Ferdinand Lundberg, in 1939, wrote a book about the sixty wealthiest families in America. He made the audacious claim that these families collectively owned and directed most of America’s wealth – her industrial capacity, her speculative/financial sector, her raw materials. He names the families and engages in the tedious geneological work of showing how marriage and strategic alliances maintain and expand fortunes that have their roots, many of them, in the 19th century. He goes there from the first sentence in the book, which proclaims: “The United States is owned and dominated today by a hierarchy of its sixty richest families, buttressed by no more than ninety families of lesser wealth.” He claims that behind the de jure democratic form of government is a de facto government, “absolutist and plutocratic.”
Now, it is a difficult business, tracking family fortunes. For one thing, “family” is a misleading category. Lundberg’s prey are really more like the famous modern Russian clans, blat. Numbers of families and associates are held together in a web of mutual interests, which one can generally call after the family name of those who founded it. Thus, to use Lundberg’s first family, the Rockefellers, we can see that a Carnegie marrying a Rockefeller (a scion of one of the branches), which occurred when J. Stillman Rockefeller married Nancy C. S. Carnegie, grandniece of Andrew. Lundberg, incidentally, is a deadeye for those middle names. Where does “Stillman” come from? It comes from James Stillman, whose daughter married a Rockefeller. Stillman was the founder of National City Bank, now known as Citibank.
If Lundberg is right, then American historians have truly missed the boat. It would be like historians of 15th century France ignoring the nobility and misunderstood the form of French government. In other words, historians have treated the United States as though it were permanently the country Tocqueville described, but it is really, since Tocqueville’s time, the country of magnates and their sons and daughters that Henry James wrote about.
Since the notion that America is an oligarchy has recently been revived – a paper with this thesis cowritten by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page has recently been reported on in the media – and because we are all rivetted by Piketty’s thesis concerning the inequality endemic to capitalism, perhaps it is time to turn to the muckrakers who have always considered oligarchy the operational mode by which America is run.
Consider, then, a figure like Thomas W. Lamont. Lamont is in the Morgan blat. He negotiated enormous loans to keep England and France fighting in WWI; he also negotiated loans to Mussolini after the war. He was, Lundberg claims, a “mentor” to Wilson – and certainly he was one of Herbert Hoover’s unofficial advisors, famous for misjudging Black Friday in 1929. For Lundberg, Lamont is everywhere. Calvin Coolidge (who Lundberg is scornful of in a fine, Menckenish way – he adduces the series Coolidge wrote when he was vice president for a woman’s magazine, Enemies of the Republic: are the reds stalking our college Women? As a typical product of Calvin’s low wattage mind – didn’t make a major decision without calling him; Lamont is also, Lundberg claims, the “single most influential person in contemporary American journalism.” Lamont was the grey eminence behind the pronouncements of the uber-pundits of the day, like his friend, Walter Lippman. He was influential with Luce, Forbes and Sulzberger. His dinners were attended by the celebrity literati like H.G. Wells.
And yet, who among us has heard of this perfect blatman, Thomas W.Lamont? if Lundberg is even close to right, we should be viewing the twenties not only as the time of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, but as the era of Lamont as well. He is represented by a chapter in Behind the throne, with the perhaps misleading subtitle: servants of power to imperial presidents, 1898-1968, because his loans had a major effect on Mexico’s post-revolutionary history.
In any case, if we take Lundberg’s families as clans, we have, perhaps, a clearer view of how fortunes are made and power is exercized in the United States. Lundberg quotes an interesting statistic from a man named Robert Doane, who studied incomes for a Roosevelt era government office. According to Doane, although incomes above $50,000 accounted for 30 percent of American savings in 1929, only 38,899 persons had such incomes, accounting for .05 of 1 percent of the American population.
The American one percenters – there is a long history there, campers.