In estimating the character and merits of such a man as the late Mr. Astor, we are apt to leave out of view the enormous harm he might have done if he had chosen to do it.
The rich fool who tosses a dollar to a waiter for some trifling service, debases the waiter, injures himself, and wrongs the public. By acting in that manner in all the transactions of life, a rich man diffuses around him an atmosphere of corruption, and raises the scale of expense to a point which is oppressive to many, ruinous to some, and inconvenient to all. The late Mr. Astor, with an income from invested property of nearly two millions a year, could have made life more difficult than it was to the whole body of people in New York who are able to live in a liberal manner. He refrained from doing so. He paid for everything which he consumed the market price – no more, no less – and he made his purchases with prudence and forethought. As he lived for many years next door to the Astor Library, the frequenters of that noble institution had an opportunity of observing that he laid in his year’s supply of coal in the month of June, when coal is cheapest.
There was nothing which he so much abhorred as waste. It was both an instinct and a principle with him to avoid waste. He did not have the gas turned down low in a temporarily vacated room because he would save two cents by doing so, but because he justly regarded waste as wicked. His example in this particular, in a city so given to careless and ostentatious profusion as New York, was most useful. We needed such an example. Nor did he appear to carry this principle to an extreme. He was very far from being miserly, though keenly intent upon accumulation.
In the life of the Old World there is nothing so shocking to a republicanized mind as the awful contrast between the abodes of the poor and the establishments of the rich. A magnificent park of a thousand acres of the richest land set apart and walled in for the exclusive use of one family, while all about it are the squalid hovels of the peasants to whom the use of a single acre to a family would be ease and comfort, is the most painful and shameful spectacle upon which the sun looks down this day. Nothing can make it right. It is monstrous. It curses equally the few who ride in the park and the many who look over its walls; for the great lord who can submit to be the agent of such injustice is as much its victim as the degraded laborer who drowns the sense of his misery in pot-house beer. The mere fact that the lord can look upon such a scene and not stir to mend it, is proof positive of a profound vulgarity.
Nor is it lords alone who thus waste the hard earned wealth of the toiling sons of men. I read some time ago of a wedding in Paris. A thriving banker there, who is styled the Baron Alphonse de Rothschild, having a daughter of seventeen to marry, appears to have set seriously to work to find out how much money a wedding could be made to cost. In pursuing this inquiry, he caused the wedding festivals of Louis XIV’s court, once so famous, to seem poverty-stricken and threadbare. He began by a burst of ostentatious charity. He subscribed money for the relief of the victims of recent inundations, and dowered a number of portionless girls; expending in these ways a quarter of a million francs. He gave his daughter a portion of five millions of francs. One of her painted fans cost five thousand francs. He provided such enormous quantities of clothing for her little body, that his house, if it had not been exceedingly large, would not have conveniently held them. For the conveyance of the wedding party from the house to the synagogue, he caused twenty-five magnificent carriages to be made, such as monarchs use when they are going to be crowned, and these vehicles were drawn by horses imported from England for the purpose. The bridal veil was composed of ineffable lace, made from an original design expressly for this bride.
And then what doings in the synagogue! A choir of one hundred and ten trained voices, led by the best conductor in Europe – the first tenor of this generation engaged, who sang the prayer from „Moses in Egypt” – a crowd of rabbis, and assistant-rabbis, with the grand rabbi of Paris at their head. To complete the histrionic performance, eight young girls, each bearing a beautiful gold-embroidered bag, and attended by a young gentleman, „took up a collection” for the poor, which yielded seven thousand francs.
Mr. Astor could, if he had chosen, have thrown his millions about in this style. He was one of a score or two of men in North America who could have maintained establishments in town and country on the dastardly scale so common among rich people in Europe. He, too, could have had his park, his half a dozen mansions, his thirty carriages, his hundred horses and his yacht as big as a man-of-war. That he was above such atrocious vulgarity as this, was much to his credit and more to our advantage. What he could have done safely, other men would have attempted to whom the attempt would have been destruction. Some discredit also would have been cast upon those who live in moderate and modest ways.
Every quarter day Mr. Astor had nearly half a million dollars to invest in the industries of the country. To invest his surplus income in the best and safest manner was the study of his life. His business was to take care of and increase his estate; and that being his business, he was right in giving the necessary attention to it. „William will never make money,” his father used to say; „but he will take good care of what he has.” And so it proved. The consequence was, that all his life he invested money in the way that was at once best for himself and best for the country. No useless or premature scheme had had any encouragement from him. He invariably, and by a certainty of judgment that resembled an instinct, „put his money where it would do most good.” Political economists demonstrate that an investment which is the best for the investor must of necessity be the best for the public. Here, again, we were lucky. When we wanted houses more than we wanted coal, he built houses for us; and when we wanted coal more than we wanted houses, he set his money to digging coal; charging nothing for his trouble but the mere cost of his subsistence.
One fault he had as a public servant – for we may fairly regard in that light a man who wields so large a portion of our common estate. He was one of the most timid of men. He was even timorous. His timidity was constitutional and physical. He would take a great deal of trouble to avoid crossing a temporary bridge or scaffolding, though assured by an engineer that it was strong enough to bear ten elephants. Nor can it be said that he was morally brave. Year after year he saw a gang of thieves in the City Hall stealing his revenues under the name of taxes and assessments, but he never led an assault upon them nor gave the aid he ought to those who did. Unless he is grossly belied, he preferred to compromise than fight, and did not always disdain to court the ruffians who plundered him.
This was a grave fault. He who had the most immediate and the most obvious interest in exposing and resisting the scoundrels, ought to have taken the lead in putting them down. This he could not do. Nature had denied him the qualities required for such a contest. He had his enormous estate, and he had mind enough to take care of it in ordinary ways; but he had nothing more. We must therefore praise him less for the good he did in his life, than for the evil which he refrained from doing.