- The Good Rich and What They Cost Us by Robert F. Dalzell, Jr.
From the start, The Good Rich both intrigues and mystifies. It claims to trace a long-term cultural phenomenon distinguishing America from other countries since colonial times: the social prominence of very wealthy people who give away [End Page 272] most of their money. Beyond that, however, by the author’s own admission, this is a book of “stories, not one story. …so diverse as to make it impossible to construct a single narrative that does more than scratch the surface” (158). The personae range from the Puritan merchant Robert Keayne to the postindustrial entrepreneur Steve Jobs, and, equally divergent but closer temporally, the planter-soldier George Washington and the Baptist salesman-turned-oilman John D. Rockefeller.
From both theoretical and historical perspectives, the most jarring note comes early, when Professor Dalzell asserts that “from the beginning ours has been a capitalist society” (4), and that what links these stories is how they collectively represent “the pride and glory of free-market capitalism” (6). Generalizations about capitalism in the longue duree are risky, and the assertion of an unbroken American capitalist tradition beginning with New England’s maritime trading networks and the Chesapeake’s slave society in the seventeenth century raises considerable doubts. Is “capitalism” nothing more than the accumulation of significant disposable wealth? Surely not. Capitalism is a specific mode of production, characterized by free waged labor as the dominant process of generating surplus value (or profit) and the way that most people gain their living (versus subsistence, barter, or some system of bound labor). By that standard alone, it is highly problematic to fit Keayne’s mercantile profit-taking into the story of capitalism except as a precursor. Nor can Washington’s Virginia, with its emphasis (as Rhys Isaac showed long ago) on the display of wealth, land-grabbing, and control of both offices and bodies, be made to fit easily into a capitalist narrative, except perhaps in the way that Washington himself may have finally seen his world, as a road not to be taken.
Keayne and Washington feel like stray outliers here for all sorts of reasons. The book’s heart is the middle chapters, showing the transition from the two Lawrence brothers, Amos and Abbott, the ur-capitalists of New England’s textile mills, to the Rockefellers, since these men and their families were central to establishing the modern practice of large-scale philanthropy, this book’s true subject, rather than the more diffuse, trans-historical question of how the rich expiate their perceived sins. Indeed, competing understandings of “sin” ought to be at the center of this history, since the one thing its subjects have in common (pace Jobs, who barely figures) is a rigorous Protestantism. The Good Rich revolves around concise explications of how the Lawrences and Rockefellers defined philanthropy in the evolution from antebellum “moral reform” to Progressivism, but it leaves out the varieties of religious experience that shaped their peculiarly American weltauschuung, so different from Europe’s and now Asia’s. We know that the Lawrence brothers and John D. Rockefeller were intensely serious Christians, and Dalzell makes passing reference to the Unitarianism of the former and fervent Baptism of the latter, but we need more—we need to understand what Catholics would call their formation. A grasp of the relevant theology is not an add-on but vitally important; to this moderately informed reviewer, at least, Baptists and Unitarians seem very far apart, and if one is going to note Abby Aldrich’s importance in shaping her nouveau riche fabuleux spouse, her particular Protestant temperament is also vitally important—as is how the later generations of Rockefellers modified the patriarch’s strict understanding of the temporal and spiritual domains.
Which brings one to the larger religious-cultural frame of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the role of the Social Gospel in shaping a more [End Page 273] worldly perspective among the Protestant bourgeoisie. The Rockefellers personally oversaw the founding of...