June 19, 1902
The Disease of Money-Getting
WE were delayed one day last summer at the toll gate on a lonely road in the Virginia mountains. The son of the gatekeeper at the moment came hurrying across the field.
“I’ve got the job, father!” he shouted, waving his hat. “Sixteen dollars a month!”
The old man stared at him openmouthed, forgetting to give us our change. “Sixteen dollars a month! Why, you kin git married now, Bob, right away and set up housekeepin’! You kin lead a man’s life now, sah!”
We laughed as we drove away at the mountaineer’s ideas of the things necessary to a man’s life. He must belong, we said, to a generation of two centuries ago.
Some one then told a story of a man he knew in Denver or St. Paul or some other crowded, driving Western city. He had been all of his life a bookkeeper on a small salary. When he was a young man and the city a village he had bought for a few dollars a huge square of ground on the principal street and had built a snug little house on it and planted a garden for his young wife. Now that they were gray old folks of seventy they still lived in the house, hedged in by cabbages and roses, the mossy old well in one corner of the garden, the beehive in another.
The lot was now surrounded by huge business houses and was of enormous value.
One firm after another offered the old man sums for it which would make him rich for life.
“You can give up work if you sell,” they said, “and take your place among the millionaires of the State. You can build yourself a palace out in the country and have nothing to do but turn over your money and make more and more millions.”
“My wife and me,” he said, “wouldn’t be comfortable in a palace. We are comfortable in this house. It’s home. I don’t want to rake in millions. We have enough. I’m able for my work—it doesn’t hurt me. We have no children to leave a fortune to. Money in bank wouldn’t give my wife as much comfort as her posies and bees do. No, I won’t sell.”
He is still living in the mean little house and picks strawberries for his old wife’s breakfast from ground that is worth a thousand dollars a foot.
We laughed again and some one else recalled the story of another madman, who was as ignorant of the value of money.
“My guide,” he said, “when I was fishing in Florida last spring showed me one day a tract of land on the river bank. ‘That’s my ground,’ he said. ‘I’ve got fifty acres there. I have cleared three acres an’ put it into lettuce fer the Northern market. It brings me in a hundred dollars a year.”
“Why not clear the whole of it,” I asked, “and put it into lettuce? Then you would have thousands of dollars a year instead of one hundred.”
“He stared at me. ‘A hundred’s enough fer me with what I make fishin’. Why should I slave fer money I don’t need?’
“‘But you do need it,’ I urged, and told him of some of the luxuries he could buy with more money. Besides, I argued, he should have money laid by in bank. He did not answer for a while and then said:
“‘No, I’m in the right of it. Ther’s only me an’ my boy. Bob’s hed good schoolin’ an’ is makin’ his own way in Jacksonville. Ef he wants more money he kin come an’ plant more lettuces. I’ve a snug cabin yonder, an’ what with fish an’ game an’ a pig I’ve enough to eat. I like to look into politics a bit an’ I’m fond o’ readin’. The hundred dollars pays for my newspapers an’ books. Ef I worked more land I’d hev money in bank, as you say, but I’d hev no time for politics nor readin’. No. Ther's other things than money. Enough of it’s enough.
“He was a good guide,” continued the fisherman, “but a queer fellow. He never planted more lettuce. I often wonder whether he was quite mad in that matter of eminently sane.”
When I read in THE INDEPENDENT the other day the discussion upon the Concentration of Wealth it brought to my memory these ignorant feeble folk who, because they valued money only for what it would buy, we ridiculed as mad. They seemed more feeble and more mad in the light of these discussions of the power of wealth.
I wonder, by the way, if the younger generation of Americans are conscious of how rapidly wealth is becoming the one object that dominates our horizon? The greed for money has been developed among us since the Civil War with the force and swiftness of an epidemic. Before that war there were very few large fortunes in this country. The man who accumulated two hundred thousand dollars was looked upon with awe as a Crœsus. We had no huge, splendid cities then, hotbeds of luxury. The Western, even the Middle States were sparsely settled; the majority of our people lived in villages or little towns, where the conditions of life were simple and inexpensive. The great man of the town probably lived in a pillared wooden mansion on an income of two or three thousand per annum. He had a Brussels carpet on his parlor and a pair of Vito Viti’s alabaster vases on the mantel shelf. His wife owned a single velvet gown, which gave her royal state for life. The yearly incomes of the less lucky men of the village—clerks, cashiers, storekeepers, lawyers or doctors—usually ranged from four hundred to a thousand dollars. Living, on the other hand, was cheap. Butter and beef at ten cents a pound, a cow in the “lot,” pigs in the sty and a garden full of vegetables and fruit supplied food. In the clothes press were a Sunday broadcloth suit and a silk gown; they would last for many years. There were no operas, no pictures, no costly journeys to absorb money. The man who had been in Europe was regarded with wonder; men talked to him with bated breath. These men and women knew nothing of art for the stage nor the countless luxuries which are necessities to their grandchildren. Yet they were of honorable birth, gentle-mannered, God-fearing, and, as a rule, with as sound a literary education and taste as the majority of their grandsons. Human nature was, of course, the same then as now. But as there were fewer uses of money, it rated lower among the good things of life than it does with us. In the code of our church-going, Bible-loving ancestors there was something vulgar, even wicked, in the greed for riches. Every community had, of course, its misers and shrewd money-grabbers. But their aims were regarded as plebeian, their place in society was below the salt. Little thought was given to ancestry. Education was held to be the chief good and object of ambition. “Professional men” were indisputably the upper class. Every ambitious mechanic or poor farmer struggled hard to push at least one of his boys through college and to make of him a lawyer, doctor or minister.
Then came the Civil War. When it was over some of the successful army contractors first taught us how fast and how high an ignorant, underbred man could climb in the community upon a heap of dollars. Then followed the oil speculation, the development of the railway systems; after that came the formation of the great trusts. The American has now grown used to look upon gigantic accumulations of wealth, and it may well be that his eyesight is a little impaired by their perpetual glitter. Dwellers under the luster of Mt. Blanc, it is said, see other things but dully and no longer can measure distances justly.
More can be bought with money now in the United States, perhaps, than anywhere else. Luxury, political power, a certain social position—all have their price. Haman occasionally may be vexed, as of old, by some scholarly Mordecai sitting at the gate, who watches his noisy pomp with a quiet, amused smile. And yet the poor gentleman Mordecai has common sense. He knows that with a little heavier account in bank he could send his consumptive boy to Florida or the Adirondacks, and that without it he must die. Mordecai is not a slave to Mammon, but he is human, and he, too, joins the multitude in the frantic struggle of money-getting.
Who can live outside of it?
Life rises before the young American now as the enchanted palace did before Jack in the old fairy story. Behind its closed doors wait wonders of which his grandfather knew nothing, the triumphs of art and science, the joys of travel, of power, of society, of luxury. But the doors open, he thinks, only to golden keys. How, without a great fortune, can he sail in his yacht to unknown climes, or build a castle like Biltmore, or buy Titians, or endow colleges, or, most coveted joy of all, enter the Smart Set of his native city? The huge accumulations of wealth in the last two or three years by a few individuals and by the trusts seem to have maddened the brain of the nation just as a noxious disease infects a body.
The majority of the writers in your symposium the other day based their remarks upon the acknowledged fact that the ruling Power in this country now was not the love of liberty or patriotism or God, but—the Dollar.
Our recent writers on sociology recognize the recent change in the values which we set upon the things of life. Our old idea of a higher class to be imitated, men and women of honest parentage, of gentle breeding and high purposes, is, we now hear, stale and fantastic. Our House of Lords, we are told, “is already incorporated. They are the Plutocrats of New York. They soon will give us a syndicated Presidency.”
The faith of the old-time American in the republic as the one land on earth where all men are free—where government exists only by the consent of the governed—is jeered at and thrust aside. “Neither the constitution nor the old prejudices in favor of liberty, nor the dead hand of Washington,” we are told, “shall be allowed to interfere with the gigantic business interests of the country.”
Under this ruling even the meaning of words has changed lately for Americans. The successful man is merely the rich man. The national progress of which we boast so loudly just now does not mean advance in science, in art, or learning, or in the nobility or distinction of individual life, but simply commercial progress. The popular policy of Imperialism is, stripped of verbiage, merely the seizing of territory and subjugation of foreign peoples with whom we have no quarrel, by force, in order to increase the national wealth.
To put money into the Treasury we admitted slavery into the States again without a protest. Professedly a Christian people, we looked on in silence while our army was sent to conquer an intelligent race, capable of self-government, who were struggling for their freedom. When our soldiers revived some of the most brutal tortures of the Middle Ages to subdue them we were silent, and when General Smith ordered the extermination of women and all children over ten years of age we forgave him. Why? Because torture and wholesale murder were “necessities of war,” and this war is going to put money into our pockets.
Our doings in the Philippines have been recited with many lofty phrases. But there, in homely English, is the meaning of them.
To measure how deeply this cancer of avarice has eaten into the national character, look for a moment at the list of pensioners. Not at the honest men who were disabled in the service of their country and who deserve her grateful and tender care while they live, but at the huge body of willing paupers who once rendered her a short service, for which they were amply paid at the time, and who, tho able and strong, have fed upon her ever since. Not one man among them, apparently, has found sufficient reward in the proud consciousness that he served his country in her hour of peril. He chooses rather to take pay and more pay in dollars and cents from her every month while he lives.
Jesus Christ held an ideal man before the world, pure, bold, unselfish, giving his life to serve God and to help his brother. That man has drawn humanity upward for nineteen centuries.
But now we have a new model. “Get money,” shouts the modern teacher to our boys. “Why should you starve? Treat yourselves to the best of life as did the young Roman in the days of Augustus. Get money—Rem facias—it is the only good!”
But in out universal, wild rush to the feet of the golden calf, can we not go back for a moment to facts, to plain common sense? The ruler of Wall Street—what are the realities of life to him? His millions, or his aching jaw, his drunken son—the woman whom he loved, who is dead? Do the millions actually buy him rest, comfort, happiness? Do they give him any hold upon the world into which he soon must go, and go without a dollar?
There were men richer than he in the old Roman days who often sat, smiling, to watch the superb lions in the arena below while the followers of a miserable Galilean Jew were fed to them.
They are gone and Rome is gone. But the Galilean still lives.
In the fury of our haste to be rich I often think of those ignorant folk of whom I told you who valued money only for the rest and content it could buy, and knew when they had enough of it.
Are they mad or more sane than any of us?
1. King Croesus of Lydia, c. 560-546 B.C. was renowned for great wealth, but was ultimately overthrown by Cyrus of Persia. ↩
2. In the Hebrew Bible, Haman plots to kill all the Jews because Mordecai refused to bow to him; Esther prevents this from occurring. ↩
3. A New Testament figure that represents material wealth or avarice. ↩
4. Presumably works of art by Italian painter Tiziano Vecellio (c. 1490-1576), known as Titian. ↩
5. In response to an attack on 51 American soldiers stationed in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, Philippines, on September 28, 1901, General Jacob Hurd Smith (1840-1918) ordered his soldiers to “kill and burn” as much as possible and to consider anyone over ten years of age a potential threat. ↩
6. First emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus (63 B.C.E. - 14 C.E.) ruled from 27 B.C.E. - 14 C.E. ↩
7. Latin: Make money. ↩
University of Connecticut