HISTORY OF THE GREAT AMERICAN FORTUNES

CHAPTER VII

THE CLIMAX OF THE ASTOR FORTUNE



The impressive fortune that William B. Astor left was mainly bequeathed in about equal parts to his sons John Jacob II. and William.  These scions, by inheritance from various family sources, intermarriage with other rich families, or both, were already rich.  Furthermore, having the backing of their father’s immense riches, they had enjoyed singularly exceptional opportunities for amassing wealth on their own account.

In 1853 William Astor had married one of the Schermerhorn family.  The Schermerhorns were powerful New York City landholders ;  and if not quite on the same pinnacle in point of wealth as the Astors, were at any rate very rich.  The immensely valuable areas of land then held by the Schermerhorns, and still in their possession, were largely obtained by precisely the same means that the Astors, Goelets, Rhinelanders and other conspicuous land families had used.


INTERRELATED WEALTH.


The settled policy, from the start, of the rich men, and very greatly of rich women, was to marry within their class.  The result obviously was to increase and centralize still greater wealth in the circumscribed ownership of a few families.  In estimating, therefore, the collective wealth of the Astors, as in fact of nearly all of the great fortunes, the measure should not be merely the possessions of one family, but should embrace the combined wealth of interrelated rich families.

The wedding of William Astor (as was that of his son John Jacob Astor thirty-eight years later to a daughter of one of the richest landholding families in Philadelphia) was an event of the day if one judges by the commotion excited among what was represented as the superior class, and the amount of attention given by the newspapers.  In reality, viewing them in their proper perspective, these marriages of the rich were infinitesimal affairs, which would scarcely deserve a mention, were it not for the effect that they had in centralizing wealth and for the clear picture that they give of the ideas of the times.  Posterity, which is the true arbiter in distinguishing between the enduring and the evanescent, the important and the trivial, rightly cares nothing for essentially petty matters which once were held of the highest importance.  Edgar Allan Poe, wearing his life out in extreme poverty, William Lloyd Garrison, thundering against chattel slavery from a Boston garret, Robert Dale Owen spending his years in altruistic endeavors — these men were contemporaries of the Astors of the second generation.  Yet a marriage among the very rich was invested by the self-styled creators and dispensers of public opinion with far more importance than the giving out of the world of the most splendid products of genius or the enunciation of principles of the profoundest significance to humanity.  Yet why slur the practices of past generations when we to-day are confronted by the same perversions ?  In the month of February, 1908, for instance, several millions of men in the United States were out of work ;  in destitution, because something or other stood between them and their getting work ;  and consequently they and their wives and children had to face starvation.  This condition might have been enough to shock even the most callous mind, certainly enough to have impressed the community.  But what happened ?  The superficial historian of the future, who depends upon the newspapers and who gauges his facts accordingly, will conclude that there was little or no misery or abject want ;  that the people were interested in petty happenings of no ultimate value whatsoever ;  that an Oriental dance and pantomime given in New York by “ society ” women, led by Mrs. Waldorf Astor, where a rich young woman reaped astonishment and admiration by coiling a live boa constrictor around her neck, was one of the great events of the day, because the newspapers devoted two columns to it, whereas scarcely any mention was made of armies of men being out of work.


MONEY AND HUMANITY.


As it was in 1908 so was it in the decades when the capitalists of one kind or another were first piling up wealth ;  they were the weighty class of the day ;  their slightest doings were chronicled, and their filmsiest sayings were construed oracularly as those of public opinion.  Numberless people sickened and died in the industrial strife and in miserable living quarters ;  ubiquitous capitalism was a battle-field strewn with countless corpses ;  but none of the professed expositors of morality, religion or politics gave heed to the wounded or the dead, or to the conditions which produced these hideous and perpetual slaughters of men, women and children.  But to the victors, no matter what their methods were, or how much desolation and death they left in their path, the richest material rewards were awarded ;  wealth, luxury, station and power ;  and the Law, the majestic, exalted Law, upheld these victors in their possessions by force of courts, police, sheriffs, and by rifles loaded with bullets if necessary.

Thus, to recapitulate, the Astors debauched, swindled and murdered the Indians ;  they defrauded the city of land and of taxes ;  they assisted in corrupting legislatures ;  they profited from the ownership of blocks of deathladen tenement houses ;  they certified to thieving administrations.  Once having wrested into their possession the results of all of these and more fraudulent methods in the form of millions of dollars in property, what was their strongest ally ?  The Law.  Yes, the Law, theoretically so impartial and so reverently indued with awe — and with force.  From fraud and force the Astor fortune came, and by force, in the shape of law, it was fortified in their control.  If a starving man had gone into any one of the Astor houses and stolen even as much as a silver spoon, the Law would have come to the rescue of outraged property by sentencing him to prison.  Or if, in case of a riot, the Astor property was damaged, the Law also would have stepped in and compelled the county to idemnify.  This Law, this extraordinary code of print which governs us, has been and is nothing more or less, it is evident, than so many statutes to guarantee the retention of the proceeds of fraud and theft, if the piracy were committed in a sufficiently large and impressive way.  The indisputable proof is that every single fortune which has been obtained by fraud, is still privately held and is greater than ever ;  the Law zealously and jealously guards it.  So has the Law practically worked ;  and if the thing is to be judged by its practical results, then the Law has been an instigator of every form of crime, and a bulwark of that which it instigated.  Seeing that this is so, it is not so hard to understand that puzzling problem of why so large a portion of the community has resolved itself into a committee of the whole, and while nominally and solemnly professing the accustomed and expected respect for Law, deprecates it, as it is constituted, and often makes no concealment of contempt.


LAW THE STRONGEST ASSET.


In penetrating into the origin and growth of the great fortunes, this vital fact is constantly forced upon the investigator :  that Law has been the most valuable asset possessed by the capitalist class.  Without it, this class would have been as helpless as a babe.  What would the medieval baron have been without armed force ?  But note how sinuously conditions have changed.  The capitalist class, far shrewder than the feudalistic rulers, dispenses with personally equipped armed force.  It becomes superfluous.  All that is necessary to do is to make the laws, and so guide things that the officials who enforce the laws are responsive to the interests of the propertied classes.  Back of the laws are police forces and sheriffs and militia all kept at the expense of city, county and State — at public expense.  Clearly, then, having control of the laws and of the officials, the propertied classes have the full benefit of armed forces the expense of which, however, they do not have to defray.  It has unfolded itself as a vast improvement over the crude feudal system.

In complete control of the laws, the great propertied classes have been able either to profit by the enforcement, or by the violation, of them.  This is nowhere more strikingly shown than in the growth of the Astor fortune, although all of the other great fortunes reveal the same, or nearly identical, factors.  With the millions made by a career of crime the original Astors buy land ;  they get more land by fraud ;  the Law throws its shield about the property so obtained.  They cheat the city out of enormous sums in taxation ;  the Law does not molest them.  On the contrary it allows them to build palaces and to keep on absorbing up more forms of property.  In 1875 William Astor builds a railroad in Florida ;  and as a gift of appreciation, so it is told, the Florida Legislature presents him with 80,000 acres of land.  It is wholly probable, if the underlying circumstances were known, that it would be found that an influence more material than a simple burst of gratitude prompted this gift.  Where did the money come from with which this railroad was built ?  And what was the source of other immense funds which were invested in railroads, banks, industrial enterprises, in buying more land and in mortgages — in many forms of ownership ?

The unsophisticated acceptor of current sophistries or the apologist might reply that all this money came from legitimate business transactions, the natural increase in the value of land, and thus on.  But waiving these superficial explanations and defenses, which really mean nothing more than a forced justification, it is plain that the true sources of these revenues were of a vastly different nature.  The millions in rents which flowed in to the Astor’s treasury every year came literally from the sweat, labor, misery and murder of a host of men, women, and children who were never chronicled, and who went to their death in eternal obscurity.


THE BASIS OF WEALTH’S STRUCTURE.


It was they who finally had to bear the cost of exorbitant rents ;  it was their work, the products which they created, which were the bases of the whole structure.  And in speaking of murder, it is not deliberate, premeditated murder which is meant, in the sense covered by statute, but that much more insidious kind ensuing from grinding exploitation ;  in herding human beings into habitations unfit even for animals which need air and sunshine, and then in stubbornly resisting any attempt to improve living conditions in these houses.  In this respect, it cannot be too strongly pointed out, the Astors were in nowise different from the general run of landlords.  Is it not murder when, compelled by want, people are forced to fester in squalid, germ-filled tenements, where the sunlight never enters and where disease finds a prolific breeding-place ?  Untold thousands went to their deaths in these unspeakable places.  Yet, so far as the Law was concerned, the rents collected by the Astors, as well as by other landlords, were honestly made.  The whole institution of Law saw nothing out of the way in these conditions, and very significantly so, because, to repeat over and over again, Law did not represent the ethics or ideals of advanced humanity ;  it exactly reflected, as a pool reflects the sky, the demands and selfinterest of the growing propertied classes.  And if here and there a law was passed (which did not often happen) contrary to the expressed opposition of property, it was either so emasculated as to be harmless or it was not enforced.

The direct sacrifice of human life, however, was merely one substratum of the Astor fortune.  It is very likely, if the truth were fully known, that the stupendous sums in total that the Astors cheated in taxation, would have been more than enough to have constructed a whole group of railroads, or to have bought up whole sections of the outlying parts of the city, or to have built dozens of palaces.  Incessantly they derived immense rentals from their constantly expanding estate, and just as persistently they perjured themselves, and defrauded the city, State and Nation of taxes.  It was not often that the facts were disclosed ;  obviously the city or State officials, with whom the rich acted in collusion, tried their best to conceal them.


GREAT THEFTS OF TAXES.


Occasionally, however, some fragments of facts were brought out by a legislative investigating committee.  Thus, in 1890, a State Senate Committee, in probing into the affairs of the tax department, touched upon disclosures which dimly revealed the magnitude of these annual thefts, but which in nowise astonished any well-informed person, because every one knew that these frauds existed.  Questioned closely by William M. Ivins, counsel for the committee, Michael Coleman, president of the Board of Assessments and Taxes, admitted that vast stretches of real estate owned by the Astors were assessed at half or less than half of their real value.1  Then followed this exchange, in which the particular “ Mr. Astor ” referred to was not made clear :

Q.:  You have just said that Mr. Astor never sold ?
A.:  Once in a while he sells, yes.
Q.:  But the rule is that he does not sell ?
A.:  Well, hardly ever ;  he has sold, of course.
Q.:  Isn’t it almost a saying in this community that the Astors buy and never sell ?
A.:  They are not looked upon as people who dispose of real estate after they once get possession of it.
Q.:  Have you the power to exact from them a statement of their rent rolls ?
A.:  No.
Q.:  Don’t you think that . . . if you are going to levy a tax properly and fully . . . you ought to be vested with that power to learn what the returns and revenues of that property are ?
A.:  No, sir ;  it’s none of our business.2

This fraudulent evasion of taxation was anything but confined to the Astor family.  It was practiced by the entire large propertied interests, not only in swindling New York City of taxes on real estate, but also those on personal property.  Coleman admitted that while the total valuation of the personal property of all the corporations in New York was assessed at $1,650,000,000, they were allowed to swear it down to $294,000,000.

Here we see again at work that fertile agency which has assisted ;  in impoverishing the masses.  Rentals are exacted from them, which represent on the average the fourth part of their wages.  These rentals are based upon the full assessment of the houses that they live in.  In turn, the landlords defraud the city of one-half of this assessment.  In order to make up for this continuous deprivation of taxes, the city proceeds time and time again to increase taxes and put out interest-bearing bond issues.  These increased taxes, as in the case of all others taxes, fall upon the workers and the results are seen in constantly rising rents and in higher prices for all necessities.


LICENSED PIRACY RAMPANT.


Was any criminal action ever instituted against these rich defrauders ?  None of which there is any record.  Not a publicist, editor, preacher was there who did not know either generally or specifically of these great frauds in taxation.  Some of them might protest in a half-hearted, insincere or meaningless way.  But the propertied classes did not mind wordy criticism so long as it was not backed by political action.  In other words, they could afford to tolerate, even be amused by, gusty denunciation if neither the laws were changed, nor the particular enforcement or non-enforcement which they demanded.  The essential thing with them was to continue conditions by which they could keep on defrauding.

Virtually all that was considered best in society — the men and women who lived in the finest mansions, who patronized art and the opera, who set themselves up as paramount in breeding, manners, taste and fashions — all of these were either parties to this continuous process of fraud or benefited by it.  The same is true of this class to-day ;  for the frauds in taxation are of greater magnitude than ever before.  It was not astonishing, therefore, when John Jacob Astor II died in 1890, and William Astor in 1892, that enconiums should be lavished upon their careers.  In all the accounts that appeared of them, not a word was there of the real facts ;  of the corrupt grasping of city land ;  of the debauching of legislatures and the manipulation of railroads ;  of their blocks of tenements in which disease and death had reaped so rich a harvest, or of their gigantic frauds in cheating the city of taxes.  Not a word of all of these.

Without an exception the various biographies were fulsomely laudatory.  This excessive praise might have defeated the purpose of the authors were it not that it was the fashion of the times to depict and accept the multi-millionaires as marvels of ability, almost superhuman.  This was the stuff fed out to the people ;  it was not to be wondered at that a period came when the popular mind reacted and sought the opposite extreme in which it laved in the most violent denunciations of the very men whom it had long been taught to revere.  That period, too, passed to be succeeded by another in which a more correct judgment will be formed of the magnates, and in which they will appear not as exceptional criminals, but as products of their times and environment, and in their true relation to both of these factors.

The fortune left by John Jacob Astor II in 1890 amounted to about $150,000,000.  The bulk of this descended to his son William Waldorf Astor.  The $75,000,000 fortune left by William Astor in 1892 was bequeathed to his son John Jacob Astor.  These cousins to-day hold the greatest part of the collective Astor fortune.

Having reached the present generation, we shall not attempt to enter into a detailed narrative of their multifarious interests, embracing land, railroads, industries, insurance and a vast variety of other forms of wealth.  The purpose of this work is to point out the circumstances underlying the origin and growth of the great private fortunes ;  in the case of the Astors this has been done sufficiently, perhaps overdone, although many facts have been intentionally left out of these chapters which might very properly have been included.  But there are a few remaining facts without which the story would not be complete, and lacking which it might lose some significance.


THE ASTOR FORTUNE DOUBLES.


We have seen how at William B. Astor’s death in 1876 the Astor fortune amounted to at least $100,000,000, probably much more.  Within sixteen years, by 1892, it had more than doubled in the hands of his two sons.  How was it possible to have added the extraordinary sum of $125,000,000 in less than a decade and a half ? Individual ability did not accomplish it ;  it is ludicrous to say that it could have done so.  The methods by which much of this increase was gathered in have already been set forth.  A large part came from the rise in the value of land, which value arose not from the slightest act of the Astors, but from the growth of the population and the labor of the whole body of workers.  This value was created by the producers, but far from owning or even sharing in it, they were compelled to pay heavier and heavier tribute in the form of rent for the very values which they had created.  Had the Astors or other landlords gone into a perpetual trance these values would have been created just the same.  Then, not content with appropriating values which others created, the landlord class defrauded the city of even the fractional part of these values, in the form of taxation.

Up to the present generation the Astors had never set themselves out as “reformers” in politics.  They had plundered right and left, but withal had made no great pretenses.  The fortune held by the Astors, so the facts indubitably show, represents a succession of piracies and exploitation.  Very curious, therefore, it is to note that the Astors of the present generation have avowed themselves most solicitous reformers and have been members of pretentious, self-constituted committees composed of the “best citizens,” the object of which has been to purge New York City of Tammany corruption.  Leaving aside the Astors, and considering the attitude of the propertied class as a whole, this posing of the so-called better element as reformers has been, and is, one of the most singular characteristics of American politics, and its most colossal sham.  Although continuously, with rare intermissions, the landholders and the railroad and industrial magnates have been either corrupting public officials or availing themselves of the benefits of corrupt politics, many of them, not in New York alone, but in every American city, have been, at the same time, metamorphosing themselves into reformers.  Not reformers, of course, in the true, high sense of the word, but as ingenious counterfeits.  With the most ardent professions of civic purity and of horror at the prevailing corruption they have come forward on occasions, clothed in a fine and pompous garb of righteousness.


THE QUALITY OF “REFORMERS.”


The very men who cheated cities, states and nation out of enormous sums in taxation ;  who bribed, through their retainers, legislatures, common councils and executive and administrative officials ;  who corruptly put judges on the bench ;  who made Government simply an auxiliary to their designs ;  who exacted heavy tribute from the people in a thousand ways ;  who forced their employees to work for precarious wages and who bitterly fought every movement for the betterment of the working classes — these were the men who have made up these so-called “ reform ” committees, precisely as to-day they constitute them.3

If there had been the slightest serious attempt to interfere with their vested privileges, corruptly obtained and corruptly enhanced, and with the vast amount of increment and graft that these privileges bought them, they would have instantly raised the cry of revolutionary confiscation.  But they were very willing to put an end to the petty graft which the politicians collected from saloons, brothels, peddlers, and the small merchants, and thereby present themselves as respectable and public-spirited citizens, appalled at the existing corruption.  The newspapers supported them in this attitude, and occasionally a sufficient number of the voters would sustain their appeals and elect candidates that they presented.  The only real difference was that under an openly corrupt machine they had to pay in bribes for franchises, laws and immunity from laws, while under the “ reform ” administrations, which represented, and toadied to, them, they often obtained all these and more without the expenditure of a cent.  It has often been much more economical for them to have “ reform ” in power ;  and it is a well known truism that the business-class reform administrations which are popularly assumed to be honest, will go to greater lengths in selling out the rights of the people than the most corrupt political machine, for the reason that their administrations are not generally suspected of corruption and therefore are not closely watched.  Moreover, corruption by bribes is not always the most effective kind.  There is a much more sinister form.  It is that which flows from conscious class use of a responsive government for insidious ends.  Practically all of the American “ reform ” movements have come within this scope.

This is no place for a dissertation on these pseudo reform movements ;  it is a subject deserving a special treatment by itself.  But it is well to advert to them briefly here since it is necessary to give constant insights into the methods of the propertied class.  Whether corruption or “ reform ” administrations were in power the cheating of municipality and State in taxation has gone on with equal vigor.4


A VAST ANNUAL INCOME.


The collective Astor fortune, as we have said, amounts to $450,000,000.  This, however, is merely an estimate based largely upon their real estate possessions.  No one but the Astors themselves know what are their holdings in bonds and stocks of every description.  It is safe to venture the opinion that their fortune far exceeds $450,000,000.  Their surplus wealth piles up so fast that a large part of it is incessantly being invested in buying more land.  Originally owning land in the lower part of Manhattan, they then bought land in Yorkville, then added to their possessions in Harlem, and later in the Bronx, in which part of New York City they now own immense areas.  Their estate is growing larger and larger all the time.

In rents in New York City alone it is computed that the Astors collect twenty-five or thirty million dollars a year.  The “ Astor Estates” are managed by a central office, the agent in charge of which is said to get a salary of $50,000 a year.  All the business details are attended to entirely by this agent and his force of subordinates.  Of these annual rents a part is distributed among the various members of the Astor family according to the degree of their interest ;  the remainder is used to buy more land.

The Astor mansions rank among the most pretentious in the United States and in Europe.  The New York City residence long occupied by Mrs. William Astor at Fifth avenue and Sixty-fifth street is one of extraordinary luxury and grandeur.  Adjoining and connected with it is the equally sumptuous mansion of John Jacob Astor.  In these residences, or rather palaces, splendor is piled upon splendor.  In Mrs. William Astor’s spacious ballroom and picture gallery, balls have been given, each costing, it is said, $100,000.  In cream and gold the picture gallery spreads ;  the walls are profuse with costly paintings, and at one end is a gallery in wrought iron where musicians give out melody on festive occasions.  The dining rooms of these houses are of an immensity.  Embellished in old oak incrusted with gold, their walls are covered with antique tapestries set in huge oak framework with margins thick with gold.  Upon the diners a luxurious ceiling looks down, a blaze of color upon black oak set off by masses of gold borders.  Directly above the center of the table are painted garlands of flowers and clusters of fruit.  In the hub of this representation is Mrs. Astor’s monogram in letters of gold.  From the massive hall, with its reproductions of paintings of Marie Antoinette and other old French court characters, its statuary, costly vases and draperies, a wide marble stairway curves gracefully upstairs.  To dwell upon all of the luxurious aspects of these residences would compel an extended series of details.  In both of the residences every room is a thing of magnificence.


PROXIMITY OF PALACES AND POVERTY.


From these palaces it is but a step, as it were, to gaunt neighborhoods where great parts of the population are crowded in the most inhuman way into wretched tenement houses.  It is an undeniable fact that more than fifty blocks on Manhattan Island — each of which blocks is not much larger than the space covered by the Astor mansions — have each a teeming population of from 3,000 to 4,000 persons.  In each of several blocks 6,000 persons are congested.  In 1855, when conditions were thought bad enough, 417,476 inhabitants were crowded into the section south of Fourteenth street ;  but in 1907 this district contained fully 750,000 population.  Forty years ago the lower sections only of Manhattan were overcrowded, but now the density of congestion has spread to all parts of Manhattan, and to parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn.  On an area of two hundred acres in certain parts of New York City not less than 200,000 people exist.  It is not uncommon to find eighteen men, women, and children, driven to it by necessity, sleeping in three small, suffocating rooms.

But the New York City residences of the Astors are only a mere portion of their many palaces.  They have impressive mansions, costing great sums, at Newport.  At Ferncliffe-on-the-Hudson John Jacob Astor has an estate of two thousand acres.  This country palace, built in chaste Italian architecture, is fitted with every convenience and luxury.  John Jacob Astor’s cousin, William Waldorf, some years since expatriated himself from his native country and became a British subject.  He bought the Cliveden estate at Taplow, Bucks, England, the old seat of the Duke of Westminster, the richest landlord in England.  Thenceforth William Waldorf scorned his native land, and has never even taken the trouble to look at the property in New York which yields him so vast a revenue.  This absentee landlord, for whom, it is estimated not less than 100,000 men, women and children directly toil, in the form of paying him rent, has surrounded himself in England with a lofty feudal exclusiveness.  Sweeping aside the privilege that the general public had long enjoyed of access to the Cliveden grounds, he issued strict orders forbidding trespassing, and along the roads he built high walls surmounted with broken glass.  His son and heir, Waldorf Astor, has avowed that he also will remain a British subject.  William Waldorf Astor, it should be said, is somewhat of a creator of public opinion ;  he owns a newspaper and a magazine in London.


The origin and successive development of the Astor fortune have been laid bare in these chapters ;  not wholly so, by any means, for a mass of additional facts have been left out.  Where certain fundamental facts are sufficient to give a clear idea of a presentation, it is not necessary to pile on too much of an accumulation.  And yet, such has been the continued emphasis of property-smitten writers upon the thrift, honesty, ability and sagacity of the men who built up the great fortunes, that the impression generally prevails that the Astor fortune is preeminently one of those amassed by legitimate means.  These chapters should dispel this illusion.



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1 See Testimony taken before the [New York] Senate Committee on Cities, 1890, iii: 2312, etc.

2 Testimony taken before the [New York] Senate Committee on Cities, 1890, iii: 2314-2315.

3 As one of many illustrations of the ethics of the propertied class, the appended newspaper dispatch from Newport, R.I., on Jan. 2, 1903, brings out some significant facts :
      “ William C. Schermerhorn, whose death is announced in New York, and who was a cousin of Mrs. William Astor, was one of Newport’s pioneer summer residents.  He was one of New York’s millionaires, and his Newport villa is situated on Narragansett avenue near Cliffside, opposite the Pinard cottages.
      “ Mr. Schermerhorn, with Mrs. Astor and ex-Commodore Gerry, of the New York Yacht Club, in order to avoid the inheritance tax of New York, and to take advantage of Newport’s low tax-rate, obtained in January last through their counsel, Colonel Samuel R. Honey, a decree declaring their citizenship in Rhode Island.  Since that time Mr. Schermerhorn’s residence has been in this state.  In last year’s tax-list he was assessed for $150,000.
      “ Mr. Schermerhorn was a member of both the fashionable clubs on Bellevue avenue, the Newport Casino and the Newport Reading-Room.”

4 For further details on this point see Chapter ix, Part II.