In writing this work my aim has been to give the exact facts as far as the available material allows. Necessarily it is impossible, from the very nature of the case, to obtain all the facts. It is obvious that in both past and present times the chief beneficiaries of our social and industrial system have found it to their interest to represent their accumulations as the rewards of industry and ability, and have likewise had the strongest motives for concealing the circumstances of all those complex and devious methods which have been used in building up great fortunes. In this they have been assisted by a society so constituted that the means by which these great fortunes have been amassed have been generally lauded as legitimate and exemplary.
The possessors of towering fortunes have hitherto been described in two ways. On the one hand, they have been held up as marvels of success, as preëminent examples of thrift, enterprise and extraordinary ability. More recently, however, the tendency in certain quarters has been diametrically the opposite. This latter class of writers, intent upon pandering to a supposed popular appetite for sensation, pile exposure upon exposure, and hold up the objects of their diatribes as monsters of commercial and political crime. Neither of these classes has sought to establish definitely the relation of the great fortunes to the social and industrial system which has propagated them. Consequently, these superficial effusions and tirades – based upon a lack of understanding of the propelling forces of society – have little value other than as reflections of a certain aimless and disordered spirit of the times. With all their volumes of print, they leave us in possession of a scattered array of assertions, bearing some resemblance to facts, which, however, fail to be facts inasmuch as they are either distorted to take shape as fulsome eulogies or as wild, meaningless onslaughts.
They give no explanation of the fundamental laws and movements of the present system, which have resulted in these vast fortunes; nor is there the least glimmering of a scientific interpretation of a succession of states and tendencies from which these men of great wealth have emerged. With an entire absence of comprehension, they portray our multimillionaires as a phenomenal group whose sudden rise to their sinister and overshadowing position is a matter of wonder and surprise. They do not seem to realize for a moment – what is clear to every real student of economics – that the great fortunes are the natural, logical outcome of a system based upon factors the inevitable result of which is the utter despoilment of the many for the benefit of a few.
This being so, our plutocrats rank as nothing more or less than as so many unavoidable creations of a set of processes which must imperatively produce a certain set of results. These results we see in the accelerated concentration of immense wealth running side by side with a propertyless, expropriated and exploited multitude.
The dominant point of these denunciatory emanations, however, is that certain of our men of great fortune have acquired their possessions by dishonest methods. These men are singled out as especial creatures of infamy. Their doings and sayings furnish material for many pages of assault. Here, again, an utter lack of knowledge and perspective is observable. For, while it is true that the methods employed by these very rich men have been, and are, fraudulent, it is also true that they are but the more conspicuous types of a whole class which, in varying degrees, has used precisely the same methods, and the collective fortunes and power of which have been derived from identically the same sources.
In diagnosing an epidemic, it is not enough that we should be content with the symptoms; wisdom and the protection of the community demand that we should seek and eradicate the cause. Both wealth and poverty spring from the same essential cause. Neither, then, should be indiscriminately condemned as such; the all-important consideration is to determine why they exist, and how such an absurd contrast can be abolished.
In taking up a series of types of great fortunes, as I have done in this work, my object has not been the current one of portraying them either as remarkable successes or as unspeakable criminals. My purpose is to present a sufficient number of examples as indicative of the whole character of the vested class and of the methods which have been employed. And in doing this, neither prejudice nor declamation has entered. Such a presentation, I believe, cannot fail to be useful for many reasons.
It will, in the first place, satisfy a spirit of inquiry. As time passes, and the power of the propertied oligarchy becomes greater and greater, more and more of a studied attempt is made to represent the origin of that property as the product of honest toil and great public service. Every searcher for truth is entitled to know whether this is true or not. But what is much more important is for the people to know what have been the cumulative effects of a system which subsists upon the institutions of private property and wage-labor. If it possesses the many virtues that it is said to possess, what are these virtues? If it is a superior order of civilization, in what does this superiority consist?
This work will assist in explaining, for naturally a virtuous and superior order ought to produce virtuous and superior men. The kind and quality of methods and successful ruling men, which this particular civilization forces to the front, are set forth in this exposition. Still more important is the ascertainment of where these stupendous fortunes came from, their particular origin and growth, and what significance the concomitant methods and institutions have to the great body of the people.
I may add that in Part I no attempt has been made to present an exhaustive account of conditions in Settlement and Colonial times. I have merely given what I believe to be a sufficient resumé of conditions leading up to the later economic developments in the United States.
GUSTAVUS MYERS. September 1, 1909.