Thomas G. Shearman was a founding partner of Shearman & Sterling and one of America's finest legal minds in the 19th century. This complements several other articles -- a 3-part series entitled "The Distribution of Wealth" which appeared in The Standard late in 1887, "Henry George's Mistakes" (September, 1889), and "The Owners of the United States" which appeared in The Forum in November, 1889.
from "The Public," October 6, 1900
THE MENACE OF PLUTOCRACY.
An extract from an address delivered by the late Thomas G. Shearman at Portland, Ore., June 17, 1889. This address, just as it was taken down by the stenographer at the time, was reproduced In the September (1900) number of "Why?", an excellent little periodical published by Frank Vierth at Cedar Rapids, Ia. As the editor of "Why?" says: "The lapse of nearly 12 years gives the speech added interest and significance."
Some cause has been at work during the last 25 or 30 years, which has resulted in a tremendous widening of the social chasm between the rich and poor. Some cause has, within the recollection probably of the majority of those who are present, entirely transformed the face of American society. Our old equality is gone. So far from being the most equal people on the face of the earth, as we once boasted that we were, ours is the most unequal of civilized nations. You talk about wealth of the British aristocracy, and about the poverty of the British poor. There is not in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland so striking a contrast, so wide a chasm between the rich and the poor, as there is in these United. States of America. There is no man in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland who is as wealthy as one of some half a dozen gentlemen who could be named in this country; and there are few there who are poorer than some who could be found in this country. It is true, I think, even yet, that there is a larger number of the extremely poor in Great Britain and Ireland than there is in this country. Haw long that will remain true it is difficult to say; but it is unquestionably not true that there is any greater mass of riches concentrated in a few hands in any country than in this.
Whereas, 40 years ago a man worth $100,000 was, even in our great city of New York, an object of remark and envy, such a man is now utterly obscure and unnoticed, and is considered to have laid merely the beginnings of a very moderate part of the capital which would be necessary for him to make a living.
Whereas, 40 years ago, there was but one man in the United States who was supposed to be worth more than $5,000,000, there are several Astors now, each of whom is generally reputed to be worth at least $50,000,000. There are probably ten times as many men today who are worth $20,000,000 as there were 40 years ago who were worth $1,000,000; and there are now several men, who are worth over $100,000,000 each.
This state of things is developing more and more rapidly. In every corner are men and women buried in obscurity, until we learn by some accident that they are worth their $10,000,000 or $20,000,000. A single member of a banking firm in, the city of Philadelphia lately died, leaving more than $21,000,000. There are at least four surviving partners in that firm having equal shares with the deceased. Two Philadelphians, of no public fame, recently died, having $22,000,000 each. One lady in my own city of Brooklyn is worth certainly not less than $30,000,000. We see evidences of this enormous accumulation on every side. And, it can be demonstrated with great ease by statistics which are undisputed, that at the present day less than 100,000 persons, constituting as a matter of fact only about one two-hundredth part of our working force, are possessed of incomes which enable them to save about three-fifths of all the wealth that is annually saved in this country. And as wealth is substantially all reproduced within less than 30 years, this means that within 30 years 100,000 persons are destined to own three fifths of the entire wealth of the United States; land, houses, improvements, goods, chattels, personal property of every kind.
Everybody knows that this state of things is undesirable. This enormous amount of wealth concentrated in a few hands brings to them no particular pleasure, no additional comforts, certainly does not bring to them anything like proportionate happiness.
Those of you who are in tolerably good circumstances, who can see your way to earn, your living comfortably and peaceably through life without special anxiety, may well thank God that you are not so rich as these rich men. For, with a somewhat extended experience among them, I have yet to find the first man who was one particle happier — I make no reference to his being better, but who was one particle happier — for being in possession, of more than or even as much as $1,000,000.
But what is the result of this state of things upon the community at large? You all know that there is widespread discontent among the poor who are deprived of the pleasures which they see the rich enjoy. You all know that, while it is easy to cast reproaches upon those who call attention to these facts, by accusing them of exciting popular discontent, the public discontent is already excited — is already universal. You have seen for 15 years at least a continual seething tide of discontent rise and dash itself against the barriers on every side; sometimes shown by the granger movements; sometimes by the farmers, by the miners, by the manufacturing workmen, by the laboring classes generally. In one form or another this surging roar of discontent is continually heard. I am no such alarmist as are many gentlemen, whom I have heard, distinguished in public affairs, whose names I would not venture to use. I have heard in every quarter, and from wealthy men, from men who do not believe in popular government, the gravest expression of alarm, and the gravest fears for the future, expressed in every direction. In all parts of the country rich men are putting their heads together and whispering: "What are we to do about popular suffrage? What will become of our property if we allow universal suffrage to go on? Can this government last under such an arrangement?" And they whisper to each other: "It cannot."
Now I have a different opinion; and still, my opinion is not very much more favorable upon the whole to the future, than theirs. I do not believe they will ever abolish popular suffrage; but this I do predict, without fear that the future will falsify it, that if this state of things continues unchanged for 30 years, or at the most, 50 years more, while you will retain the form and shell of popular government, you will in reality be subject to an absolute plutocracy. There will be possibly 20,000,000 or 25,000,000 votes cast; and so long as a plutocracy can manage that of the 25,000,000 votes cast, 12,600,000 shall be cast on their side, they will count the remaining 12,400,000; but the moment there is a change, and the men who control, as they will control at that time, from two-thirds to three-fourths of all the wealth of the country, find that 12,600,000 are going to vote against them, the last 200,000 somehow or other, will not be counted. You have seen, this before your eyes. You make a great ado about that condition in the south, and are devising measures to cure it; and it is proposed to put an act through congress which will put your elections, as well as the elections of South Carolina, under the rule of a dominant central officer. I do not discuss the question upon its merits at all; I only say that you see this difficulty right there, and you see how the men of wealth, the owners of property, have solved it there. They have solved it by putting the majority under their feet; they have done it openly, and you could not prevent them. You had the whole force of the army and navy on the side of the poor and propertyless; but you could not keep them on top; and you cannot do it. If you intend to maintain the republic you have got to keep the majority of the wealth of the country in the hands of the majority of its people. Now, as things, are going on, you are not going to do that, and all admit this. Republicans, democrats, greenbackers, anti-monopolists and monopolists, railroad men and anti-railroad men, capitalists and anticapitalists, all agree upon this. The fact is indisputable that this country is progressing at a more rapid rate toward the centralization of wealth than any other country under the face of the sun.