Henry Villard: portrait of a Radical Republican
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When Alexandra Villard Borchgrave, wife of ultra right journalist Arnaud, sat down to write "Villard: the Life and Times of an American Titan", a fawning biography of her great-grandfather Henry Villard, the last thing she probably had in mind was debunking Radical Republicanism or the "revolutionary" character of the Civil War northern industrial bourgeoisie.
As president of Northern Pacific in 1883, Villard symbolized the entrepreneurial spirit of the Yankee industrialist that was understood by both bourgeois and orthodox Marxist historians alike as the polar opposite of the vanquished planter class. The North, so the argument went, fought the war to create a political framework for the growth of capitalist property relations, which included first and foremost a free market for wage labor. The reality was a bit more complex. Capitalism does not spring into existence in the fashion that God created the oceans, lakes and rivers on the fourth day. As Jim Blaut points out in a critique of Robert Brenner, "This mystical notion of capitalism substitutes for an empirical theory about the transition: The merely empirical facts may suggest a long, slow, transition, with many complex and contradictory happenings, including some regressions toward classic feudalism -- no matter."
And what can be more complex and contradictory--and regressive--than the use of coolie labor on the Northern Pacific railroad? As Borchgrave points out, "When other workers refused certain tasks or demanded rates that he considered exorbitant, Villard turned to cheap labor, particularly Chinese coolies, whom he imported by the boatload--he boasted of having as many as fifteen thousand of them in the field when Northern Pacific construction was at its peak--and who offered employers inestimable advantages: they worked harder and more efficiently than their Caucasian counterparts, often performing jobs that others found too hazardous, and they did so for less money."
Coolie (Tamil for "wages") labor began in the late
1840s as a response to the labor shortage brought on by the worldwide movement
to abolish slavery. The majority of these contract laborers were shipped from
It is best to dispense with the racist term coolie and employ the more neutral term 'indentured worker', which was the form of labor exploitation that was tried with mixed success in the colonies prior to the rise of slavery. The captains of the railroad industry, despite whatever opposition they had to slavery in the South, were not opposed to bending free labor rules, if nasty work at low pay had to be done. The simple truth is that if free labor is not available, they will dragoon some unfortunate soul to do it--either in chains or through the symbolic chains of indenture. As John Adams once put it, "That in some countries the labouring poor were called freemen, in others they were called slaves; but that the difference as to the state was imaginary only."
Heinrich Hilgard, who would become
Henry Villard, was born on
Villard arrived in
Villard became a war correspondent and filed reports from some of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the Civil War. Villard was "embedded" in the First South Carolina Volunteers, ex-slaves who fought under the command of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Villard wrote dispatches to the Herald that praised the fighting spirit of these troops, much to the disgust of the paper's racist readers. Even the editors found themselves persuaded by his reports and defended the "good conduct and gallant deeds" of the black troops.
In 1863 Villard took a leave from war correspondence and
By then Villard had begun writing for the Chicago Tribune, a stronghold of Radical Republicanism in contrast to the Whiggish Tribune. The paper was edited by Horace Greeley of "go west, young man" fame--an appeal directed exclusively to white men, it should be qualified.
After returning to
Villard also developed social connections with well-heeled friends of the Nation magazine, including the rich banker George Cabot Ward, who socialized with E. L. Godkin, the liberal magazine's editor. It was probably these connections and his work with the Social Science association that led him to conduct a serious study of finance and banking. For reasons having everything to do with the not so subtle shift away from Radical Republicanism to the sort of Republicanism we see today, Villard began to "ponder profitable ways of acting as a middleman between European investors, especially German financial institutions, and the American economy, in whose solidity, prosperity, and potential for expansion he never ceased to believe. Certain German banks, he learned, might be particularly interested in investing in American railroads." (Borchgrave, p. 281)
When Villard returned to
On his own initiative, Villard became the foreign agent of
the Wisconsin Central Railroad and persuaded German bankers to buy bonds, out
of which he pocketed a handsome commission. It was this sort of entrepreneurial
spirit that eventually recommended him to Ben Holladay, the founder of the
Villard's fortunes increased with each passing year. In 1889 he teamed up with Thomas Edison and German bankers to form Edison General Electric. In 1892, close to the time of his death, Villard threw himself into politics once again. He sought the repeal of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which he viewed as an impediment to his fortune-building goals in railroad and electricity. He became an enthusiastic supporter of the Democratic Party candidate Grover Cleveland, who was the very symbol of the Gilded Age.
Villard died in 1900 of what the doctors called an
apoplectic stroke. Donations and bequests in Villard's name still go to