CHAPTER II. JOHN JACOB ASTOR.
Those who imagine that the mercantile profession is incapable of developing the element of greatness in the mind of man, find a perfect refutation in the career of the subject of this memoir, who won his immense fortune by the same traits which would have raised him to eminence as a statesman. It may be thought by some that he has no claim to a place in the list of famous Americans, since he was not only German by birth, but German in character to his latest day; but it must be borne in mind that America was the theater of his exploits, and that he owed the greater part of his success to the wise and beneficent institutions of the "New Land," as he termed it. In his own country he would have had no opportunity for the display of his great abilities, and it was only by placing himself in the midst of institutions favorable to progress that he was enabled to make use of his talents. It is for this reason, therefore, that we may justly claim him as one of the most celebrated of American merchants.
John Jacob Astor was born in the village of Waldorf, near Heidelberg, in the Grand Duchy of Baden, on the 17th of July, 1763. This year was famous for the conclusion of the Treaties of Paris and Hubertsburg, which placed all the fur-yielding regions of America, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Frozen Sea, in the hands of England. He was the youngest of four sons, and was born of Protestant parents. He was early taught to read Luther's Bible and the Prayer-book, and throughout his whole life remained a zealous Protestant. He was trained to the habit of rising early, and giving the first of his waking hours to reading the Bible and Prayer-book. This habit he continued all through life, and he often declared that it was to him the source of unfailing pleasure and comfort. His religious impressions were mainly due to his mother, who was a pious, thrifty, and hard-working woman, given to saving, and devoted to her family.
His father, on the contrary, was a jolly "ne'er do well," a butcher by trade, and not overburdened with industry. The business of a butcher in so small a village as Waldorf, where meat was a luxury to the inhabitants, was merely a nominal calling. It knew but one season of real profit. It was at that time the custom in Germany for every farmer to set apart a calf, pig, or bullock, and fatten it against harvest time. As that season approached, the village butcher passed from house to house to slaughter the animal, cure its flesh, or make sausage meat of it, spending, sometimes, several days at each house. This season brought Jacob Astor an abundance of work, and enabled him to provide liberally for the simple wants of his family; but during the rest of the year it was with difficulty that he could make bread for them. Yet Jacob took his hard lot cheerfully. He was merry over his misfortunes, and sought to forget them in the society of companions who gathered at the village beer-house. His wife's remonstrances against such a course of life were sometimes so energetic that the house became any thing but a pleasant place for the children.
Here John Jacob grew up to boyhood. His brothers left home to earn their livelihood elsewhere, as soon as they were old enough to do so, and he alone remained under the paternal roof. His father destined him for his own calling, but the boy shrank from it with disgust. To crown his misfortunes, his mother died, and his father married again, and this time a woman who looked with no favor upon the son. The newly-married pair quarreled continually, and the boy was glad to escape occasionally to the house of a schoolmate, where he passed the night in a garret or outhouse. By daylight he was back at his father's slaughter-house, to assist in carrying out the meat. He was poorly clad and badly fed, and his father's bad reputation wounded him so keenly that he shrank from playing with other boys, and led a life of comparative isolation.
Fortunately for him, he had a teacher, Valentine Jeune by name, the son of French Protestants, who was better fitted for his position than the majority of the more liberally-patronized Catholic instructors. He was well taught by Valentine Jeune in the rudiments of a plain education, and the tutor and the Protestant minister of the village together succeeded so well in his religious instruction that at the age of fourteen he was confirmed. Confirmation is the decisive point in the career of the German youth. Until then he is only a child. Afterward he is regarded as on the threshold of manhood, and is given to understand that the time has come for him to make choice of a career in life.
To the German peasant two courses only lie open, to learn a trade or go out to service. John Jacob was resolved not to do the latter, and he was in no condition to adopt the former. He was already familiar with his father's trade, but he shrank from it with disgust, and he could not hope to obtain money enough to pay for his tuition as an apprentice in any other calling. No workman in the village would receive him as an apprentice for less than fifty dollars, and fifty dollars were then further beyond his reach than as many millions in after years. The harvest was approaching, and Jacob Astor, seeing an unusual amount of work in store for him at that season, decided the matter for his son by informing him that he must prepare to settle down as his assistant. He obeyed, but discontentedly, and with a determination to abandon his home at the earliest practicable moment.
His chief desire was to leave Germany and emigrate to America. The American Revolution had brought the "New Land" into great prominence; and one of the brothers, Henry Astor, had already settled in New York as a butcher, and his letters had the effect of increasing John Jacob's desire to follow him. It was impossible to do so then, for the war which was raging in this country made it any thing but inviting to an emigrant, and the boy was entirely ignorant of the English language. Nevertheless, he knew that the war could not last always, and he resolved to go as soon as peace would allow him. Meanwhile he wished to join his elder brother, who had removed to London, and was now engaged with his uncle in the manufacture of musical instruments. In London he thought he could acquire a knowledge of English, and save from his wages the amount necessary to pay his passage from England to America. He could reach some of the seaports of the Continent by walking. But he needed money to pay his passage from there to Great Britain. His determination thus formed, he made no secret of it, and succeeded at length in extorting a reluctant consent from his father, who was not inclined to expect very much from the future career of his son. His teacher, however, had more faith in him, and said to the butcher, on the morning of the lad's departure: "I am not afraid of John Jacob; he'll get through the world. He has a clear head, and every thing right behind the ears."
He was seventeen years old when he left home; was stout and well built, and had a constitution of iron. He was possessed of a good plain education, and a remarkable degree of common sense. He had no vicious habits or propensities, and was resolved that he would never set foot again in his native town until he could do so as a rich man.
Ardently as he was bent on seeking his fortune in distant lands, it cost him a struggle to go away, for he was a true German in his attachment to his home and family. This attachment he never lost. After providing liberally for his relatives in his will, he made a munificent donation to his native village for the benefit of its poor children.
With his scanty wardrobe in a bundle, which he slung over his shoulder by a stick, and a mere pittance in his purse, he set out from Waldorf, on foot, for the Rhine. "Soon after I left the village," said he, in after-life, "I sat down beneath a tree to rest, and there I made three resolutions: to be honest, to be industrious, and not to gamble." He had but two dollars in his pocket; but this was enough for his purpose. The Rhine was not far distant from his native village, and this part of his journey he easily accomplished on foot. Upon reaching the river, he is said to have secured a place as oarsman on a timber raft. The timber which is cut in the Black Forest for shipment is made up into rafts on the Rhine, but instead of being suffered to float down the stream, as in this country, is rowed by oarsmen, each raft having from sixty to eighty men attached to it. As the labor is severe and attended with some risk, the wages are high, and the lot of the oarsmen not altogether a hard one, as they manage to have a great deal of sport among themselves. The amount paid as wages on these voyages is about ten dollars, besides the coarse fare furnished the men, and the time occupied is about two weeks.
Upon reaching the Dutch seaport at the mouth of the Rhine, young Astor received his wages—the largest sum he had ever possessed—and took passage in a vessel for London, where he was welcomed cordially by his brother, and provided with employment in his manufactory.
He now set to work to prepare himself for his emigration to America. His industry was unflagging. He worked literally from dawn till dark, and practiced the most rigid economy in his expenditures. His leisure time, which was brief, was spent in trying to master the English language, and in acquiring information respecting America. He had anticipated great difficulty in his efforts to learn English, but succeeded beyond his hopes. In six weeks he could make himself understood in that language, and some time before starting for America could speak it with ease, though he never could at any period of his life rid himself of his strong German accent. He was never able to write English correctly, but after being some years in this country acquired a style which was striking and to the point, in spite of its inaccuracy. England, however, was not a favorable place for acquiring information respecting America. The Colonies had exasperated the mother country by their heroic struggle for freedom, which was just drawing to its close, and the New World was pictured to the imagination of the young German in any thing but a favorable light. His most accurate information was gained from those who had returned from America, and these persons, as often as chance threw them in his way, he questioned with eagerness and precision; their answers were carefully stored up in his memory.
In September, 1783, the news of the peace which established the independence of the United States was published in Europe. Young Astor had now been in London two years, and had saved money enough to take him to America. He was the possessor of a suit of good clothes, besides his ordinary wearing apparel, and fifteen guineas in English money, which he had saved from his slender earnings by the absolute denial to himself of every thing not essential to his existence. The way to America was now open, and he resolved to set out at once. For five guineas he bought a steerage passage in a ship bound for Baltimore, and reserving about five pounds sterling of the remainder of his capital in money, invested the rest in seven German flutes, which he bought of his brother, and embarked for the "New Land."
The winter was memorable on land and sea for its severity, and our hero's first voyage was a stormy one. It is said that on one occasion, when the tempest was unusually violent, and the ship in imminent danger, he made his appearance in his Sunday clothes. In reply to those who asked his reason for so strange an act, he said that if he should reach land he would save his best clothes, and that if he was drowned it was immaterial what became of them.
Although the ship sailed in November, it did not reach the Chesapeake until near the end of January, and there, when only one day distant from Baltimore, was caught in the ice, where it was compelled to remain until late in March. This delay was very vexatious to the young emigrant, but it proved in the end the greatest blessing that could have befallen him. During the voyage Astor had made the acquaintance of one of his fellow passengers, a German, somewhat older than himself, and, while the ship lay fast in the ice, the two were constantly together. As a consequence of the intimacy which thus sprung up between them, they exchanged confidences, told each other their history, and their purpose in coming to America. Astor learned that his friend had emigrated to the New World a few years before, friendless and penniless, but that, beginning in a little way, he had managed to become a fur trader. He bought his furs from the Indians, and from the boatmen plying on the Hudson River. These he sold at a small profit to larger dealers, until he had accumulated a considerable sum for one in his position. Believing that he could find a better market in Europe than in America, he had embarked all his capital in skins, which he had taken to England and sold at a heavy advance. The proceeds he had invested in toys and trinkets valued by the savages, and was now on his way back with them, intending to go into the wilderness himself and purchase an additional stock of furs from the Indians. He recommended Astor to enter upon the same business; gave him valuable information as to the value of peltries in America and in England; told him the best way of buying, packing, preserving, and shipping the skins, and gave him the names of the leading furriers in New York, Montreal, and London. Astor was deeply impressed with the views of his friend, but he could not see his own way clear to such a success, as he had no capital. His friend assured him that capital was unnecessary if he was willing to begin in an humble way. He could buy valuable furs on the wharves of New York for toys and trinkets, and even for cakes, from the Indians who visited the city, and these he could sell at an advance to the New York dealers. He advised the young man, however, not to be satisfied with the American market, but to work for a position which would enable him to send his furs to England, where they would bring four or five times as much as in this country. Astor carefully treasured up all that his friend said to him, and quietly resolved that he would lose no time in entering upon this business, which seemed to promise so much.
The two friends traveled together from Baltimore to New York, where they were warmly received by Aster's brother, Henry, who had succeeded in laying the foundation of a prosperous business as a butcher, in which he afterward made a large fortune. Both brothers were men of business habits, and on the very first evening after the arrival of the new-comer they began to discuss plans for his future. Astor's friend stated all the advantages of the fur trade, and convinced Henry Astor that it was a fine field for the energies of his brother; and it was agreed that it would be best for the young man to seek employment in the service of some furrier in the city, in order that he might thoroughly learn the business, and familiarize himself with the country and its customs. To his great delight, young Astor learned that, so far from being compelled to pay his employer for learning him the business, as in Europe, he would be certain here to receive his board and nominal wages from the first. The next day the three started out, and succeeded in obtaining a situation for the young man in the store of Mr. Robert Bowne, a Quaker, and a merchant of long experience in the business, as well as a most estimable man. He is said to have engaged Astor at two dollars per week and his board.
Astor was at once set to work by his employer to beat furs, this method of treating them being required to prevent the moths from lodging in and destroying them. From the first he applied himself to the task of learning the business. He bent all the powers of his remarkable mind to acquiring an intimate knowledge of furs, and of fur-bearing animals, and their haunts and habits. His opportunities for doing so were very good, as many of the skins were sold over Bowne's counters by the hunters who had taken them. These men he questioned with a minuteness that astonished them, and the result was that in a few years he was as thoroughly familiar with the animals, their habits, their country, and the mode of taking them, as many of the trappers themselves. He is said to have been in his prime the best judge of furs in America. He appreciated the fact that no man can succeed in any business or profession without fully understanding it, and he was too much determined upon success to be satisfied with a superficial knowledge. He was resolved that there should be no detail in the business, however minute, with which he was unfamiliar, and he toiled patiently to acquire information which most salesmen in his place would have esteemed trivial. Nothing was trivial with him, however, and it is remarkable that he never embarked in any scheme until he had mastered its most trifling details. Few men have ever shown a deeper and more far-reaching knowledge of their profession and the issues involved in it than he. He fully understood that his knowledge would give him a power which a man of less information could not obtain, and he never failed to use that knowledge as a power. His instructions to his subordinates were always drawn up with the strictest regard to details, and show not only how thoroughly he had mastered the subject before him, but also how much importance he attached to the conscientious fulfillment of a well-digested plan of operations. He recognized no such thing as luck. Every thing with him was the result of a deliberate plan based upon knowledge. In this respect his career affords one of the best models to be found in our history.
ASTOR'S FIRST TRIP FOR FURS.
Astor's employer was not insensible to his merits, and soon promoted him to a better place. In a little while the latter intrusted him with the buying of the furs from the men who brought them to the store, and he gave such satisfaction to his employer that he was rewarded with a still more confidential post. Montreal was at that time the chief fur depot of the country, and it was the custom of Mr. Bowne to make an annual journey to that city for the purpose of replenishing his stock. The journey was long and fatiguing, and as soon as the old gentleman found that he could intrust the mission to his clerk, he sent him in his place. Ascending the Hudson to Albany, Astor, with a pack on his back, struck out across the country, which was then almost unsettled, to Lake George, up which he passed into Lake Champlain. Sailing to the head of the lake, he made his way to Montreal. Then returning in the same way, he employed Indians to transport his furs from Lake George to Albany, and dropped down the Hudson in the way he had come. Mr. Bowne was delighted with the success of his clerk, who proved more than a match for the shrewd Indians in his bargains. It was doubtless here that Mr. Astor obtained that facility in "driving a hard bargain" for which he was afterwards noted.
As soon as Mr. Astor felt himself master of his business, he left the employ of Mr. Bowne, and began life on his own account. The field upon which he purposed entering was extensive, but it was one of which he had made a careful survey. Previous to the peace of 1763, the French and English divided the control of the fur-bearing regions of America. The British possessions, extending from Canada to the unexplored regions of the North, had been granted by a charter of Charles II. to Prince Rupert, and were, by virtue of that instrument, under the exclusive control of the Hudson Bay Company. Large quantities of furs were obtained in this region, and collected at the principal settlement, York Factory, from which they were shipped to England.
South of this region was Canada, then possessed by the French, who carried on an extensive trade with the Indians, who brought their furs down to Montreal in their birch canoes. The French finally settled in the country of the savages, and married among the natives, thenceforward entirely devoting themselves to the life of the trapper and hunter. These marriages produced a race of half-breeds who were especially successful in securing furs. The cession of Canada to England was a severe blow to the French traders, as it opened the country to the enterprise of the English, a few of whom were quick to avail themselves of its advantages. The French and Indians at first regarded them with hostility, but gradually became reconciled to their presence.
Under the French rule the savages had not been furnished with liquors, but the English soon sold whisky and rum in great quantities to them, receiving the best furs in return. As a consequence, intemperance spread rapidly among the savages, and threatened to put an end to their industry as gatherers of furs. To check the evil results of this irregular trading, a company was established in 1785, called the North-west Company. It was managed by twelve partners, some of whom resided at Montreal, and others at the trading posts in the interior. Their chief station was at Fort William, on Lake Superior. Here, at stated times, the agents would come up from Montreal and hold a consultation for the purchase of furs. These meetings always drew crowds of French and Indian trappers, boatmen, and others, who brought in large quantities of skins.
A few years later a third company was organized, with its principal station at Michilimackinac, near Lake Huron. It was called the Mackinaw Company, and its field of operations was the country bordering Lake Superior, and that lying between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. The company was English, but did not hesitate to operate in American territory, so little regard did Great Britain pay to the rights of the infant republic.
"Although peace had been concluded, the frontier forts had not been given up. Oswego, Niagara, Detroit, Michilimackinac, and other posts were still in the hands of the English. The Indian tribes continued hostile, being under English influence. No company had as yet been formed in the United States. Several French houses at St. Louis traded with the Indians, but it was not until 1807 that an association of twelve partners, with a capital of forty thousand dollars, was formed at St. Louis, under the name of the Missouri Company.
"The trade, it will thus be seen, was almost wholly in the hands of the English companies—the Hudson's Bay Company in the north, the North-west Company in the Canadas, the Mackinaw Company in the territories of the United States—and the few American traders in the field had to rely on their individual resources, with no aid from a Government too feeble in its infancy to do more than establish a few Indian agencies, and without constitutional power to confer charter privileges."
The voyage of Captain Cook had brought to the notice of the fur dealers of the world the sea otter of the northern Pacific, and the announcement made upon the return of the expedition drew large numbers of adventurers to the west coast of America, in search of the valuable skins of these animals. In 1792, there were twenty-one vessels, principally American, on the coast.
It was into this field, already occupied by powerful and hostile corporations, that the young German entered. He was perfectly aware of the opposition his efforts would encounter from them, but he was not dismayed. He began business in 1786, in a small store in Water Street, which he furnished with a few toys and notions suited to the tastes of the Indians who had skins to sell. His entire capital consisted of only a few hundred dollars, a portion of which was loaned him by his brother. He had no assistants. He did all his own work. He bought his skins, cured, beat, and sold them himself.
Several times during the year he made journeys on foot through western New York, buying skins from the settlers, farmers, trappers, savages, wherever he could find them. He tramped over nearly the entire State in this way, and is said to have had a better knowledge of its geography and topography than any man living.
"He used to boast, late in life, when the Erie Canal had called into being a line of thriving towns through the center of the State, that he had himself, in his numberless tramps, designated the sites of those towns, and predicted that one day they would be the centers of business and population. Particularly he noted the spots where Rochester and Buffalo now stand, one having a harbor on Lake Erie and the other upon Lake Ontario. He predicted that those places would one day be large and prosperous cities; and that prediction he made when there was scarcely a settlement at Buffalo, and only wigwams on the site of Rochester."
During these tramps his business in the city was managed by a partner, with whom he was finally compelled to associate himself.
As soon as he had collected a certain number of bales of skins he shipped them to London, and took a steerage passage in the vessel which conveyed them. He sold his skins in that city at a fine profit, and succeeded in forming business connections which enabled him afterward to ship his goods direct to London, and draw regularly upon the houses to which they were consigned. He also made an arrangement with the house of Astor & Broadwood, in which his brother was a partner, by which he became the agent in New York for the sale of their musical instruments, a branch of his business which became quite profitable to him. He is said to have been the first man in New York who kept a regular stock of musical instruments on hand.
Slowly, and by unremitting industry, Mr. Astor succeeded in building up a certain business. His personal journeys made him acquainted with the trappers, and enabled him to win their good will. The savages sold their skins to him readily, and he found a steady market and a growing demand for his commodities in the Old World.
It was about this time that he married Miss Sarah Todd, of New York. She was a connection of the Brevoort family, and was of better social position than her husband. She entered heartily into his business, doing much of the buying and beating of the furs herself. She was a true helpmate to him, and long after he was a millionaire, he used to boast of her skill in judging furs and conducting business operations.
In 1794, Jay's treaty placed the frontier forts in the hands of the Americans, and thus increased the opportunities of our own traders to extend their business. It was of the greatest service to Mr. Astor. It enabled him to enlarge the field of his operations, and, at the same time, to send his agents on the long journeys which he formerly made, while he himself remained in New York to direct his business; which by this time had grown to considerable proportions.
He was now on the road to wealth. He had scores of trappers and hunters working for him in the great wilderness, and his agents were kept busy buying and shipping the skins to New York. As soon as he was able to do so he purchased a ship, in which he sent his furs to London, occasionally making a voyage thither himself. He manifested the greatest interest in the markets of the Old World, especially in those of Asia, and informed himself so accurately concerning them that he was always enabled to furnish his captains with instructions covering the most minute detail of their transactions in those markets; and it is said that he was never unsuccessful in his ventures there, except when his instructions were disobeyed.
In this again, as in the fur trade, we see him patiently acquiring knowledge of the eastern trade before venturing to engage in it. His first step was always to fully comprehend his task, to examine it from every possible point of view, so that he should be prepared to encounter any sudden reverse, or ready to take advantage of good fortune. Here lay the secret of his success—that he never embarked in an enterprise until he had learned how to use it to advantage.
Under his skillful management his business grew rapidly; but he avoided speculation, and confined himself to legitimate commerce. He was plain and simple in his habits, carrying this trait to an extreme long after economy had ceased to be necessary to him. He worked hard, indulged in no pleasures except horseback exercise and the theater, of both which he was very fond. It was only after he had amassed a large fortune that he ever left his business before the close of the day. Then he would leave his counting-room at two in the afternoon, and, partaking of an early dinner, would pass the rest of the day in riding about the island. So plain was his style of living that, before he became generally known as a wealthy man, a bank clerk once superciliously informed him that his indorsement of a note would not be sufficient, as it was not likely he would be able to pay it in case the bank should be forced to call upon him.
"Indeed," said Mr. Astor, "how much do you suppose I am worth?"
The clerk named a moderate amount, at which the merchant smiled quietly.
"Would the indorsement of Mr. ——, or Mr. ——, be sufficient?" asked Mr. Astor, naming several well-known merchants who lived in great style.
"Entirely sufficient," was the reply. "Each one of them is known to be wealthy."
"How much do you think each is worth?"
The clerk named large sums in connection with each of the gentlemen.
"Well, my friend," said the merchant, "I am worth more than any of them. I will not tell you how much I am worth, but it is more than any sum you have named."
The clerk looked at him in surprise, and then said, bluntly, "Then you are a greater fool than I took you for, to work as hard as you do."
Mr. Astor was very fond of telling this story, which he regarded as one of the best jokes of the day.
All this time Mr. Astor had lived over his store, but in 1800, after he had been in business fifteen years, he moved his dwelling to 223 Broadway, on the site of the Astor House of to-day. He lived here, with one removal, for upwards of twenty-five years. The house was plain and simple, but he was satisfied with it. He was now worth a quarter of a million dollars, and his business was growing rapidly. The fur trade was exceedingly profitable. A beaver skin could be bought from the trappers in western New York for one dollar and sold in London for six dollars and a quarter. By investing this amount in English manufactures, the six dollars and a quarter received for the skin could be made to produce ten dollars paid for the English goods in New York.
The Chinese trade was also very profitable. China was an excellent market for furs. They brought high prices, and the proceeds could always be invested in teas and silks, which sold well in New York. His profit on a voyage would sometimes reach seventy thousand dollars, and the average gain on a lucky venture of this kind was thirty thousand dollars. The high prices produced by the war of 1812-15 were also in Mr. Astor's favor. His ships were all remarkably lucky in escaping capture by the enemy, and he was almost the only merchant who had a cargo of tea in the market. Tea having reached double its usual price, he was enabled to reap immense profits from his ventures.
Mr. Francis, in his Old Merchants of New York, makes the following revelation of the manner in which Mr. Astor found it possible to carry on such an immense business. He says:
"A house that could raise money enough, thirty years ago, to send $260,000 in specie, could soon have an uncommon capital; and this was the working of the old system. The Griswolds owned the ship Panama. They started her from New York in the month of May, with a cargo of perhaps $30,000 worth of ginseng, spelter, lead, iron, etc., and $170,000 in Spanish dollars. The ship goes on the voyage, reaches Whampoa in safety (a few miles below Canton). Her supercargo, in two months, has her loaded with tea, some chinaware, a great deal of cassia, or false cinnamon, and a few other articles. Suppose the cargo mainly tea, costing about thirty-seven cents (at that time) per pound on the average.
"The duty was enormous in those days. It was twice the cost of the tea, at least; so that a cargo of $200,000, when it had paid duty of seventy-five cents per pound (which would be $400,000), amounted to $600,000. The profit was at least fifty per cent, on the original cost, or $100,000, and would make the cargo worth $700,000.
"The cargo of teas would be sold almost on arrival (say eleven or twelve months after the ship left New York in May), to wholesale grocers, for their notes at four and six months—say for $700,000. In those years there was credit given by the United States of nine, twelve, and eighteen months! So that the East India or Canton merchant, after his ship had made one voyage, had the use of Government capital to the extent of $400,000, on the ordinary cargo of a China ship.
"No sooner had the ship Panama arrived (or any of the regular East Indiamen), than her cargo would be exchanged for grocers' notes for $700,000. These notes could be turned into specie very easily, and the owner had only to pay his bonds for duty at nine, twelve, and eighteen months, giving him time actually to send two more ships, with $200,000 each, to Canton, and have them back again in New York before the bonds on the first cargo were due.
"John Jacob Astor, at one period of his life, had several vessels operating in this way. They would go to the Pacific, and carry furs from thence to Canton. These would be sold at large profits. Then the cargoes of tea to New York would pay enormous duties, which Astor did not have to pay to the United States for a year and a half. His tea cargoes would be sold for good four and six months paper, or perhaps cash; so that, for eighteen or twenty years, John Jacob Astor had what was actually a free-of-interest loan from Government of over five millions of dollars."
It is estimated that Mr. Astor made about two millions of dollars by his trade in furs and teas. The bulk of his immense fortune was made by investments in real estate. His estate was estimated at twenty millions of dollars at the time of his death, and has now increased to over forty millions. He had a firm faith in the magnificent future of New York as the greatest city of the continent, and as fast as his gains from his business came in, they were regularly invested in real estate. A part was expended in leasing for a long period property which the owners would not sell, and the rest in buying property in fee simple. These leases, some of which have but recently expired, were extremely profitable. In his purchases of land Mr. Astor was very fortunate. He pursued a regular system in making them. Whenever a favorable purchase could be made in the heart of the city, he availed himself of the opportunity, but as a rule he bought his lands in what was then the suburb of the city, and which few besides himself expected to see built up during their lifetime. His sagacity and foresight have been more than justified by the course of events. His estate now lies principally in the heart of New York, and has yielded an increase greater even than he had ventured to hope for. Seventy hundred and twenty houses are said to figure on the rent roll of the Astor estate at present, and besides these are a number of lots not yet built upon, but which are every day increasing in value. "When Mr. Astor bought Richmond Hill, the estate of Aaron Burr, he gave one thousand dollars an acre for the hundred and sixty acres. Twelve years later, the land was valued at fifteen hundred dollars per lot."
In 1810, he sold a lot near Wall Street for eight thousand dollars. The price was so low that a purchaser for cash was found at once, and this gentleman, after the sale, expressed his surprise that Mr. Astor should ask only eight thousand for a lot which in a few years would sell for twelve thousand.
"That is true," said Mr. Astor, "but see what I intend doing with these eight thousand dollars. I shall buy eighty lots above Canal Street, and by the time your one lot is worth twelve thousand dollars, my eighty lots will be worth eighty thousand dollars."
His expectations were realized.
During the war of the Revolution, Roger Morris and his wife, Mary, of Putnam County, were obliged to flee from the country to England for adhering to the cause of King George, and, being attainted by the authorities as public enemies, their immense estate, consisting of fifty-one thousand one hundred and two acres, was seized by the State of New York, and sold in small parcels to farmers, who believed the title thus acquired valid. In 1809, there were upwards of seven hundred families residing on this land. Mr. Astor, having learned that Roger and Mary Morris possessed only a life interest in their property, and having ascertained to his satisfaction that the State could not confiscate the rights of the heirs, purchased their claim, which was good not only for the land, but for all the improvements that had been put upon it. He paid twenty thousand pounds sterling for it. A few years previous to the death of Mrs. Morris, who survived her husband some years, Mr. Astor presented his claim. The occupants of the land were thunderstruck, but the right was on his side. The State of New York had simply robbed the heirs of their rights. There was no weak point in the claim. Having given defective titles to the farmers, the State was of course responsible for the claim; and upon finding out their mistake, the authorities asked Mr. Astor to name the sum for which he would be willing to compromise. The lands were valued at six hundred and sixty-seven thousand dollars, but Mr. Astor expressed his willingness to sell for three hundred thousand dollars. His offer was refused. In 1819, a second proposition was made to Mr. Astor by the Legislature of the State. He replied: "In 1813 or 1814 a similar proposition was made to me by the commissioners then appointed by the Honorable the Legislature of this State when I offered to compromise for the sum of three hundred thousand dollars, which, considering the value of the property in question, was thought very reasonable, and, at the present period, when the life of Mrs. Morris is, according to calculation, worth little or nothing, she being near eighty-six years of age, and the property more valuable than it was in 1813. I am still willing to receive the amount which I then stated, with interest on the same, payable in money or stock, bearing an interest of — per cent., payable quarterly. The stock may be made payable at such periods as the Honorable the Legislature may deem proper. This offer will, I trust, be considered as liberal, and as a proof of my willingness to compromise on terms which are reasonable, considering the value of the property, the price which it cost me, and the inconvenience of having so long lain out of my money, which, if employed in commercial operations, would most likely have produced better profits."
This offer was not accepted by the Legislature, and the cause was delayed until 1827, when it was brought before the courts. It was argued by such men as Daniel Webster and Martin Van Buren, on the part of the State, and by Thomas Addis Emmett, Ogden, and others for Astor. The State had no case, and the matter was decided in Astor's favor. Then the State consented to compromise. The famous Astor stock, which paid that gentleman about five hundred thousand dollars, was issued, and the titles of the possessors of the lands confirmed.
The most important of all of Mr. Astor's undertakings was his effort at founding the settlement of Astoria, on the coast of Oregon. This enterprise has been made so familiar to the majority of readers by the pen of Washington Irving, that I can only refer to it here. "His design," says a writer of thirteen years ago, "was to organize and control the fur trade from the lakes to the Pacific, by establishing trading posts along the Missouri and Columbia to its mouth. He designed establishing a central depot and post at the mouth of the Columbia. He proposed sending regular supply-ships to the Pacific posts around the Horn. By these, stores were to be sent also to the Russian establishments. It was part of his plan, if possible, to obtain possession of one of the Sandwich Islands as a station, for from the Pacific coast he knew that the Chinese market for his peltries could be most conveniently reached, and thus the necessity for a long and circuitous voyage be avoided. Instead of bringing the furs intended for China to New York, they could be sent from the Pacific. By the supply-ships, too, the stock of goods suitable for the Indian trade would be kept up there, and the cargoes purchased with the proceeds of the furs sold in China brought back to New York. The line of posts across the continent would become a line of towns; emigration would follow, and civilization would belt the continent.
"In this grand scheme, Mr. Astor was only anticipating the course of events which, fifty years later, we are beginning to witness. When he laid his plans before the Government, Mr. Jefferson, who was then President, 'considered as a great acquisition,' as he afterward expressed himself in a letter to Mr. Astor, 'the commencement of a settlement on the western coast of America, and looked forward with gratification to the time when its descendants should have spread themselves through the whole length of that coast, covering it with free and independent Americans, unconnected with us except by ties of blood and interest, and enjoying, like us, the rights of self-government.' Even Jefferson's mind, wide as it was, could not take in the idea of a national unity embracing both ends of the continent; but not so thought Astor. The merchant saw farther than the statesman. It was precisely this political unity which gave him hope and chance of success in his worldwide schemes. When the Constitution was adopted, the chief source of apprehension for its permanence with men like Patrick Henry, and other wise statesmen, was the extent of our territory. The Alleghanies, it was thought, had put asunder communities whom no paper constitution could unite. But at that early day, when Ohio was the far West, and no steamboat had yet gone up the Mississippi, Astor looked beyond the Ohio, beyond the Mississippi, and the Rocky Mountains, and saw the whole American territory, from ocean to ocean, the domain of one united nation, the seat of trade and industry. He saw lines of trading posts uniting the Western settlements with the Pacific; following this line of trading posts, he saw the columns of a peaceful emigration crossing the plains, crossing the mountains, descending the Columbia, and towns and villages taking the places of the solitary posts, and cultivated fields instead of the hunting-grounds of the Indian and the trapper.
"No enterprise, unless it be the Atlantic telegraph, engages more deeply the public attention than a railroad communication with the Pacific coast.[B] The rapid settlement of Oregon and California, the constant communication by steam to the Pacific coast, render it easy now to feel the nearness of that region, and the oneness of the nationality which covers the continent. But to Astor's eye the thing was as palpable then as now. And yet but two or three attempts had then been made to explore the overland routes."
It would be deeply interesting to examine the details of this fast scheme of colonization and trade, for it is certain that Mr. Astor was as anxious to do an act which, by building up the continent, should hand his name down to posterity as a national benefactor, as to increase his business; but the limits of this article forbid more than a mere glance at the subject.
A company was formed, at the head of which stood Mr. Astor, and an elaborate and carefully-arranged plan of operations prepared. Two expeditions were dispatched to the mouth of the Columbia, one by land and the other by sea. Many hardships were encountered, but the foundation of a settlement was successfully made on the Columbia. In spite of the war with England (1812-15), which now occurred, the enterprise would have been successful had Mr. Astor's positive instructions been obeyed. They were utterly disregarded, however, and his partners and agents not only betrayed him in every instance, but sold his property to a rival British company for a mere trifle. His pecuniary loss was over a million of dollars, and his disappointment bitter beyond expression. When the enterprise was on the point of failure, and while he was still chafing at the conduct of his treacherous subordinates, he wrote to Mr. Hunt, the most faithful of all his agents: "Were I on the spot, and, had the management of affairs, I would defy them all; but as it is, every thing depends on you and your friends about you. Our enterprise is grand, and deserves success, and I hope in God it will meet it. If my object was merely gain of money, I should say, think whether it is best to save what we can, and abandon the place; but the very idea is like a dagger to my heart." When the news of the final betrayal reached him, he wrote to the same gentleman: "Had our place and property been fairly captured, I should have preferred it; I should not feel as if I were disgraced."
Mr. Astor remained in active business for fifty years. During that entire period he scarcely committed an error of judgment which led to a loss in business. He was thorough master of every thing pertaining to his affairs, and his strength and accuracy of judgment was remarkable. The particulars of his transactions were indelibly impressed upon his mind. His intellect was vigorous and quick, and he grasped a subject with a readiness which seemed like intuition. He was always careful of the present, but he loved to undertake enterprises which extended far into the future. He was a man of the utmost punctuality in all his habits. He rose early, and, until he was fifty-five years old, was always in his office before seven o'clock. His capacity for work was very great, so that, in spite of his heavy labors, he was always able to leave his office by two o'clock, while many of his associates, who really did less than he, were compelled to remain in their counting-rooms until four or five. He was noted for his unvarying calmness, which he doubtless owed to his German temperament. In the midst of disaster and loss he was cooler and more cheerful than ever. To those who chafed at their troubles, he would say, smilingly, "Keep quiet; keep cool." This was his safeguard.
He was a devoted citizen of the United States, and, though he took no active interest in politics, was a steady supporter of the Whig party. Henry Clay was his personal friend, and his last donation to any political cause was a subscription of fifteen hundred dollars to aid the election of his old friend to the Presidency.
About the year 1830, Mr. Astor, now the possessor of millions, began to withdraw from active business, confining his efforts chiefly to such investments as the management of his immense estate made necessary. He now put into execution an enterprise which he had long cherished. When a poor stranger in the city, he had once stopped in Broadway to notice a row of buildings which had just been erected, and which were considered the finest in the street, and had then made a vow that he would one day build a larger and finer house than any in Broadway. He now set to work to carry out the plan he had cherished ever since. He owned the entire block on Broadway, between Vesey and Barclay streets, with the exception of one house, which was the property of a Mr. Coster, a merchant who had amassed a large fortune and retired from business. Mr. Astor made him many offers for his house, but the old gentleman was unwilling to remove. Mr. Astor offered him the full value of his house, which was thirty thousand dollars, and increased the bid to forty thousand, but Mr. Coster was obstinate. At length Mr. Astor, in despair, was compelled to reveal his plan to his neighbor.
"I want to build a hotel," said he. "I have got all the other lots. Now name your own price."
Mr. Coster replied that he would sell for sixty thousand dollars if his wife would consent, and that Mr. Astor could see her the next morning. Mr. Astor was punctual to the appointment, and his offer was accepted by the good lady, who said to him, condescendingly, "I don't want to sell the house, but we are such old friends that I am willing for your sake."
Mr. Astor used to remark with great glee that any one could afford to exhibit such condescension after receiving double the value of a piece of property.
Having got possession of the entire block, he commenced the demolition of the old buildings, and on their site reared the Astor House, then the largest and most elegant hotel in the country. This building, when completed, he gave to his eldest son, William B. Astor.
In 1832, Mr. Astor sailed for Europe to visit one of his daughters, who had married a nobleman, and remained abroad until 1835. In that year he was compelled to return home by the action of General Jackson with regard to the Bank of the United States. "He reached Havre," says Mr. Parton, "when the ship, on the point of sailing, had every stateroom engaged, but he was so anxious to get home, that the captain, who had commanded ships for him in former years, gave up to him his own stateroom. Head winds and boisterous seas kept the vessel beating about and tossing in the channel for many days. The great man was very sick, and still more alarmed. At length, being persuaded that he should not survive the voyage, he asked the captain to run in and set him ashore on the coast of England. The captain dissuaded him. The old man urged his request at every opportunity, and said, at last, 'I give you tousand dollars to put me aboard a pilot boat.' He was so vehement and importunate, that one day the captain, worried out of all patience, promised him that if he did not get out of the channel before next morning, he would run in and put him ashore. It happened that the wind changed in the afternoon and wafted the ship into the broad ocean. But the troubles of the sea-sick millionaire had only just begun. A heavy gale of some days' duration blew the vessel along the western coast of Ireland. Mr. Astor, now thoroughly panic-stricken, offered the captain ten thousand dollars if he would put him ashore anywhere on the wild and rocky coast of the Emerald Isle. In vain the captain remonstrated. In vain he reminded the old gentleman of the danger of forfeiting his insurance.
"'Insurance!' exclaimed Astor, 'can't I insure your ship my self?'
"In vain the captain mentioned the rights of the other passengers. In vain he described the solitary and rock-bound coast, and detailed the dangers and difficulties which attended its approach. Nothing would appease him. He said he would take all the responsibility, brave all the perils, endure all the consequences, only let him once more feel the firm ground under his feet. The gale having abated, the captain yielded to his entreaties, and engaged, if the other passengers would consent to the delay, to stand in, and put him ashore. Mr. Astor went into the cabin, and proceeded to write what was expected to be a draft for ten thousand dollars in favor of the owners of the ship on his agent in New York. He handed to the captain the result of his efforts. It was a paper covered with writing that was totally illegible.
"'What is this?' asked the captain.
"'A draft upon my son for ten thousand dollars,' was the reply.
"'But no one can read it.'
"'O yes, my son will know what it is. My hand trembles so that I can not write any better.'
"'But,' said the captain, 'you can at least write your name. I am acting for the owners of the ship, and I can not risk their property for a piece of paper that no one can read. Let one of the gentlemen draw up a draft in proper form; you sign it, and I will put you ashore.'
"The old gentleman would not consent to this mode of proceeding, and the affair was dropped."
During the last twenty years of his life Mr. Astor lived in the retirement of his family, leaving even the greater part of the management of his estate to the hands of others. He was exceedingly fond of literary men. Irving was his friend, and Halleck his business manager. He died at the age of eighty-four years and eight months, literally from old age. He was buried in St. Thomas's Church, on Broadway.
His immense estate was left to his children, the bulk of it being bequeathed to his eldest son. All of his relatives were made comfortable. The village of Waldorf, his native place, received a legacy of fifty thousand dollars for the benefit of its poor, and an amount in land and funds equal to four hundred thousand dollars was left to certain trustees to establish the Astor Library in the city of New York. Besides these, several charitable and benevolent associations received handsome donations from him.
His career has been related in these pages as an example to those who are seeking to rise in legitimate commerce. It is the Best instance on record of the facility with which success may be won by patient and intelligent industry. In his capacity for grasping and carrying out an enterprise, in his prudent and economical management of his business, in his tact, courage, sagacity, Mr. Astor's example is one which will lead many to success, and none to injury.
He was a thoroughly upright man, his transactions were rigidly honest; but as a man, candor compels the acknowledgment that he was not a safe or admirable model. He was utterly devoid of generosity. Liberal to an extreme with his own family, he was close and hard with others. He paid small wages to his employés and never gave more than the man bargained for, no matter what extra service might be rendered. He carried his economy to a degree of meanness painful to contemplate. At his death, out of his vast estate, he left to his friend and faithful manager an annuity of only two hundred dollars, which his son increased to fifteen hundred.
One of his captains once succeeded in saving for him property in China to the amount of seven hundred thousand dollars, which had become jeopardized by the sudden death of the agent in charge of it. This service was purely voluntary, and was one which required the greatest skill, determination, and courage on the part of the captain, and Astor acknowledged it, frequently saying: "If you had not done just as you did, I should never have seen one dollar of my money; no, not one dollar of it." This was the only acknowledgment he made, however. He was worth ten millions of dollars, and the captain had only his pay—twelve hundred dollars a year—and a family. At his father's death Mr. William B. Astor sent a considerable sum to the old seaman in return for this service.
"We have all heard much of the closeness, or rather the meanness, of this remarkable man. Truth compels us to admit that he was not generous, except to his own kindred. His liberality began and ended in his own family. Very seldom during his lifetime did he willingly do a generous act, outside of the little circle of his relations and descendants. To get all he could, and to keep nearly all that he got—those were the laws of his being.... He enjoyed keenly the consciousness, the feeling, of being rich. The roll-book of his possessions was his Bible. He scanned it fondly, and saw, with quiet but deep delight, the catalogue of his property lengthening from month to month. The love of accumulation grew with his years, until it ruled him like a tyrant. If at fifty he possessed his millions, at sixty-five his millions possessed him. Only to his own children and to their children was he liberal; and his liberality to them was all arranged with a view to keeping his estate in the family, and to cause it at every moment to tend toward a final consolidation in one enormous mass."
This is the estimate of his character formed by Mr. James Parton. His friend Dr. Coggswell presents him in quite a different light. He says:
"Mr. Astor lived to the good old age of four score and four years and eight months. For some years previous to his death, which happened March 29, 1848, his manly form was bowed down by age, and his bodily strength greatly enfeebled, but his mind retained much of its original Vigor and brightness. Considering his extraordinary activity until a late period of his life, he submitted to the helplessness of age with uncommon resignation. When his impaired eye-sight no longer permitted him to read, his principal relief from the wearisomeness of unoccupied time was in the society of his friends and near relatives. All who knew him well were strongly attached to him, and none but those who were ignorant of his true character believed him unamiable and repulsive.
"His smile was peculiarly benignant and expressive of genuine kindness of heart, and his whole manner cordial and courteous to every one entitled to his respect. There was something so impressive in his appearance, no one could stand before him without feeling that he was in the presence of a superior intelligence. His deep, sunken eye, beneath his overarched brow, denoted the prophetic—it might almost be said the inspired—mind within. Although he lived many years beyond the age when the grasshopper is a burden, and was the victim of much suffering, he did not murmur, nor did he become unreasonable and peevish. He was not wont to talk much on the subject of religion, or freely communicate his views in relation to the life beyond the grave; but it can not be doubted that such tranquility as he exhibited in his near approach to it must have been derived from 'that peace which the world can neither give nor take away,'"
Perhaps a medium between Mr. Parton's bitterness and Dr. Coggswell's enthusiasm will be as correct an estimate of his personal character as can be formed. It is a singular fact that Mr. Astor managed, in spite of the closeness which marked his operations, in spite of the small wages he paid, to inspire his employés with a zeal in his service that made them willing to undertake any thing, to endure any amount of labor, for him.
"He once lost seventy thousand dollars by committing a piece of petty injustice toward his best captain. This gallant sailor, being notified by an insurance office of the necessity of having a chronometer on board his ship, spoke to Mr. Astor on the subject, who advised the captain to buy one.
"'But,' said the captain, 'I have no five hundred dollars to spare for such a purpose; the chronometer should belong to the ship.'
"'Well,' said the merchant, 'you need not pay for it now; pay for it at your convenience,'
"The captain still objecting, Astor, after a prolonged higgling, authorized him to buy a chronometer and charge it to the ship's account, which was done.
"Sailing day was at hand. The ship was hauled into the stream. The captain, as is the custom, handed in his account. Astor, subjecting it to his usual close scrutiny, observed the novel item of five hundred dollars for the chronometer. He objected, averring that it was understood between them that the captain was to pay for the instrument. The worthy sailor recalled the conversation, and firmly held to his recollection of it. Astor insisting on his own view of the matter, the captain was so profoundly disgusted that, important as the command of the ship was to him, he resigned his post. Another captain was soon found, and the ship sailed for China.
"Another house, which was then engaged in the China trade, knowing the worth of this 'king of captains,' as Astor himself used to style him, bought him a ship and dispatched him to Canton two months after the departure of Astor's vessel. Our captain, put upon his mettle, employed all his skill to accelerate the speed of his ship, and had such success that he reached New York, with a full cargo of tea, just seven days after the arrival of Mr. Astor's ship. Astor, not expecting another ship for months, and therefore sure of monopolizing the market, had not yet broken bulk, nor even taken off the hatchways. Our captain arrived on a Saturday. Advertisements and handbills were immediately issued, and on the Wednesday morning following, as the custom then was, the auction sale of the tea began on the wharf—two barrels of punch contributing to the eclat and hilarity of the occasion. The cargo was sold to good advantage, and the market was glutted. Astor lost in consequence the entire profits of the voyage, not less than the sum previously named. Meeting the captain some time after in Broadway, he said:
"'I had better have paid for that chronometer of yours,'"
Yet he could do a kind act when he was in the humor. When he was poor and struggling for fortune, he had a friend in the city named Pell, a coachmaker. As he advanced in the world he lost sight of his friend. One day a young man called on him to ask if he would sell one of his leases which he (the visitor) then held. He replied promptly and decidedly that he would not sell.
"But what is your name?" he asked.
"It is Pell," was the reply.
"Pell—Pell—" said the old man, hesitating a moment, "I knew a man by that name once; he was a dear friend of mine, but I have not seen him for years."
"That man," said the visitor, "was my father."
"Indeed," exclaimed the old man, warmly; "your father? Why, he used to give me rides in his coaches. How I should like to see him."
Then pausing a moment, and smiling as he recalled the past to his mind, he said:
"You shall have the lease, young man. Go home, have the papers drawn, come here at eleven o'clock on Thursday, and I'll sign them. But don't put in any consideration."
The engagement was kept punctually by both parties.
"Have you got the papers?" asked the merchant. "Did you put in the consideration? Well, let it be one hundred dollars. Have you got the money about you? Well, no matter, Bruce will keep the lease till you come and pay. I've given you two thousand dollars, young man. Don't you buy any more, for I sha'n't do it again. You tell your father that I remember him, and that I have given you two thousand dollars."
Mr. Astor dearly liked a joke, and occasionally indulged in a sly bit of humor himself. On one occasion a committee called upon him to solicit a donation for some charitable object. The old man took the subscription list, and, after examining it, signed it and gave the committee a check for fifty dollars. They had expected much more, and one of them ventured to say:
"We did hope for more, Mr. Astor. Your son gave us a hundred dollars."
"Ah!" replied the old man, dryly, "William has a rich father. Mine was very poor."