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From Radical to Robber Baron

By Hardy Green


The Life and Times of an American Titan

By Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 414pp $30

He was a pacifist republican who was expelled from a German school for his radicalism. Then the young Henry Villard became a penniless immigrant to America, a homeless vagabond--and a celebrated war correspondent. And in the second half of the 19th century, he went on to be a multimillionaire railroad baron and the architect of the "first hostile takeover in Wall Street history." He married the daughter of William Lloyd Garrison, the most prominent mid-century opponent of slavery in the U.S. Villard rubbed shoulders with Abraham Lincoln, Prussian Prince Otto von Bismarck, magnates Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Alva Edison, and a host of other notables.

With such material at hand, who couldn't put together a fascinating book? In Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan, Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen provide a smoothly written and insightful account of the man's life. Where the authors fall short is in delivering an understanding of the society in which Villard eventually flourished.

For de Borchgrave, an established portrait photographer, the volume represents a successful updating of a genre once popular among the American upper classes, the grandfather biography. (To be precise, Villard was de Borchgrave's great-grandfather.) Don't expect a whitewash, though: The authors fault Villard on many counts, from journalistic lapses to financial overreaching and callousness toward workers. To construct this rounded portrait, they have drawn from the subject's own published memoirs, his diaries and letters, and familiar secondary literature on the period.

Readers may not be riveted by the book's first 90-odd pages, which are devoted to Villard's youthful wanderings across America and his numerous short-term jobs. But soon the pace picks up substantially. In the 1850s when he was in his early 20s, Villard started demonstrating a talent for being in the right place at the right time. On the basis of some minor journalistic efforts, he got a position with the German-language American newspaper Staats-Zeitung, where he covered the seminal political debates between Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas and his challenger, Abraham Lincoln. That experience opened the door to Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, for which Villard covered numerous Civil War battles.

At war's end, Villard won an assignment as a European correspondent. There, he seemed to tire of journalism--and he began to dream of a more lucrative career. Following a stint as agent for anxious German investors in America's Northwest, he became a key middleman facilitating the flow of German capital to railroads in that region. By age 41, he'd parlayed this into the presidency of several Oregon companies, including the Oregon & California Railroad.

Between 1874 and 1881, he became a major figure in American business, concentrating mostly on transportation but also serving as an early director of the Edison Electric Light Co. His greatest coup came out of a desire to further develop Oregon by connecting it to a transcontinental railroad. As rivalry grew between his own railroad and the powerful Northern Pacific, which was expanding westward to the Pacific from Minnesota, Villard determined in the early '80s to take control of that line. Promising investors large profits but providing them no information or security, he began building a "blind pool" of many millions to fund a hostile takeover. After a brief but vigorous struggle, Northern Pacific management capitulated.

By age 46, Villard was near the peak of his financial power, with a personal fortune equivalent to hundreds of millions in today's money. He and his wife enjoyed the high life of New York society, delighting in lavish parties and banquets and constructing a Madison Avenue palazzo, replete with electricity, a hydraulic elevator, and works by such celebrated artists as Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John La Farge. The couple privately termed themselves the duke and duchess of Oregon, "surprising imagery for a former radical antimonarchist and the daughter of a champion of equality," the authors note.

This turnabout from idealist to robber baron seems extreme, but was it unusual? While mentioning others with similar experience--including Charles Francis Adams Jr., the scion of Presidents and abolitionists who became president of the Union Pacific--the book provides little context. In fact, the Villards were hardly alone in making this shift. Among patricians, egalitarian idealism waned amidst a national tide of political corruption and escalating class conflict. The "radical" Republicans favoring Reconstruction of the South lost out to conservatives, and the entire GOP shifted from being the instrument of free-soil and free-labor advocates to that of creditors and industrialists. "The world, after 1865, became a banker's world," lamented historian Henry Adams.

The lavish life and huge railroad expenditures caught up with the Villards in the panic of the 1880s. As losses mounted, he was ousted from the presidencies of his various businesses and compelled to abandon his mansion. But within a few years, he was able to resume leadership roles at these companies and, moreover, became the first president of Edison General Electric. He retired just before the recession of 1893 and died in 1900 after suffering a stroke. While composing his memoirs, Villard found that it was the Civil War, not business, that had provided his most interesting experiences. As this book shows, he had a lengthy list from which to choose. Green is Books Editor.

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