The Magazine

Quiet Capitalist

The portrait of a founding father of business philanthropy.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By CLAUDE R. MARX
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Mellon had a lifelong aversion to displays of wealth and philanthropy. He was also skeptical of philanthropic efforts by others (including Carnegie) when they required the government to pay for part of the largesse. While on the Pittsburgh city council, Mellon unsuccessfully fought an effort by Carnegie to donate a public library to the city because Carnegie wanted the city to pay for its operation. Mellon preferred to have the library run privately by a group of businessmen. Ever the advocate for his distinguished ancestor, James Mellon writes that “Pittsburghers can look back wistfully on the day when a flinty old judge warned the city government about assuming burdensome and continuing financial obligations.’’ Mellon’s heirs were far more enthusiastic about philanthropy than the patriarch. His family founded an institution of higher learning (which eventually merged with another to form Carnegie-Mellon University) and was active in shaping museums and other cultural enterprises.

The family, incidentally, almost didn’t have any money to spend because the senior Mellon came very close to losing his fortune in the Panic of 1873.

Drawn and quartered between wealth and respectability, he waffled and agonized and miraculously emerged clinging to both. . . . Like a battle-scarred, tempest-tossed warship, with her sails in tatters, her masts broken, and bilges awash, T. Mellon & Sons was, incredibly, still afloat.

Point made—and would have been understood without the rhetorical overkill.

In a memoir, Mellon would paint a decidedly unromantic account of his feelings toward his wife: “There was no love beforehand so far as I was concerned,” he wrote. “Nothing but a good opinion of worthy qualities; if I had been rejected I would have felt neither sad nor depressed only annoyed as to the loss of time.’’ Nevertheless, the Mellons had eight children (four survived to adulthood), and all of the surviving offspring worked in the family’s businesses, with varying degrees of success.

The son who became the most successful, Andrew (1855-1937), was a triple threat: He vastly expanded the family business, served as secretary of the Treasury during the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations—and amassed an art collection that would become the nucleus of the National Gallery of Art. The author paints a vivid portrait of Andrew Mellon: “He was sparing with words, but those that he uttered flew straight to the mark. He had X-ray vision for spotting the hidden defects in a business proposal.’’

After handing off his business affairs to his children, Thomas Mellon would spend his final years somewhat frustrated and bored. He slowly lost his eyesight and could no longer indulge his lifelong love of reading, and he lost money on an unsuccessful business venture, trying to build an incline railway in Kansas City. This got him caught up in that city’s notoriously corrupt politics, and he was (unsuccessfully) sued for slander by a local pol. Never a particularly religious man, he explored the contemporary vogue for spirituality and participated in séances. It was a slightly eccentric ending to an extraordinary life.

Claude R. Marx is a writer in Washington.