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Famous Americans of Recent Times by James Parton

Part 9 out of 9

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employing thousands of men and fleets of ships, it afforded an opening
to young Astor, who, with the assistance of his brother, could command
a capital of only a very few hundred dollars. In a little shop in
Water Street, with a back-room, a yard, and a shed, the shop furnished
with only a few toys and trinkets, Astor began, business about the
year 1786. He had then, as always, the most unbounded confidence in
his own abilities. He used to relate that, at this time, a new row of
houses in Broadway was the talk of the city from their magnitude and
beauty. Passing them one day, he said to himself: "I'll build some
time or other a greater house than any of these, and in this very
street." He used also to say, in his old age: "The first hundred
thousand dollars--that was hard to get; but afterward it was easy to
make more."

Having set up for himself, he worked with the quiet, indomitable ardor
of a German who sees clearly his way open before him. At first he did
everything for himself. He bought, cured, beat, packed, and sold his
skins. From dawn till dark, he assiduously labored. At the proper
seasons of the year, with his pack on his back, he made short
excursions into the country, collecting skins from house to house,
gradually extending the area of his travels, till he knew the State of
New York as no man of his day knew it. He used to boast, late in life,
when the Erie Canal had called into being a line of thriving towns
through the centre 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 centres of business and population.
Particularly he noted the spots where Rochester and Buffalo now stand,
one having a harbor on Lake Erie, the other upon Lake Ontario. Those
places, he predicted, 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. At this time he
had a partner who usually remained in the city, while the agile and
enduring Astor traversed the wilderness.

It was his first voyage to London that established his business on a
solid foundation. As soon as he had accumulated a few bales of the
skins suited to the European market, he took passage in the steerage
of a ship and conveyed them to London. He sold them to great
advantage, and established connections with houses to which he could
in future consign his furs, and from which he could procure the
articles best adapted to the taste of Indians and hunters. But his
most important operation in London was to make an arrangement with the
firm of Astor & Broadwood, by which he became the New York agent for
the sale of their pianos, flutes, and violins. He is believed to have
been the first man in New York who kept constantly for sale a supply
of musical merchandise, of which the annual sale in New York is now
reckoned at five millions of dollars. On his return to New York, he
opened a little dingy store in Gold Street, between Fulton and Ann,
and swung out a sign to the breeze bearing the words:--FURS AND
PIANOS.

There were until recently aged men among us who remembered seeing this
sign over the store of Mr. Astor, and in some old houses are preserved
ancient pianos, bearing the name of J.J. Astor, as the seller thereof.
Violins and flutes, also, are occasionally met with that have his name
upon them. In 1790, seven years after his arrival in this city, he was
of sufficient importance to appear in the Directory thus:--ASTOR,
J.J., Fur Trader, 40 Little Dock Street (now part of Water Street).

In this time of his dawning prosperity, while still inhabiting the
small house of which his store was a part, he married. Sarah Todd was
the maiden name of his wife. As a connection of the family of
Brevoort, she was then considered to be somewhat superior to her
husband in point of social rank, and she brought him a fortune, by no
means despised by him at that time, of three hundred dollars. She
threw herself heartily into her husband's growing business, laboring
with her own hands, buying, sorting, and beating the furs. He used to
say that she was as good a judge of the value of peltries as himself,
and that her opinion in a matter of business was better than that of
most merchants.

Of a man like Astor all kinds of stories will be told, some true, some
false; some founded upon fact, but exaggerated or distorted. It is
said, for example, that when he went into business for himself, he
used to go around among the shops and markets with a basket of toys
and cakes upon his arm, exchanging those articles for furs. There are
certainly old people among us who remember hearing their parents say
that they saw him doing this. The story is not improbable, for he had
no false pride, and was ready to turn his hand to anything that was
honest.

Mr. Astor still traversed the wilderness. The father of the late
lamented General Wadsworth used to relate that he met him once in the
woods of Western New York in a sad plight. His wagon had broken down
in the midst of a swamp. In the _melee_ all his gold had rolled away
through the bottom of the vehicle, and was irrecoverably lost; and
Astor was seen emerging from the swamp covered with mud and carrying
on his shoulder an axe,--the sole relic of his property. When at
length, in 1794, Jay's treaty caused the evacuation of the western
forts held by the British, his business so rapidly extended that he
was enabled to devolve these laborious journeys upon others, while he
remained in New York, controlling a business that now embraced the
region of the great lakes, and gave employment to a host of trappers,
collectors, and agents. He was soon in a position to purchase a ship,
in which his furs were carried to London, and in which he occasionally
made a voyage himself. He was still observed to be most assiduous in
the pursuit of commercial knowledge. He was never weary of inquiring
about the markets of Europe and Asia, the ruling prices and
commodities of each, the standing of commercial houses, and all other
particulars that could be of use. Hence his directions to his captains
and agents were always explicit and minute, and if any enterprise
failed to be profitable it could generally be distinctly seen that it
was because his orders had not been obeyed. In London, he became most
intimately conversant with the operations of the East-India Company
and with the China trade. China being the best market in the world for
furs, and furnishing commodities which in America had become
necessaries of life, he was quick to perceive what an advantage he
would have over other merchants by sending his ships to Canton
provided with furs as well as dollars. It was about the year 1800 that
he sent his first ship to Canton, and he continued to carry on
commerce with China for twenty-seven years, sometimes with loss,
generally with profit, and occasionally with splendid and bewildering
success.

It was not, however, until the year 1800, when he was worth a quarter
of a million dollars, and had been in business fifteen years, that he
indulged himself in the comfort of living in a house apart from his
business. In 1794 he appears in the Directory as "Furrier, 149
Broadway." From 1796 to 1799 he figures as "Fur Merchant, 149
Broadway." In 1800 he had a storehouse at 141 Greenwich Street, and
lived at 223 Broadway, on the site of the present Astor House. In
1801, his store was at 71 Liberty Street, and he had removed his
residence back to 149 Broadway. The year following we find him again
at 223 Broadway, where he continued to reside for a quarter of a
century. His house was such as a fifth-rate merchant would now
consider much beneath his dignity. Mr. Astor, indeed, had a singular
dislike to living in a large house. He had neither expensive tastes
nor wasteful vices. His luxuries were a pipe, a glass of beer, a game
of draughts, a ride on horseback, and the theatre. Of the theatre he
was particularly fond. He seldom missed a good performance in the
palmy days of the "Old Park."

It was his instinctive abhorrence of ostentation and waste that
enabled him, as it were, to glide into the millionaire without being
observed by his neighbors. He used to relate, with a chuckle, that he
was worth a million before any one suspected it. A dandy bank-clerk,
one day, having expressed a doubt as to the sufficiency of his name to
a piece of mercantile paper, Astor asked him how much he thought he
was worth. The clerk mentioned a sum ludicrously less than the real
amount. Astor then asked him how much he supposed this and that
leading merchant, whom he named, was worth. The young man endowed them
with generous sum-totals proportioned to their style of living.
"Well," said Astor, "I am worth more than any of them. I will not say
how much I am worth, but I am worth more than any sum you have
mentioned." "Then," said the clerk, "you are even a greater fool than
I took you for, to work as hard as you do." The old man would tell
this story with great glee, for he always liked a joke.

In the course of his long life he had frequent opportunities of
observing what becomes of those gay merchants who live up to the
incomes of prosperous years, regardless of the inevitable time of
commercial collapse. It must be owned that he held in utter contempt
the dashing style of living and doing business which has too often
prevailed in New York; and he was very slow to give credit to a house
that carried sail out of proportion to its ballast. Nevertheless, he
was himself no plodder when plodding had ceased to be necessary. At
the time when his affairs were on their greatest scale, he would leave
his office at two in the afternoon, go home to an early dinner, then
mount his horse and ride about the Island till it was time to go to
the theatre. He had a strong aversion to illegitimate speculation, and
particularly to gambling in stocks. The note-shaving and stock-jobbing
operations of the Rothschilds he despised. It was his pride and boast
that he gained his own fortune by legitimate commerce, and by the
legitimate investment of his profits. Having an unbounded faith in the
destiny of the United States, and in the future commercial supremacy
of New York, it was his custom, from about the year 1800, to invest
his gains in the purchase of lots and lands on Manhattan Island.

We have all heard much of the closeness, or rather the meanness, of
this remarkable man. Truth compels us to admit, as we have before
intimated, 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 that he could, and
to keep nearly all that he got,--those were the laws of his being. He
had a vast genius for making money, and that was all that he had.

It is a pleasure to know that sometimes his extreme closeness defeated
its own object. 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 despatched 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
named above. Meeting the captain some time after in Broadway, he
said,--

"I had better have paid for that chronometer of yours."

Without ever acknowledging that he had been in the wrong, he was glad
enough to engage the captain's future services. This anecdote we
received from the worthy captain's own lips.

On one occasion the same officer had the opportunity of rendering the
great merchant a most signal service. The agent of Mr. Astor in China
suddenly died at a time when the property in his charge amounted to
about seven hundred thousand dollars. Our captain, who was not then in
Astor's employ, was perfectly aware that if this immense property fell
into official hands, as the law required, not one dollar of it would
ever again find its way to the coffers of its proprietor. By a series
of bold, prompt, and skilful measures, he rescued it from the official
maw, and made it yield a profit to the owner. Mr. Astor acknowledged
the service. He acknowledged it with emphasis and a great show of
gratitude. He said many times:--

"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."

But he not only did not compensate him for his services, but he did
not even reimburse the small sum of money which the captain had
expended in performing those services. Astor was then worth ten
millions, and the captain had his hundred dollars a month and a family
of young children.

Thus the great merchant recompensed great services. He was not more
just in rewarding small ones. On one occasion a ship of his arrived
from China, which he found necessary to dispatch at once to Amsterdam,
the market in New York being depressed by an over-supply of China
merchandise. But on board this ship, under a mountain of tea-chests,
the owner had two pipes of precious Madeira wine, which had been sent
on a voyage for the improvement of its constitution.

"Can you get out that wine," asked the owner, "without discharging the
tea?"

The captain thought he could.

"Well, then," said Mr. Astor, "you get it out, and I'll give you a
demijohn of it. You'll say it's the best wine you ever tasted."

It required the labor of the whole ship's crew for two days to get out
those two pipes of wine. They were sent to the house of Mr. Astor. A
year passed. The captain had been to Amsterdam and back, but he had
received no tidings of his demijohn of Madeira. One day, when Mr.
Astor was on board the ship, the captain ventured to remind the great
man, in a jocular manner, that he had not received the wine.

"Ah!" said Astor, "don't you know the reason? It isn't fine yet. Wait
till it is fine, and you'll say you never tasted such Madeira." The
captain never heard of that wine again.

These traits show the moral weakness of the man. It is only when we
regard his mercantile exploits that we can admire him. He was,
unquestionably, one of the ablest, boldest, and most successful
operators that ever lived. He seldom made a mistake in the conduct of
business. Having formed his plan, he carried it out with a nerve and
steadiness, with such a firm and easy grasp of all the details, that
he seemed rather to be playing an interesting game than transacting
business. "He could command an army of five hundred thousand men!"
exclaimed one of his admirers. That was an erroneous remark. He could
have commanded an army of five hundred thousand tea-chests, with a
heavy auxiliary force of otter skins and beaver skins. But a commander
of men must be superior morally as well as intellectually. He must be
able to win the love and excite the enthusiasm of his followers. Astor
would have made a splendid commissary-general to the army of Xerxes,
but he could no more have conquered Greece than Xerxes himself.

The reader may be curious to know by what means Mr. Astor became so
preposterously rich. Few successful men gain a single million by
legitimate commerce. A million dollars is a most enormous sum of
money. It requires a considerable effort of the mind to conceive it.
But this indomitable little German managed, in the course of sixty
years, to accumulate twenty millions; of which, probably, not more
than two millions was the fruit of his business as a fur trader and
China merchant.

At that day the fur trade was exceedingly profitable, as well as of
vast extent. It is estimated that about the year 1800 the number of
peltries annually furnished to commerce was about six millions,
varying in value from fifteen cents to five hundred dollars. When
every respectable man in Europe and America wore a beaver skin upon
his head, or a part of one, and when a good beaver skin could be
bought in Western New York for a dollar's worth of trash, and could be
sold in London for twenty-five English shillings, and when those
twenty-five English shillings could be invested in English cloth and
cutlery, and sold in New York for forty shillings, it may be imagined
that fur-trading was a very good business. Mr. Astor had his share of
the cream of it, and that was the foundation of his colossal fortune.
Hence, too, the tender love he felt for a fine fur.

In the next place, his ventures to China were sometimes exceedingly
fortunate. A fair profit on a voyage to China at that day was thirty
thousand dollars. Mr. Astor has been known to gain seventy thousand,
and to have his money in his pocket within the year. He was remarkably
lucky in the war of 1812. All his ships escaped capture, and arriving
at a time when foreign commerce was almost annihilated and tea had
doubled in price, his gains were so immense, that the million or more
lost in the Astorian enterprise gave him not even a momentary
inconvenience.

At that time, too, tea merchants of large capital had an advantage
which they do not now enjoy. A writer explains the manner in which the
business was done in those days:--

"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 china ware, 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 tea 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 $400,000 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
(Oregon) and carry from thence furs 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."[1]

But it was neither his tea trade nor his fur trade that gave Astor
twenty millions of dollars. It was his sagacity in investing his
profits that made him the richest man in America. When he first trod
the streets of New York, in 1784, the city was a snug, leafy place of
twenty-five thousand inhabitants, situated at the extremity of the
Island, mostly below Cortlandt Street. In 1800, when he began to have
money to invest, the city had more than doubled in population, and had
advanced nearly a mile up the Island. Now, Astor was a shrewd
calculator of the future. No reason appeared why New York should not
repeat this doubling game and this mile of extension every fifteen
years. He acted upon the supposition, and fell into the habit of
buying lands and lots just beyond the verge of the city. One little
anecdote will show the wisdom of this proceeding. He sold a lot in the
vicinity of Wall Street, about the year 1810, for eight thousand
dollars, which was supposed to be somewhat under its value. The
purchaser, after the papers were signed, seemed disposed to chuckle
over his bargain.

"Why, Mr. Astor," said he, "in a few years this lot will be worth
twelve thousand dollars."

"Very true," replied Astor; "but now you shall see what I will do with
this money. With eight thousand dollars I buy eighty lots above Canal
Street. By the time your lot is worth twelve thousand dollars, my
eighty lots will be worth eighty thousand dollars"; which proved to be
the fact.

His purchase of the Richmond Hill estate of Aaron Burr was a case in
point. He bought the hundred and sixty acres at a thousand dollars an
acre, and in twelve years the land was worth fifteen hundred dollars a
lot. In the course of time the Island was dotted all over with Astor
lands,--to such an extent that the whole income of his estate for
fifty years could be invested in new houses without buying any more
land.

His land speculations, however, were by no means confined to the
little Island of Manhattan. Aged readers cannot have forgotten the
most celebrated of all his operations of this kind, by which he
acquired a legal title to one third of the county of Putnam in this
State. This enormous tract was part of the estate of Roger Morris and
Mary his wife, who, by adhering to the King of Great Britain in the
Revolutionary War, forfeited their landed property in the State of New
York. Having been duly attainted as public enemies, they fled to
England at the close of the war, and the State sold their lands, in
small parcels, to honest Whig farmers. The estate comprised fifty-one
thousand one hundred and two acres, upon which were living, in 1809,
more than seven hundred families, all relying upon the titles which
the State of New York had given. Now Mr. Astor stepped forward to
disturb the security of this community of farmers. It appeared, and
was proved beyond doubt, that Roger and Mary Morris had only possessed
a _life-interest_ in this estate, and that, therefore, it was only
that life-interest which the State could legally confiscate. The
moment Roger and Mary Morris ceased to live, the property would fall
to their heirs, with all the houses, barns, and other improvements
thereon. After a most thorough examination of the papers by the
leading counsel of that day, Mr. Astor bought the rights of the heirs,
in 1809, for twenty thousand pounds sterling. At that time Roger
Morris was no more; and Mary his wife was nearly eighty, and extremely
infirm. She lingered, however, for some years; and it was not till
after the peace of 1815 that the claims of Mr. Astor were pressed. The
consternation of the farmers and the astonishment of the people
generally, when at length the great millionaire stretched out his hand
to pluck this large ripe pear, may be imagined. A great clamor arose
against him. It cannot be denied, however, that he acted in this
business with moderation and dignity. Upon the first rumor of his
claim, in 1814, commissioners were appointed by the Legislature to
inquire into it. These gentlemen, finding the claim more formidable
than had been suspected, asked Mr. Astor for what sum he would
compromise. The lands were valued at six hundred and sixty-seven
thousand dollars, but Astor replied that he would sell his claim for
three hundred thousand. The offer was not accepted, and the affair
lingered. In 1818, Mary Morris being supposed to be at the point of
death, and the farmers being in constant dread of the writs of
ejectment which her death would bring upon them, commissioners were
again appointed by the Legislature to look into the matter. Again Mr.
Astor was asked upon what terms he would compromise. He replied,
January 19, 1819:--

"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 laid out of my money, which,
if employed in commercial operations, would most likely have
produced better profits."

The Legislature were not yet prepared to compromise. It was not till
1827 that a test case was selected and brought to trial before a jury.
The most eminent counsel were employed on the part of the
State,--Daniel Webster and Martin Van Buren among them. Astor's cause
was entrusted to Emmet, Ogden, and others. We believe that Aaron Burr
was consulted on the part of Mr. Astor, though he did not appear in
the trial. The efforts of the array of counsel employed by the State
were exerted in vain to find a flaw in the paper upon which Astor's
claim mainly rested. Mr. Webster's speech on this occasion betrays,
even to the unprofessional reader, both that he had no case and that
he knew he had not, for he indulged in a strain of remark that could
only have been designed to prejudice, not convince, the jury.

"It is a claim for lands," said he,

"not in their wild and forest state, but for lands the
intrinsic value of which is mingled with the labor expended
upon them. It is no every-day purchase, for it extends over
towns and counties, and almost takes in a degree of
latitude. It is a stupendous speculation. The individual who
now claims it has not succeeded to it by inheritance; he has
not attained it, as he did that vast wealth which no one
less envies him than I do, by fair and honest exertions in
commercial enterprise, but by speculation, by purchasing the
forlorn hope of the heirs of a family driven from their
country by a bill of attainder. By the defendants, on the
contrary, the lands in question are held as a patrimony.
They have labored for years to improve them. The rugged
hills had grown green under their cultivation before a
question was raised as to the integrity of their titles."

A line of remark like this would appeal powerfully to a jury of
farmers. Its effect, however, was destroyed by the simple observation
of one of the opposing counsel:--

"Mr. Astor bought this property confiding in the justice of the State
of New York, firmly believing that in the litigation of his claim his
rights would be maintained."

It is creditable to the administration of justice in New York, and
creditable to the very institution of trial by jury, that Mr. Astor's
most unpopular and even odious cause was triumphant. Warned by this
verdict, the Legislature consented to compromise on Mr. Astor's own
terms. The requisite amount of "Astor stock," as it was called, was
created. Mr. Astor received about half a million of dollars, and the
titles of the lands were secured to their rightful owners.

The crowning glory of Mr. Astor's mercantile career was that vast and
brilliant enterprise which Washington Irving has commemorated in
"Astoria." No other single individual has ever set on foot a scheme so
extensive, so difficult, and so costly as this; nor has any such
enterprise been carried out with such sustained energy and
perseverance. To establish a line of trading-posts from St. Louis to
the Pacific, a four-months' journey in a land of wilderness, prairie,
mountain, and desert, inhabited by treacherous or hostile savages; to
found a permanent settlement on the Pacific coast as the grand _depot_
of furs and supplies; to arrange a plan by which the furs collected
should be regularly transported to China, and the ships return to New
York laden with tea and silks, and then proceed once more to the
Pacific coast to repeat the circuit; to maintain all the parts of this
scheme without the expectation of any but a remote profit, sending
ship after ship before any certain intelligence of the first ventures
had arrived,--this was an enterprise which had been memorable if it
had been undertaken by a wealthy corporation or a powerful government,
instead of a private merchant, unaided by any resources but his own.
At every moment in the conduct of this magnificent attempt Mr. Astor
appears the great man. His parting instructions to the captain of his
first ship call to mind those of General Washington to St. Clair on a
similar occasion. "All the accidents that have yet happened," said the
merchant, "arose from too much confidence in the Indians." The ship
was lost, a year after, by the disregard of this last warning. When
the news reached New York of the massacre of the crew and the
blowing-up of the ship, the man who flew into a passion at seeing a
little boy drop a wineglass behaved with a composure that was the
theme of general admiration. He attended the theatre the same evening,
and entered heartily into the play. Mr. Irving relates that a friend
having expressed surprise at this, Mr. Astor replied:--

"What would you have me do? Would you have me stay at home and weep
for what I cannot help?"

This was not indifference; for when, after nearly two years of weary
waiting, he heard of the safety and success of the overland
expedition, he was so overjoyed that he could scarcely contain
himself.

"I felt ready," said he, "to fall upon my knees in a transport of
gratitude."

A touch in one of his letters shows the absolute confidence he felt in
his own judgment and abilities, a confidence invariably exhibited by
men of the first executive talents.

"Were I on the spot," he wrote to one of his agents when the affairs
of the settlement appeared desperate,

"and had the management of affairs, I would defy them all;
but, as it is, everything depends upon you and the 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 thought is like
a dagger to my heart."

He intimates here that his object was not merely "gain of money." What
was it, then? Mr. Irving informs us that it was desire of fame. We
should rather say that when nature endows a man with a remarkable gift
she also implants within him the love of exercising it. Astor loved to
plan a vast, far-reaching enterprise. He loved it as Morphy loves to
play chess, as Napoleon loved to plan a campaign, as Raphael loved to
paint, and Handel to compose.

The war of 1812 foiled the enterprise. "But for that war," Mr. Astor
used to say, "I should have been the richest man that ever lived." He
expected to go on expending money for several years, and then to gain
a steady annual profit of millions. It was, however, that very war
that enabled him to sustain the enormous losses of the enterprise
without injury to his estate, or even a momentary inconvenience.
During the first year of the war he had the luck to receive two or
three cargoes of tea from China, despite the British cruisers. In the
second year of the war, when the Government was reduced to borrow at
eighty, he invested largely in the loan, which, one year after the
peace, stood at one hundred and twenty.

Mr. Astor at all times was a firm believer in the destiny of the
United States. In other words, he held its public stock in profound
respect. He had little to say of politics, but he was a supporter of
the old Whig party for many years, and had a great regard, personal
and political, for its leader and ornament, Henry Clay. He was never
better pleased than when he entertained Mr. Clay at his own house. It
ought to be mentioned in this connection that when, in June, 1812, the
merchants of New York memorialized the Government in favor of the
embargo, which almost annihilated the commerce of the port, the name
of John Jacob Astor headed the list of signatures.

He was an active business man in this city for about forty-six
years,--from his twenty-first to his sixty-seventh year. Toward the
year 1830 he began to withdraw from business, and undertook no new
enterprises, except such as the investment of his income involved. His
three daughters were married. His son and heir was a man of thirty.
Numerous grandchildren were around him, for whom he manifested a true
German fondness; not, however, regarding them with equal favor. He
dispensed, occasionally, a liberal hospitality at his modest house,
though that hospitality was usually bestowed upon men whose presence
at his table conferred distinction upon him who sat at the head of it.
He was fond, strange as it may seem, of the society of literary men.
For Washington Irving he always professed a warm regard, liked to have
him at his house, visited him, and made much of him. Fitz-Greene
Halleck, one of the best talkers of his day, a man full of fun,
anecdote, and fancy, handsome, graceful, and accomplished, was a great
favorite with him. He afterward invited the poet to reside with him
and take charge of his affairs, which Mr. Halleck did for many years,
to the old gentleman's perfect satisfaction. Still later Dr. Cogswell
won his esteem, and was named by him Librarian of the Astor Library.
For his own part, though he rather liked to be read to in his latter
days, he collected no library, no pictures, no objects of curiosity.
As he had none of the wasteful vices, so also he had none of the
costly tastes. Like all other rich men, he was beset continually by
applicants for pecuniary aid, especially by his own countrymen. As a
rule he refused to give: and he was right. He held beggary of all
descriptions in strong contempt, and seemed to think that, in this
country, want and fault are synonymous. Nevertheless, we are told that
he did, now and then, bestow small sums in charity, though we have
failed to get trustworthy evidence of a single instance of his doing
so. It is, no doubt, absolutely necessary for a man who is notoriously
rich to guard against imposture, and to hedge himself about against
the swarms of solicitors who pervade a large and wealthy city. If he
did not, he would be overwhelmed and devoured. His time would be all
consumed and his estate squandered in satisfying the demands of
importunate impudence. Still, among the crowd of applicants there is
here and there one whose claim upon the aid of the rich man is just.
It were much to be desired that a way should be devised by which these
meritorious askers could be sifted from the mass, and the nature of
their requests made known to men who have the means and the wish to
aid such. Some kind of Benevolent Intelligence Office appears to be
needed among us. In the absence of such an institution we must not be
surprised that men renowned for their wealth convert themselves into
human porcupines, and erect their defensive armor at the approach of
every one who carries a subscription-book. True, a generous man might
establish a private bureau of investigation; but a generous man is not
very likely to acquire a fortune of twenty millions. Such an
accumulation of wealth is just as wise as if a man who had to walk ten
miles on a hot day should, of his own choice, carry on his back a
large sack of potatoes. A man of superior sense and feeling will not
waste his life so, unless he has in view a grand public object. On the
contrary, he will rather do as Franklin did, who, having acquired at
the age of forty-two a modest competence, sold out his thriving
business on easy terms to a younger man, and devoted the rest of his
happy life to the pursuit of knowledge and the service of his country.
But we cannot all be Franklins. In the affairs of the world
millionaires are as indispensable as philosophers; and it is fortunate
for society that some men take pleasure in heaping up enormous masses
of capital.

Having retired from business, Mr. Astor determined to fulfil the vow
of his youth, and build in Broadway a house larger and costlier than
any it could then boast. Behold the result in the Astor House, which
remains to this day one of our most solid, imposing, and respectable
structures. The ground on which the hotel stands was covered with
substantial three-story brick houses, one of which Astor himself
occupied; and it was thought at the time a wasteful and rash
proceeding to destroy them. Old Mr. Coster, a retired merchant of
great wealth, who lived next door to Mr. Astor's residence, was
extremely indisposed to remove, and held out long against every offer
of the millionaire. His house was worth thirty thousand dollars. Astor
offered him that sum; but the offer was very positively declined, and
the old gentleman declared it to be his intention to spend the
remainder of his days in the house. Mr. Astor offered forty thousand
without effect. At length the indomitable projector revealed his
purpose to his neighbor.

"Mr. Coster," said he, "I want to build a hotel. I have got all the
other lots; now name your own price."

To which Coster replied by confessing the real obstacle to the sale.

"The fact is," said he, "I can't sell unless Mrs. Coster consents. If
she is willing, I'll sell for sixty thousand, and you can call
to-morrow morning and ask her."

Mr. Astor presented himself at the time named.

"Well, Mr. Astor," said the lady in the tone of one who was conferring
a very great favor for nothing, "we are such old friends that I am
willing for your sake."

So the house was bought, and with the proceeds Mr. Coster built the
spacious granite mansion a mile up Broadway, which is now known as
Barnum's Museum. Mr. Astor used to relate this story with great glee.
He was particularly amused at the simplicity of the old lady in
considering it a great favor to him to sell her house at twice its
value. It was at this time that he removed to a wide, two-story brick
house opposite Niblo's, the front door of which bore a large silver
plate, exhibiting to awestruck passers-by the words: "MR. ASTOR." Soon
after the hotel was finished, he made a present of it to his eldest
son, or, in legal language, he sold it to him for the sum of one
dollar, "to him in hand paid."

In the decline of his life, when his vast fortune was safe from the
perils of business, he was still as sparing in his personal
expenditures, as close in his bargains, as watchful over his
accumulations as he had been when economy was essential to his
solvency and progress. 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. He was ever
considerate for the comfort of his imbecile son. One of his last
enterprises was to build for him a commodious residence.

In 1832, one of his daughters having married a European nobleman, he
allowed himself the pleasure of a visit to her. He remained abroad
till 1835, when he hurried home in consequence of the disturbance in
financial affairs, caused by General Jackson's war upon the Bank of
the United States. The captain of the ship in which he sailed from
Havre to New York has related to us some curious incidents of the
voyage. Mr. Astor reached Havre when the ship, on the point of
sailing, had every state-room 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 state-room. 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 that if he did not
get out of the Channel before the 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,
thoroughly panic-stricken, now 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 myself?"

In vain the captain mentioned the rights of the other passengers. In
vain he described the solitary and rock-bound coast, and detailed the
difficulties and dangers 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 piece of 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 cannot
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 cannot 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.

A favorable wind blew the ship swiftly on her way, and Mr. Astor's
alarm subsided. But even on the banks of Newfoundland, two thirds of
the way across, when the captain went upon the poop to speak a ship
bound for Liverpool, old Astor climbed up after him, saying, "Tell
them I give tousand dollars if they take a passenger."

Astor lived to the age of eighty-four. During the last few years of
his life his faculties were sensibly impaired; he was a child again.
It was, however, while his powers and his judgment were in full vigor
that he determined to follow the example of Girard, and bequeath a
portion of his estate for the purpose of "rendering a public benefit
to the city of New York." He consulted Mr. Irving, Mr. Halleck, Dr.
Cogswell, and his own son with regard to the object of this bequest.
All his friends concurred in recommending a public library; and,
accordingly, in 1839, he added the well-known codicil to his will
which consecrated four hundred thousand dollars to this purpose. To
Irving's Astoria and to the Astor Library he will owe a lasting fame
in the country of his adoption.

The last considerable sum he was ever known to give away was a
contribution to aid the election to the Presidency of his old friend
Henry Clay. The old man was always fond of a compliment, and seldom
averse to a joke. It was the timely application of a jocular
compliment that won from him this last effort of generosity. When the
committee were presented to him, he began to excuse himself, evidently
intending to decline giving.

"I am not now interested in these things," said he.

"Those gentlemen who are in business, and whose property
depends upon the issue of the election, ought to give. But I
am now an old man. I haven't anything to do with commerce,
and it makes no difference to me what the government does. I
don't make money any more, and haven't any concern in the
matter."

One of the committee replied:

"Why, Mr. Astor, you are like Alexander, when he wept
because there were no more worlds to conquer. You have made
all the money, and now there is no more money to make." The
old eye twinkled at the blended compliment and jest.

"Ha, ha, ha! very good, that's very good. Well, well, I give you
something."

Whereupon he drew his check for fifteen hundred dollars.

When all else had died within him, when he was at last nourished like
an infant at a woman's breast, and when, being no longer able to ride
in a carriage, he was daily tossed in blanket for exercise, he still
retained a strong interest in the care and increase of his property.
His agent called daily upon him to render a report of moneys received.
One morning this gentleman chanced to enter his room while he was
enjoying his blanket exercise. The old man cried out from the middle
of his blanket,--

"Has Mrs. ---- paid that rent yet?"

"No," replied the agent.

"Well, but she must pay it," said the poor old man.

"Mr. Astor," rejoined the agent, "she can't pay it now; she has had
misfortunes, and we must give her time."

"No, no," said Astor; "I tell you she can pay it, and she will pay it.
You don't go the right way to work with her."

The agent took leave, and mentioned the anxiety of the old gentleman
with regard to this unpaid rent to his son, who counted out the
requisite sum, and told the agent to give it to the old man as if he
had received it from the tenant.

"There!" exclaimed Mr. Astor when he received the money, "I told you
she would pay it, if you went the right way to work with her."

Who would have twenty millions at such a price?

On the twenty-ninth of March, 1848, of old age merely, in the presence
of his family and friends, without pain or disquiet, this remarkable
man breathed his last. He was buried in a vault in the church of St.
Thomas in Broadway. Though he expressly declared in his will that he
was a member of the Reformed German Congregation, no clergyman of that
church took part in the services of his funeral. The unusual number of
six Episcopal Doctors of Divinity assisted at the ceremony. A bishop
could have scarcely expected a more distinguished funeral homage. Such
a thing it is in a commercial city to die worth twenty millions! The
pall-bearers were Washington Irving, Philip Hone, Sylvanus Miller,
James G. King, Isaac Bell, David B. Ogden, Thomas J. Oakley, Ramsey
Crooks, and Jacob B. Taylor.

The public curiosity with regard to the will of the deceased
millionaire was fully gratified by the enterprise of the Herald, which
published it entire in five columns of its smallest type a day or two
after the funeral. The ruling desires of Mr. Astor with regard to his
property were evidently these two: 1. To provide amply and safely for
his children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces; 2. To keep his
estate, as much as was consistent with his desire, in one mass in the
hands of his eldest son. His brother Henry, the butcher, had died
childless and rich, leaving his property to Mr. William B. Astor. To
the descendants of the brother in Germany Mr. Astor left small but
sufficient pensions.

To many of his surviving children and grandchildren in America he left
life-interests and stocks, which seem designed to produce an average
of about fifteen thousand dollars a year. Other grandsons were to have
twenty-five thousand dollars on reaching the age of twenty-five, and
the same sum when they were thirty. His favorite grandson, Charles
Astor Bristed, since well known to the public as an author and poet,
was left amply provided for. He directed his executors to "provide for
my unfortunate son, John Jacob Astor, and to procure for him all the
comforts which his condition does or may require." For this purpose
ten thousand dollars a year was directed to be appropriated, and the
house built for him in Fourteenth Street, near Ninth Avenue, was to be
his for life. If he should be restored to the use of his faculties, he
was to have an income of one hundred thousand dollars. The number of
persons, all relatives or connections of the deceased, who were
benefited by the will, was about twenty-five. To his old friend and
manager, Fitz-Greene Halleck, he left the somewhat ridiculous annuity
of two hundred dollars, which Mr. William B. Astor voluntarily
increased to fifteen hundred. Nor was this the only instance in which
the heir rectified the errors and supplied the omissions of the will.
He had the justice, to send a considerable sum to the brave old
captain who saved for Mr. Astor the large property in China imperilled
by the sudden death of an agent. The minor bequests and legacies of
Mr. Astor absorbed about two millions of his estate. The rest of his
property fell to his eldest son, under whose careful management it is
supposed to have increased to an amount not less than forty millions.
This may, however, be an exaggeration. Mr. William B. Astor minds his
own business, and does not impart to others the secrets of his
rent-roll. The number of his houses in this city is said to be seven
hundred and twenty.

The bequests of Mr. Astor for purposes of benevolence show good sense
and good feeling. The Astor Library fund of four hundred thousand
dollars was the largest item. Next in amount was fifty thousand
dollars for the benefit of the poor of his native village in Germany.
"To the German Society of New York," continued the will,

"I give thirty thousand dollars on condition of their
investing it in bond and mortgage, and applying it for the
purpose of keeping an office and giving advice and
information without charge to all emigrants arriving here,
and for the purpose of protecting them against imposition."

To the Home for Aged Ladies he gave thirty thousand dollars, and to
the Blind Asylum and the Half-Orphan Asylum each five thousand
dollars. To the German Reformed Congregation, "of which I am a
member," he left the moderate sum of two thousand dollars. These
objects were wisely chosen. The sums left for them, also, were in
many-cases of the amount most likely to be well employed. Twenty-five
thousand dollars he left to Columbia College, but unfortunately
repented, and annulled the bequest in a codicil.

We need not enlarge on the success which has attended the bequest for
the Astor Library,--a bequest to which Mr. William B. Astor has added,
in land, books, and money, about two hundred thousand dollars. It is
the ornament and boast of the city. Nothing is wanting to its complete
utility but an extension of the time of its being accessible to the
public. Such a library, in such a city as this, should be open at
sunrise, and close at ten in the evening. If but _one_ studious youth
should desire to avail himself of the morning hours before going to
his daily work, the interests of that one would justify the directors
in opening the treasures of the library at the rising of the sun. In
the evening, of course, the library would probably be attended by a
greater number of readers than in all the hours of the day together.

The bequest to the village of Waldorf has resulted in the founding of
an institution that appears to be doing a great deal of good in a
quiet German manner. The German biographer of Mr. Astor, from whom we
have derived some particulars of his early life, expatiates upon the
merits of this establishment, which, he informs us, is called the
Astor House.

"Certain knowledge," he says,

"of Astor's bequest reached Waldorf only in 1850, when a
nephew of Mr. Astor's and one of the executors of his will
appeared from New York in the testator's native town with
power to pay over the money to the proper persons. He kept
himself mostly in Heidelberg, and organized a supervisory
board to aid in the disposition of the funds in accordance
with the testator's intentions. This board was to have its
head-quarters in Heidelberg, and was to consist of
professors in the University there, and clergymen, not less
than five in all. The board of control, however, consists of
the clergy of Waldorf, the burgomaster, the physician, a
citizen named every three years by the Common Council, and
the governor of the Institution, who must be a teacher by
profession. This latter board has control of all the
interior arrangements of the Institution, and the care of
the children and beneficiaries. The leading objects of the
Astor House are: 1. The care of the poor, who, through age,
disease, or other causes, are incapable of labor; 2. The
rearing and instruction of poor children, especially those
who live in Waldorf. Non-residents are received if there is
room, but they must make compensation for their board and
instruction. Children are received at the age of six, and
maintained until they are fifteen or sixteen. Besides school
instruction, there is ample provision for physical culture.
They are trained in active and industrious habits, and each
of them, according to his disposition, is to be taught a
trade, or instructed in agriculture, market-gardening, the
care of vineyards, or of cattle, with a view to rendering
them efficient farm-servants or stewards. It is also in
contemplation to assist the blind and the deaf and dumb,
and, finally, to establish a nursery for very young children
left destitute. Catholics and Protestants are admitted on
equal terms, religious differences not being recognized in
the applicants for admission. Some time having elapsed
before the preliminary arrangements were completed, the
accumulated interest of the fund went so far toward paying
for the buildings, that of the original fifty thousand
dollars not less than forty-three thousand have been
permanently invested for the support of the Institution."

Thus they manage bequests in Germany! The Astor House was opened with
much ceremony, January 9,1854, the very year in which the Astor
Library was opened to the public in the city of New York. The day of
the founder's death is annually celebrated in the chapel of the
Institution, which is adorned by his portrait.

These two institutions will carry the name of John Jacob Astor to the
latest generations. But they are not the only services which he
rendered to the public. It would be absurd to contend that in
accumulating his enormous estate, and in keeping it almost entirely in
the hands of his eldest son, he was actuated by a regard for the
public good. He probably never thought of the public good in
connection with the bulk of his property. Nevertheless, America is so
constituted that every man in it of force and industry is necessitated
to be a public servant. If this colossal fortune had been gained in
Europe it would probably have been consumed in what is there called
"founding a family." Mansions would have been built with it, parks
laid out, a title of nobility purchased; and the income, wasted in
barren and stupid magnificence would have maintained a host of idle,
worthless, and pampered menials. Here, on the contrary, it is expended
almost wholly in providing for the people of New York the very
commodity of which they stand in most pressing need; namely, _new
houses_. The simple reason why the rent of a small house in New York
is two thousand dollars a year is, because the supply of houses is
unequal to the demand. We need at this moment five thousand more
houses in the city of New York for the decent accommodation of its
inhabitants at rents which they can afford to pay. The man who does
more than any one else to supply the demand for houses is the patient,
abstemious, and laborious heir of the Astor estate. He does a good
day's work for us in this business every day, and all the wages he
receives for so much care and toil is a moderate subsistence for
himself and his family, and the very troublesome reputation of being
the richest man in America. And the business is done with the minimum
of waste in every department. In a quiet little office in Prince
Street, the manager of the estate, aided by two or three aged clerks
(one of them of fifty-five years' standing in the office), transacts
the business of a property larger than that of many sovereign princes.
Everything, also, is done promptly and in the best manner. If a tenant
desires repairs or alterations, an agent calls at the house within
twenty-four hours, makes the requisite inquiries, reports, and the
work is forthwith begun, or the tenant is notified that it will not be
done. The concurrent testimony of Mr. Astor's tenants is, that he is
one of the most liberal and obliging of landlords.

So far, therefore, the Astor estate, immense as it is, appears to have
been an unmixed good to the city in which it is mainly invested. There
is every reason to believe that, in the hands of the next heir, it
will continue to be managed with the same prudence and economy that
mark the conduct of its present proprietor. We indulge the hope that
either the present or some future possessor may devote a portion of
his vast revenue to the building of a new order of tenement houses, on
a scale that will enable a man who earns two dollars a day to occupy
apartments fit for the residence of a family of human beings. The time
is ripe for it. May we live to see in some densely populated portion
of the city, a new and grander ASTOR HOUSE arise, that shall
demonstrate to the capitalists of every city in America that nothing
will pay better as an investment than HOUSES FOR THE PEOPLE, which
snail afford to an honest laborer rooms in a clean, orderly, and
commodious palace, at the price he now pays for a corner of a dirty
fever-breeding barrack!

[Footnote 1: Old Merchants of New York. First Series.]

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