Sunday, March 2, 2014

No Mean City - book review

The other day at Back Creek Books in Annapolis, I picked up a signed copy of No Mean City by Theodore McKeldin.

The book, published in 1964, is a short look at three of Baltimore's biggest benefactors: George Peabody, Johns Hopkins, and Enoch Pratt. McKeldin, who was then serving as mayor of Baltimore (after having previously served as Maryland's governor and another term as Baltimore's mayor before that), praised their civic spirit and hoped to encourage others in Baltimore to take an interest in the well-being of their city. This book was written during a period when Baltimore, like other urban areas, was facing some unrest and turmoil.

The main theme of the book was that it was good for private individuals, especially those who had been successful, to give back to their community. He did not advocate for forced redistribution of wealth, but rather for people to take an interest in the welfare of other people. McKeldin wrote, "In the Old World an ungenerous king was despised, and princes, dukes, and other ranks of the nobility were considered under an obligation, measured according to rank, to correct injustice and relieve distress. But in the Old World, the private individual, and especially the man 'in trade,' was held to no such standard. . . .  In the New World it was Peabody who set a different standard for successful businessmen." The irony of is that when McKeldin was writing this book, the nation was slowly reverting back to the old standard. Today people expect the government to provide them with everything, while many wealthy people feel no moral obligation to give back. After paying their taxes, many feel as though they have given enough. This is a reversion from the traditional American libertarian position in support of private charity.

McKeldin gives us a brief history of Peabody, Hopkins, and Pratt, starting with George Peabody. Born in South Danvers (now Peabody), Massachusetts in 1795, Peabody was forced to leave school at age 11 to help support his family. He went to work as a grocer. He learned quickly and by age 19 was the manager of a wholesale drygoods business in Washington, D.C. Before he was 21, he was made a partner and shortly thereafter the firm of Riggs & Peabody moved to Baltimore. Peabody took up the study of banking and became to get involved in that business. Before long he was able to start the banking firm of George Peabody & Company in London. Peabody moved there and achieved great success. He took on another partner, Junius Spencer Morgan. After a few transformations, their firm exists today under the name of his partner's son, J.P. Morgan.
George Peabody

Peabody achieved great wealth and believed it was his responsibility to use it for the betterment of all. While in London he worked to improve housing for the poor and his work still continues through the London based Peabody Group. In terms of his relationship with Baltimore, Peabody personally guaranteed a loan of $8 million (a sizeable amount at the time) to the State of Maryland when it was facing insolvency, without which no bank was willing to offer Maryland the necessary loan. He didn't charge the typical commission as he viewed this as a public service. He is also, of course, known for starting the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and for various other philanthropic endeavours around the English speaking world.

Johns Hopkins was the focus of the next chapter in the book. McKeldin was insistent that Baltimoreans, at least, get his name right. He wanted to make sure that we knew that his name was "Johns", not "John". You can generally tell the difference, even today, between an outsider and a native by whether or not he says Hopkins's name correctly. Hopkins was born in 1795 in Crofton, Maryland. His parents were Quakers and when the church issued an edict in 1807 banning Quakers from owning slaves, his parent obeyed and freed theirs. The result was that he and his siblings had to drop out of school to work the family's tobacco farm. At age 17, he was taken into his uncle's grocery business. His hard work and natural talents were quickly noticed and he did well. He continued in the field of commerce and prospered. He fell into a dispute with his religious community when he agreed to supply goods to people in the Appalachian Mountains in return for whiskey, the only currency that they had. Quakers then condemned the alcohol trade and he was kicked out of the sect. Hopkins, however, rightly believed that he was doing nothing wrong as the poor people of this area had nothing else to trade with and needed goods. After this, he quit his uncle's firm and started his own.

Johns Hopkins
Hopkins was known as an eccentric. For example, McKeldin tells us that he refused to buy an overcoat and preferred to walk long distances to his appointments, even though he could easily afford cab fare. Perhaps it was his way of thinking differently that allowed him to succeed by seeing opportunities that others missed. He "led the way in developing the facilities of the port, especially in building huge warehouses to handle the traffic that had not yet arrived, but he knew was coming. He poured money into that relatively new thing, the railroad." At the time of his death, he was the largest individual shareholder in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Like Peabody, Hopkins felt a responsibility to use his wealth to help his community. And while he may have been stingy with the money he spent on himself, he was generous with the money he used to help others. As a port city, Baltimore had its fair share of fevers, poxes, plagues, and other infections. Hopkins believed that the city needed a "great hospital". Of course, that would later result in the creation of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Regret over his lack of much formal education may have been the impulse behind his donation to found Johns Hopkins University. His legacy lives on in Baltimore, where The Johns Hopkins Institutions combined are Baltimore’s largest employer.

If you live in Baltimore, you certainly know the Pratt name. Pratt Street is the main road through the downtown area. You might borrow books from the Enoch Pratt Free Library. And if you ever have a breakdown, they might take you to the Sheppard Pratt Hospital. So, who is this Pratt? Well, Pratt Street is actually named after the Whig lawyer, Charles Pratt, not the subject of McKeldin's book. But the rest are named after Enoch Pratt.

Pratt was born in 1808. Like Peabody, he was also from Massachusetts and like Peabody and Hopkins had little formal schooling. But unlike Peabody and Hopkins, he dropped out by choice. At age 15, he felt he had learned enough and quit school to go into merchandising. After making $150, he headed south and setup shop in Baltimore.
Enoch Pratt

It is amazing to think that these men were so successful with such little formal education. I know of people who have spent years in school, often taking on large amounts of debt, and many of them can only find menial work around town. We are told that every child must complete a certain amount of basic education. Parents are fined and jailed if they take their kids out of school. We have a Federal government that now tries to set down a common curriculum that everyone must follow. Yet in the more libertarian American past, where people were left alone, we had tremendous prosperity and social mobility.

It was in this free environment that Pratt, as teenager, was able to run his own business. He used a wheelbarrow to make his deliveries and according to "the local tradition . . . he started life as peddler, nails and mule shoes being his specialities." He was soon after able to start the firm of E. Pratt & Brothers and invested his profits in transportation, banks, and fire insurance companies. By 1872, he owned a majority share in Maryland Steamboat Company. From there he had continued success and kept amassing money.

Like Hopkins, it was said that he was cheap when it came to purchasing his own clothing and some people saw him as a miser. But he was idealistic and generous with his own money. He was a strong opponent of slavery and also tried to provide opportunities to black children. For example, when he offered Baltimore City $833,333.333 in cash to open a library in 1882, it was on the condition that it be open to all residents, regardless of race, creed, or nationality. In addition, as McKeldin put it in 1964, "He was among the first to do something practical for those colored boys and girls who had made one slip, but who were not yet beyond hope of rehabilitation. He gave a farm of seven hundred acres in Prince George's County to be used as a reform school for such children. Today it is known as Cheltenham, where the work he started still goes on, although Pratt has been in his grave nearly three quarters of a century." Cheltenham is still in existence today as a juvenile detention facility. I wonder if he would be proud of what it has become. I doubt it.

McKeldin's short book focused on Peabody, Hopkins, and Pratt, but also gave mention to other famous people who helped shape the city. He also quickly referenced famous Marylanders such as Reverdy Johnson, John P. Kennedy, Roger B. Taney, and Charles J. Bonaparte, who he said "brought honor and fame" to Baltimore, but that they belonged more to the nation than the city. He was more interested in Peabody, Pratt, and Hopkins for the good that they brought to the city itself. McKeldin encouraged all of his fellow Baltimoreans to work for the betterment of the city. He wrote, "But anyone can live in Baltimore, provided he is sufficiently respectful of the law not to be removed to the penitentiary. Anyone who has the will and the energy to do so can contribute to the spirit of the place. The contribution may not be great, but it counts."

That is good advice for all. Some people like to assert that libertarian-minded people are opposed to society and don't believe in community. A shrill socialist woman from Massachusetts who unfortunately holds a US Senate seat, likes to give a little stump speech where she tells successful people that they didn't get successful on their own. That is true, to an extent. But as Bastiat wrote, "Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all." People should take an interest in the well being of their communities and most naturally will, if left alone. We object to the government confiscating large amounts of wealth under the guise of fairness to waste away on pointless wars and useless agencies. Does anyone seriously think that Baltimore would be a better place today had Peabody, Hopkins, and Pratt had over half their fortunes confiscated by the government? Would elected officials have invested their money as wisely as they did? The answer is obvious.