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The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism

Review

The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism

Excellent topic. Excellent scope. Excellent writing. Susan Berfield’s THE HOUR OF FATE takes on an explosive time of transition in our nation by focusing on the two titans most central to the fight: Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan. When the final page is turned, we have accompanied the nation along its journey out of the Gilded Age and into the Progressive Era guided by Roosevelt’s slogan, “A square deal for every man, big or small, rich or poor.”

The storyline is simple enough: America is booming. Business is booming. Government’s role is slight at best. The rich are not only becoming richer, they are exerting more and more control over the US economy. The quintessential businessman of this era is John Pierpont Morgan, a force like no other. When the business-friendly President McKinley dies, Morgan runs afoul of Theodore Roosevelt and his progressive Square Deal.

The new president thinks that regulation is the way to control the growing trusts --- or monopolies. Like Morgan, he is a man of wealth and privilege, but as a politician and public servant, he has walked among the poorest and found it un-American. The two men are on a collision course that culminates in the government’s case against Morgan’s Northern Securities Trust.

"While it might be easy to pass Morgan off as the bad guy to TR’s good guy, THE HOUR OF FATE is finely nuanced and takes up the argument from each man’s perspective."

While it might be easy to pass Morgan off as the bad guy to TR’s good guy, THE HOUR OF FATE is finely nuanced and takes up the argument from each man’s perspective. This begins with one of those wonderful stories often lost to history. As a young man, Morgan is eager to make his own way. When he strays from his father’s idea of honor, he is corrected: “Never under any circumstances do an act which could be called in question if known to the whole world.” It was the Morgan Code of Conduct, and as Berfield notes, “Integrity would give the Morgans a competitive edge in America.”

The focused scope of the book impresses immediately. In a period when names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Hearst, Mellon and countless others roamed the landscape, Berfield assiduously concentrates on Roosevelt and Morgan. They are the drivers, the forces, the cause of action, and while others figure prominently in the story, they do so as context. She doesn’t diminish their roles, but recognizes Roosevelt and Morgan to be ultimate leaders.

The book magnificently portrays Morgan as a man who loved art and travel, despised the inefficiencies of 19th-century industry and is possessed of a will that few can match. The personification of the future Federal Reserve, he will twice rescue the US economy by dint of his reputation and determination.

Roosevelt’s story is equally compelling. He is not against big business as he knows it is essential. What he wants is public accountability. An ambitious and energetic man whose life is well chronicled, he strives to ensure that each American, poor or rich, gets the same treatment --- a square deal. That he was reviled by Democrats and disliked by his own party shows the complexity of his nature.

Perhaps the most striking line in the book comes from President Cleveland. During a deadly heatwave in 1896, Police and Health Commissioner Roosevelt personally handed out free ice to the poor. This benign act of compassion caused the Democrat president to remark, “While the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their Government, its functions do not include the support of the people.” One can hardly imagine any politician uttering those words today!

This portrait of America in 1900 also demands comparisons to the present-day world. The scale of change wrought by the internet is similar to the change brought about by the railroads. New technologies, either today or a hundred years ago, created great wealth for their owners. Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates, Buffett and Bezos had visions and plans that government couldn’t conceive. They pushed into unknown territories and created massive empires of good, but as they grew and consolidated, these forces of innovation were seen as unfairly dominating in a way that discouraged further innovation and competition.

With little to stand in the way of the trusts, much of America came to believe that a Square Deal was a thing of the past. Roosevelt’s challenge to the barons like Morgan sets the stage that THE HOUR OF FATE so nicely acts out, making it a strong recommendation.

Reviewed by John Vena on May 22, 2020

The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism
by Susan Berfield

  • Publication Date: May 5, 2020
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1635572495
  • ISBN-13: 9781635572490