I’m writing this from a hotel in Asheville, NC. I’m on vacation, and we went and visited the Biltmore Estate. For those of you who don’t know, the Biltmore is George Vanderbilt’s 250+ room, 178, 926 sq. ft. mansion on a 125,000 acre spread. 85,000 of those acres now form a major portion on the Pisgah National Forest. I’m not sure there is a scale to measure the opulence or just pure size of the place in practical terms a guy like me can understand. I walk around the place with my jaw dropped, that one guy built this and lived here. This was some guy’s HOUSE. That’s right, George Vanderbilt was single when he built the house, though he later married. George Vanderbilt was the grandson of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, often referred to as “The First Tycoon.” He started a shipping business with a $100 loan from his mother and turned that into a shipping and railroad juggernaut, amassing a fortune of over $100 million dollars (todays equivalent of $184 billion). Think Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook…multiplied by 7.
Cornelius Vanderbilt shares the pages of history with names such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Morgan, and others in a relatively small group of the uber-wealthy of America’s Gilded Age. Financier Samuel Insull, who made his many millions in the railroad and utilities business, said, “Aim for the top. There is plenty of room there. There are so few at the top that it is almost lonely there.” These men built the railroads, the steel industry, the oil and gas industry, the shipping industry. Not only that, most of these men gave immense sums of their fortunes to helping people.Their philanthropy almost matched their greed. There was a recent series on TV called “The Men Who Built America,” and that’s a pretty good name for it. America’s transition into industry was nothing short of epic. No other nation in the world could compare, due to the ingenuity, ethos, and sometimes ruthlessness of the American industrial empire. The progress made in America at that time is unmatched to his day. With the current state of our society and government, I don’t think we’re due to outdo them anytime soon.
The key was self-sufficiency in America, on a number of levels. The individual American family was responsible for it’s own well-being. People were not entitled to help from the Government without giving anything in return to society. Social programs were decentralized or non-existent. People in need were cared for by the community or Church. People who would not sustain themselves often weren’t cared for at all. You worked for yours back then, plain and simple. Or you starved. People were not dependent on the Federal Government for survival, for their basic human needs. On a larger scale we were a self-sufficient nation as well. We did comparatively very little in terms of a global economy, we met many of our needs ourselves. The political situation was a bit different too. We knew we were better than everyone else, and didn’t have to really give a shit about the rest of the world. I am fairly certain that Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley never bowed to anyone, never gave aid and comfort to our enemies so as to not offend them, and never considered taking away the Bill of Rights from our citizens. Finally, that government stayed well out of the individual’s business in those days, at least by today’s standards of rampant micro-managing of the individual and business. Capitalism prospered as a system, and without any pseudo-socialist influence by Washington developed the United States into the most powerful and prosperous nation on Earth. That is the essence of “American Exceptionalism” as a concept. An individual with the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness, unburdened by socialism, tyranny or conscription, making a mark on history that is far greater than that of one man or company.
It’s kind of sad to see such a monument to American greatness, such a sign of the validity of our foundation as a country and our Constitution, such a symbol of the opportunity given to each and every American. I fear that our society has devolved to a point where so many people are supported by so few that it is almost not worth working hard anymore. As we have seen with our eroded base of industry and trade in the last few decades, you can’t have a capitalist economy that punishes making money. You can’t have a democratic society that rewards laziness either. I’m not sure if anyone will ever be able to ever build a house like this one again, but it sure would be nice if we got back there in some ways.