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, creator and czar of the massive Union Pacific Railroad.
Told by his doctor to get some rest, 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, to which the UP carried those who could afford sleeper tickets and hot buttered rum 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. (Others included Henry L. Stimson, James Forrestal, Robert Lovett, John J. McCloy, Dean Acheson, and Paul Nitze.) Harriman’s public service spanned the era from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, during which he was, among many other things, 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.”
Averell Harriman was but one example 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. 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.
What they did was not always in government. Just as often their labors were for charity, in the creation of splendid public gardens and museums, in the founding or support of great institutions of learning, and in the advancement of science and medicine. But the same philosophy and historical lessons apply.
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.
To the south of Franklin’s Philadelphia was the Virginia Tidewater. As a distinguished American historian once wrote of this area’s planter class at the time of the Revolution: “To this aristocracy, careless and indolent, given to rough pleasures and indifferent to the finer and higher sides of life, the call came, as it comes to all men sooner or later, and in response they gave their country soldiers, statesmen, and jurists of the highest order and fit for the great work they were asked to do.”
The author of these words was Henry Cabot Lodge, scion of a New England aristocracy just as committed to public service as the one farther south, without (it would frostily assert) the alleged indolence and crudity. Lodge’s biography of Washington was published in 1889, while he was a congressman from Massachusetts. Four years later, he would be in the United States Senate, where he remained until his death, while serving as majority leader, in 1924. His grandson and namesake would also serve in the Senate and as US ambassador to the United Nations and to Vietnam.
Lodge’s close friend was a young New Yorker named Theodore Roosevelt, whom we have already met. 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. His niece Eleanor Roosevelt recalled that her maternal grandmother “looked upon Uncle Ted as a strange and curious phenomenon. He was in politics, and she considered politics as 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 – 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.”
Theodore Roosevelt aspired to (and attained) the governing class, as did his son Theodore Jr and his distant cousin Franklin. When FDR entered the White House in 1933, TR Junior was serving as governor general of the Philippines. Someone asked what relation he was to the new president, and TR Junior replied, “Fifth cousin, about to be removed.” As he was.
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 today 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 3d and the arts have been 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, 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.”
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 whose Washington parties raised money and visibility for a new generation of leadership. In particular she helped propel Bill Clinton to the presidency. Not one to think ill of a woman who had been what once was politely called generous with her favors, 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 Alfred 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’s experiments with electricity, Loomis used his personal fortune to underwrite the cost of developing radar, perhaps the single greatest contribution to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. After the war, President Truman awarded him what was then the nation’s highest civilian decoration, the Presidential Medal of Merit.
In our time, the younger generation of Kennedys has devoted itself impressively to public service. Joseph P. Kennedy II and Patrick Kennedy were members of Congress, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was lieutenant governor of Maryland. Now a private citizen, Joe Kennedy works to get low-cost heating fuel to poor people; his brother Robert Kennedy Jr is an environmental activist; and the brothers Robert and Anthony Shriver help the mentally-disabled. Joseph P. Kennedy III serves as congressman from Massachusetts, and his cousin Caroline Kennedy is US ambassador to Japan.
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.
It has not been my aim in this talk to tell people how to achieve such a life. There are many ways to do this, known from history and known from personal experience. Rather, it is my desire to encourage you to lead such a life, if you are not already doing so, for the benefit of your family, your community, your country, and yourself.