Any one of J. Pierpont Morgan's accomplishments would have made him an important figure. He organized the nation's railroads during the Gilded Age; helped finance the creation of major corporations, including US Steel, International Harvester, and GE; twice helped the US government avert financial panics; and collected fine art voraciously.
These achievements were known and appreciated during his lifetime. A Yale professor awarding Morgan an honorary degree in 1908 compared him favorably to Alexander the Great.
But, as Jean Strouse notes in her magnificent biography, Morgan is usually seen as a ruthless "robber baron" who made enormous profits at the expense of the working class.
Her book will lead to a reappraisal of this complex, enigmatic man. Strouse analyzed extensive uncatalogued material in the Morgan Library in New York and the Morgan Grenfell archives in London. The result is a well-written, carefully documented, and balanced work that describes Morgan's successes and failures.
Morgan's life was not a rags to riches story. His father was a leading banker in London. J.P. Morgan, or Pierpont, as he was known, was educated at St. Paul's, Harvard, and the University of Gottingen in Germany.
He initially made his reputation by focusing on American railroads and their penchant for rate wars and overbuilding. Morgan found ways to bring stability to a large number of railroad lines that fell on hard times. Twenty years after he started, railroad bonds were among the country's safest investments. Indeed, Henry Clay Frick compared them to Rembrandts.
But Morgan did far more than reorganize railroads. Strouse describes in detail how Morgan put together a syndicate in 1895 that helped avert a financial panic brought on by a depletion of the US Treasury's gold reserves. In 1907, when a banking panic threatened to spin out of control, Morgan rallied the bankers on Wall Street, worked with President Theodore Roosevelt, and restored public confidence in the financial system.
Morgan's avid art collecting gets equal attention. Strouse estimates that Morgan spent $60 million to $80 million during his lifetime on paintings, books, illuminated manuscripts, and other fine art - and often bought whole collections sight unseen. So vast were his collections that Morgan never saw them assembled in one place.
Strouse's book is carefully researched and benefits enormously from her energy and diligence. She describes the details of corporate and public finance with admirable clarity. Her review of Morgan's personal materials provides telling insights into the character and family life of the reclusive and taciturn banker.
But what comes through most of all is her evenhandedness. Strouse presents a different view of Morgan from that of his earlier biographers, but she is not an apologist. Morgan, she tells us, was indifferent to the effect that his financial efforts had on the working class and honestly believed that there was no distinction between his own interests and the national interest.
In the end, what makes this book compelling is that presenting such a complete and balanced picture of Morgan - his strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failures - allows us to more fully understand that behind the myth was a human being. In an era when we once again so easily venerate captains of industry and finance, that's a lesson worth remembering.
*Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society