The Magazine

Quiet Capitalist

The portrait of a founding father of business philanthropy.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By CLAUDE R. MARX
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Business leaders often feel obliged to keep a strong public persona and make conspicuous displays of philanthropy to persuade the public to like, or at least respect, them. They aren’t content to let their good works or business prowess speak for themselves—as if creating thousands of jobs and making many people prosperous isn’t enough of a contribution to the common good.

Portrait of Thomas Mellon

One of America’s most significant business leaders, Thomas Mellon (1813-1908), was the opposite of a self-promoter, and kept his philanthropies private. As a result, while people know his name, and the bank and other businesses that he founded, they don’t know as much about him as they do about other titans such as Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller.

His great-great-grandson, historian James Mellon, has produced a well-researched biography that could go far to help people better understand the family patriarch. And while The Judge presents its subject in a favorable light, it’s not a hagiography and the warts aren’t hidden.

Unfortunately, while the story of Mellon, whose life spanned the period in which America came of age as an economic power, is quite engaging, the writing here is not. The prose is often bland and the author does not take advantage of opportunities to make the narrative sing. Mellon was born in Northern Ireland into a family originally from Scotland, and when he was five, he and his family emigrated to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Like many a driven business titan, Mellon was a tireless worker and self-educator as a boy. He would “come to view pleasure, ease, luxury, and recreation as unnecessary, debilitating, and therefore, dangerous indulgences that were to be strenuously avoided, especially by young men in their formative years,’’ the author writes.

Western Pennsylvania was heavily influenced by the Scotch-Irish origins of many immigrants, and at the time Mellon came of age, there was very much a frontier/rugged individualist mentality in the region. This caused in Mellon a lifelong skepticism about government (although he served as a judge and city councillor) and, although from humble origins himself, he would eventually develop an ironic skepticism about the ability of average citizens to make political decisions.

At 14 he read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and considered this a seminal event in his development, giving him not only a role model but a set of principles by which to live his life. James Mellon notes that “self-mastery and the reduction of daily life to a strict discipline accorded entirely with Scotch-Irish values and with [Mellon’s] personality.’’ Thomas Mellon applied these principles to his successful career as a business lawyer and 10-year stint as a judge. All the while, he used his spare money (and funds from the family of his wealthy wife) to buy valuable property in downtown Pittsburgh and started a bank that, by the end of the century, would be the largest outside New York. He was extraordinarily bright, spending part of his early career as a classics professor, but was socially awkward and standoffish, and though the book is at pains to describe him as a talented raconteur, the author writes of his subject’s “atrophied sense of humor.’’

What Thomas Mellon had in abundance was a single-minded devotion to his work and a knack for getting business decisions right far more often than not. In addition to banking and real estate, he invested in coal fields, lumber, and a construction company. He also helped launch the careers of others and lent $10,000 to Henry Clay Frick, whose company would supply coke to Carnegie’s steel mills. Mellon and Frick had a strong professional and personal relationship—although Mellon never quite understood his friend’s need to spend so much of his fortune on a luxurious mansion in New York City and in amassing an impressive art collection.