Theodore Roosevelt was the obvious victor in both of the “battles to transform American capitalism.” He refused to do the bidding of the coal operators and instead helped engineer a compromise. American capitalism was not so much transformed as tamed in the process.

The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism, by Susan Berfield (393 pages, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)

Do we need another Theodore Roosevelt today? Historian Susan Berfield seems to think so, as she concludes her dual study of Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan and their duel for control of American capitalism. If this accidental president was the necessary response to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, then a new Roosevelt must be the answer to the new Gilded Age of our day. Then again, maybe a change-maker greater than Roosevelt is the answer that Ms. Berfield would prefer. After all, writes Ms. Berfield, “corporate power is concentrated again, and so is privilege.”

Ah, there’s that word again: privilege. Just what is privilege? Webster tells us that it is a “special right, advantage or favor.” Ms. Berfield doesn’t offer a definition of her own, but suffice to say she presumes it to be a bad thing. It’s certainly a bad thing when it’s a matter of much money concentrated in a few hands. That would be today’s “top one percent [who] own thirty-two percent of the nation’s wealth.”

Surely something must be done about this sort of privilege. Just ask Susan Berfield—and Theodore Roosevelt. But wait a minute here. Wasn’t Roosevelt something less than a transformative figure, not to mention a man of privilege himself? He surely was the latter. In fact, he was much more a man of special—meaning accident of birth—privilege than was J.P. Morgan.

Not that Morgan’s was a rags-to-riches story. He, too, came from wealth and, yes, privilege. But as a young adult he set out to make his own way—and his own fortune. In the process he joined the ranks of what Roosevelt dismissed as the “mere plutocracy.” Spoken like a man of true privilege.

Ms. Berfield could not agree more. In fact, it is her contention that Roosevelt’s warnings about the presence and power of such a plutocracy “could hardly be more current.”

Here another irony of sorts intrudes. Ms. Berfield’s cast of capitalist characters features not just J.P. Morgan, but Senator Mark Hanna, maker of money, and President McKinley, James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railroad, and coal magnate George F. Baer among not a few other railroad owners and coal mine operators. But looming somewhere over all of them was J.P. Morgan himself. That would be the Morgan who was at once deeply involved in both enterprises and at the same time strangely distant from the heat, if not the heart, of the action.

Ms. Berfield links then and now this way: “Capitalism doesn’t stay reformed…. It adjusts.” Capitalists come and go. Inevitably, they advance “different ideas and methods.” Among the capitalists are those who “bend the system toward equality,” while others bend it “toward excess.” Then “coal mining profited a few; today data mining does.”

And here is the irony—and the problem. A key difference between then and now is this: Unlike the coal operators and railroaders of yesteryear, the data miners of Big Tech are almost entirely on the left. Are they not men and women of privilege as well? If not, why not?

Should they be transformed, or at least reined in? After all, these modern miners use similar tactics to corner markets, acquire assets, and squeeze out competitors. In truth, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates of today’s privileged world have much more in common with the J.P. Morgans and John D. Rockefellers than they would care to admit.

Will Big Tech one day have to face being tamed and perhaps even cut down to size by a trustbuster of the Roosevelt sort? If so, will it matter if the trustbusting comes from the left or the right? On second thought, will such trustbusting come from the left? Or is the more likely prospect that Big Tech and left-of-center big government will operate in tandem to stifle opposition and dissent?

In the case of Roosevelt v Morgan, Ms. Berfield’s sympathies clearly reside with the progressive Roosevelt. She begins her tale with the McKinley assassination and essentially takes the reader through the accidental portion of this Roosevelt’s presidency.

The real action in this story ends with Roosevelt’s 1904 election to a full term of his own, making him the first veep to inherit the office to accomplish this feat. “Deelighted” with his victory, Theodore Roosevelt turned himself into an instant lame duck by announcing shortly thereafter that he would not be a candidate in 1908. He soon came to regret that decision, but he honored his promise nonetheless. At least he did so in 1908, if not in 1912.

But no matter. There was action aplenty between the death of William McKinley and Roosevelt’s defeat of the hapless Judge Alton Parker in November of 1904. We learn, by the way, that Judge Parker drove his buckboard on a back road so that he could vote for himself an hour later. And then he did what he “usually did on election day.” And what, pray tell, was that? “He went to the dentist.”

This book, perhaps like the good Judge’s mouth, is filled with little nuggets like that. But footnotes are another matter. There are endnotes, but each refers to a page number rather than to a specific footnote. And the references are generally to other secondary sources. Such quibbles aside, the text itself is lively and informative.

It must also be conceded that the liveliness does not translate into a simple story of heroes and villains. While Roosevelt is cast as the near-hero, Morgan plays a role that is something other than thoroughly villainous. The more obvious villains in this tale are George F. Baer and James J. Hill, neither of whom was inclined to be Morgan-like by keeping his mouth shut. Baer, who was the unofficial spokesman for the operators during the 1902 anthracite coal strike, had this to say about his work force: “These men don’t suffer. Why, hell, half of them don’t speak English.”

Taking the longer, if not necessarily more circumspect view, Baer asserted that the “rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for—not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country.”

If Baer and Hill outrank Morgan on any villain scale, then United Mine Workers President John Mitchell and Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan are in many ways more praiseworthy—and certainly less privileged—that Roosevelt.

For that matter, in Ms. Berfield’s hands—and in many ways—a potentially villainous Morgan is actually a sympathetic figure of sorts as well. He may have benefited from, but was also burdened by, an overbearing father. His mother was remote at best, and the first love of his life died shortly after their marriage.

Then there is John Mitchell. Orphaned at twelve and thrust into the southern Illinois coal mines shortly thereafter, he rose by hard work and sheer will power to the presidency of the fledgling United Mine Workers by the unripe age of twenty-eight. Always willing to negotiate as well as walk, his ultimate dream was to join the capitalists, not dethrone them.

The two engrossing stories of this narrative are the anthracite coal strike of 1902 and the Northern Securities case which resulted in the 1904 Supreme Court ruling to break up the Morgan-orchestrated railroad holding company that dominated the northwest quadrant of the country. Both featured Roosevelt front and center, leaving Morgan to hover just off-stage, which might mean on his yacht in particular or somewhere in Europe in general. No matter his location, Morgan was generally able to follow the action and manipulate at least some of the characters as well.

At first blush, Roosevelt was the obvious victor in both of these “battles to transform American capitalism.” He refused to do the bidding of the coal operators and instead helped engineer a compromise. By his own estimate, this was the greatest accomplishment of his accidental term. In any event, American capitalism was not so much transformed as tamed in the process.

The same might be said of the 5-4 Northern Securities case decision. Here the key vote might have been that of Roosevelt’s first Supreme Court appointee: none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes. Instead the equally privileged Holmes surprised and angered Roosevelt by being one of the four dissenting votes—and the only one to lead Roosevelt to fume that he could carve more backbone out of a banana than out of a certain justice.

In fact, the decisive vote was cast by Justice Harlan. That would be the same justice who cast the lone dissenting vote in the infamous Plessy v Ferguson “separate but equal” case of the mid-1890s. Voting as he did because the Constitution was “color blind,” Harlan thought that government had no business interfering with the constitutional right of freedom of association by mandating segregation on the basis of race.

In the Northern Securities case, he agreed that the federal government did have the power to break up those combinations “in restraint of trade” that were deemed “unreasonable,” as was vaguely suggested by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

Both the strike and the court case were part of an ongoing process that was less a “battle to transform American capitalism” than they are scenes in a never-ending contest to reform and channel it. After all, as Ms. Berfield so aptly—or perhaps grudgingly—puts it, “capitalism doesn’t stay reformed.” Presumably, she thinks that is a bad thing. Instead, it is very much a good thing. It’s certainly far better that we have a dynamic capitalist system, imperfect as it is, than that we transform it into something else, especially something as perfectly impossible as any socialist system of a modern ideologue’s dreams.

Perhaps there might have been a transformative battle between J.P. Morgan and, say, Eugene Debs. But, of course, there was no such battle, because Debs and his fledgling socialist party was not yet a force to contend with the likes of Morgan and Roosevelt. And yet to read Ms. Berfield on the lot of the anthracite coal miner is to conclude that perhaps there should have been.

In her speculations about then and now Ms. Berfield does not endorse a socialist solution, whether for then or now. But that seems to be the transformative battle toward which we are heading in the early 21st century, especially as the Democratic party transforms itself into some version of socialism. Roosevelt had a very different goal in mind. He sought to reform capitalism so that there would be no reason, grounds, or need to transform it into something else, especially a socialist something else. And he largely succeeded.

Ms. Berfield might not appreciate such a definition of Roosevelt’s success, but Morgan probably did. After all, he must have realized that capitalism still had plenty of room to “adjust.” The continuing history of such adjustments may send Susan Berfield to her dentist to remedy a set of permanently gritted teeth, but in the meantime, capitalism remains tamed but untransformed.

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