Title Reviewed:
A Merchant Prince of the Nineteenth Century: William E. Dodge

Author Reviewed:
Richard Lowitt

Robert E. Riegel


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 50, Issue 4, pp 411-414

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A Merchant Prince of the Nineteenth Century: William E. Dodge. By Richard Lowitt. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954, pp. x, 384. Bibliography and index. $5.00.)

Phelps Dodge & Co. has meant to the American public a vast western mining empire, but this development did not take place until after the death of William E. Dodge. While he was a partner, the main business of the company was the importation of tin plate, and the allied activities made the organization sound like a country store, with dealings which ranged from other metals to tea and rugs, and from cloth to beeswax. Particularly important was the export of cotton from the South, for cotton provided return cargo for ships which had brought metal from England. The operations ranged as far afield as China and the East Indies, while in America selling agents covered the entire nation, and also did business in Canada and Mexico.

The interests of Dodge and of the company moved rapidly into various more or less related fields, with investments in iron and copper mines; in brass, copper, iron, and glass manufacturing; in timber land and other real estate; in railroads, insurance, telegraph, and cable enterprises. Dodge himself seldom did any direct management, but now and then he intervened to be sure that the directors followed his general ideas. Most of Dodge's investments turned out well, but there were the inevitable failures, particularly with the various fluctuations of general prosperity. Dodge's success can be credited mainly to his own efforts, even though he by no means started as a penniless immigrant, and even though he followed an old recipe for success by marrying the boss's daughter. His estate at the time of his death was estimated at between five and ten million dollars.

Dodge was an able businessman, direct, orderly, and clear thinking. Apparently he had high integrity, for while he was several times accused of bad practices, there apparently was little justification for the charges. In fact his moral principles sometimes hurt his profits, as when he sold railroad stock because he did not approve of trains running on Sunday; in one such case, however, the moral principles were financially profitable when he sold such stock between $110 and $120, with shortly thereafter the railroad going bankrupt and stock falling to ten cents a share. Basically, he was convinced that there were "other and more important things" (p. 189) in life than the making of money. A profoundly religious man, he not only joined and contributed to various religious and philanthropic enterprises, but also devoted great personal efforts to their promotion. Among his interests were the Sunday School Union, the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, and the YMCA. For over twenty years he was vice-president of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. He helped several theological seminaries, participating in the founding of Union Theological Seminary, and then sitting on its board of directors. Temperance enlisted his greatest reforming zeal, and temperance was transformed into prohibition by the end of the Civil War. He opposed slavery, but his position was moderate, with at times exasperation for what he felt to be the extremist positions of many abolitionists; for twenty years he was vice-president of the American Colonization Society. Other benefactions covered a wide range, including such varied projects as the American Geographical Society, the New York Historical Society, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Natural History, and the Mercantile Library. He was always greatly interested in education, and in his many benevolences gave particular attention to Negro education.

Politically, Dodge remained an inactive Whig until long after that party was practically moribund. His political interests were greatly roused by the difficulties of 1860, and while at first he favored the Union Party as representing a calm middle position, he soon swung to the Republicans, with the presumption that they had promised not to interfere with slavery in the states. When war loomed menacingly, he did everything possible to encourage a compromise of sectional differences—and certainly he was not uninfluenced by his business interests, of which many were in the South. When war came he supported the Northern point of view, and was particularly active in the Christian Commission, which was a rival of the Sanitary Commission. His support of Lincoln in 1864 was lukewarm because he wanted greater efforts to end the war.

Political interests led Dodge in 1864 to become a last-minute candidate for Congress. His Democratic opponent was declared elected, but because of the closeness of the vote and the obvious frauds, the election was appealed to Congress, which finally decided in 1866 that it preferred a Republican to a Democrat. In Congress, Dodge represented the businessman's viewpoint, favoring sound money, aid to the railroads, and a high tariff; this last preference was at least startling, since Dodge was primarily interested in international trade. Concerning Reconstruction he was on the side of moderation, favoring a quick reconciliation between North and South. He refused a second nomination in 1866, but as an indirect result of his short political career, plus his well-known philanthropic impulses, he was appointed by President Grant in 1869 to the Board of Indian Commissioners.

The present biography of Dodge is based largely on the Dodge papers and other comparable collections of documents. It is meticulously detailed, with often little distinction between the important and the trivial, and the organization is sometimes a trifle confusing. The style is adequate. Seldom does the author make any important effort to sketch the backgrounds and larger implications of the topics about which he talks, and in the places where he makes some such attempts, as with the work of the Board of Indian Commissioners, he frequently leaves much to be desired. Generalizations are few, but they would seem to indicate that while Lowitt is sympathetic to Dodge as an individual, he has an inherent distrust of businessmen—at least of the past century. For example, he makes sweeping criticisms of businessmen in their attitudes toward labor (p. 287) and toward the general public (p. 310), both without supporting evidence. Putting the matter a little more broadly, Lowitt seems to this reviewer not to have a very good grasp of the complexities and contradictions of human nature. All of which should not obscure the real services of Lowitt. He has worked diligently on important material, and has made available the details of a significant life. This type of information has been appearing with increasing frequency during recent years, to the pleasure of every student interested in economic trends. Before long it should be adequate to give the basis for a much more valid characterization of the nineteenth century American businessman than any which has appeared to date.

Dartmouth College Robert E. Riegel

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.