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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

J. P. Morgan: No Mere Mortal (p. 436)

From chapter "Corporations, Cops, and Hungry Ghosts"

J. Pierpont Morgan died in 1913. He had been, according to his own estimation, no mere mortal. Toward the end, Morgan testified before Congress that he had been ordained by “Providence” to take care of the financial and industrial, not to mention political, well-being of the country. A reporter for the New York Worldsummarized Morgan’s testimony: “The underlying argument in the testimony of J. Pierpont Morgan before the Money Trust Investigation Committee today was to establish his belief that his group of financiers rules the commerce of America by something akin to divine right.”

The belief that wealth is divinely ordained is nearly ubiquitous among the rich (and, even more pathetically, among many of the poor). John D. Rockefeller, for example, stated, “I believe the power to make money is a gift of God … to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.” There was no reason for him to mention the relationship between his “gift of God,” and his use of child labor or his devastation of communities. It probably did not occur to him: Within a culture like ours, all things— children, men, women, communities, land, plants, animals—belong by right to those who have the “gifts” to seize them. This right is the endowment of an all-knowing God who, as we can all clearly see, has everyone’s interests at heart. As George F. Baer, president of the Philadelphia and Reading, stated, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for by the Christian men to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country.”

It is not only the rich themselves who preach the gospel of divine wealth. The famous Henry Ward Beecher, who accepted money from the Northern Pacific Railroad Company to preach the good railroad’s virtues, once said, “God has intended the great to be great and the little to be little.” Low wages were not a problem to the workingman, he said, because “the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live.” History does not record his own dinner menus. The immensely popular nineteenth-century Baptist minister, Russell H. Conwell, was even more vociferous, traveling the country, giving a lecture, entitled, “Success was an outward sign of inward grace.” He told his flock, “I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich. … [T]o make money honestly is to preach the gospel. . . . The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community.” When asked whether he sympathized with the poor, he replied, “To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, no doubt about it, and we do that more than we help those who are deserving. While we should sympathize with God’s poor—that is, those who cannot help themselves—let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings, or by the shortcomings of someone else. It is all wrong to be poor, anyhow.”


Reading accounts of people who suffered under Morgan’s control, and more generally those who have suffered under the domination of our economic system, I’m struck, time and again, by the juxtaposition of our culture’s ugliness with the will and beauty of those who survive. The children who toiled so Morgan could profit were the ones who deserved praise, or, more importantly, a relief other than death.

While researching and writing this book, it has not always been possible to forever keep the tears away. So that Morgan and other owners could profit, children as young as seven worked in coal mines: “Crouched over the chutes, the boys sit hour after hour picking out the pieces of slate and other refuse from the coal as it rushes past the washers. From the cramped position they have to assume, most of them become more or less deformed. . . . The coal is hard, and accidents to the hands, such as cut, broken, or crushed fingers, are common among the boys. Sometimes there is a worse accident: a terrified shriek is heard, and a boy is mangled and torn in the machinery, or disappears in the chute to be picked out later smothered and dead. Clouds of dust fill the beakers and are inhaled by the boys, laying the foundations for asthma and miners’ consumption.” Of immigrants who worked in Morgan’s steel mills, it was written that “the waste of life and limb is great, and if it all fell upon the native born a cry would long since have gone up which would have stayed the slaughter.”

Yet no cry was officially tolerated, and so the slaughter continued. About their families it was written, “One-third of all who die in Pittsburgh, die without having anything to say about it. That is, they die under five years of age. One-fourth of all who die, die without having anything to say about anything. That is, they die under one year of age. Most of these deaths are preventable, being the outcome of conditions which, humanly speaking, have no right to exist.” Yet, under these conditions, which, “humanly speaking, have no right to exist,” some people still carry on.

They still carry on.


Morgan having been named while alive “The Savior of the Nation,” there was not much room for the hyperbole to continue its expansion. But at least it maintained its bloated state. After his death, Morgan was called by Pope Pius X, “a great and good man.” According to a London paper, he had been “a towering constructive force,” and “a generous benefactor.” The New York Stock Exchange hailed him as “a constructive genius . . . devoted … to the whole wide field of philanthropy and humanity. The whole world has lost a wise counselor and a helpful friend.” The New York Tribunesaid, “He left great riches, but he also left a good name more priceless than great riches.”

He also left a corporation that bore his name.