well-informed American woman thinks less than she does on business? While it is increasingly difficult to generalize on American women, as they run less true to type than do American men, yet I may state without fear of contradiction that the average wife of the American business leader can no more interpret the business laws operating all around her, affecting every province of the national life, than she can translate the writings of ancient Yucatan. Here is a field in which her opinions, so far as she has any, are derived entirely from her husband. We become, for example, fully, conscious of the glorification of Mussolini by successful American business men through the reflex magnified image of the Duce that the wives of these men have made unto themselves. If her husband is a stand-pat, she is more so. If he is unsympathetic with the aspirations of labor, however understanding she may be in other directions, she condemns labor drastically whenever opportunity, offers, or on the other hand, under pressure, repeats with increased fervor her husband’s standardized Bourbon phrase in self-justification, “I have nothing against the workmen. It is their leaders—those fellows!”

But if she believes that all labor leaders are rascals as certainly as that business overlords can do no wrong, she admits her ignorance of business as a whole and glories in her ignorance. It is the chivalrous American tradition that a successful business man’s wife must be protected from all knowledge of that sweating and sweated world in which he himself lives and moves and has his being. The infiltration of this idea into American family life has resulted in the American woman’s conviction that a husband who seeks, in time of stress, to have her understand his problems, is a selfish brute. “My husband never brings home his business, but of course I shouldn’t allow it!” is a refrain, with slight variations, that we have all heard countless times and that has led to the conjecture whether, if American husbands should think somewhat less about business, and American wives somewhat more, we might not have a generally improved state of affairs.

It is not only that the wives of our business leaders are ignorant of business and admit that they are; they desire to remain so. A contemporary of my own, a college graduate whose husband is a man of large business interests, protested in my hearing the other day against the present practise of what she called the better magazines publishing articles relating to business. “Not that I read them,” she concluded, “the very word ‘business’ bores me to extinction!”

A still more significant comment was an indignant one I heard not long since from a wealthy, philanthropic, and influential American woman in regard to a personal acquaintance whose name was appearing on the front page of the daily press as the result of his having become involved in a national business scandal. “Of course I don’t believe Mr. X is guilty! Why, we know him—well! He’s the most charming man.” One of theirs—that settled the gentleman’s innocence.

It is altogether possible, with our sharp falling away, in this country, from the ideals of our founders and earlier leaders, that even those American mothers, once held up to ridicule for their simple lay, I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier, will soon be practising one more in harmony with the new national ideals, I raised my boy to die for oil, if need be;—with rubber, lumber, or any commodity you choose, substituted as the national exigency may dictate.

As for women in business, they have been there too short a time and have been thus far too fully occupied with personal survival and progress to demonstrate whether big business is, or is not, a sphere susceptible to woman’s influence in the finer sense.


A more immediate hope for any leavening of the Bourbon spirit in business is from insurgents within the Bourbon group.

The business Bourbons’ children are far less easy to hoodwink than the business Bourbons’ wives. For one thing, Bourbon children are reading opposition literature, if iheir fathers and mothers are not. They, are simply lapping it up. I was struck with the sober talk of a young man in the Middle West, not over twenty-three, who recently came into a large fortune and succeeded to heavy business responsibilities. “I admired my grandfather” (the founder of the family fortune) “and had the highest respect for my father personally,” he said, “but I hope to God I’ll never develop some of the business ideas they had!”

The familiar story—often quoted as a horrible example of what the higher education may do to women—of the Vassar graduate who undertook to reorganize her father’s factories along humanitarian lines, may be apocryphal, but there is more than one indication that a new spirit is stirring in the more thoughtful of our rich American youth— not the old complacent idea of riches as a trust and a chance to play Lady or Lord Bountiful, but a persistent inner searching as to whether these grateful roles are not played, in the main, at too high a cost to somebody.

Many of the younger representatives of big business, men in early middle life, are distinctly out of tune, as hardly needs pointing out, with the spirit that prevails in the higher business world. It is from these younger men that the suggestion — impious to their elders — has come, that the mental hygiene of our big business leaders needs looking into;—that here, in fact, is a behaviour problem with incalculably important bearings, industrial and social. But the real rulers of big business, speaking broadly, are men from fifty to seventy, and back of them is a ghostly but powerful phalanx; for the hand of dead leadership is still heavy on American business.

Perhaps all we should ask, at present, of our business Bourbons, considering their business inheritance and their circumscribed existence, is that they should be a little less insistent on the divine right of big business to be immune from criticism; that the voice of big business should be a little less sanctimonious when it talks of moral responsibility in connection with business manoeuvres; and that they should look a little less solemn. Too often business Bourbons’ visages lack that shining as of an inner sweetness and light, from which, nevertheless, we venture to hope they are not cut off.


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