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Captains Of Industry Or Men Of Business Who Did Something Besides Making Money - William B. Astor

1. Preface

2. David Maydole

3. Ichabod Washburn

4. Elihu Burritt

5. Michael Reynolds

6. Major Robert Pike

7. George Graham

8. John Harrison

9. Peter Faneuil

10. Chauncey Jerome

11. Captain Pierre Laclede Liguest

12. Israel Putnam

13. George Flower

14. Edward Coles

15. Peter H. Burnett

16. Gerrit Smith

17. Peter Force

18. John Bromfield

19. Frederick Tudor

20. Myron Holley

21. The Founders Of Lowell

23. John Smedley

24. Richard Cobden

25. Henry Bessemer

26. John Bright

27. Thomas Edward

28. Robert Dick

29. John Duncan

30. James Lackington

31. Horace Greeley's Start

32. James Gordon Bennett

33. Three John Walters

34. George Hope

35. Sir Henry Cole

36. Charles Summers

37. William B. Astor

38. Peter Cooper

39. Paris Duverney

40. Sir Rowland Hill

41. Marie-Antoine Careme

42. Wonderful Walker

43. Sir Christopher Wren

44. Sir John Rennie

45. Sir Moses Montefiore

46. Marquis Of Worcester

47. An Old Dry-goods Merchant's Recollections



In estimating the character and merits of such a man as the late Mr.
Astor, we are apt to leave out of view the enormous harm he might have
done if he had chosen to do it.

The rich fool who tosses a dollar to a waiter for some trifling service,
debases the waiter, injures himself, and wrongs the public. By acting in
that manner in all the transactions of life, a rich man diffuses around
him an atmosphere of corruption, and raises the scale of expense to a
point which is oppressive to many, ruinous to some, and inconvenient to
all. The late Mr. Astor, with an income from invested property of nearly
two millions a year, could have made life more difficult than it was to
the whole body of people in New York who are able to live in a liberal
manner. He refrained from doing so. He paid for everything which he
consumed the market price--no more, no less--and he made his purchases
with prudence and forethought. As he lived for many years next door to
the Astor Library, the frequenters of that noble institution had an
opportunity of observing that he laid in his year's supply of coal in
the month of June, when coal is cheapest.

There was nothing which he so much abhorred as waste. It was both an
instinct and a principle with him to avoid waste. He did not have the
gas turned down low in a temporarily vacated room because he would save
two cents by doing so, but because he justly regarded waste as wicked.
His example in this particular, in a city so given to careless and
ostentatious profusion as New York, was most useful. We needed such an
example. Nor did he appear to carry this principle to an extreme. He was
very far from being miserly, though keenly intent upon accumulation.

In the life of the Old World there is nothing so shocking to a
republicanized mind as the awful contrast between the abodes of the poor
and the establishments of the rich. A magnificent park of a thousand
acres of the richest land set apart and walled in for the exclusive use
of one family, while all about it are the squalid hovels of the peasants
to whom the use of a single acre to a family would be ease and comfort,
is the most painful and shameful spectacle upon which the sun looks down
this day. Nothing can make it right. It is monstrous. It curses
_equally_ the few who ride in the park and the many who look over its
walls; for the great lord who can submit to be the agent of such
injustice is as much its victim as the degraded laborer who drowns the
sense of his misery in pot-house beer. The mere fact that the lord can
look upon such a scene and not stir to mend it, is proof positive of a
profound vulgarity.

Nor is it lords alone who thus waste the hard earned wealth of the
toiling sons of men. I read some time ago of a wedding in Paris. A
thriving banker there, who is styled the Baron Alphonse de Rothschild,
having a daughter of seventeen to marry, appears to have set seriously
to work to find out how much money a wedding could be made to cost. In
pursuing this inquiry, he caused the wedding festivals of Louis XIV's
court, once so famous, to seem poverty-stricken and threadbare. He began
by a burst of ostentatious charity. He subscribed money for the relief
of the victims of recent inundations, and dowered a number of
portionless girls; expending in these ways a quarter of a million
francs. He gave his daughter a portion of five millions of francs. One
of her painted fans cost five thousand francs. He provided such enormous
quantities of clothing for her little body, that his house, if it had
not been exceedingly large, would not have conveniently held them. For
the conveyance of the wedding party from the house to the synagogue, he
caused twenty-five magnificent carriages to be made, such as monarchs
use when they are going to be crowned, and these vehicles were drawn by
horses imported from England for the purpose. The bridal veil was
composed of ineffable lace, made from an original design expressly for
this bride.

And then what doings in the synagogue! A choir of one hundred and ten
trained voices, led by the best conductor in Europe--the first tenor of
this generation engaged, who sang the prayer from "Moses in Egypt"--a
crowd of rabbis, and assistant-rabbis, with the grand rabbi of Paris at
their head. To complete the histrionic performance, eight young girls,
each bearing a beautiful gold-embroidered bag, and attended by a young
gentleman, "took up a collection" for the poor, which yielded seven
thousand francs.

Mr. Astor could, if he had chosen, have thrown his millions about in
this style. He was one of a score or two of men in North America who
could have maintained establishments in town and country on the
dastardly scale so common among rich people in Europe. He, too, could
have had his park, his half a dozen mansions, his thirty carriages, his
hundred horses and his yacht as big as a man-of-war. That he was above
such atrocious vulgarity as this, was much to his credit and more to our
advantage. What he could have done safely, other men would have
attempted to whom the attempt would have been destruction. Some
discredit also would have been cast upon those who live in moderate and
modest ways.

Every quarter day Mr. Astor had nearly half a million dollars to invest
in the industries of the country. To invest his surplus income in the
best and safest manner was the study of his life. His business was to
take care of and increase his estate; and that _being_ his business, he
was right in giving the necessary attention to it. "William will never
make money," his father used to say; "but he will take good care of what
he has." And so it proved. The consequence was, that all his life he
invested money in the way that was at once best for himself and best for
the country. No useless or premature scheme had had any encouragement
from him. He invariably, and by a certainty of judgment that resembled
an instinct, "put his money where it would do most good." Political
economists demonstrate that an investment which is the best for the
investor must of necessity be the best for the public. Here, again, we
were lucky. When we wanted houses more than we wanted coal, he built
houses for us; and when we wanted coal more than we wanted houses, he
set his money to digging coal; charging nothing for his trouble but the
mere cost of his subsistence.

One fault he had as a public servant--for we may fairly regard in that
light a man who wields so large a portion of our common estate. He was
one of the most timid of men. He was even timorous. His timidity was
constitutional and physical. He would take a great deal of trouble to
avoid crossing a temporary bridge or scaffolding, though assured by an
engineer that it was strong enough to bear ten elephants. Nor can it be
said that he was morally brave. Year after year he saw a gang of thieves
in the City Hall stealing his revenues under the name of taxes and
assessments, but he never led an assault upon them nor gave the aid he
ought to those who did. Unless he is grossly belied, he preferred to
compromise than fight, and did not always disdain to court the ruffians
who plundered him.

This was a grave fault. He who had the most immediate and the most
obvious interest in exposing and resisting the scoundrels, ought to have
taken the lead in putting them down. This he could not do. Nature had
denied him the qualities required for such a contest. He had his
enormous estate, and he had mind enough to take care of it in ordinary
ways; but he had nothing more. We must therefore praise him less for the
good he did in his life, than for the evil which he refrained from

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