MERCHANTS OF DEATH

CHAPTER III
DU PONT—PATRIOT AND POWDER-MAKER


Take saltpetre, charcoal, and sulphur, and you can make thunder and lightning, if you know how.
—ROGER BACON, De Nullitate Magiae.


ABOUT the time when Robert Fulton was cooling his heels in Napoleonic anterooms, a young man named Eleuthère Irénée Du Pont journeyed to America.1  He was the son of a famous French radical intellectual who, like so many of his class, had long entertained a romantic love for the new republic across the Atlantic.  Reports of its constitution and its founders corresponded with all the ideas of the current French writers who inspired the younger generation in France to revolt against the monarchy.

He was an intellectual, but not without an eye for commercial prospects.  He saw more in America than a laboratory of political science.  His father, Pierre Du Pont, had invested heavily in a Virginian land company, and his brother Victor was engaged in trade with the West Indies out of New York.  Accordingly, in a rich land like America it was not long before he saw a chance to invest his own not inconsiderable patrimony.

One day he went hunting with a French veteran of Washington’s army.  So abundant was the shooting that he had to lay in an extra supply of powder.  What he got and the price he had to pay opened his eyes.  He received a very inferior grade of powder at an exceptionally high price.  Now thoroughly interested, he visited powder mills, studied prices and came to the conclusion that America was a good country in which to start a powder business.

Indeed, he had some experience in this line.  He had an excellent scientific education and had specialised in chemistry at Essonne.  One of his father’s best friends was Lavoisier, the greatest chemist of the time in France and the supervisor of gunpowder manufacture for the French government before the revolution.  And Lavoisier had helped the son of his friend in his studies.

After making estimates of the cost of building a mill and purchasing supplies, Irénée returned to France to get material and financial backing.  He was aided by the political situation in Europe.  Napoleon was letting no opportunity pass which promised to harm his most formidable enemy, England.  If young Du Pont could set going a successful powder mill in the States, England, which sold most of this product not only to America but to all the world, would be affected.  Therefore the First Consul gave orders that all possible aid be given to Du Pont.  So government draftsmen made plans and government arsenals manufactured machines for the new enterprise.  And plentiful capital was forthcoming.  The affair started under favourable auspices.

Thus in 1802 there came into being the first great American powder factory under the name of Du Pont de Nemours, Père et Fils et Cie ;  later Irénée, the moving spirit, changed it to his own name—E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company ;  but it was sufficiently French to attract the Francophile spirit which was prevalent in America at that time.  The new company prospered from the beginning.  In four years the mills turned out 600,000 pounds of powder.  Irénée’s calculations had proved correct.  He had seen as well as Napoleon that American manufacturing could cramp English trade, and that this applied especially to powder.  He had acted patriotically both for the country of his adoption and for his recent patrie, the enemy of England.

Also he knew the right people in America from the first.  In France he and his father had been prominent in the philosophical and radical circles which prepared the way for the French Revolution.  They belonged to the right wing of this group, and they barely saved their necks from the guillotine when the extremists prevailed.  In the earlier days of the Revolution old Pierre was at different times both President and Secretary of the Constituent Assembly and voted against the execution of Louis XVI.  Naturally after this he was out of favour with the Jacobins.  Pierre retired from politics and spent his time editing the works of his master Turgot.  This impeccable record as moderate radicals was a strong recommendation to the powerful group of philosophic politicians in America who sympathised with them.

Prominent among these early friends in America was Thomas Jefferson.  Irénée counted on the aid of the President, and Jefferson did not fail him.  The President wrote to the young powder merchant :

“ It is with great pleasure I inform you that it is concluded to be for the public interest to apply to your establishment for whatever can be had from that for the use either of the naval or military department.  The present is for your private information ;  you will know it officially by application from those departments whenever their wants may call for them.  Accept my friendly salutations and assurances of esteem and respect.
“ (Signed) THOMAS JEFFERSON.”

In other words, Du Pont had inside influence.  Orders came in as promised, and they were so satisfactorily filled that Jefferson wrote another letter to Du Pont praising the excellence of the product, which he himself had tested on a recent hunting expedition.  But the orders did not come in as large quantities as expected.  Perhaps it was youthful impatience, but Du Pont was not satisfied.  While Jefferson had interceded in his behalf, the Secretaries of the Army and Navy had the ordering of war supplies.  Although Secretary Dearborn declared that the Du Pont powder was the best, orders up to 1809 amounted to only $30,000.  It seemed that Dearborn was not sufficiently impressed with the need for preparedness in peace times.

But after 1809 there was a change.  British men-of-war had begun the irritating practice of “ impressing ” American seamen, and relations between Britain and America became embittered.  War was in the offing, and in 1810 orders for powder doubled and trebled.  When the War of 1812 did break out, Du Pont sold virtually all the powder the country required.  Records of the company tell how the little factory at Wilmington rushed several hundred barrels of powder to Washington when that city was attacked by the British troops.  Government connections, Du Pont—as well as many other war dealers—found, were very profitable.

But, like others of his craft, Du Pont also found that post-war years are the hardest.  Orders declined, there were great surplus stocks, and he had spent money expanding his plant.  Yet when the government wished to dispose of large quantities of damaged powder, Du Pont generously took it off their hands at a low price.  On top of that there was a terrific explosion which practically destroyed the whole establishment.  Patriotism, he found, was an expensive sentiment.

Yet he resolved to make his company entirely American—a difficult task in his situation, for capital was scarce in the new country.  But he returned to France and found that his renown had spread to such an extent that soliciting funds was not an insuperable task.  Many famous and wealthy people, among them Madame de Staël and Talleyrand, contributed to his financing.  But however grateful he was, Du Pont felt that this was foreign gold, to be employed only in an emergency.  He would work hard and pay it off as soon as possible.  He returned to America with new vigour.  He rebuilt his plant and made it more efficient than ever.  Now he sold his product to whoever wanted it—to Spain, to the West Indies and especially to the South American republics which were in ferment of revolution against Spain.  It will be noticed that he was not averse, however much he sympathised with the partisans of Bolivar, to selling to both sides in these wars.  This sort of transaction required credits, and he could obtain only short-term financing in America at that time.  In one of his letters he complains about the strenuous rides he had to make once a week to the banking centre some sixty miles away, to take up his notes.

All the more reason then that he should be tempted to fill an order that came to him in 1833.  All through 1832 the State of South Carolina had seethed with rebellious talk.  Among the hot-blooded planters there were sprouting the seeds of the spirit which later produced Sumter and the Confederacy ;  for import duties, imposed at the suggestion of Northern manufacturers, had roused a tempest, and for the first time since the founding of the Union there was serious talk of secession.

So serious was it that among the more daring Carolina leaders there were some who laid plans for armed defence.  They gave an order to one of Du Pont’s agents for a shipment of 125,000 pounds of powder, and they offered, which was most unusual among Du Pont’s credit-seeking clients, $24,000 in cash.  Here was an excellent opportunity to clear off his foreign debts, but the integrity fostered by his radical education, together with his early love for the Union, triumphed.  However much he wished to become wholly American by the erasure of his obligations, he felt that he could not achieve this independence by descending to such commercial methods.  He wrote to his agent :  “ The destination of this powder being obvious, we think it right to decline furnishing any part of the above order.  Whenever our friends in the South will want sporting powder for peaceful purposes we will be happy to serve them.”

But he felt that his civic duties were not entirely satisfied by this refusal.  He was now a public figure in government councils, a director of the Bank of the United States and a member of various organisations devoted to the economic welfare of the country.  He hurried to Washington to see if he could assist in patching up a truce between the Northern industrialists and the fiery planters.  After protracted negotiations a compromise was reached and the affair subsided.  Indeed, the storm was succeeded by such a friendly calm that he could not help writing to his Southern agent in a jocular mood :  “ Now that the affair has ended so amiably I almost regret that we refused to supply the powder.  We would be very glad to have that $24,000 in our cash, rather than that of your army.”

A few years later Irénée died, after seeing his dream come true through the payment of his foreign debt and the completion of his plans for a 100 per cent.  American firm.  His successor, Alfred, was a little more aggressive.  Vigilant for his country’s defence, he observed that “ our political dissensions are such that it would require the enemy at our doors to induce us to make proper preparation for defence.”  Such talk of “ preparedness ” is not unusual among arms manufacturers.  Also the words “ government ownership ” came to plague this early war dealer, and, commenting on a Presidential message in 1837 which recommended construction of a government powder plant, he objected on the ground that it would cost the government much money without corresponding savings.

But a real test of his sincerity came in 1846—a test that was far more difficult than the one Irénée faced in 1833.  Two imperialisms had clashed on the Rio Grande, and war was declared between Mexico and the United States.  At the outset there was the usual slogan, “ Stand by the President,” raised.  But James K. Polk was one of the least ingratiating persons who had ever sat in the Presidential chair.  Also he was a Southerner, and it was not unnatural that Northerners should assert that the war was simply a Southern plot to bring more slave states into the Union.

James Russell Lowell began it with his jingles in the Biglow Papers

They jest want this Californy
So’s to lug the new slave-states in
To abuse ye and to scorn ye
And to plunder ye like sin.

Daniel Webster flung his oratory into caustic criticism of the war, and he was abetted by fanatics like Sumner.  Soon, drinking of this heady fire water, Northern newspapers were fulminating against Polk and the continuance of the war.  This was one of the few wars waged by the United States in which the enemy was popular.  Black Tom Corwin said that American soldiers in Mexico should be welcomed by “ hospitable graves,” and a whole nightmare school of literature sprang up.  Some papers called for European intervention.  One said editorially :  “ If there is in the United States a heart worthy of American liberty, its impulse is to join the Mexicans.”  Another said :  “ It would be a sad and woeful joy, but a joy nevertheless, to hear that the hordes of Scott and Taylor were every man of them swept into the next world.”  Santa Anna, the rascally Mexican commander, became a hero in Boston and New York, and there was even a contingent of Americans who fought with the Mexican army.2

With this background, Du Pont, a strong Whig and anti-slavery partisan, could hardly feel much enthusiasm for the war, even if it did bring him government orders for powder.  A few weeks after the declaration of war a strange order came to him from Havana for 200,000 pounds of powder.  It was obviously from a Mexican source, and thus a fine opportunity was offered the powder-maker to aid “ poor Mexico ” and deal a blow to the slavery plot which he hated so much.  But with abolitionist journals attacking the American “ persecution ” and prominent men everywhere urging non-co-operation and even helping the enemy, Du Pont flatly refused to fill the order.

The tempters returned a second time, more cleverly concealed.  A Spaniard and a Frenchman placed an order with the Du Pont company for the same amount.  They asserted that it was not destined for Mexico and went to the trouble of supplying references from two American firms.  But Du Pont investigated, and came to the conclusion that it was another masked Mexican requisition.  “ However unjust our proceedings may be, and however shameful our invasion of Mexican territory, we cannot make powder to be used against our own country.”

The gods of patriotism rewarded Du Pont after the war was over by withholding from him the usual plague of post-war depression which perennially visits arms manufacturers ;  for the West was expanding.  In Ohio and Indiana farmers were industriously clearing away timber land, and potent charges of Du Pont powder were needed to extract the stumps.  This was the first era of railway building, and powder was a necessity for railroad contractors.  William Astor and his Oregon Fur Company needed powder for hunting in the Northwest.  Mining was also beginning to develop.

Du Pont did not need a war, but the gods smiled and gave him one.  In 1854 England, France, Turkey, and others went to war with Russia, and guns in the Crimea required powder.  England had exhausted her own supply and she turned to Du Pont, while Russia also sent orders to Wilmington.  Du Pont filled them both.  After all, he, like other Americans of the time, felt no particular sentiment for either side in that remote struggle.  From the homespun little factory on the Brandywine, shipments of the “ black death ” went forth to the far corners of the globe.

In these days before the Civil War, only a few rough buildings comprised the workshops, laboratory and drying-houses.  Several hundred descendants of French Revolutionary soldiers served as employees, like serfs for a medieval baronial family, and the president had his office in a mere shack on the grounds, for the Du Ponts had the ingrained French spirit of conservatism.  The elder Du Pont refused to employ a secretary—a far cry from the present, when secretaries to the secretary are the order of the day.  Clinging to old traditions, he refused to send his product by railway, and long mule teams made deliveries even to great distances.

Du Pont, like the military traditionalists of England and Prussia of that day, turned down guncotton, which later he was forced to use.  Indeed, there was not much reason why he should yield to these new things, for his natural conservatism was aided by his dominating position in the backward economic system of the time.  Governments had to come to him with orders, and it was a matter of indifference to him whether he sold war material or not.  Competition in the powder business was not keen.  Besides, the winning of the West required so much hunting and blasting powder that he did not care whether cannon fired or not.

During the American Civil War Du Pont was again the patriot—at least the Northern patriot.  Two days after the fall of Fort Sumter, when Secessionists were offering huge sums to war dealers for supplies, Du Pont wrote to his Richmond agent :  “ With regard to Col. Dimmock’s order we would remark that since the inauguration of war at Charleston, the posture of national affairs is critical and a new state of affairs has risen.  Presuming that Virginia will do her whole duty in this great emergency and will be loyal to the Union we shall prepare the powder, but with the understanding that should general expectation be disappointed, and Virginia by any misfortune assume an attitude hostile to the United States, we shall be absolved from any obligation to furnish the order.”  Naturally, the war brought Du Pont large orders, and he was the mainstay of the Northern government.

The Civil War had created a virtual partnership between Du Pont and the government.  When the war was over this relationship was not disturbed.  In close co-operation with the government Du Pont now began experiments in new powders.  In 1873 he patented a new hexagonal powder, together with a machine to compress it.  The government tested it and found it a success.  The British heard of it and at once placed an order for 2,000 pounds of the powder.  It was filled at once, possibly with the hope of securing further British orders, for Du Pont surmised that the British proposed to compare it with “ an analogous powder ” for which it paid an English manufacturer nine cents a pound more than the Du Pont price.

In 1889 the government made use of Du Pont in securing certain superior European gunpowders.  The brown prismatic and smokeless powders of the Belgians and the Germans were reputed to be better than the American product.  Under government urging Alfred Du Pont went abroad to buy the rights to manufacture these powders in America, and Eugene Du Pont went to Europe to learn the methods of manufacture.  Working hand in glove with the government became a regular practice with Du Pont.  In 1899 a smokeless powder plant was erected by the government at Indian Head, and, according to a Congressman, “ the Du Pont Company assisted the officers of the United States in every possible way . . . doing everything possible to make the venture a success.”  A little later, Congress appropriated $167,000 to build a powder plant at Dover, N.J.  According to the same Congressman, “ the Du Pont Company not only gave the government officials free access to all its plants, but turned over their blueprints to them, so that when the factory was complete it represented every modern feature.”3

A curious problem arose in 1896.  Somehow there had grown up a reluctance to kill and blast with black or brown powder.  Du Pont acceded to the demands of his customers by manufacturing smokeless powders in thirteen different colours.  Here is a letter sent out in regard to the matter :

“ We can dye the powder almost any colour desired.  We send you a box of thirteen smokeless powders—all of these are on the market and you can judge of the colours. . . . We also send you some small bottles of Du Pont powder dyed various colours.  Some are very pretty.  If you do not like any of them we can send others, as we have a multitude of shades.”

The last decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the formation of powerful combines and trusts in American business.  It was only natural that Du Pont should be transformed from a simple powder company into a gigantic combine with international ramifications.  This development came as a result of the Civil War.  Government orders had been so reckless that the supply of powder on the market proved a drug to the entire industry.  The government sold its surplus at auction prices and the bottom fell out of the powder industry.  But complaining did not help.  Something must be done.

And something was done.  Beginning in 1872 the Du Pont Company gradually brought “ order ” into the industry, and in 1907 it was not only supreme in the field, but had virtually united all powder companies in the country under its guidance, control, or ownership.  It is a long story which has been told in detail by William S. Stevens in The Powder Trust, 1872-1912.4

It began with a series of price-fixing arrangements.  The industry was in a state of chaos.  A keg of rifle powder which ordinarily sold for $6.25 brought only $2.25.  The Gunpowder Trade Association of the United States was formed in 1872 by seven of the largest companies, and immediately a minimum price was fixed for powder.  Independents who would not enter the association were forced to the wall by systematic underselling.  Others were brought into line by purchase of so much of their stock that they could be controlled.

The situation seemed well in hand when another threat menaced the industry.  The Europeans decided to enter the American field by erecting a factory at Jamesburg, N.J.  The companies concerned were chiefly the Vereinigte Köln-Rottweiler Pulverfabriken of Cologne and the Nobel Dynamite Trust Company (Ltd.) of London.  This menace was met in characteristic fashion.  In 1897 an agreement was signed by the two groups, the European and the American, three points of which are of interest here as an example of co-operation between armament manufacturers :

1.  Neither group was to erect factories in the other’s territory ;

2.  If any government sought bids from a foreign powder manufacturer, the foreigner was obligated to ascertain the price quoted by the home factory and he dare not underbid that price ;

3.  For the sale of high explosives the world was divided into four sales territories.  The United States and its possessions, Central America, Colombia, and Venezuela were exclusive fields of the American powdermakers ;  the rest of the world (outside of the Americas) was European stamping ground.  Certain areas were to be open for free competition.


With the European menace thus removed, Du Pont now sought full control of the American field.  The policy pursued was one of ruthless elimination.  From 1903 to 1907, one hundred competitors were bought out and sixty-four of these were immediately discontinued.  This narrowed the field very considerably, leaving only such companies as were either affiliates or allies.  How ruthless this process of elimination was may be seen from the description of one who was in a position to know, Hiram Maxim.  He writes :  “ The Phoenix Company undertook to buck the Du Ponts in the powder business.  They were just about as wise as the little bull who bucked a locomotive—there was no more left of the Phoenix Company than there was of the little bull.”5

The result of this monopolistic policy may be seen in the fact that by 1905 Du Pont controlled the orders for all government ordnance powder.  Having established this monopoly, Du Pont turned again to pricefixing.  Hitherto prices had been quoted locally or regionally.  They were one thing in the East, another in the West, still another in the South.  Now, however, national prices were established from which there was no deviation.

About this time Du Pont encountered another obstacle.  The Federal government had passed the Sherman anti-trust laws in 1890, and in 1907 it finally got round to taking a look into the activities of the Du Pont Company.  It brought an action against the company in 1907, charging it with a violation of the Sherman Law.  But the government was in a quandary.  It proposed to restore conditions to what they had been before Du Pont began its monopolistic activities.  Du Pont, however, had wiped out most of its competitors by purchase, so that it was impossible to restore the status quo ante.  The government did manage to set up two great independent companies as a result of its suit.

During the World War, Du Pont supplied 40 per cent. of the powder used by the Allies, and after 1917 its orders from the United States government were enormous.6  To-day the Du Pont Company owns and operates more than sixty plants in twenty-two states of the Union.  Five research laboratories and more than eight hundred and fifty chemists and engineers have taken the place of the individual inventor.  Every year it grants twenty research fellowships.  It manufactures a multitude of products, including chemicals, paints, varnishes, rubber goods, cellophane, rayon, and countless others, but it is still the largest and most important powder-maker in the United States.7  Yet it is rather significant that, according to its own figures, only 2 per cent. of its total manufactures are in military products.8

Locally the Du Pont Company is very powerful.  It “ owns ” the state of Delaware ;  and the city of Wilmington, with its various Du Pont enterprises, hospitals, foundations, and welfare institutions, everywhere recalls the powder-maker dynasty.  The three daily newspapers of Delaware are all controlled by Du Pont.9

This local control, like that of a great feudal lord over his fief, has by and large satisfied the Du Ponts.  They have never sought prominence in national politics, though members of the family have—almost by accident—become United States Senators.  Their relationship with the government has always been very close, and this has been due just as much to the government as to the Du Ponts.  In their early period the demand for hunting and blasting powder was so active, and later their enterprises were so diversified, that they did not need wars to insure prosperity.  But whenever the government required its aid, in peace and in war, the company was ready to co-operate—usually with neat profits for itself.

Du Pont could afford to cling to his ideals ;  he could indulge in the sometimes expensive sentiment of patriotism, so well was he entrenched.  But there were other merchants, less secure and less scrupulous.




1 The Du Pont story is told in B.G. Du Pont, E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Company, A History, 1802-1902.  (New York, 1920) ;  Anonymous, The History of the E.I. Du Pont de Nemours Powder Company.  (Business America, 1912.)

2 Justin Smith, Way with Mexico, Vol. II, pp. 68-84.

3 Anonymous, The History of the E.I. Du Pont de Nemours Powder Company, p. 76s.

4 Ph.D. thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1912.  See also Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1912, for summary.

5 Clifton Johnson, The Rise of an American Inventor, p. 185.

6 “ Du Pont de Nemours Powder Company, E.I.” Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th ed.).

7 “ Research,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th ed.).

8 Stockholders’ Bulletin, June 15, 1933.

9 Arthur Warner, Delaware.  The Ward of a Feudal Family [in Gruening (ed.), These United States].