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Canipe Correspondence – American Exceptionalism: When Did It Die?

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.

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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.

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26 Responses to “Canipe Correspondence – American Exceptionalism: When Did It Die?”

  1. Chris says:

    Well Said,
    There is a gentleman that I read named Billy Beck who coined the phrase for our time the “endarkenment”.

  2. BB says:

    Teddy Roosevelt was a PROGRESSIVE. Same as a LIBERAL. Teddy would be a RHINO or a democrat today

  3. Sean says:

    Theodore Roosevelt was completely against what these men stood for and did more to break up these mens monopolies, which were built on the backs of Americans, immigrants, and the poor. These men literaly bought the Mckinley Presidency completely subverting our Democracy. Theodore Roosevelt saw that and acted accordingly. Its not our government, but the people we elect that are not up to the tasks laid out before them.

  4. Leviticus says:

    Beautifully written

  5. R says:

    With all due respect, other than this being a dangerously oversimplified, whitewashed review of United States history during this era, as a first step, I’m not wholly certain I would use George Vanderbilt as an example of hard work and self-sufficiency when the vast bulk of his fortune was spawn of either inheritance or the direct result of intra-family benevolence.

    It’s completely fair to marvel at Biltmore, Lord knows I did, however we shouldn’t delude ourselves such that we overlook the many social, political, and economic variables that offer us a lesson as to how such a massive concentration of capital amassed in the hands of just one family.

  6. Hank says:

    Nice article Canipe. Keep it up.

  7. Baldwin says:

    I’m sorry…I just can’t get on board the band wagon glorifying the millionaires. Those social systems getting flamed above came about out of the growing awareness that our country was and is about “We the people..” more than it is about the excesses of the few that garnered fame and fortune at the expense of those that shed the sweat, blood and tears of that got them there. We wouldn’t dream of leaving a comrade behind on the field of battle. Why should we leave our fellow countrymen behind on the field of what we all endure every day. None of this prevents us from rising to greatness. “We the people…” always have. Yeah, we have some no-loads out there. Let’s just stop laying our scapegoats at their feet. Let’s get our stuff together and make assets out of those that you consider to be liabilities. No other country out there does this. What an example of American exceptionalism…taking care of each other, fixing the social issues that hold us back, moving forward to a better tomorrow for our country. My 2 cents.

    • Mike says:

      Damn straight. America is about who we are and how we treat our fellow Americans, not grabbing what we can from the system and pulling up the ladder once we’ve got what we want.

  8. Adco says:

    I think now more than ever, it’s time to strengthen North American trade and heavily tax imports from Asia. The US will never regain its manufacturing and industrial base so long as its retailers have free reign to increase their profits while sending jobs over to Asia.

    • Baldwin says:

      I am so sick and tired of labels that read, “Made Somewhere Else!”

      • walter shumate says:

        Yeah, I fully agree with your idea, It’s hard as rocks for a “little guy” to do anything about it, other than to buy American (hell even North American would do), or to start your own business, but We need to take care of Us.

  9. Sailsman says:

    You can create wealth by Invention, Discovery, and Exploitation.

    US is the best place for scientific invention and discovery in the world. Bar none. If you are blessed with creativity like Crye, Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, no problem. If you want to see a modern Biltmore, look at Yuri Milner’s home in Silicon Valley.

    If you make money by exploitation (digging fossils out of the ground, selling unoriginal products made with cheap labor, re-hashing an old idea with bells and whistles i.e. adding an accessory rail to an AR15 platform and putting your name on it), America is not the place for you.

    You will go broke and you will look to your community and church to pay your mortgage (but will end up taking assistance from the government instead). There is not much left to exploit that hasn’t been tapped by vertically integrated corporations, bankrupt US consumers, or foreign investors.

    American exceptionalism is alive and well…. if you don’t subscribe to it, or do not have the education, creativity, or imagination to tap into it….well then…

    praying doesn’t work…so…get a good life insurance policy and make it look like an accident…its the last thing you will be able to exploit on behalf of your family.

    On a serious note…this post was jingoistic and shameful from an American standpoint. I wouldn’t have bothered responding to this post but my son just got married at Biltmore last Spring and like the author I marveled at the estate. Unlike the author, the thoughts generated by the spectacle of Biltmore estate were positive. I thought to myself “my son (who is a self-employed bioscientist), “could have a house like this if he creates something that truly made a difference to the world. Only in America.”

    I have lived in other countries…. some of those countries have American blood in the ground…some of the countries (have) (had) totalitarian governments. The author has a set of stones to complain.

  10. Paralus says:

    Opulent greed = American exceptionalism? I think you’re confusing what the two ideas actually mean. The monopolies that funded these palaces and depressions of the 19th century were proof of our lack of exceptionalism.

    The greed of men like the Robberbarons were the very reason why Roosevelt became a Bull Moose and why anti-trust legislation was and the people who had the poor luck of working for them.

    While I look for American made goods and wish to see an American manufacturing renaissance, I don’t confuse these with a return to ostentatious displays of wealth.

    The architecture, the craftsmanship are simply amazing and a long forgotten art, but the owners were sorely lacking.

  11. Paralus says:

    Opulent greed = American exceptionalism? I think you’re confusing what the two ideas actually mean. The monopolies that funded these palaces and depressions of the 19th century were proof of our lack of exceptionalism.

    The greed of men like the Robberbarons were the very reason why Roosevelt became a Bull Moose and why anti-trust legislation was passed. It was crappy for consumers and the people who had the poor luck of working for them.

    While I look for American made goods and wish to see an American manufacturing renaissance, I don’t confuse these with a return to ostentatious displays of wealth.

    The architecture, the craftsmanship are simply amazing and a long forgotten art, but the owners were sorely lacking.

  12. Mayflower Research & Consulting says:

    May be I’m reading this differently then the other posters above but what I think Jon is trying to convey is the spirit of working hard for what you have and striving for a better life. Currently we have families that are third or forth generation welfare recipients with no intentions of trying to change. We have a segment of the population that is attempting to portray success as something to be ashamed of. I believe Jon is trying to say we need a return to a period of time and ideology where pride in ones accomplishments and pride in self-reliance are the norm rather than being looked at by the establishment of another place to garner more taxes for the masses.

    When the government continuously rewards those who fail to achieve with “free” stuff it slowly erodes the will to strive harder of those who are successful. Why should a business owner strive to grow his or her business when it means increased taxation and more regulation added at every turn to pay for the growing number of people who no longer strive to succeed? Why should a business owner want to manufacture goods in America when they have to deal (in some states) with unions that strangle the life out of the business itself (good bye Twinkies)?

    What incentives for success are there today? A President that says “your not doing your fare share” when you don’t agree with paying 50% of your income to the city, county, state and federal government.

    Good article Jon, see you in a few weeks. T

  13. fmfbest says:

    As a visitor there what bothered me the most about the estate is that we could not as a nation build something that grand and long lasting like that again if we wanted too. From the construction technique to the craftsmanship we have lost the ability to do things on that scale.

    • Haji says:

      If the demand for it was there, there are people who can do it. Craftsmanship is expensive, but there are people who will provide it if the builder wishes to have it. It is no longer the standard, which is what I took your post to mean.

  14. UVRC says:

    I honor the good intentions of the original poster, but the acquisition of vast wealth – inordinate wealth – was also due in large part to the largess of the U.S. government. The railroad builders suckered the government as follows:
    ” Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862, the 1862 Act authorized extensive land grants[3] in the Western United States and the issuance of 30-year government bonds (at 6 percent) to the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad (later the Southern Pacific Railroad) companies in order to construct a transcontinental railroad. Section 2 of the Act granted each Company contiguous rights of way for their rail lines as well as all public lands within 200 feet (61 m) on either side of the track.[4]
    Section 3 granted an additional 10 square miles (26 kmĀ²) of public land for every mile of grade except where railroads ran through cities or crossed rivers. ”
    “Between 1850 and 1870, 7 percent of the land in the United States was given to 80 railroads. Most of this land was in the west. In Kansas, railroad companies were given one-sixth of the land in the state.”

    And it wasn’t just the railroad tycoons who prospered from government handouts. We hear the term “banana republic”. The US Marines invaded Central American and South American countries, IIRC, about twenty times on behalf of United Fruit and other large US conglomerates. See http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html written by a two-time Medal of Honor recipient. Also look up Banana Wars.
    “Honduras, where the United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit Company dominated the country’s key banana export sector and associated land holdings and railways, saw insertion of American troops in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924 and 1925.[4] Writer O. Henry coined the term “Banana republic” in 1904 to describe Honduras.”

    So, the wealthy “self-made-men” some admire, made much of their wealth through government handouts or the blood of US soldiers. For example, US soldiers and National guards were sent in to break strikes in the US as well as abroad, e.g., the Pullman Strike. And war profiteering was also rampant. Again I would suggest you read “War is a Racket” for details.

    Nice house, though.

  15. Jim C says:

    I enjoyed the article and the commentaries here. I own a moderately sized company in this industry. After 15 years and over 2000 designs, my design team is still motiviated to drive forward with pages of design ideas and future concepts. We have seen both victories and defeats. Its a great feeling when a unit chooses your design, and its a hard day when they choose someone elses (especially when its a cheaper version of something you orignated). But rather than let it get my team down, I’m thankful we have the motivation and opportunity to keep our doors open on tomorrow’s project. I don’t detect that my teammembers are in it for the millionaire opportunities, but I don’t discount that they need it to exist as part of an array of incentives. Once your company has made it to the next higher level, there always has to be a higher level, and many after that to give continued incentive. I think we have to look beyond the dollar figure that many associate this with, and look instead to the environment this furthers of innovation and opportunity. All too often people get wrapped up in the dollar figures, statistics and the “blood sweat and tears of others” focal points. Having offered advanced responsibilities to technicians who suprised me by refusing because they didn’t want to be leaders, managers or entrepreneurs (risk takers), I have learned to embrace our economic system. And while many people look at history and complain that these people worked the system to their advantage, I’ve seen competitors go to Capitol Hill and pay lobbyists to push goverment procurement in their favor. Should I be angry, or should I acknowledge that they utilized the resources and won the day? Million dollar paychecks are nice, but I never thought I would see them in this industry, though I have seen some people misguidedly believe in that dream. I don’t expect them, but its nice that there is a possibility of them. Instead I believe in the greater motivation than big money – the chance to have a soldier tell you your design saved his life, and the thought that going to work gives you the opportunity to make the world a better place. I thank God that as an officer and business leader I am lucky enough to work in this creative and inspirational environement. We probably won’t make billions but its possible, and in the mean time I was pretty happy when we handed out Christmas bonuses for the families of some great American team members.

    • Baldwin says:

      Do what you can, do it well, and always leave your post in better shape than it was when you assumed the watch.

  16. ODG says:

    As usual, insightful and a great post Jon.

  17. K' says:

    While I think the article simplifies history and is jingoistic like many of the other commenters, I do agree – there’s something lost in America when it comes to the drive to succeed. Maybe it’s kids growing up with parents who are more concerned with keeping up with the Joneses’ or maybe it’s kids growing up with parents who just don’t care. Either way, when it’s an issue that’s generational, some of the blame goes uphill, just like in command.

    But for the building of wealth – let’s not forget that many of the most wealthy, especially for older generations of it – that was sometimes made through legal loopholes, exploitation and in many cases, illegal activity. We should also remember that there was a reason why the US needed anti-trust laws and strong leaders to enforce them. Without those laws and the power to back them, corporations will not only manipulate the marketplace, but also the governments surrounding them. So before we go down the rabbit hole of deregulation, let’s remember what can happen when capitalism becomes greed, and when greed becomes evil.

    I had an economics teacher tell me (while having our class work like an unregulated economy) that, “capitalism is like a teenager: you want to give it room to grow, you want it to branch out and meet other people from other nations, but you also want to make sure you give it enough rules so it doesn’t take your brand new car out and wrap it and himself around a tree.”

  18. Jonathan Trevor Canipe says:

    America is still extraordinarily “exceptional” still in my mind and will remain so for the faithful like me.