Henry Villard: portrait of a Radical Republican


posted to www.marxmail.org on September 9, 2003


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 China, especially from the southern ports of Amoy and Macao, to work on plantations in Hawaii, Ceylon, Malaya, and the Caribbean. But they also played an exceptionally important role in the construction of the American railroads, the crown jewel of capitalist modernization. As Marx wrote in 1853, "The railways system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry."


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 April 10, 1835 in Bavaria. When he was only 13 years old he became convinced of the need for a democratic revolution in Germany and was supported by the radical members from his father's side of the family.


Villard arrived in New York City in 1853 to seek his fortune. He then moved to Belleville, Illinois to become part of a community of German emigrant farmers opposed to slavery, and began writing for the German-language press in the area. Eventually his writing skills and growing familiarity with the English language earned him a spot with the New York Herald in 1860, the same newspaper that employed his countryman Karl Marx. Despite the leftwing credentials of Villard and Marx, the newspaper was a racist opponent of Abraham Lincoln. They decided to hire Villard because he had established a friendship with the future presidential candidate in Illinois and could be a source of newsworthy information.


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 moved to Boston where he aspired to develop social ties with the city's abolitionist elite. One of the first people he ran into was William Lloyd Garrison Jr., the son of the country's best known white abolitionist, who introduced him to his sister Fanny. They would be married in 1866.


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 Boston in 1868 from a stint covering European politics for the Chicago Tribune, Villard began working on a freelance basis. One of the magazines he wrote for was a startup called the Nation Magazine whose literary editor was Wendell Garrison. Garrison's connections to the academic world enabled Villard to get a job as editor of the Journal of Social Science, a publication of the American Social Science Association that promoted liberal reform.


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 Germany, he had already made contact with robber baron Jay Cooke, who sought Villard's help in increasing German immigration to land owned by his Northern Pacific Railroad. Meanwhile William Garrison, the Nation's literary editor, set up a meeting between Villard and an Englishman named William Lawson, who was seeking an agent for some very large stock transactions. The Gilded Age was obviously in full swing. Villard's relationship with Lawson "brought him experience in stock brokerage, some tidy profits, and growing insight into the upper reaches of high finance." (p. 282)


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 Oregon and Western Railroad. Although Villard was originally hired to raise capital from European investors, he took over the company from Holladay, as well as the Oregon Steamship Company and a few other Oregon companies in 1876, just one year before the North washed its hands of Reconstruction. Pleased with his takeover of the railroad and assorted assets, Villard wrote his wife Fanny, who was becoming ever more enthusiastic about his business success, that "I knew you would be mad at me for not returning to-day, but I am sure that the wrath of my little wife will be appeased when I tell her that her great 'schemer' has now in his pocket nine thousand Dollars clear profit made this week and that he expects his labors to be eventually rewarded by more than as much more!" His pet name for Fanny was "darling greediness".


On July 1, 1881, Villard returned to journalism, his first passion, and bought two NY publications with capital gained from his growing railroad empire: The New York Evening Post, a daily, and the Nation Magazine that had been instrumental in his rise to power. He put Carl Schurz, a former Radical Republican and Nation Magazine editor E.L. Godkin, in charge of the Post, while he gave his son Oliver Garrison Villard the job of running the Nation. By now Schurz, Godkin and the Nation were firmly in the camp of business as usual.


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 Harvard, Columbia, the American Museum of History, the Metropolitan Museum and many other august institutions.