MORGAN: American Financier

MORGAN: American Financier – Review

Robert Weissman

MORGAN: American Financier by Jean Strouse Random House, $34.95

The prospect that in a hundred years’ time another Jean Strouse may write a book called Gates must put a huge smile on the face of the nation’s leading contemporary Robber Baron.

Strouse’s extraordinarily detailed narrative of Morgan’s life contains one overriding theme: Throughout his career, J.P. Morgan operated with the firm conviction that what he was doing was in the best interest of America. To be sure, Strouse explains that Morgan sought to make money, but she emphasizes that he always acted to advance his class’ interests, which he viewed as identical with the nation’s.

“Morgan himself had been `unchangeably pledged’ to what he regarded as `efforts for the public welfare’–supplying capital to U.S. markets–all his professional life,” writes Strouse in one illustrative passage. Morgan was convinced that “the country’s economic welfare was in the hands of his own generations leading financiers, and that he had a mandate to consolidate control of its industrial and capital resources.”

This is an important conclusion, and one that certainly merits inclusion in a Morgan biography, but it is not sufficiently insightful, interesting, or significant to be the organizing theme of a book of this ambition. After all, virtually every person, and especially those in power, believes they are doing the right thing–and is capable of spinning justifying tales to rationalize, to others and to themselves, activities that others judge harshly.

Throughout his career, Morgan was the target of serious, hard-hitting, and sophisticated criticism from both Populists and Progressives. They charged Morgan and the empire over which he ruled with political corruption, violation of antitrust proscriptions, price gouging, and other abuses of economic power to advance narrow Wall Street aims at the expense of the broader public interest. Strouse acknowledges these charges, but she never fully explains them.

It should be noted, however, that Strouse includes much anecdotal information supporting some of the popular criticism of the Robber Barons and the Money Trust. She provides clear evidence of Morgan engaging in bribery to forestall railroad and other regulations in Minnesota, for example. Morgan also made massive campaign contributions–$150,000 just to Roosevelt in 1904. And especially towards the end of his career, Strouse recounts, Morgan’s operations began a concerted effort to buy up the media and to slant press coverage through public relations campaigns. When Morgan died in 1913, newspapers across the country reported with regal respect on the evangelical opening lines of his will.

“The press response was `not a matter of chance,'” Strouse quotes Tom Lamont, a close Morgan associate, as explaining: “`We worked over the matter with a good deal of care, and prepared a 2,000 word summary of the will, which the A.P. used without change and telegraphed all over the country”

On the even more important issues of economic concentration and monetary policy, Strouse does plainly lay out evidence of how Morgan brokered mergers and compacts among railroads to lessen competition, organized the creation of U.S. Steel and promoted price-fixing in the steel industry, formed a banking trio (with First National and City Bank) that exerted staggering control over national capital markets and successfully lobbied in defense of the gold standard.

But this all passes without critical commentary. Strouse seems to accept, without really supporting, Morgan’s views that economic consolidation was necessary to promote efficiency; that centralization and de facto private regulation was required to calm overly turbulent markets; and that tight money (through maintenance of the gold standard) advanced U.S. national interests.

The overall effect of Strouse’s failure to fully flesh out or challenge criticism of Morgan, while also elaborating Morgan’s activities and point of view, is to leave the reader with a highly favorable impression of the great banker.

Instead of a critical review or even defense of Morgan’s activities, the book offers a catalogue of the events of his life. This overly long catalogue, the product of a serious research effort and review of vast personal and business papers, includes both his professional activities and a very detailed accounting of his social life–paintings and monographs acquired, yachts built, trips taken, mistresses maintained, museums supported. Strouse is not shy about revealing Morgan’s personal faults, from hypochondria to effective abandonment of his second wife, but the portrayal is nonetheless at all times sympathetic.

Yet for all the intimate and exquisite detail of this 700-plus page tome, Morgan the man rarely comes alive. That’s probably more Morgan’s fault than Strouse’s. Morgan was inarticulate and shy, and rarely revealed his feelings or even the basis for his business decisions. As portrayed, he was a man of action, not words. The most lively section of the book comes toward the end, especially in two chapters called “Singular Women” and “Portraits,” in which Strouse conveys impressions of Morgan through the eyes of others, or through Morgan’s interactions with others. Here the author is able to draw on material from characters with more verbal acumen, and the book’s pace picks up considerably. It is also where she introduces Belle da Costa Greene, who managed Morgan’s personal library and is the most interesting character of the book, an African-American woman who “passed” as Portuguese. From Belle Greene’s letters, the reader gets some feel of Morgan’s emotional suffering (he was prone to depression) and loneliness, and the richest sense of Morgan’s view that he was a builder of the economy.

Unfortunately, Morgan: American Financier does not offer such a human perspective, or a rigorous analysis, of Morgan’s effect on the economy or on the millions of farmers and workers who saw Morgan not as a builder, but as a destructive force. Morgan may have seen himself as having “a mandate to consolidate control of [the country’s] industrial and capital resources,” but it certainly was not a mandate from the people.

They should have been given some voice in this book.

Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor and coauthor of Corporate Creditors (Common Courage Press, 1999).

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