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The Tired Business Man

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

A History of the Business Man. By Miriam Beard. New York: The Mac-m.illan Company. $5.00. The Folklore of Capitalism. By Thurman Arnold. New Haven: Yale University Press. $3.00.

The business man (and within that term is the banker, as the English recognize by law as well as in literature) has had to put up with a good deal of late years—fulsome flattery not so long ago and indiscriminate abuse today. The contrast will impress anyone who listens in on a Fireside Chat and then visits a chain-store pharmacy. There on the “remainder counter” where dead books are sold, one can pick up for as little as thirty-five cents (three assorted books for one dollar) an effusion like “Business as a Civilizing Agency,” circa 1927. I do not know what became of the undistributed copies of Mr. Hoover’s first book of essays, whereof “Service” was the keynote, nor have I a copy of the speech which President Woodrow Wilson made at the dedication of the Woolworth Building, that “cathedral of commerce,” as he called it. These incunabula are for the collector, of course, just as presidential outgivings of today will have a place among the curios of tomorrow. The average person, therefore, is apt to feel that the truth is not to be found in any of these corners, but the realist who happens also to have a sense of humour will see the chance of a lifetime.

These thoughts are suggested by two recent books which deal with the business man as an institution of history or as a creature of folklore, a tribal god, really. The latter is the idea of Mr. Thurman Arnold, who sets it forth in “The Folklore of Capitalism.” The other writer, Miss Miriam Beard, has presented “A History of the Business Man,” and such a book, one feels, should stick to the record.

It is noteworthy that both writers share a basic idea with regard to the merchant and to capitalism, which is his creation. How, asks Mr. Arnold, “could the wisest man in the twilight of the Middle Ages have predicted the philosophy which glorified trade and made human greed the fountain of justice and morals?” That is a very profound question, of course, and it is the business of Miss Beard, as a historian, to say whether the question is really presented by the materials she has examined. Her answer is plain enough, in view of what she says about the business man:

He has favoured peace and war, unity and chaos, according to the immediate prospects of profit. Other men, warriors and rulers, may have sought gold more greedily than he, but they could at least pretend to other ends, whereas he was never able to work up a similar, sustained hocus pocus about his activities, or hold up even an illusory goal. He had no wohin, no whither, no discoverable ultimate purpose.

Now that is pretty strong language, and it makes one suspect that what is offered as a chronicle is really a thesis. Mr. Arnold, of course, does not pretend to be writing history at all. On the contrary, this most amusing of writers has chosen to present a fantasy. But the two books together give us the sort of product that could have come from a single writer instead of two who are so widely separated, if that writer had been gifted with the ambidexterity of the Elizabethans. On the one hand we have a historical play, and on the other “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And inasmuch as every dramatist is a Manichean, and cannot get going unless he lines up his two forces, the hero who wills and the demon who denies, it is not surprising that both writers portray the business man as engaged in a struggle with an opponent who fails to appreciate his sterling worth. That, Miss Beard says, is a lesson of history; of such stuff, according to Mr. Arnold, are our dreams made—that is, our beliefs as to the nature of the capitalistic structure.

According to Miss Beard, the enemy was agrarianism; and the battle between that force and the influences of mercantilism was so vast that at one time the terrain was nothing less than the world itself—or at least there were many who regarded the Roman Empire as the world. Advancing that idea, Miss Beard may be described as writing history after a grand manner that has nearly been forgotten. As it is in such cases, however, the proposition is quite simple, and the deduction is provocative. Rome, says this historian, was always agrarian at heart, whereas business as such came from the East, and so the Roman conquests, she claims, stamped upon the business man “a seal of inferiority” from which he has never recovered. Not only did Alexandria, Corinth, and the neo-Greek Empire of the Mediterranean bend to the legions, but there was the sort of empire that Carthage signified. When that city fell, says Miss Beard, the pride of the merchant “was lost with it,” and she affirms, therefore, that “the Battle of Zama ended for all time his chance to rule the earth.”

This, I am sure, will add to the repertoire of the New Deal and its Scipios of the loudspeaker. One can visualize, perhaps, the last leader of the Liberty League taking poison as Hannibal did after his hopes vanished with the affair of Zama. But of course the tragedy inherent in this historical drama needs some kind of relief; and the reader will find it, fortunately, in the current production of Mr. Arnold. This gentleman affirms that the business man fills a very useful role as our national hero. As every nation, every tribe, of course, must have an idol of that sort, “Let me,” Mr. Arnold says in effect, “designate the heroes of a nation and I care not who writes its history.” Inasmuch as the merchant is always an individualist, acting for himself alone, the result is an article of our old-fashioned creed, “the rule of law above men,” which is symbolized by the national Constitution. But as there must be a dragon for this Siegfried, the national Devil, with whom it is the mission of our hero to wrestle at every opportunity, is Governmental Interference with Business. From that to Big Business is but a step; but the result is that all the average man owns is a car, and he does not understand how it works. The rest of his estate, if he is fortunate enough to have any, is composed of pieces of paper which, in the shape of shares of stock, bonds, or bank deposits, constitute demands upon various aggregations of capital. It is these central organizations, called corporations, which have absorbed most of our hero worship. We personify them, and give them the same rights as are enjoyed by a human being.

When I say “we” in the above connection, I am putting myself in the class which, according to Mr. Arnold, plays the part of an angelic choir in the never-ending contest between good and evil—between our hero, the business man, and the demon of government interference. There is, then, on the national stage, the “thinking man,” who, according to Mr. Arnold, really does not think at all, but gets a lot of credit for it, just the same. To be a “thinking man” does not mean that one must arrive at the same conclusion that is reached by all others of the species. The real test of the “thinking man” lies in his inability to see things as they really are; and when you shut up in one room a lot of people of that class, you will have a company that may not be able to get up a friendly poker game, and yet, in a true sense, the crowd will be congenial. That is why Mr. Arnold presents us with a list which contains such strangely selected creatures as Dorothy Thompson, Walter Lippmann, Earl Browder, and Norman Thomas. The trouble with them all, according to him, is that they will not speak in the language of analysis.

And yet, of course, we are getting what we wanted. So do other people, and that explains, as Mr. Arnold thinks, the reason why we cannot understand Hitler or Stalin. Neither do the Germans or the Russians; but as to those bizarre creatures, let us remember, says our teacher, that their desires are really satisfied. Thus the hero of the German is the soldier, who toils not save in the exercise of arms; but Hitler knows how to place each German just where he will do the most good, and at the same time let him play soldier. Hence every third man wears a uniform, and hence, crowning absurdity of all, the Labor Battalions.

It is a far cry from the business man to such types as the Russians, the Nazis, or our Communists, but it is Mr. Arnold’s fault that we got out on this limb; and, indeed, I do not think that the historian, Miss Beard, has done much better by us. Mr. Arnold took us into the danger zone through sheer deviltry; but he was not a certified guide, as a writer of history is supposed to be. Of course, the more imaginative a historian is, the better, in so far as the conclusions can show justification in the facts. But the trouble with Miss Beard’s history of the business man is that while she has written brilliantly, and has had a great many facts at her command, there are many others which she has passed


Her greatest difficulty is in the effort to isolate the merchant as one who is moved solely by “the profit motive,” to use a New Deal term. In the passage I have previously quoted, she says that “the immediate prospects of profit” are always in the business man’s eye; and that while others may have been more greedy than he, they at least professed other ends. Well, now, the desire to be rich, or at least to make a living, has been shared through the ages by so many who could not be classed as bankers or merchants, as to make impossible any such line of demarcation as Miss Beard tries to draw.

Examples, modern as well as ancient, are readily available. Thus war itself was a system of legalized pillage; and in the Middle Ages the system of ransoming prisoners was so well established that out of it grew, as some have thought, the modern systems of banking and life insurance. If Miss Beard had not been obsessed with the Medicis and the Fug-gers, she would probably have met such a fifteenth-century figure as Sir John Fastolf, who became so wealthy by means of this traffic that he was able to make quite a handsome loan to the Duke of York, secured by a pledge of family jewels. Also, she might have spared a glance at the Scotch, who fell into the habit of furnishing lawyers, judges, and divines for English use only after border warfare became obsolete.

And what of the investor or the speculator? He, of course, differs from the merchant in a certain degree of daring. But as for greed, as for the “profit motive,” I cannot distinguish between the man who is active in the market place and the investor who hides behind his coat tails, yet is just as avaricious. I do not see, at least, how one can carry the merchant through the ages, as Miss Beard had done, and overlook the investor, who also has played his part in every period.

To illustrate this, I may mention that in my time at the bar, there was a type of broker who made his money by betting against his customers, although they did not know it —that is, he would take an order to buy shares on margin, but would never execute it, in the hope that the market would go down. We called it a “bucket shop” in the simple days before there was an S. E. C. Well, every time a bucket shop operator failed (and they always failed, of course, upon a rising market), the bankruptcy court, and learned counsel therein engaged, would get a cross section of American life; because on the broker’s books would be the queerest sort of customers—actresses, professors, clergymen, butlers, and the like. These people had wanted to make money, and this was the only way of making it that occurred to them; but surely they were merchants at heart, just like the broker himself. In earlier days there was a continental institution which was known as the partnership in commendam, the general partner taking the risk of losses as well as his share of the gains, and the other partner being bound only for the special amount of capital he had agreed to contribute to the venture. Thus the arrangement enabled people to put money into trade who did not want to share in its hazards; but these clergymen and squires of early centuries were out to make money. The same is to be said of that later institution, the business corporation, which was nothing but a protective device for those “noblemen, gentlemen and persons of quality, no ways brought up to trade or merchandise,” who nevertheless “did oftentimes put great stocks of money into the East India Company, or Guiney Company, or the fishing trade,” as is unctuously recited by an English statute of the seventeenth century.

If a critic, indeed, wanted to be as sharp as Miss Beard has been with regard to the sacred Huguenots and their posterity (in which respect she has not even spared certain families of Charleston, South Carolina), he could mention other examples of the fact that the profit motive is not absent from many of us, as has been shown in the various upheavals that attend history. Put a Marshal Soult in Spain and you will end up with an art dealer, just as many a lower-middle-class family of England rose to prominence through the loot of Church property. The very institution which suffered at their hands, being well acquainted with the frailties of humanity, knew quite well that one could be a merchant at heart although attached to a holy following. The Church puts it in a few words, when, in one of the nocturns of Holy Week, she describes Judas as a most wicked merchant (mercator pessimus), although Iscariot figured in but one business transaction, having theretofore acted only as the treasurer of a Mission.

But even if the merchant be viewed apart from his entourage, and if we drop all references to the profit motive, the business man, I think, has played a much greater part upon the stage than Miss Beard allows him. This is known, at least, to the student of the law and of legal history, because he is aware of the glamour that ever attaches to commerce and all things connected with the movement of goods and credits. Even today there is hardly a ship at sea that does not carry cargo, and thus the Queen Mary is an argosy. As for history, there was not merely the Hanseatic League, but there was also that mysterious river of credit which, flowing from the wounds of the old Empire, acted as an elixir in making new imperia where formerly there had been barbarous peoples. The Law Merchant alone, I submit, has in it sufficient of romance and the poetry of action to lift the observer above the level which Miss Beard chose for her imaginary personage. And therefore, it being impossible to isolate the business man, he deserves a treatment that befits his station. He may be handled solemnly or after the Rabelaisian fashion, but there is nothing in between.

In choosing the Rabelaisian as a method of handling the business man and his by-product, capitalism, Mr. Thurman Arnold has acted within his rights. Mr. Arnold is so well known in my own profession, particularly in the teaching branch of it, that I feel embarrassed in introducing him. When he is serious, Mr. Arnold is often destructive, but he never speaks save from the standpoint of the scholar. But he has another side, in which respect he reminds one of St. Thomas More. That orthodox man wrote “Utopia,” wherein he favoured divorce; but as Chesterton said, it is silly to think that More’s only joke was uttered on the day of his execution, and so we should allow him such light moments as “Utopia” represents. That, I feel, is to be said of Mr. Arnold. He can be quite serious, and then we should take him seriously, but he also has his lighter moods, and when we find him in one, it is a mistake for the reader to classify. Let the Law Reviews do that; but as for myself I will say only that Mr. Arnold nearly kills me; I believe all he says as he goes along; and at the end I do not believe a word of what he has said, but I have nearly died of laughter meanwhile.

In any event, I cannot understand just what Mr. Arnold or Miss Beard wants us to do about the business man and capitalism. As has been wisely said, it really does no good to call a spade a spade, because, when everyone else begins to do the like, then the spade will become an Institution, spade worship will begin, and the irreverent will want to use the term shovel. And, that being so, is it not better to take things as they are? That is what neither of these authors wanted to do, and the result is a history of something that never did really exist as such, and a most amusing effort to make us realize that nothing of the sort ought to exist. A reader who has been carried that far needs a rest, not because the show lacked entertainment, but because one cannot take in too many night clubs on a brief vacation.


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