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Chapter 24: on the natural disapproval of wealth

There is a natural feeling of distrust and even disapproval of wealth, especially on the part of those who have never possessed it. It is natural also that this should be a sliding scale, and that each person should regard the next largest tax-payer as too rich. Thirty years ago, at the sea-side resort called Pigeon Cove, or Cape Ann, there was a village wit known habitually as Old Knowlton, a retired fisherman, who delighted to corner in argument a set of eminent clergymen who then resorted there, as Dr. Chapin, Dr. Gannett, Dr. Bartol, Thomas Starr King, and others. He liked to swear before them, to ask hard questions out of the Old Testament, and to call them familiarly by their last names. One day he was much startled, on asking about Dr. Gannett's salary, to hear that it was $3000, [166] which would not now be regarded as a large sum, but seemed to him enormous. “Why, Gannett,” said the licensed veteran, “what can a minister do with so much money? You can't know how to manage it! Gannett, you ought to have a guardeen!”

No doubt we are all ready, if we personally escape wealth, to offer advice as to its guardianship, but probably the nearer we came to it, the greater the difficulty of deciding how to handle it. There is nothing new in the phenomenon, except in its lately rapid increase among ourselves. Even now it is said that no American is quite so rich as Cecil Rhodes, the South African adventurer, who is wealthy enough to organize piratical expeditions into free states; and, it is predicted, to be elevated to the peerage of England, even after they have failed. No American family is so rich as the Rothschilds, whose nest is still shown-or was till lately — a tottering and shabby house in the Jewish quarter of Frankfort. Matthew Arnold, who shook his head over the comparatively moderate displays of wealth in this country, gloats with delight, in two letters, over the luxurious living of the English Rothschilds. But we all like to philosophize about luxury and give it advice-and [167] all the more the less we share of it; just as it was said of Cardinal de Retz, that he made up for an utter neglect of his own soul by exercising an abundant supervision over the souls of other people.

There is doubtless a great drawback on all the direct good done by great riches, although in many respects one has to recognize this good. Mr. Edward Atkinson thinks that all the Vanderbilt wealth is not, as such things go, too large a commission for its founder to have earned by the actual cheapening of the freight on each barrel of flour from the West to the East. It is usually claimed by the advocates even of mercantile trusts that, though the immediate effect of such organizations is to raise the price of the necessaries of life, the trusts tend to lower them in the end by methodizing and cheapening the production. Then the socialist also usually maintains that all such tendencies are to be helpful at last, because they prepare the way for public ownership, which is what he desires. But the trouble remains, after all, that it is not for these reasons that men really admire wealth or seek it. They do this simply because it is wealth. In all ages of the world it has been its intrinsic quality that dazzled. “Put money in thy [168] purse.” There is no doubt a preference in the community for honesty, even on a large scale; and a stigma often attaches to ill-gotten wealth during a man's lifetime. He knows, however, that it will not extend to his children, and that they will have as little reason to trouble themselves about its origin as an English duke troubles himself about the possible shame of the ancestor who laid the foundation of the family.

There are undoubtedly many rich men who honestly feel great doubts as to the rightfulness of their unequal position. Very frank and noble expressions of this feeling might be quoted. The other perplexity, however, comes in — as to what they are to do about it. Even if they give millions to colleges and libraries and public buildings, it does not satisfy their critics, and perhaps does not quite satisfy themselves. Ought they not to use their money, in some way, towards remedying the very inequality that has created it? But that way bewilderment lies. In some little Judean village the text “Sell that ye have, and give alms,” might be literally interpreted. For a large and highly organized community any such literal interpretation would be disastrous. It is hard to conceive of a greater [169] calamity in a town than to have some remorseful multi-millionaire turn his whole property into dollars and sprinkle them broadcast in the public streets. The tramps and waifs of the nation would rapidly gather in that town, and all honest and frugal life would be at an end. To invest the money in novel enterprises, even for the public good, might be almost as hopeless; because the whole theory of social progress is still so imperfectly worked out that the first attempts must for years be failures. No wonder that the rich man, even if conscientious, is puzzled, and, if fresh from the reading of Howells's Altruria, yet postpones his actual experiments until Edward Bellamy and Henry George have reconciled their warring projects.

What socialists find it hard to recognize is that personal wealth rarely comes by accident, but in most cases by natural leadership, by skill, or by inheritance from skill. Of course the rich man uses the laws of nature and the general progress of society, but the trouble is that he often uses them with an ability which his neighbors cannot supply in his place. Corporations do not pay salaries of twenty thousand dollars because it amuses them, but because the man whom they pay is worth that [170] to them. If not, he is dropped very rapidly. We have to deal with a world where certain men are born with a certain gift. It is, of course, nobler where a man consecrates that gift to the service of man or the glory of God; where he prefers to live concealed and do his work. Such men are around us all the time, but from the very nature of the case we do not hear much about them. Prominent usefulness soon attracts the reporters and the begging letters. On the other hand, a man may be grandly useful and yet have a petty desire to advertise himself, as it appears from the newly published memoirs of Louis Agassiz that George Peabody once offered to endow a great museum munificently if his own name could be attached to it, and withheld the gift when that proposal was declined.


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