Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Loose Change on the Old Skinflint

I've finished David Cannadine's doorstop biography of Andrew Mellon (cf. link) and I offer a few bits of loose-change derived from the evidence here at hand:

One, the tax evasion charge/trial was an outrage, a farce from start to finish.  On he evidence I'd say that Mellon was guilty, all right, but of an entirely different (and uncharged) crime: self-dealing.  Throughout his tenure he engaged in repeated, egregious and blatant entanglement of his own business with the public's.  And without the slightest hint of defensiveness or irony: one can only assume that he simply didn't see any distinction between the public's welfare and his own.  But the tax case--it reflects no glory on Attorney General Homer Cummings (who emerges as a pipsqueak) nor on prosecutor Robert Jackson--a guy who I have always wanted to like (he is perhaps the best stylist ever to have adorned the Supreme Court), but also a guy who keeps disappointing me with his naked, self-absorbed ambition.

Oh and an extra: whatever his virtues, Franklin D. Roosevelt could be a vindictive little prick.  Particularly, I suppose, about people whose money was newer than his own.

Two, the museum.  The National Gallery on the Mall.  It is indeed impressive, not merely how much money, but also much effort, Mellon poured into the project--much of it while he was under indictment or on trial.  And how careful he was to make sure it would not be merely a monument to himself.  And how much comic relief we can enjoy from the art dealer and impudent old scoundrel, Joseph Duveen.  Side note: I guess it is part of the folklore that Mellon gave the museum in an effort to buy off the government over taxes.  Cannadine makes a compelling case for the proposition that this is a canard: that Mellon was at work on the museum long before FDR ever came to power and that he persisted merely to finish what he had begun.
And three, Scotch-Irish.  Cannadine makes much of Mellon's own Scotch-Irish roots and of (as Cannadine sees it) a pervasive Scotch-Irish cultural template in gilded-age Pittsburgh.  By which he seems to mean: hard work, thrift to the point of austerity and an implacable adherence to perceived principle.  In Mellon's case at least, one might add: contempt for the Irish Catholic underclass.

This is plausible enough, but there is a puzzle.  Seems to me that when we talk about Scotch-Irish we more often have in mind a different slice of America--the southeast, particularly the Appalachians--and a different vocational niche--politics.  We think of "Barbry Allen" and the Hatfield McCoy feud.    Or we think of Presidents like Jackson and Polk (I would add Lincoln but the facts of his ancestry have eluded historians so the attribution can be no more than a guess).

These seem to me to be rather different cultures, not so?  Is it the accident of geography, that the lucky ones wound up in the coal-and-iron country while their misfortunate brothers had to settle for the hoots and hollers?  Or is there a deeper geographical split that we can trace back to the old country?  I suppose what I should do (instead of nattering on) is to go back and retrieve my copy of David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed, which did so much to clarify the diverse roots of early American culture.  But it's not at hand: one problem of having (part of) your library made out of dead trees.

Or maybe I am just making too much of it.  Maybe you can't expect to kind a common thread in a culture that can claim Chester A. Arthur,  Elvis Presley and Zack Galifianakis (really--link).

1 comment:

CrocodileChuck said...

Read this classic by David Hackett Fischer: