In the FORUM for November, 1889, the question was asked, "Who owns the United States?" and reasons were given for the belief that one half of all the national wealth is owned by 40,000 families and that three fourths of it is in the possession of fewer than 250,000 families. These estimates were based in part upon official tax returns, but in part, also upon private information as to the wealth of 70 estates, specifically named, each estimated to be worth more than $20,000,000 and averaging $37,500,000. The correctness of these statistics, as well as that of the inferences drawn from them, has been somewhat bitterly denied. Hostile critics have assumed that the estimates of individual wealth were based entirely upon newspaper reports; and many newspaper editors, acting presumably upon their own experience, have unhesitatingly declared that such statistics are necessarily worthless.
But not one tenth of these names were given upon the authority of newspaper estimates, while a large majority were given upon very trustworthy private information. It has been said that no one can tell what a man's wealth amounts to without access to his books, which, it has been assumed, is impossible. In several instances, however, the information came from persons who had access to the necessary books or had been permitted to inspect the securities; in some cases it was obtained from tax returns; and in other cases it was taken from the oral or written statements of the owners themselves. For example, one gentleman, whose wealth was set down at $100,000,000 had actually exhibited $75,000,000 in securities, and had testified in a court of law to the possession of $10,000,000 more of one kind, all encumbered. During the year which has now elapsed, not one tenth of these names have been specified by any one as erroneously entered upon the list or as seriously overrated, and in only three instances has any probable error been established. These names might be omitted, and their places might be supplied by others of the twenty million grade. Errors of understatement have been discovered which largely counterbalance all overstatements. The least that can be said is that there are 70 American estates that average $35,000,000 each, not including Trinity Church, which perhaps should not be classed with strictly individual owners. During the year, by the consolidation of two estates, one individual has become worth at least $200,000,000. Two brothers, whose property is held as a unit, together own even a larger amount than this. Some great estates have been divided up by inheritance, but others have been divided up by inheritance, but others have been still more concentrated by that means.