Books: The Life and Legend of Jay Gould by Maury Klein

by | Jan 12, 2002

The bribes Gould supposedly handed out to the government officials for special favors were in fact paid to legislators to repeal government controls, such as the 'laws that fixed the rates his railroads could charge.

Of all the great industrialists of the nineteenth century none has been more vilified and malig9ed than Jay Gould 0836-1892). The New York Times complained about “the poison of an influence like that of Jay Gould, ” and Joseph Pulitzer called him one of the most sinister figures that ever flitted bat-like across the vision of the American people -historians relied on such muckraking journalism for source material éepicted Gould in the same critical light By 1910 socialist writer Gu$tayys Myers described Gould as “a pitiless human-carnivore, glutting on blood pfhi$ riumbgless victims …

an incarnate fiend of Machiavelli in his calculations, his schemes and ambushes, his plots and counterplots.” Now Maury Klein, a professor of history from the University of Rhode Island, has re-examined the myth of the robber-baron and convincingly smashed it, at least as far as ‘it concerns Gould, Klein’s scholarly work lays waste to the shoddy distortions of prior historians and shows the full achievements and genius of this outstanding industrialist. Born into dire poverty, Gould struck out on his own to create maps and sell them door to door. He diligently studied how and why stock prices changed. He used his savings to begin purchasing small stock positions in companies. He started by buying into firms that he judged were being poorly managed and were relatively cheap. Eventually, he gained control of the Erie Railroad, the Union Pacific and the Missouri Pacific and improved their operations and productivity enormously.

Klein explains about Gould that “all his life he loved maps. As a young man he made them; now he made the railroads and the towns that filled them.” The book sweepingly demolishes one fabrication after another concerning Gould’s life. IF shows, for example, that the competitor Gould is alleged to have killed actually committed suicide of an incurable disease from which he was suffering. It reveals that the bribes Gould supposedly handed out to the government officials for special favors were in fact paid to legislators to repeal government controls, such as the ‘laws that fixed the rates his railroads could charge.

The Life and Legend of Jay Gould stands apart from other histones not only in its radically unconventional treatment of its subject but in its thoroughly scholarly approach. The Klein research is both original and extensive, based on primary documents, not mere Journalistic vituperations. It is a superb example of intellectual honesty, and is what Gould has deserved but has never, until now, received.

But this book is more than a defense of Jay Gould. It is a resounding defense of the businessmen of his time and of the great achievements of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution. Klein likens the industrialists to the Founding Fathers: what the latter did to make possible our political accomplishments the former did with respect to our economic ones. Both should be extolled. Klein’s book becomes not only the definitive history of Gould but also the model for all future research of other great entrepreneurs.

This review is made available by the Ayn Rand Bookstore (formerly Second Renaissance Books)

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The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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