In a great book, “Eyewitness To Wall Street”, there is a piece on H. G. Wells and his views on American “trusts” that I found interesting.
“Between the end of the Civil War and the close of the nineteenth century, immigration surged, especially in the 1880s and 1890s. America’s population almost doubled, reaching more than 75 million. During this same period, control of the economy became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. From about 1880 to 1901, companies in many major industries, rather than competing, combined their operations in “trusts.” Standard Oil was the first, organized in 1879. General Electric and American Telephone and Telegraph, two other names familiar today, were once trusts. There were about fifty trusts in industries such as tobacco, meat packing, whiskey, sugar, and beef. The steel trust, U.S. Steel became the first billion-dollar enterprise.
The trusts promised economies of scale, with efficiencies being passed to the consumer. Their organizers claimed size was necessary for survival and beneficial to the working class. Skeptics saw monopolies that rigged prices and set wages at will.
“The big trusts,” wrote Woodrow Wilson, while still a Princeton professor, “the big combinations, are the most wasteful, the most uneconomical, and, after they pass a certain size, the most inefficient, way of conducting the industries of this country. That is the difference between a big business and a trust. A trust is an arrangement to get rid of competition, and a big business is a business that has survived competition by conquering in the field of intelligence and economy. A trust does not bring efficiency to the aid of business; it buys efficiency out of business. I am for big business, and I am against the trusts.”
The popular press fueled opposition. Ida Tarbell, whose father was ruined by Rockefeller, wrote The History of the Standard Oil Company, still considered one of the finest examples of investigative journalism ever produced. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle exposed the inhumanity of working conditions in the meatpacking business.
But on a visit from England, H. G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Time Machine, saw another side of the trusts and the men who ran them.
The group of people that attracts the largest amount of attention in press and talk, that most obsesses the American imagination and that is indeed the most significant at the present time, is the little group-a few score men perhaps altogether-who are emerging distinctly as winners in that great struggle to get, into which this commercial industrialism has naturally resolved itself. Central among them are the men of the Standard Oil group, the “octopus” which spreads its ramifying tentacles through the whole system of American business, absorbing and absorbing, grasping and growing. The extraordinarily able investigations of such writers as Miss Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker (author of The Railroads on Trial), the rhetorical exposures of Mr. T. W. Lawson (author of Frenzied Finance), have brought out the methods and quality of this group of persons with a particularity that has been reserved heretofore for great statesmen and crowned heads, and with an unflattering lucidity altogether unprecedented. Not only is every hair on their heads numbered, but the number is published. They are known to their pettiest weaknesses and to their most accidental associations. And in this astonishing blaze of illumination they continue steadfastly to get.
These men, who are, creating the greatest system of correlated private properties in the world, who are wealthy beyond all precedent, seem for the most part to be men with no ulterior dream or aim. They are not voluptuaries, they are neither artists nor any sort of creators, and they betray no high political ambitions. Had they anything of the sort they would not be what they are, they would be more than that and less. They want and they get, they are inspired by the brute will in their wealth to have more wealth and more, to a systematic ardor. They are men of a competing, patient, enterprising, acquisitive enthusiasm. They have found in America the perfectly favorable environment for their temperaments. In no other country and in no other age could they have risen to such eminence. America is still, by virtue of its great Puritan tradition and in the older sense of the word, an intensely moral land. Most lusts here are strongly curbed, by public opinion, by training and tradition. But the lust of acquisition has not been curbed but glorified.
These financial leaders are accused by the press of every sort of crime in the development of their great organizations and their fight against competitors, but I feel impelled myself to acquit them of anything so heroic as a general scheme of criminality, as a systematic organization of power.
They are men with a good deal of contempt for legislation and state interference, but that is no distinction, it has unhappily been part of the training of the average American citizen, and they have no doubt exceeded the letter if not the spirit of the laws of business competition. They have played to win and not for style, and if they personally had not done so some-body else would; they fill a Position which from the nature of things, somebody is bound to fill. They have, no doubt, carried sharpness to the very edge of dishonesty, but what else was to be expected from the American conditions? Only by doing so and taking risks is pre-eminent success in getting to be attained. They have developed an enormous system of espionage, but on his smaller scale every retail grocer, every employer of servants does something in that way. They have secret agents, false names, concealed bargains what else could one expect? People have committed suicide through their operations, but in a game which is bound to bring the losers to despair it is childish to charge the winners with murder. It’s the game that is criminal.
It is ridiculous, I say, to write of these men as though they were unparalleled villains, intellectual overmen, conscienceless conquerors of the world. Mr. J. D. Rockefeller's mild, thin-lipped, pleasant face gives the lie to all such melodramatic nonsense.
I must confess to a sneaking liking for this much-reviled man. One thinks of Miss Tarbell's description of him, displaying his first boyish account-book, his ledger A, to a sympathetic gathering of the Baptist young, telling how he earned fifty dollars in the first three months of his clerking in a Chicago ware-house, and how savingly he dealt with it. Hear his words:
“You could not get that book from me for all the modern ledgers in New York, nor for all that they would bring. It almost brings tears to my eyes when I read over this little book, and it fills me with a sense of gratitude I cannot express. I know some people, especially some young men, find it difficult to keep a little money in their pocket -book. I learned to keep money, and, as we have a way of saying, it did not burn a hole in my pocket. I was taught that it was the thing to keep the money and take care of it.”
This is not the voice of any sort of contemptuous trampler of his species. This is the voice of an industrious, acquisitive, commonplace, pious man, as honestly and simply proud of his acquisitiveness as a stamp-collector might be. At times, in his acquisitions, the strength of his passion may have driven him to lengths beyond the severe moral code, but the same has been true of stamp-collectors. He is a man who has taken up with great natural aptitude an ignoble tradition which links economy and earning with piety and honor. His teachers were to blame, that Baptist community that is now so ashamed of its son that it refuses his gifts. To a large extent he is the creature of opportunity; he has been flung to the topmost pinnacle of human envy, partly by accident, partly by that peculiarity of American conditions that has subordinated, in the name of liberty, all the grave and ennobling affairs of statecraft to a middle-class freedom of commercial enterprise. Quarrel with that if you like. It is unfair and ridiculous to quarrel with him.
Early attempts by legislators to curb the trusts lacked bite. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1390, for instance, even failed to define “trust” or “restraint of trade.” As the new century began, even President Theodore Roosevelt called for action. When Northern Securities was formed as a holding company for railroad interests, Roosevelt instructed his Attorney General to seek its dissolution. In 1904, the government won. “The mere existence of such a combination,” wrote Supreme Court Justice John Harlan in the majority opinion, “constitutes a menace” to free commerce. Northern Securities was broken up. In 1911, Standard Oil was ordered to dissolve. Even AT&T, which had been declared a “natural monopoly” in 1913, was broken into “Baby Bells” in 1984.”