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Mellon, Money & America

David Cannadine

     ... historian and biographer. Professor Cannadine is author of Mellon, An American Life, the prize-winning Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and many other acclaimed and important books. He has taught at Cambridge and Columbia universities and now is "The Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History" at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. Born in Birmingham, England, he was educated at Cambridge, Oxford and Princeton.


How do we strike a balance between capitalism's energy and its excesses when it is unbridled? The life of Andrew Mellon speaks to both sides of this important equation, according to Mellon's biographer, the eminent British historian David Cannadine.

Until now, there has been no comprehensive biography of Andrew Mellon, the all-powerful banker and government official of whom it was often said "Three Presidents served under him" during his 10 years as Secretary of Treasury.  Mellon was also the philanthropist and art collector for which, if he is known at all, he is known best today.

After nine years living with his subject as only a biographer can, Professor Cannadine goes beyond opposing stereotypes of Mellon as "Robber Barron" or "Patriot" to conclude that unbridled capitalism, unregulated within a weak government, is not the way to run what ought to be a modern mature, compassionate nation.  At the same time, Professor Cannadine also insists we recognize when we have the good luck to live in parts of the world where capitalism has been a success and benefited many, as Andrew Mellon and his friends believed would happen sooner or later.

So was Andrew Mellon a Robber Barron -- as seen by those championing democracy and working people in the face of unbridled capitalism -- or a Great Patriot bringing the glories of capitalism to the millions, as Mellon and his wealthy peers saw themselves?

Important subtleties lie behind both stereotypes. They illumine the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism as well as the life of Andrew Mellon, in much the same way the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression over which Banker Mellon presided as America's Secretary of the Treasury have much to teach.

What Professor Cannadine offers is the reality of a man as complex as the times in which Mellon lived. Both emerge together from Professor Cannadine's meticulous research, rendered elegantly in straight-forward prose. 

Many striking examples come from capitalism's greatest failure, the Great Depression of the 1920s and '30s. Maybe both Andrew Mellon and his nemesis Franklin Delano Roosevelt were both right, Dr. Cannadine suggests. Mellon probably was right that there are limits to what a government could do. But FDR was right that the government had to be seen to be trying, by ameliorating the genuine pain and dire circumstances which the system had created. Fast-forwarding into the present, Professor Cannadine observes how the United States now has become more dynastic that it's mother country, how America’s class divisions have grown ever-more profound as politics and war profiteering enrich the richest.

He concludes that finding the balance between capitalism's strengths and the necessity for government regulation to reign capitalism in because of its inherent drive to excess is a challenge that will always be with us.


[This Program was recorded November 17, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Distinguishing his biography of Andrew Mellon from other approaches historians often take, Professor David Cannadine explains to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell why Andrew Mellon is so important in American history and why this is the first full biography published.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:40

Conversation 2

Two disparate views of Mellon are outlined by Professor Cannadine -- robber baron or great patriot. He shows how distance now allows square-on appraisal instead of perpetuating stereotypes.  He elaborates on issues of great wealth and unfettered capitalism in any society, any era.  He explores effects of education and empathy, and their absence, vis-a-vis Mellon-the-Banker, and considers and what great wealth does to families.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:22

Conversation 3

Mellon was reflexively a Republican, Dr. Cannadine says, but, like the party after Lincoln died, was totally consumed by an unthinking republicanism strongly favoring big business, capitalism and the creation of a “free market” with lots of government intervention on their behalf. As Secretary of the Treasury, Mellon presided over the Roaring Twenties and the greatest catastrophe the capitalist system has ever known, Professor Cannadine notes. Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt enter the conversation.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:18

Conversation 4

Professor Cannadine considers the importance of Mellon’s Scots-Irish Calvinist-Presbyterian background over the course of his lifetime and how that heritage is echoed in American politics. The conversation turns to Mellon’s elevation of business and disdain for politics. Mellon broke a lot of rules, Professor Cannadine says, but he did pay his taxes, and believed it an obligation of rich people to do so. Striking examples are given of Mellon’s ruthlessness, conflicts of interest and, as American Ambassador to Great Britain, unabashed lobbying for personal interests in oil.  Professor Cannadine elaborates on the larger picture of the Middle East, then and now.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:44

 Conversation 5

War is good for certain kinds of businesses and Mellon’s were among them, Professor Cannadine says, with examples across decades and World Wars. The huge profits of war and war materiel for the privileged few are compared to devastating consequences for countless millions. Mellon’s money, official position and Byzantine secret dealings with the Soviet Union come together in considering his life and his art collection, the backbone of National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:48

Conversation 6

Professor Cannadine applies his expertise to America's increasingly dynastic aristocracy, factors in class, wealth, and America's military-industrial-security-prison-oil complex. He summarizes the perpetual need to strike a balance between capitalism’s energy and governments' need to reign in capitalism's propensity for excess.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:37


We were first drawn to David Cannadine's work by his extraordinarily acute observations in Ornamentalism. We admire Professor Cannadine's integrity, his astuteness and his courage to dispassionately form and passionately hold well-founded opinions in his work and thank him for doing so with us.

Additional Links:

Mellon: An American Life is published by Knopf .

Among Professor Cannadine's many other books are The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, published by Vintage and Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, published by Oxford University Press.

David Nasaw's biography of Andrew Carnegie further enriches our understanding of how America's "robber barons" continue to influence America in the Twenty-First Century.

In Corpocracy, Robert A.G. Monks shows how unchecked corporate power is abused in 21st Century America.

Ron Chernow's biography of John D. Rockefeller, Titan, is a good complement to Mr. Cannadine's Mellon biography.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln (Team of Rivals) and David Reynolds' biography of John Brown (John Brown, Abolitionist) show the development of the Republican Party into the "party of Lincoln" before it transmuted into the "party of big business" after Lincoln's death.  Thom Hartmann tells the strange history of the Supreme Court's decision in Santa Clara v Southern Pacific Railroad Company (which is generally believed to have established the "personhood" of corporations) in Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights.  In American Dynasty, Kevin Phillips recounts the dynastic aspirations and achievements of war profiteers, robber barons and crony capitalists.

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