Mellon: An American Lifeby David Cannadine
Andrew Mellon, one of America's greatest financiers, built a legendary personal fortune from banking to oil to aluminum
A landmark work from one of the preeminent historians of our time: the first published biography of Andrew W. Mellon, the American colossus who bestrode the worlds of industry, government, and philanthropy, leaving his transformative stamp on each.
Andrew Mellon, one of America's greatest financiers, built a legendary personal fortune from banking to oil to aluminum manufacture, tracking America's course to global economic supremacy. As treasury secretary under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and finally Hoover, Mellon made the federal government run like a business-prefiguring the public official as CEO. He would be hailed as the architect of the Roaring Twenties, but, staying too long, would be blamed for the Great Depression, eventually to find himself a broken idol. Collecting art was his only nonprofessional gratification, and his great gift to the American people, The National Gallery of Art, remains his most tangible legacy.
—Russell Baker, The New York Review of Books
“A fascinating biography. . . . A sprawling work for a sprawling life.”
—Roger Lowenstein, The New York Times
“A commanding biography, unsparing in revelation, lively in its writing, rigorous in its scholarship, astute in its judgments, and altogether a major contribution to American history.”
—Harold Evans, author of The American Century and They Made America
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
An American Life
By David Cannadine
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
THE PATRIARCH PRESIDES
Father and Sons, 1855-73
Make your child a partner in your joys and sorrows, your hopes and fears; impart
your plans and purposes; stand not on your dignity, but let yourself down to his
capacity, if need be, and show your trust in him. You will be surprised to find
how much a five or ten year old boy can understand of the ways of men, and how
readily he will enter into your views.... I experienced the benefit of such
training myself, and applied it in raising my own family with the most
Thomas Mellon and His Times, p. 29
A THRIVING CAREER
Andrew Mellon was the sixth child of Thomas and Sarah Jane Mellon, but he was
only the fourth to survive infancy. His two sisters were already dead, and
although he would not long remain the youngest son, he grew up among brothers
only, in what Burton Hendrick called a "eugenic" family. Only the fittest would
survive. At the time of Andrew's birth, his eldest brother, Thomas Alexander was
eleven: the next, James Ross, was nine: and Samuel Selwyn was two. The two elder
boys were close in age and interests: Andrew and Selwyn soon became a second
pair, as would Richard Beatty ("Dick" or "RB"), who was born in 1858 and named
for one of his father's oldest friends, and GeorgeNegley, who arrived two years
later and was named for his mother's uncle. Even depleted by two early and
wrenching deaths, this was a large bourgeois family by the standards of the
time. But it was very much a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian household, and while
Andrew Mellon knew far more comfort and security than most Pittsburghers, the
atmosphere was intense and serious, rather than joyful or easy. Although
surrounded by a lush and bountiful garden, the house at 401 Negley was gloomy
and forbidding inside. For Thomas Mellon disdained the vulgar ostentation which
he feared was "common among those grown suddenly rich," whom he dismissed as the
"shoddyocracy," and his house was devoid of the elaborate ornamentation, both
inside and out, that would became popular among the local plutocracy in
subsequent decades. The blinds were often drawn, and the interior was a drab
amalgam of Brussels carpets, heavy draperies, and somberly papered walls, with
no pictures of any artistic merit.
This was the morose world of Andrew Mellon's boyhood, but unlike his surviving
siblings, he would continue to inhabit it as an ever more solitary son until he
was in his mid-forties. Sarah Jane Mellon was the presiding matriarch, and
although Thomas Mellon wrote little about her in his autobiography, she was
clearly a redoubtable woman for her time. She was not only rich but tough,
having survived eight pregnancies between 1844 and 1860. More conventionally
religious than her husband, she was responsible for getting the family to East
Liberty Presbyterian Church on Sundays. She also oversaw the household, baking
the bread and cooking many of the meals herself. There was a domestic staff of
three, including an intimidating housekeeper, Mrs. Cox. On the day of Andrew
Mellon's birth, the housekeeper instructed James Ross Mellon to convey the news
to his grandmother, Barbara Anna Negley, who lived nearby, and she soon appeared
bearing a willow basket full of yellow apples which perfumed the birth room.
Andrew Mellon's earliest recorded recollection was another scene of purposeful
feminine domesticity-which he disrupted. When two years old, he crawled beneath
a table at which his mother and her sister were sewing, and began cutting the
edges of the table cloth with a pair of scissors which had fallen to the floor.
Given his father's "high opinion of the strict exercise of parental authority,"
it is difficult to believe this misdemeanor went unpunished.
From the very beginning, Andrew Mellon was at the center of that large and
growing family over which it had always been his father's ultimate ambition to
preside. These were generally prosperous times in Pittsburgh, despite another
slump in 1857, two years after Andrew's birth, which lasted to the end of the
decade: thus he was also at the center of a large and growing industrial
region. Oil was discovered nearby in 1859, and the iron industry continued to
expand. By 1860, there were twenty-six rolling mills, twenty-three
glassworks-and fourteen banks, all of which had survived the recent depression.
With a population that had reached 50,000, the city ranked sixteenth in the
United States, and Allegheny County as a whole claimed 178,000 inhabitants.
Pittsburgh was also the birthplace of the Republican Party, which held its first
convention there in February 1856: the Mellon family would be among its faithful
for the next hundred years and more. In this buoyant, fertile environment,
Thomas Mellon grew in wealth and stature. In 1857, the Allegheny County
commissioners decided to double the real estate tax to pay the interest on bonds
that they had imprudently floated to help finance railroad extension in the
area. As befitted a lifelong opponent of tax increases and irresponsible
speculation, an outraged Thomas Mellon helped organize public protests, and he
spoke at many meetings. But his chief activities remained business and the law,
at which he would work harder during Andrew Mellon's formative years than at any
Thomas Mellon continued to deal in debts, mortgages, real estate, and property
developments, not just in Pittsburgh, but also more widely. In 1856, he took
control from a defaulting mortgagor of a furnace property of 1,700 acres in West
Virginia; it was his first acquaintance with iron production, but he chose
against continuing operation because of the prohibitive costs of obtaining ore
from nearby mountainsides. Three years later, he ventured more deeply into the
coal business, and went into partnership with his wife's cousin, Felix Casper
Negley. He financed the purchase of coal works at Braddock and Sandy Creek, but
despite kinship, Negley proved an unreliable partner, and Mellon was later
obliged to resort to "vexatious litigation." This was not his only business
association that would go sour, and in his autobiography he would lament that
his judgment of men and character was defective, and that he was too trusting
and easily persuaded. Much more successful was a partnership with John B. Corey,
David Shaw, and George M. Bowman, all of whom became trusted lifelong friends.
The group invested in numerous collieries, among them the Waverly Coal and Coke
Company, and they prospered mightily. "As to the coal business," Thomas wrote to
his son James Ross, "I consider it one of the best, and it is highly
respectable." "Coal," he would conclude, was "the most important article in
At the same time, Thomas Mellon's legal practice was growing, and here, too, he
sought partners, among them William B. Negley, his wife's nephew. But again
collaboration created more problems than it solved: "I found it impossible," he
later lamented, "to transfer clients who relied on me to my partners, without
losing them altogether." By 1859, he was feeling "overwhelmed and oppressed"
with his increasingly "taxing and monotonous" legal work, but fortunately an
opportunity to lighten his load presented itself. In April that year, he was
approached by three powerful and politically connected friends-Thomas M.
Marshall, A. M. Watson, and Stephen Geyer-who invited him to run for the new
position of associate law judge in the Court of Common Pleas. With their help,
he secured the Republican nomination. The recently established party was
Mellon's natural political home: northern-based, pro-business, anti-immigration.
But he "knew nothing about party maneuvering and electioneering," and his
dislike of the political process was such that he refused to campaign
personally: "I did not go out at all or appear in public," he later recalled,
"leaving electioneering in that line to my friends." They worked hard for him,
and he won easily in the November election. He promptly dissolved his practice,
and was duly sworn in on the first Monday of December 1859. Thereafter, Thomas
Mellon was always known in Pittsburgh as "the Judge," or "Judge Mellon," and for
the rest of his life, even after leaving the bench, he would dress in his formal
attire from that time: a long-tailed frock coat and white shirt with a high,
starched wing collar.
For the next ten years, he shared the duties with a senior colleague (initially
William B. McClure, whom he had met in 1838 at the prothonotary's office, and
subsequently James P. Sterrett, who would end his days on the state supreme
court), and they sat together, or separately, as they saw fit or as the pressure
of the docket dictated, except in capital cases, where two judges were required.
Previously renowned as a ferociously committed and determinedly partisan
advocate, the Judge now moved with unexpected ease to Olympian impartiality.
But in other ways, he remained characteristically forceful and unyielding. He
had no qualms about sentencing criminals to death "if they clearly deserve it,"
and he was predictably unsparing in his criticism of those he deemed to be
hopeless or idle or failed-or Catholic. He believed that there was "entirely too
much sympathy and consideration for criminals" on "the part of the unthinking
multitude," and he soon became equally skeptical of the collective wisdom of
juries. His initial inclination was to let the jurors hear the evidence and make
up their own minds, with no direction from the bench. But he soon concluded that
they were rarely capable of reaching a sensible conclusion about complex issues,
and came to favor firm-handed direction from the bench. "The judge ...," he
later observed, "may even go so far as to tell the jury how on the whole the
weight of evidence strikes him: indeed it is his duty in most cases to do so."
In later life, Andrew Mellon would have cause to remember-and indeed to
share-his father's skepticism of jury trials.
Although the Judge applied himself with predictable efficiency and thoroughness,
he had been correct in anticipating that the job would be less stressful and
demanding than his practice. With time on his hands, he was able to return to
his relentless regime of solitary self-improvement which he had grudgingly
abandoned after college. But since then there had been a revolution in
political, theological, economic, and philosophical thought, as Bacon,
Descartes, Berkeley, Locke, Hume, Reid, Stewart, and Brown were now joined-and
in some cases supplanted-by Darwin, Spencer, Wallace, Huxley, Tyndall, Buckle,
and Argyle, the "deities now installed in the temples of philosophy." From among
these new thinkers, Thomas Mellon particularly relished Charles Darwin and
Herbert Spencer. He found it easy to reconcile the theory of evolution with the
tenets of Christianity: the history of the world extended forward in a long a
chain of cause and effect, while the great First Cause of it all remained
unknown and unknowable. And he found Spencer even more congenial: in his
insistence that life was a struggle which only the fittest survive; in his
belief in individualism and laissez-faire; in his hatred of socialism and
militarism; in his abhorrence of state interference; and in his stress on the
need for practical, problem-solving education. Darwin's and Spencer's were
transformative books for the Judge's middle-aged thinking in the way that
Franklin's had been during his youth. The Autobiography had sketched out an
individual course of self-help and self-advancement; Darwin and Spencer provided
the broader natural and sociological vindication of such a trajectory. The Judge
had experienced life as a struggle; they explained his experience. And so he
determined to prepare his sons to fight and to win in their turn.
Judge Mellon's mature, solitary self-education proceeded amid searing and
stirring national events. Indeed, the events initially facilitated his efforts,
for the Civil War broke out scarcely a year after he was elected to the bench,
and the resulting decline in litigation gave him more time to read and reflect.
But while he appreciated the opportunity, he deplored the reason for it.
Although abolitionist sentiment was overwhelming in western Pennsylvania, giving
Lincoln a massive majority in Allegheny County, the Judge did not feel strongly
either way about slavery. He thought "the Rebellion" was another foolish armed
conflict, characterized by "imbecility and petty tyranny" on the part of
military officers and by "folly and wickedness" on the part of politicians. For
war meant more government intervention, and more government spending, and this
in turn meant more debt and more taxes. "The waste and extravagance," he would
later recall, "indulged in by the state and local authorities in military
affairs was amazing." He thought military service a great mistake, and approved
of enlistment only among those who combined low class and low intellect, and who
would not be missed if they failed to return. By contrast, he thought "men of
better qualities" should stay at home, and "the parents and friends of young men
of promise" should "use all their influence" to guard them from the mistaken
temptations of "military excitement." War, by Mellon's lights, was not a matter
of glory and heroism and righteousness, but of waste and folly and ruin, and he
lamented the death in uniform of his former foe-cum-friend at the Pittsburgh
bar, Samuel Black.
Whatever his feelings about it, the Civil War inevitably impinged on the Judge's
affairs and on his family, making him "gloomy and melancholy." His brother
Samuel and his uncle Thomas both supported the Confederacy, but a cousin of
Sarah Jane's, General James S. Negley, served in the Union forces. Cargoes of
coal that the Judge shipped downriver to New Orleans were impounded by
Confederate troops, and he could secure the $40,000 he was owed in the
transaction only by calling on his connections with the war secretary, Edwin
Stanton, who had been a fellow Pittsburgh lawyer before joining Lincoln's
cabinet. But these were not his only anxieties. A ballooning national debt and
rising taxes led the Judge to fear that the entire Mellon fortune might be wiped
out, and that the family would have to leave the state; nothing of the kind
happened. A more creditable worry was that industrial Pittsburgh would be a
target for the Confederate army, and in 1862 and 1863 the threat seemed clear
and present: "our homes and property," the Judge remembered, "were at one time
in actual danger of destruction by the rebels." Trenches were dug and defensive
earthworks constructed; they passed close to the Mellon house, behind the
orchards. Andrew Mellon was not yet ten, but he vividly recalled the workers
digging and shoveling, and he stood guard over the Mellon cherry trees with an
unloaded shotgun. He also remembered seeing Abraham Lincoln in February 1861,
when his train stopped at Pittsburgh on the way to Washington for his
inauguration. When the president-elect rose to speak, he amazed the boy as he
"un-spiraled himself, like a snake," to a great height, and spoke in "gentle and
well modulated" tones.
Excerpted from Mellon
by David Cannadine
Copyright © 2006 by David Cannadine.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
David Cannadine was born in Birmingham in 1950 and educated at the Cambridge, Oxford, and Princeton. He is the editor and author of many acclaimed books, including The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, which won the Lionel Trilling Prize and the Governors' Award; Aspects of Aristocracy; G. M. Trevelyan; The Pleasures of the Past; History in Our Time; and Class in Britain. He has taught at Cambridge and Columbia and is now the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.
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