- The Very Rich and the Rest of Us: Reconciliation of Wealth and Democracy in American History
Robert F. Dalzell, Jr., begins The Good Rich And What They Cost Us by invoking one of the classic, if apocryphal, exchanges in American letters. “The very rich are different from you and me,” Fitzgerald is said to have remarked to his friend Ernest Hemingway. “Yes, they have more money,” Hemingway supposedly replied.1 Dalzell’s book, an exploration of “the abiding paradox at the core of our attitudes toward wealth and democracy,” lends another layer of meaning to those words. Dalzell outlines two competing ways of regarding the difference between the rich and the rest of us. One sees the wealthy as exceptional in certain admirable respects; not merely due to their inborn facility for yachting, but because the scope of the resources at their disposal and the talents that fueled the accumulation allow them to perform great good for society. The other viewpoint, more populist in orientation, focuses on the material inequities that the wealthy profit from and perpetuate, and it emphasizes the threat that concentrated wealth poses to democratic norms and institutions.
For obvious reasons, America’s wealthiest citizens have favored the first version, and, as Dalzell demonstrates, over time they have achieved considerable success in convincing the rest of us to endorse it as well. Through a series of biographical vignettes that stretch from early settlement to the twenty-first century, Dalzell chronicles how the very rich have forged an accommodation between wealth and democracy by donning the mantle of the “good rich”—and by shaking off the identity of the menacingly rich. Those featured include Robert Keayne, a Puritan merchant who was accused of unscrupulous business dealings and who subsequently left much of his wealth to the improvement of Boston’s infrastructure; George Washington, who cultivated a reputation for disinterestedness while amassing one of the nation’s largest fortunes; Amos [End Page 620] and Abbott Lawrence, Massachusetts textile manufactures who were also the nation’s most prominent antebellum philanthropists; and John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil titan who became the nation’s most reviled robber baron as well as its most generous benefactor. Dalzell also focuses attention on two larger sets of wealthy citizens: several generations of heirs to the Rockefeller fortune and the Forbes 400, the magazine’s list of the wealthiest Americans.
Dalzell is a skilled portraitist, yet his biographical approach does have its drawbacks. He highlights a select cast of characters, all of whom absorbed public censure and then secured public esteem, yet he does not claim any representative status for them. And so his assemblage begs the question of how the book’s themes would have differed if others had been chosen in their place—if Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford, who both certainly fit the selection criteria, had made it in, for instance.
Then there are the biographical tangents he pursues, which at times encumber the narrative, preventing it from achieving the necessary elevation to take in broader themes, such as the ideas that animated the good rich. Dalzell does not, for example, grapple much with justifications of concentrated wealth—either those of a secular variety, such as the social Darwinist creed espoused by Andrew Carnegie, or the religious notions of stewardship favored by Rockefeller.
Dalzell’s focus on the lives of his dramatis personae also leaves little room for a consideration of public attitudes. More than half a century ago, Sigmund Diamond published The Reputation of the American Businessman (1955); Diamond sifted through the newspaper obituaries of a number of prominent entrepreneurs—including Cornelius Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Henry Ford—to chart the public’s shifting beliefs regarding the sources and responsibilities of wealth. Diamond’s work deserves an update and Dalzell might have provided one, demonstrating how public attitudes toward each of his protagonists changed over time. The admittedly “scattershot” thesis of his book, Dalzell explains, is that Americans valorize the good rich because the cost of doing otherwise is too steep: admitting “that...