|John Pierpont Morgan and Uncle Sam rowing a boat, circa 1911. From LOC.gov.|
You might think I was April Foolin' if I said that there was a time when the death of a banker caused national mourning. But such was the case on April 1, 1913 when papers reported on the death of John Pierpont Morgan.
"World Mourns Loss of Great Financier," the New York Sun headline ran. Flags flew at half-mast. For the first time in its history, the New York Stock Exchange suspended operations to commemorate the life of the great banker.
Mr. Morgan was 76 when he died. Papers attributed his demise, however, not to age but rather to "emotions caused by the investigation carried out by the Pujo committee." Formed in May 1912 by Arsène Pujo of Louisiana, the congressional subcommittee's underlying purpose was to show that the "panic of 1907 was a manufactured panic which would have been impossible had it not been for the concentration of money and its control in a group of Wall St. financiers," reported the San Francisco Call in December 1912.
Newspaper reports from the investigation that the House of Morgan controlled $25 billion, a large sum even by today's standards, startled everyday Americans whose average salary at the time was $800 per year.
The revelations of the extent of the nation's wealth disparity gave Congress the public support it needed to pass legislation that redistributed that wealth, namely the power to levy income tax (16th Amendment, Feb 1913), government-sponsored centralized banking (Federal Reserve Act, Dec 1913), and tougher rules around monopolies (Clayton Antitrust Act, Oct 1914).
(And you thought Dodd-Frank was bad!)
For their part, Congressmen disputed claims that their investigation caused Morgan's death. "The insinuation that the committee's courteous examination of Mr. Morgan contributed in any manner whatever to his demise appears to be a studied attempt make capital (hah!) of his death, and to arouse sympathy for a system that in many respects is at a decided variance with the interests of our people," Congressmen Neely of Kansas said in the Washington Times.
While the cause of his death was disputed, his impact, at least according to the many condolences reprinted in the New York Tribune, was not. One such tribute by banker Joseph Harriman predicted Mr Morgan's enduring legacy.
"It is hard to give an estimate of the loss which the entire country has suffered through Mr. Morgan's death. He was a great organizer and developer and the monuments that he reared will live for all time. Not the least great and lasting work to his credit is the wonderfully equipped banking firm he has left behind him, which will perpetuate his name for many years to come."
Indeed, 101 years later, JP Morgan Chase is the largest bank in the United States.