American Business Values From Benjamin Franklin to Donald Trump

By Peter Baida

Morrow. 360 pp. $22.95

Picture a small portrait gallery hung with sketches of some of the people who have defined American capitalism over the past two centuries.

Here, among others, is a cranky Henry Ford, perfecter of mass manufacturing and closet antisemite. And John Jacob Astor, the grasping immigrant peddler who was able to dominate the fur trading industry and buy up huge sections of Manhattan. And canny Andrew Carnegie, who justified his great wealth by trying to give much of it away.

Alongside these figures is another set of portraits of preachers, boosters, philosophers and agitators who have kept up a 200-year-long argument over the success stories of the Fords, Astors and Carnegies, debating whether they represent America as the land of opportunity or a land whose heart pulse was the tabulation of money-counters.

Here is the reassuring smile of Dale Carnegie and the scolding countenance of Ralph Nader, as well as commentators now mostly forgotten, such as Elbert Hubbard, whose short sermon, "A Message to Garcia," about the determination of an American hero of the Spanish-American War, was reprinted in the tens of millions as an inspirational message to America's youth. There is Henry George, a writer and reformer who sought to do away with the extremes of "monstrous wealth and debasing want" in the New York City of the 1870s, flanked by a row of other muckrakers.

It is this debate over the morality of the American doctrine of success that author Peter Baida hopes to capture with the selected voices who are heard briefly in "Poor Richard's Legacy."

Baida's inspiration is Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography he encountered shortly after completing work on his MBA. Baida, who would rather write, but turned to business to make a living, is captivated by Franklin, the self-made man and mentor to generations.

Although Franklin may no longer be a major figure in today's history classes, a century ago he was held up before schoolchildren everywhere as the proof that hard work, thrift, discipline and honesty -- when put to work in this freest of marketplaces -- would lead to economic success and community esteem.

Franklin published his advice in many forms, including his "Poor Richard's Almanack," in which he sagely capitalized on the appetite of a Puritan public for maxims about frugality and hard work. ("If you would know the Value of Money, go and try to borrow some." "Plough deep, while Sluggards sleep." "The Eye of a Master will do more Work than both his Hands." "Fools make Feasts, and wise Men eat them.") His collected views, in essays called "The Way to Wealth" and "Advice to a Young Tradesman," and in his autobiography, became a catechism for the systematic pursuit of profit.

Here is Franklin from "Advice to a Young Tradesman," published in 1748:

"The most trifling actions that affect a man's credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy six months longer; but if he sees you at a billiard table, or hears your voice in a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day: demands it, before he can receive it, in a lump."

The German sociologist Max Weber included this lesson in his introduction to "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism."

The debate about what to make of Franklin, his advice and the contradictions his life offered began while he lived and has continued to our day. Baida is at his best as a collector and annotator of this dialogue, telling us, for instance, that Thomas Mellon, founder of a great financial dynasty, was inspired by Franklin to leave his Pennsylvania home with but 99 cents in hand to pursue his fortune.

Weber, notes Baida, employed Franklin to capture the spirit of capitalism -- the unceasing, rational drive to maximize profit as an end to itself. In Franklin's case, of course, this pursuit of profit coexisted with other pursuits, philanthropic, scientific and political. To see Franklin as a man motivated only by greed is to miss the large part of him.

But Mark Twain twitted Franklin for his stream of "wearisome platitudes" designed "to inflict suffering upon the rising generation of all subsequent ages." Franklin would "work all day, and then sit up at nights, and let on to be studying algebra by the light of a smouldering fire, so that all other boys might have to do that also, or else have Benjamin thrown up to them."

William Carlos Williams saw Franklin as the embodiment of the greedy underbelly of capitalism, "our wise prophet of chicanery." A harsher D.H. Lawrence said that the God Franklin served was merely "The provider. The heavenly storekeeper. The everlasting Wanamaker." Franklin's literary offspring include not only Horatio Alger's industrious young heroes, but also Sammy Glick, George F. Babbitt and Jay Gatsby, who wrote one of Franklin's daily schedules on the flyleaf of a book, as his guide.

Baida only briefly attempts his own reconciliation of this debate, and not successfully. But his book is an entertaining, stimulating guide to this gallery of capitalism's champions and critics.

The reviewer is assistant managing editor for financial news of The Washington Post.