John Pierpont Morgan ranks among the preeminent financiers in American history. He was born in 1837 and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, heir to two of New England’s most distinguished families. Educated in Boston, Switzerland, and Germany, he was groomed by his father for a career in international finance. In 1857 Morgan went to work in London at his father’s bank. He moved to New York a year later, where he was based until his death in 1913.
Morgan was a central figure in many of the most important transactions of the Industrial Revolution. He was an active investor in railroads, reorganizing the Albany & Susquehanna (1869), the New York Central (1885), the Philadelphia & Reading (1886), and the Chesapeake & Ohio (1888). In 1892, Morgan arranged the merger of Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston Electric, leading to the creation of General Electric. In 1901, he led the consolidation of Carnegie Steel Company with several other similar concerns, creating history’s first billion-dollar corporation in U.S. Steel. When a financial panic gripped Wall Street in October 1907, Morgan took charge, convincing New York bankers and businessmen to pledge their own assets to provide liquidity to the faltering financial system. Thanks to his intervention, the crisis was averted, and by November financial markets returned to relative stability.
Morgan was among the most maligned of the so-called “Robber Barons.” He is remembered as a beefy, red-faced bully, fierce and lonely, possessed of small ideas and consumed by enormous greed. All of this is deeply unfair to Morgan. Recent biographers—most notably Jean Strouse—have looked at Morgan with fresh eyes, finding a much more subtle and interesting character than his caricature would allow. He was a genuine polymath, fluent in French and German, steeped in literature and the arts, whose aptitude for mathematics prompted one of his professors at the University of Göttingen to encourage him to consider an academic appointment. He was remarkably generous, and devoted his considerable wealth and energy to a few, favored causes.
At the turn of the century, Morgan was America’s greatest patron of the fine arts. He began collecting art while touring Rome, not long after finishing at Göttingen at the age of 19. It was the start of a lifelong love affair. He was the driving force behind the rise of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, serving as president and donating extensively from his personal acquisitions. His reputation, however, was established by a bitter enemy, the artist and critic Roger Fry. Fry belonged to the Bloomsbury Set, and had once been a curator of paintings at the Met. He suspected—not without reason—that Morgan was behind his firing. “A crude historical imagination,” Fry icily pronounced, “was the only flaw in his otherwise perfect insensibility.”
As Strouse notes, the letters Fry wrote to his wife during a purchasing tour of Europe in 1907 tell a rather different story. They praise at surprising length the artistic sensibilities of the “Big Man.” Contemporary critics increasingly agree with Fry’s earlier assessment. “Almost single-handed, Morgan turned the Metropolitan from a merely notable collection into one of the three or four finest anywhere,” writes historian Paul Johnson. “Morgan obviously employed experts . . . but it is astonishing how few mistakes he allowed them to make on his behalf.”
Morgan was a man of truly catholic charitable interests. In addition to his lifelong engagement with the arts, he was deeply interested in the natural sciences. A trustee of the American Museum of Natural History for 44 years, Morgan served on the board from the museum’s opening in 1869 until his death in 1913. He was often the museum’s lead donor—frequently giving under condition of anonymity—and he served at various times as vice president, treasurer, and finance committee chairman. Among his many contributions to the museum, notes Strouse, were “collections of minerals, gems, meteorites, amber, books, prehistoric South American relics, American Indian costumes, fossil vertebrates, skeletons, and the mummy of a pre-Columbian miner preserved in copper salts.”
Third among Morgan’s great philanthropic interests was the Episcopal Church. Throughout his working life, he set aside three weeks every third year to meet with Episcopalian bishops and discuss theology. He served as treasurer and senior warden at St. George’s Episcopal Church. In 1886, he was appointed to a committee responsible for revising the Book of Common Prayer, which, writes Strouse, “he knew practically by heart.” He quietly underwrote the salaries of scores of Manhattan clergymen and contributed heavily—$500,000 in 1892 alone—to the construction of Manhattan’s (as-yet unfinished) Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Morgan was born in 1837, a year after the Second Bank of the United States lost its charter; he died in 1913, a few months before the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank. In his lifetime, there was no central bank. That role was filled, with considerable moral seriousness, by Morgan himself. Perhaps the least noted but most enduring testament to his public-spiritedness was how little he abused that trust. When Morgan died, the newspapers estimated the value of his estate at about $80 million (or about $1.7 billion in 2011), a fraction of the wealth of the businessmen he financed. (“And to think,” marveled John D. Rockefeller upon learning the news, “he wasn’t even a rich man!”) For Morgan, finance and philanthropy were different, but never opposite, forms of service.
~ Christopher Levenick