Jay Gould

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Jay Gould

W. T. Stead (The American Review of Reviews, February, 1893)

The greatest task which lies before Christian civilization to-day is a mission to millionaires. If that mission is not attempted, or if being attempted it fails, there will be of necessity easily in the twentieth century the nationalizing of these millions. The mission to the millionaires is imperatively called for alike in the interest of the millionaires who are perishing, stifled by their millions, and of society, whose institutions languish for lack of the nutriment necessary for their sustenance. If that mission is successful, the millionaire may still be ransomed. If it fails, the millionaire is lost. He may still be a rich man; but his millions will pass from his hands into those of the nation at large. The fruits of his energy, of his industry, of his genius in the field of finance will go to the credit of the nation, which appropriates without hesitation the fruits of the energy, the industry, and the genius of her captains in the field of war. The nation will not be ungrateful. It will pension its millionaires as it pensions its Marlborough for Blenheim and Remilies and Oudenarde and Malplaquer, or as it endows its Wolseley for his Tel-el Kebir. But it will no more dream of allowing them to bequeath their millions than of allowing Lord Wolseley to regard Egypt as his personal property, or recognize the right of the heirs of the Duke of Wellington to the fee simple of France.


I referred to this subject in the Christmas extra number of the Review, when I put into the mouth of Jack Compton the following remarks on approaching the city of New York: “What is that city?” said Compton. “It is the city of millionaires – nay, of billionaires. And what is this enormous wealth to the individual who inherits it? A burden too great to be borne. Increase of wealth up to a certain point means increase of comfort, increase of power. Beyond that point it means for its possessor increase of burden without compensation. A man may spend $500 or $5,000 a week in luxurious living, or in lavish expenditure, but beyond the latter sum few millionaires ever go. But the revenues of many far exceed that sum, and every penny of that excess, although it may bring them the miser’s sordid exultation, brings with it the miser’s fears, the miser’s foreboding.”

“That is all very well,” said the doctor; “but even if it be granted that the millionaire is of all men most miserable, I do not see how the misery of the millionaire, which, after all, most millionaires seem to support well enough, is to minister to the making of the Millennium.”

“Wait a little,” replied Compton. “The billionaire is a new portent of civilization. The race of millionaires by inheritance is but newly established. Can you imagine a more tragic contrast between the boundless potentialities of power and beneficence that lie glittering as a mirage before the eyes of a young millionaire of generous enthusiasm and philanthropic instincts and the treadmill round of mere hoarding to which they are all doomed? I could point out to you millionaire after millionaire who left the university longing to do something, or at least to be somebody, who are now nothing more or less than safe keys in breeches, the whole of their life consumed in the constant worry of seeing that their enormous investments do not deteriorate, and the not less arduous task of investing, to the best advantage, their surplus revenue. What a life for an immortal soul! They are like the men-at-arms in the old wars, so laden with their own armor their strength was used up in meanly conveying themselves about, and they had none left with which to fight. Their imagination is crushed by their millions. A political career is barricaded against them by their own money bags. A crowd of parasites and beggars swarm round them like mosquitoes round a weary wanderer in a Southern swamp. They can do nothing, dare nothing, risk nothing. They sit in the Republic like golden Buddhas cross-legged in an eastern temple, eternally contemplating their gilded paunch.”


The first edition was not off the press when the telegram arrived announcing the death of Jay Gould – one of the greatest millionaires of them all. Jay Gould was dead at the age of fifty-eight, leaving a fortune of $70,000,000 to his children and making absolutely no bequests of any kind to the nation whose development had made him rich or to the society which tolerated and fostered his accumulations. And, as I turned over the files of the newspapers sent me from New York, I found that Mr. Morosini, who for the last eighteen years had been more closely associated with Mr. Gould than almost any other man, said, speaking of the cause of his death: “My opinion is that his system gave way under the great strain resulting from the consciousness of his great wealth. It was a tremendous care and he was always weighed down with the anxiety and excitement of protecting his properties.” That is a significant testimony as to the probability that nationalization may ultimately come about as the result of a bill to prevent the slow torture of millionaires. It is the new peine forte et dure. In old days, unwilling witnesses were pressed to death by a continually increasing weight upon their vitals; it is not unwilling witnesses, but only too willing millionaires, who are self-subjected to the latest variant of the old form of torture.

“Jay Gould,” said Dr. Munn, his friend and physician, “had no organic trouble, but his heart had all it could do to irrigate a brain always hungry for more sustaining blood.” It is the keeping of the fortune, not the making of it, that takes it out of a man. Jay Gould’s private income at the time of his death must have been close upon five million dollars a year. He probably did not spend 2½ per cent. of it upon his castle, his yacht and conservatories. The other 97½ per cent. had to be invested. And the worry of investing so much each year to advantage, together with the anxiety of seeing that the original capital did not depreciate, told heavily upon Jay Gould. He was never a strong man at the best of times. He always had an ache of some kind. Chest-ache, faceache, neuralgia and chronic indigestion played havoc with his physical happiness. The pressure of his millions finished him.


George Gould, the son, who, not yet thirty, has succeeded to the control of the Gould interests, will probably go the same way. For the Gould fortune is not to be dissipated. It is divided among the children, but they are going to do as the Rothschilds do – found a great financial dynasty. Mr. Russell Sage, speaking of this, pointed out its possibility without venturing to predict that it would actually come to pass:-

Mr. Gould was a wise man, a very wise man, and his sons are wise young men – they are their father’s sons. I know them all – George, Eddie and Howard – and I see them every day. They are business men by instinct and training. They have – that is, the older boys – familiarized themselves with every detail of their father’s affairs, and they will carry out his ideas as nearly as they can. They are all boys of good habits, and fairly worshiped their father. There is no nonsense about them, as there is about some young men, sons of wealthy parents. Look at the power,” continued Mr. Sage, “of accumulated wealth retained in one family. Look at the Rothschilds for an example of what one family can do by continuing a successful course in banking and by holding together. Now they are the wealthiest family in the world, and kings and emperors and vast countries have to come to them when they want to raise large loans, either to carry on a war or develop home improvement.”

Mr. Sage did not predict that the Gould family would attain the power of the bankers of which he spoke, but he was certainly convinced that they could do so if they developed their enormous holdings in common, and there was one thing certain, that he was thoroughly convinced that no young Gould would ever leave business to go into this “society nonsense.”

With such heirs, there is no reason why the future Goulds should not form a dynasty, which will be in America what the Rothschilds are in Europe. Jay Gould was not a Semite, although he had the Semite’s nose and a more than Semitic grasp of cash. But he came of the New England stock that is Hebraic in its culture, and he had all the domestic virtues which Puritanism insists upon. The Astors have now a fortune of $200,000,000, which will probably be $250,000,000 before the century closes. The Astors, however, have shown some sense of the truth that underlies the doctrine of ransom. The Goulds have not. Hence, it is likely that the bill for nationalizing the estates of all millionaires and pensioning off the present holders – say with a beggarly pittance of $25,000 per annum – is more likely to come through the Goulds than through the Astors. But come it will, and that right speedily, if the mission to millionaires does not make more headway than it has done for some time past. Of which let all millionaires at home and abroad take due note.


Mr. Jay Gould in his will was as bad as one Mr. W. H. Smith. In making testamentary disposition of their immense wealth these millionaires forgot the million and remembered only a handful of relatives; and the consequence is that the million is beginning to reflect a little as to its means of quickening the consciences and loosening the purse strings of millionaires. It is by the “death duty” that the democracy will save the living from the threatened tyranny of the plutocrat. Nothing is more significant than the attention that the papers have been paying to the operation of the inheritance tax of the State of New York. By this law all personal estate, in passing at death from testator to legatee, pays one per cent. to the State if the legatee is a near relative, or five per cent. if the legatee is no relation. Real estate is exempt. Jay Gould’s property, being for the most part railway and telegraph stock, is amenable to this tax. Therefore the State of New York receives from the Gould inheritance about $700,000. If the money had been left out of the family the State would have received $3,500,000. Supposing that the law had been altered so that all property above a million dollars paid one per cent., above ten millions five per cent., above twenty millions ten per cent., and over fifty millions twenty per cent., the State would have profited by Jay Gould’s death to the extent of $15,000,000.


The advantages of such enforced ransom naturally present themselves to the average citizen in a very attractive light. No one can say that the fear of such an impost would have lessened the consuming energy with which Jay Gould piled up his fortune. The mania for acquiring wealth is too strong to be damped by even a drastic death duty. It may be admitted without hesitation that when taxation reaches the point of paralyzing the motive for individual exertion it goes too far. But we are a long, long way off that yet, and it is as absurd to say that a death duty will paralyze the energies of a Gould as it would be to say that Moltke would not have fought the French with all his might unless he was allowed a perpetual rent charge on the conquered provinces, all of which leads us up once more to the reflection that, if millionaires are wise, they will seek to insure their millions by timely benefactions and by providing many object lessons as to the utility of preserving the millionaire pro bono publico. If Jay Gould had left tithes of his enormous accumulations to public objects he would have done no more than paid a moderate insurance, for lack of which the Goulds may yet lose all. Rockefeller, Hirsch, Rhodes, Lick, Peabody, Armour and Stanford have done much to convince the most envious that even millionaires have their uses. But one sinner destroyeth much good, and wills such as those of Jay Gould and W.H. Smith show how much need there is for the prompt dispatch of another Jonah to the streets of the millionaire Nineveh….


If we judge Jay Gould according to the impress which his character seems to have made upon the men of his own generation not personally acquainted with him, we would have to rank him very low in the scale of created beings.

“He was a broker,” says Henry Adams in his history of the gold conspiracy,” and a broker is almost by nature a gambler, perhaps the very last profession suitable for a railway manager. In character he was strongly marked by his disposition for silent intrigue. He preferred, as a rule, to operate on his own account without admitting other persons into his confidence, and he seemed never to be satisfied except when deceiving every one as to his intentions. There was a reminiscence of the spider in his nature. It is scarcely necessary to say that he had not a conception of amoral principle.”

That may be said to represent, not unfairly, the moderate view of his critics. The “reminiscence of a spider” is good, distinctly good. But the whole carnivora has been ransacked to find analogies for Jay Gould. He has been a vulture, a viper, a wolf, a fox, a bear, and no one knows what other animals of prey. There is little doubt that Jay Gould did not shed crocodile tears over his victims any more than Napoleon did over the Prussians and Austrians whom he crushed at Jena and Austerlitz. But, just as it is possible for great warriors to be very humane, so it is possible for eminent financial operators to preserve their “bird in their breast,” and, as a matter of fact, many of the kings of Wall street and of the Bourse have in the midst of their acquisition preserved a love of their fellow men as well as for their fellow men’s cash.


Jay Gould was faithful to his wife, devoted to his children, and his character outside his all-absorbing devotion to money-making seems to have been tolerably simple and exceptionally good. He loved his friends and hated his enemies; there was no Phariseeism about him, and neither was there any of the ordinary vices. Calumny itself never attached any scandal to his name – other than financial. He seems to have paid his men well, to have rewarded liberally those who served him. He never went into society, being shunned rather than courted by the first families of New York. He was singularly free from affectation, and if there was a man diligent in business it was he. His taste in art seems to have been by no means bad. He was fond of reading. His one passion beyond that of getting money was the cultivation of flowers.


All this, it may be said, is beside the mark. As an individual, as a husband, as a father, and as a florist, he may have been ideal. But it is as a millionaire he must be judged, and as a millionaire he must be condemned or acquitted. That is to say, the judgment will go for or against Jay Gould, not upon the method in which he utilized the faculties and opportunities which are common to the whole human family, but as to the use he made of the exceptional faculties and opportunities that lay within his reach. In the plutocratic democracy, such as the United States, the millionaire is the king. His friends have again and again asserted that no man in the whole country was more powerful than Jay Gould. What use did he make of his millions? They say that he employed them to develop the resources of the great Southwest, to extend the telegraph system, and to generally promote the material welfare of the country. Well and good; that may be true, but of course there is another side to all this, and there are many who maintain that, even from a material progress point of view, the United States would have got on better if Jay Gould had never come out of the cellar in which his father locked him the first time he played truant. Those who take this view have a curious confirmation in the fact that within a week of Jay Gould’s death the value of the stocks in which his fortune was locked up increased greatly. It was estimated at no less than $400,000.

But is that all? His friends reply that he used his wealth not merely for the promotion of the material development of the United States, but for the prevention of panics, and in many cases for the saving of his friends from imminent ruin.

It may be so; the millionaire, with all his moneybags round about him, is driven by the instinct of self-preservation to endeavor to prevent catastrophes which would certainly impair the value of his securities.

Then, as to the saving of his friends, that is quite possible. All those who were in the inner circle declare that he was kindly dispositioned and inclined to help where he could.


Then they say further that, despite the evidence afforded by his will, in which $70,000,000 were left to his heirs, without a single cent being devoted to public charities or works of beneficence, that he had been extremely generous during his lifetime. But in strict accordance with the evangelical precept, he had not let his left hand know what his right hand did. It may be so, but it is to be regretted that he did not carry out other evangelical precepts, for nothing could be greater than the secrecy with which he covered all such beneficence. The secrecy is, indeed, so great that most people believe that no such beneficence existed. On one occasion it is said that he gave $10,000 to a Presbyterian building fund, and that stands out as almost the only gift of any importance that he is said to have made. Dr. Green declares that his noble impulse and generous benefactions are known only to those who were intimately acquainted with him. The directors of the Missouri also lay stress upon these personal qualities of which the world knows nothing:

“Of the personal qualities of Mr. Gould we may record the just estimate of those who, by long and intimate association with him, have been made, as we believe, fit judges. Mr. Gould was a man of tried personal and moral courage, a kind, considerate and generous friend, modest and gentle in demeanor, moderate in speech, judicial and just in his judgments. To those whose business and personal relationship to him had been longest and closest he was most endeared.”

According to Mr. Morosini:

“Mr. Gould gave away many fortunes in his lifetime. He always concealed his generous deeds, because rich men are besieged by beggars all the time. In one instance I was made the agent in a gift of $65,000 to one man out West whom Mr. Gould wished to befriend. No one ever heard of it. Several years ago it was telegraphed from Richmond that some unknown Northern man had responded to the appeal of those in charge at Mount Vernon and had purchased additional acres of land to be added to the old Washington estate. It turned out that Mr. Gould had bought the property and turned it over to the Mount Vernon people.”


The most remarkable statement, however, is that of the well-known philanthropist, the late Mr. Thurlow Weed, who in 1879 spoke as follows on this subject:- “I am Mr. Gould’s philanthropic adviser. Whenever a really deserving charity is brought to my attention, I explain it to Mr. Gould. He always takes my word as to when and how much to contribute. I have never known him to disregard my advice in such matters. His only condition is that there shall be no public blazonry of his benefactions. He is a constant and liberal giver, but doesn’t let his right hand know what his left hand is doing. Oh, there will be a full page to his credit when the record is opened above.”

If so, it is to be sincerely hoped that it will be to his credit hereafter, for it certainly has not been put to his credit at present. As an illustration of this, take the following extract from the sermon preached by the Rev. G. Inglehart, in Park Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church on the Sunday after his death:-

Gould, with his seventy millions, was one of the colossal failures of our time. He was a purely selfish man. His greed consumed his charity. He was like death and hell – gathering in all, giving back nothing. To build up an immense fortune for one’s self by fraud is a disgrace to the age, a mockery to virtue, a menace to public welfare. The love of money was the root of all evil in him. The motive that softens the footsteps of the burglar, that nerves the arm of the highwayman, was the same that prompted Gould to break his neighbor up to build himself up.

In contrast to this sweeping denunciation of Gould’s conduct, take the following story from an American paper of the way in which Gould disposed of his charity:-

A pretty story is told of the charity organization society that existed in Mr. Gould’s own household. Its sessions were held each morning after breakfast. Like other rich men he was assailed constantly with showers of begging letters. These were regularly sorted out every morning and each member of the family chose as many from the pile as desired until none were left. If a letter appeared to describe a case of real need it was placed in the centre of the table. The others were burned. Then ensued quiet investigation, conducted as secretly the operations of the closest detective bureau. People in want were given aid commensurate with the needs of the particular case, but were never able to thank the donor, for the identity of the giver was never disclosed. In this way, it is said, many hundreds of poor people were relieved. Another method employed was to look up cases of distress independent of the petitions poured in by mail. To just what extent this charitable work was carried on will never be known, for those conversant with it will not speak of it.

It is, of course, an open question as to how far it is right and proper for a man of immense wealth to perform his charities in such a way that no one knows that they are being performed. No doubt the letter of the commandment might be pleaded in favor of the practice. But when the use of the wealth in every other direction is open and above-board, to conceal its employment in charitable and public service is to practically destroy the whole force of example.


But when all that is admitted, even if we grant that Jay Gould used his fortune for the purposes of development and not for purposes of wrecking railroads, if we admit that he used his immense wealth for steadying and not for disturbing the market, if we admit that he frequently saved private friends from imminent catastrophe threatening ruin, and that his personal beneficence was as great as Mr. Morosini claims, that does not answer the question whether Jay Gould as a millionaire has fulfilled the functions for which millionaires were created or were permitted to exist. It cannot be said to be a very happy result of the exercise of his stewardship that he is held by nine out of every ten men to have denied altogether the existence of any such stewardship. If he recognized it he has caused his good to be evil spoken of by the way in which he openly used the money power. No doubt a good deal may be said in defense of using money to buy votes in a Legislature which is universally corrupt. That is the defense which Mr. Morosini makes for Gould’s purchase of Senators and Assemblymen at Albany:-

Mr. Gould was at Albany a good deal. He had to be, for no one even of his ability could have protected Erie against the legislative assaults continually made upon it. I know that when Tweed was in the Senate members of the Legislature were bought like so many cattle. It was perhaps the most corrupt Legislature we ever had. In order to preserve a railroad you had to fight fire with fire, as the saying is.

But it cannot be said that a millionaire who uses his millions in order to bribe deputies in corrupt constituencies, and who further employs his wealth to induce judges to prostitute the judgment seat, has justified the possession of his millions to the consciences of his fellow-countrymen. It is true that Jay Gould did not spend his money over kept mistresses, but he spent it over kept judges, which is at least as bad.


But that is not the only offense which is alleged against him for the misuse of his money. It is asserted, with much detail, in a recent number of the New York World, that the presidential election, which placed Hayes in power in the presidential chair, was, decided by the corrupt use of Gould’s money. Tilden had a majority of votes, but Gould, who had committed himself to the support of Hayes, hearing that the members of the Electoral College in Louisiana and the Carolinas were amenable to influence, he dispatched astute emissaries to those States with power to draw upon his money, with the result that Mr. Hayes, although he was in a minority, was declared elected. Here we have an instance of the money power polluting the very arcanum of national life. When we hear of corrupt State legislatures and venal municipalities, we console ourselves by reflecting that the National Congress is free from such reproach, and that especially in the choice of a President we have an intelligent democracy exercising its highest functions in the full light of day without fear or favor, and with entire freedom from all the tyrannies and corrupting influences that infest older civilizations. But what can we make of a story such as this, of Gould thrusting Tilden out of the Presidential chair to which he would otherwise have succeeded, and installing therein a nominee of his own. Surely this is the abomination which maketh desolate, set up in the Holy of Holies.


But, after all, it is not so much by the direct abuse of the power which money gives that the millionaire of to-day will be weighed in the balance and found wanting. It is not so much the sins of commission as those of omission which he piled at his door. The wealth of such men as Jay Gould is a sceptre of power. The failure to exert that power in the promotion of the great causes which mark the progress of humanity is an offense which cannot be atoned for by any amount of the tithing of mint, anise and cumin. Private beneficence, even on the most lavish scale and conducted in the most secret way, can no more compensate for the failure to exert the authority and influence that a millionaire possesses in stemming the tide of vice, ignorance and savagery, and in promoting the advent of a higher and nobler life. The regular attendance at a parish church does not justify a monarch in allowing his frontier to lie open to the incursions of the foe. Of the millionaire, more than of other men, may it be said, in “getting and spending we lay waste our powers;” but in the case of the millionaire it should be “getting and hoarding we lay waste our powers.” It was computed that around the bier of Jay Gould were gathered some dozen men whose united fortunes amounted to one hundred millions sterling.


What could not these men do if they were to band themselves together in a sacred league to make war upon all those things which they themselves would unanimously agree were evils afflicting mankind? They will reply, no doubt, that they have not so much as a moment, to think of the disposition of such vast questions. The task that absorbs their time and consumes their energies is that of seeing that their investments are safe, and that their constantly accruing millions are profitably invested. Mr. Russell Sage, in September, 1890, said: “Mr. Gould cannot begin to use even a small portion for his own personal use even a small part of the interest which his dividend money alone would yield. He must reinvest it, and he does reinvest it. It is safe to say that he takes this money as the dividend period comes around and buys other securities.” In other words, they have got so much to do in the getting and hoarding that they have neither inclination nor time, or they have no time even if they have the inclination to concern themselves about its disposition. Such a position is a dangerous one for them to take up. Great wealth, unless greatly used, will not be left long in the administration of individual men. If it be true that the getting and hoarding absorbs the whole of the gray matter in the millionaire’s brain, then we shall not have long to wait before we shall see the crystallizing of the inarticulate unrest of the suffering multitude in the conviction that there should be a division of labor, and that while the millionaire should be allowed to get his millions, the elected representatives of the democracy should decide the way in which it should be spent and distributed. The millionaire would thus be relieved of the burden of looking after his millions, and could devote the whole of his time and energy to the more congenial task of amassing them.


No necessary work can long be left neglected, and if millionaires will not distribute their own wealth and use their great position with great souls and hearts, they will find that they will come to be regarded by the hungry and thirsty Demos much as compensation reservoirs are regarded by the inhabitants of the cities who have constructed them to replenish the stream which their thirst would otherwise drink dry. These great fortunes of 70 millions and 100 millions and 300 millions of dollars will come to be regarded as the storage service upon which mankind draw in seasons of scarcity and drought. That is the use which society will make of its millionaires if millionaires do not anticipate the inevitable by utilizing their millions. Some people imagine that the progress of democratic society will tend to discourage the accumulation of these huge fortunes; it is more likely that Demos will regard his millionaires as the cottager regards his bees. These useful insects spend the live long summer day in collecting and hoarding up in their combs the golden plunder of a thousand flowers, but when the autumn comes the bee wishes to take its rest and to enjoy the fruits of its summer toil. But the result does not altogether correspond with the expectations of the bee. A few more Jay Goulds and the autumn of the millionaires will be near at hand.