Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing
“The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism” by Susan Berfield, Bloomsbury, 416 pp.

‘The Hour of Fate’ untangles complex trust-busting history

President Roosevelt was determined to break up monopolies. J.P. Morgan was equally set on keeping them. The two men fought a pitched battle.

In the reductionist view of Wall Street history, President William McKinley was “pro-business,” and from the instant he took office in 1897, business leaders rejoiced. This was an era dominated by rapacious barons of finance, perhaps none more towering than J.P. Morgan, the glowering, temperamental “Jupiter” of Wall Street. In President McKinley, Morgan and his business rivals and partners felt they had a man with whom they could do business. 

All that ended on Sept. 6, 1901 in Buffalo, New York, when a man named Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley in the abdomen at point-blank range. McKinley lingered for a few days, but died on Sept. 14 – and suddenly, something that had been dreaded by political insiders for four years became reality: Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became president. This was the “hour of fate” referenced in the title of Susan Berfield’s riveting new book “The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism.”

Berfield tells the story of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Long before McKinley’s death, Morgan had been a plutocrat’s plutocrat, a master of monopolies. “He had an aristocrat’s disdain for public sentiment and the conviction that his actions were to the country’s advantage, no explanations necessary,” Berfield writes. Roosevelt respected the role of business in American life, but he “also believed it had to be accountable to the public, and Roosevelt considered himself to be the public.” “The Hour of Fate” is genuinely eye-opening in pointing out how much each of these men had in common, but perhaps their most important shared trait, the one that arranged the drama that would ensue between them, was that each “expected deference from the other.”

Roosevelt, as Berfield puts it, wanted to “assert the primacy of government over business.” This ran directly counter to the dreams of Morgan and his fellow financiers, who were busily buying up companies and constructing railroad and steel monopolies. Morgan expected a federal government that was his quiet and mild-mannered silent partner; Roosevelt abhorred bullies and was a very skillful bully himself. Morgan commented, “I am afraid of Mr. Roosevelt because I don’t know what he’ll do.” Roosevelt responded, “He’s afraid of me because he does know what I’ll do.”

What Roosevelt did was trust-busting. “Trusts didn’t confine their business to a single state,” Berfield notes. “They operated across boundaries, and often they didn’t operate at all in the state where they were chartered. Washington had to step in.” This is exactly what Roosevelt did; he instructed his administration to pursue legal action against Morgan’s massive railroad trust Northern Securities. These two indomitable wills were now set in ironclad opposition.

“If we have done anything wrong,” Morgan told Roosevelt when the two had a tense and testy meeting, “send your man to my man and they can fix it up.” The quote, so confident in its complacency, so brazen in its back-room corruption, could stand as epigraph for the whole confrontation. Roosevelt didn’t want to “fix things up” – he wanted to break things up. 

The thrilling dramatic turn at the heart of “The Hour of Fate” is the great anthracite coal strike of 1902, in which the coal miners’ union demanded higher pay and safer working conditions. All sides dug in, and soon enough the country was facing the prospect of a winter without heating for homes and businesses (and Morgan was imagining his railroads with no fuel for the trains). The federal government stepped in as a neutral arbiter and Morgan, who certainly wanted the strike to end, had to compromise. 

It’s a complicated and terrific story, and Berfield tells it with an extremely skillful blend of wide-canvas exposition and small-scale personal drama. Her characters, particularly Roosevelt and Morgan, come alive in all their multifaceted natures. And naturally it’s virtually impossible to read this clash between big government and big business without thinking about our own century, when American wealth inequality is greater than it was even in Morgan’s day. 

That such questions were on the electorate’s mind in 1903 is reflected in one of Roosevelt’s most-used speeches. “This is not and never shall be a government either of a plutocracy or of a mob,” he said. “It is, it has been, a government of the people; including alike the people of great wealth and of moderate wealth, the people who employ others, the people who are employed, the wage-worker, the lawyer, the mechanic, the banker, the farmer.” “The Hour of Fate” dramatizes the moment a century ago when these issues were fought in courts, in the streets, and in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

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