Public & Civil Service

One evening on an Alaska cruise, a group of men gathered near the bow to smoke, admire the sunset, and talk. This wasn’t just any Alaska cruise, and it wasn’t just any group of men. The year was 1899, and poking in and out of the glacial bays was a steamship chartered for three months by E.H. Harriman, czar of the massive Union Pacific Railroad.

Told by his doctor to travel for his health, Harriman complied by mounting a full-fledged expedition to the still-virgin American territory up north. In addition to the ship’s crew of 65, he took 25 scientists, 11 woodsmen, three artists, two photographers, his two sons (both under ten), and a cow to produce milk for them. Clearly, E.H. Harriman was not one to make small plans.

Among this horde was the eminent naturalist John Muir, whose credits included founding both Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Club. On the fo’c’s’l that evening, Muir was moved to remark, “I don’t think Mr. Harriman is very rich. He has not as much as I have [because] I have all I want, and Mr. Harriman has not.”

Muir’s words were duly reported to Harriman, whose walrus mustache bristled: “I have never cared for money except as a power to put to work,” he told his guest. Listening in was Harriman’s seven-year-old son Averell. Years later, just before he died, the elder Harriman told Averell “that in our democracy, if men of wealth don’t use their wealth for the public welfare, it would be taken from them.” For his father, Averell would recall, “wealth carried with it a responsibility for development of the country and improvement in the life of the people.”

If old E.H. Harriman shared his wealth with the country and the people, he got no credit for it. No less a figure than President Theodore Roosevelt denounced him as “an enemy of the republic” and more memorably as “a malefactor of great wealth”. But what he did do was implant the ideal of public service in the next generation, meaning Averell. The younger man eventually succeeded his father as chairman of the Union Pacific and did great things for that historic road, notably introducing streamlined trains and creating the famous Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho in the 1930s.

But it is not as a businessman that we remember Averell Harriman today. He is renowned as among the “wise men” who shaped US foreign policy during and after World War II, one of several men of wealth and privilege who did so. Harriman’s public service spanned the era from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, during which he was, among much else, ambassador to the Soviet Union and Great Britain, secretary of Commerce, and governor of New York.

Harriman’s emphasis was on service, not title, and when someone asked why, after all the distinguished posts he had held, he was willing to accept John F. Kennedy’s appointment as a mere assistant secretary of State, Harriman laughed and said, “Well, you know, these presidents are all alike. You start at the bottom and work your way up.”

What Averell Harriman did in government, his sister Mary did in private, or civic, service. Along with some friends, she founded the Junior League.

Both Harrimans were examples of a phenomenon in American history in which men and women of wealth have found contentment not so much in their financial blessings as in service to their community and country. They created splendid public gardens and museums, founded or supported great institutions of learning, and advanced medicine and the sciences. From the earliest days of our nation – indeed, since before there was a United States of America — such people have discovered the truth that the real utility of wealth is not what it lets you buy as what it lets you do.

As with so many other things, the man who forged this very American way of life was Benjamin Franklin.  He who was our first and still greatest inventor, scientist, humorist, politician, diplomat, and sage always called himself – perhaps with inverted snobbery – “B. Franklin, printer”. For it was as a printer, most famously of Poor Richard’s Almanac, that Franklin prospered. Then, at age 42 – halfway through what would be a very long life for those days – he retired to devote his energies to other things. As he wrote in his autobiography:

“When I disengaged myself from private business, I flattered myself that, by the sufficient though moderate fortune I had acquired, I had secured leisure during the rest of my life for philosophical studies …. And I proceeded with my electrical experiments with great alacrity. But the public … laid hold of me for their purposes, every part of our civil government … imposing some duty upon me.”

In time, Franklin created America’s first fire department, first public library, first postal service, and first public university. And this was decades before he helped create America – that is, the United States of America — as a member of the Continental Congress that declared our independence from Great Britain, as the negotiator who secured that independence after the Revolution was won, and as a leading figure in the convention that wrote the US Constitution.

Franklin and the other Founding Fathers all were all men of property or the professions and yet were willing to risk (in the famous closing words of the Declaration of Independence) “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” for the cause of freedom. One of the signers, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, suffered from palsy, but as he affixed his signature to the Declaration he said, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.”

A trait that mattered immensely to the Founders was virtue – a word that in their time meant public-mindedness or spirit. As John Adams wrote: “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private [virtue], and public virtue is the only foundation of republics. There must be a positive passion for the public good [and] the public interest … established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government nor any real liberty.”

Yet the Founders had their doubts whether we in successor generations would be virtuous, as they defined it.

In 1783, two years after his victory at Yorktown, George Washington expressed his own doubt in a letter to the states: “It is [the people’s] choice and depends upon their conduct whether they will be respectable and prosperous or contemptible and miserable as a nation…. The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition but in an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period…. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a nation, and if their citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.”

Adams wrote in 1777, in the early difficult days of the Revolution: “Posterity!” (That’s us.) “You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that ever I took half the pains to preserve it.”

Fortunately, the tree of liberty that the Founders planted sent roots deep enough into the soil of North America that it endured division and strife over slavery and in the post-Civil War period the tensions created by national growth, immigration, and conflicts between capital and labor.

Theodore Roosevelt’s entry into public service came during these difficult postwar years. Roosevelt’s original enthusiasm was for natural history, not for the family business, which was importing fine glass for the brownstones and stately mansions then fast a-building in Manhattan. In his autobiography, TR noted: “It happened that I had been left enough money by my father not to make it necessary for me to think solely of earning bread for myself and my family. I had enough to get bread. What I had to do if I wanted butter and jam was … to count their cost as compared to other things. I made up my mind that, while I must earn money, [it would be] the secondary instead of the primary object of my career.”

The primary object of Roosevelt’s life was politics, then as now the gateway to high government office. Among the Knickerbocker aristocracy of the 19th century, however, this was not considered a fit occupation for gentlemen. Eleanor Roosevelt recalled that her family “looked upon Uncle Ted as a strange and curious phenomenon. He was in politics, and that was something just beneath contempt, something you never talked about.”

That was exactly the attitude that greeted TR’s desire to run for the New York Assembly in 1880. In his autobiography, he said: “When I began to make inquiries as to the whereabouts of the local Republican Association and the means of joining it, these men in the clubs of social pretension – and the big business men and lawyers also – laughed at me and told me that politics were ‘low’; that the organizations were not controlled by ‘gentlemen’; [and] that I would find them run by saloon-keepers, horsecar conductors and the like…. I answered that if this were so, it merely meant that the people I knew did not belong to the governing class and that the other people did – and that I intended to be one of the governing class.”

Other wealthy American families found that public and civic service gave them a distinction that money alone did not. We remember Astors and Vanderbilts largely for their wealth. But we remember Adamses, Tafts, Frelinghuysens, Livingstons, Harrisons, and Bushes for their public service. The name Rockefeller is nowadays equally associated with public service as with great wealth, due to Nelson Rockefeller’s having been governor of New York and vice president, his brother Winthrop’s having been governor of Arkansas, and his nephew Jay’s service as senator from West Virginia. But Rockefellers who never ran for office also made mighty contributions to America through their philanthropies and special areas of interest, as parks and the environment were for John D. Rockefeller III and the arts were for David Rockefeller.

Public service can also embellish the reputation of a family with a less than savory reputation. Joseph P. Kennedy was derided in his time as a stock manipulator and bootlegger. When FDR named him the first chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission, one flabbergasted Democrat said this was like “putting Peter Rabbit in charge of guarding the cabbage patch.” But, exactly because he knew the tricks of the trade, Kennedy molded a powerful SEC and was further rewarded with the ambassadorship to the Court of St James’s.

If you had asked Joe Kennedy his greatest achievement, however, he would have unhesitatingly answered it was his able, attractive, and dynamic children. They built on his wealth and fame and converted the name Kennedy from one associated with shady dealings to one coequal with that of any other family in American history. “The measure of a man’s success in life isn’t the money he has made,” old Joe said. “It’s the kind of family he has raised.”

As indeed he did. There was of course the famous generation of President John F. Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Edward (Teddy), both US senators. But the current generation of Kennedys has also devoted itself impressively to public service. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, was lieutenant governor of Maryland. Her brother Joseph P. Kennedy II and his son Joseph P. Kennedy III served as congressmen from Massachusetts. Patrick Kennedy, son of Teddy Kennedy, was a member of Congress from Rhode Island. And Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President Kennedy, was appointed US ambassador to Japan by President Obama and ambassador to Australia by President Biden.

In civic service, the Kennedys have been equally active. Joseph P. Kennedy II works to get low-cost heating fuel to poor people; his brother Robert Kennedy Jr. is an environmental activist; his cousins Robert and Anthony Shriver help the mentally-disabled; their sister Maria Shriver advocates for women’s health; and their cousin Patrick Kennedy is deeply involved with issues of mental health and addiction.

Take another case of reputation-enhancement, that of Averell Harriman’s widow Pamela. Were it not for the eminent public service that crowned her life, Pamela Harriman might be remembered today only in louche legend for the many prominent husbands – and even more numerous lovers – she had. But toward the end of Ambassador Harriman’s life, she made herself into the networker-in-chief of the Democratic Party. Her Georgetown parties raised money and visibility for a new generation of party leadership. In particular she helped propel Bill Clinton to the presidency. Once in the White House, Clinton named Mrs. Harriman his ambassador to Paris.

The French were impressed and complimented that America would send them such a famous grande horizontale as its envoy, and Mrs. Harriman was an immensely successful diplomat. She worked tirelessly for her adopted country from the day of her arrival till the day of her death – dying with her boots on, so to speak, in the swimming pool of the Hotel Ritz.

It is not just government and politics that is a fit calling for people who want to deploy their wealth toward doing things rather than buying things. Take the case of Henry Bergh, who lived 150 years ago. The dilettante son of a wealthy shipbuilder, he accepted appointment by President Lincoln as secretary to the US legation in czarist Russia. One day, being driven through the streets of St Petersburg in his carriage, Bergh was horrified to see a tradesman beating his horse. He stopped the outrage, but the incident inspired him, on his return to the United States, to found the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  When Bergh died in 1888, he was eulogized by no less a personage than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who called him “Among the noblest in the land … friend to every friendless beast.”

Closer to our time was Alfred Lee Loomis, who sold his equity holdings before the Crash of 1929 and spent the Depression years in great style and comfort, at one point owning Hilton Head Island as a private game preserve. But he also turned his mansion at Tuxedo Park, outside New York City, into a private physics laboratory that hosted such giants as Albert Eisenstein, Niels Bohr, and Enrico Fermi. Like Benjamin Franklin experimenting with electricity, Loomis used his personal fortune to underwrite the cost of perfecting radar, perhaps the single greatest contribution to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. After the war, President Truman gave him what was then the nation’s highest civilian decoration, the Presidential Medal of Merit.

The list could go on describing the achievements of wealthy Americans who were determined to play a role in their community’s or nation’s life, not just to play. They were not ashamed of or apologetic for their financial blessings. They viewed such blessings not as an end in themselves but as a departure point from which to live fuller, more satisfying, and more praiseworthy lives.

Such opportunities abound today, perhaps more than ever. They exist in every area of human endeavor: In the arts, science, education, the environment, and helping improve the lives of those less fortunate. All that’s required is the will – a greater and rarer commodity than the wherewithal.

Those who give financial support to worthy groups and causes deserve our praise and thanks, regardless whether they also engage in public and civic service. My aim here is not to diminish such efforts but to praise those who give their time as well as their treasure. As the poet James Russell Lowell wrote: “The gift without the giver is bare.”

When the late Senator Robert Dole was running for president in 1996, his wife Elizabeth headed the American Red Cross. To a group of wealthy Republican donors, Dole said, “All I want is your money. She wants your blood.”

I have learned, to my surprise, that even people of wealth and position sometimes need to be encouraged or invited to get personally involved in good works.

This can best come within a family. A family foundation may, for example, support a certain nonprofit organization and be invited to fill a seat on its board. This is when a grandparent may say to a grandchild, “You need to get involved” – not just to ensure that the foundation’s gift is well spent but to help carry out the nonprofit’s mission.

Such involvement means more than sitting at the table during board meetings. It means providing leadership, choosing able staff, and helping to raise funds.

It could also mean making visits to the charity, learning its operation to some depth, and participating in its work, such as distributing packages in a food bank or clearing trash from a park. This may not be someone’s preferred way to spend a Saturday, but be warned: It can become habit-forming!

You may rightly ask, why should I (or our foundation) help clean up a park; isn’t that what the city or county is supposed to do with my tax money? The answer is … yes, but every level of government always has far more needs than resources. Maybe those resources could be spent more efficiently, but in the meantime the private sector can and should fill any gaps. As my father used to say when I balked at some household chore, “We all live here.”

John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail during the Revolution: “We live, my dear soul, in an age of trial.”

We, too, live in a time of trial – if maybe not quite so dire as what the Adamses lived through. This talk has sought to encourage today’s families to follow the Adamses’ example and to play a role in their community’s or nation’s life, not just to play. It has not sought to sell a product or a service – only an idea.

But there is a cost: Not of money but of time and soul. The return on this kind of investment is truly incalculable. It can be the means by which families like those we have met in this talk and many others can rise into the esteemed realm of public and civic servants. And, as the late President George H. W. Bush believed passionately, “There can be no definition of a successful life that does not include service to others.”

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