Financial Mistakes of Leaders and Thinkers
The Case of Dr. Newell Dwight Hillis Has Interesting Parallels in the Experiences of Grant, Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott, and Many Others
Financial misfortune is often the portion of leaders and thinkers, wherefore in the light of historic instances the Rev. Dr. Newell Dwight Hillis may well take heart of grace.
His dramatic story of his luckless speculations in Western timber lands, told last Sunday from the storied pulpit of Plymouth Church, still rings in the public ear.
And yet how like a repeat of history it seems. The very mention of it brings before the mind's eye visions of scores of the world's great who fell into the same error and retrieved it by unremitting toil just as Dr. Hillis proposes to do.
The clergyman is peculiarly subject to the advice of well-meaning friends and the artifice of the charlatan, for although he has breadth of vision his mind has so little to do with the things of the earth that he has little real understanding of the trend of affairs.
"I was careless of my temporalities," you remember the impecunious Goldsmith makes Dr. Primrose say in "The Vicar of Wakefield." Trusting all his money to the merchant in the neighboring town, the vicar distributed alms to the poor and dispensed hospitality with open hands. When disaster came upon him he did the best that he could, withdrew from his associations, and faced the world with high courage and firm resolve until again fortune smiled anew.
Although the minister is more liable to financial error than other classes of professional men, the history of modern times is filled with instances of leaders of thought who have fallen into the same pitfalls.
The homely wisdom which Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) puts into the utterances of his hero, "Puddenhead [sic] Wilson," are hard-earned axioms coming from his own financial reverses.
He warns us in one of the inimitable paragraphs to beware of putting one's eggs in different baskets, for better it is to put them all in the same place and watch the basket.
There are few men who an attend to one thing well. The minister, the writer, and the teacher are less likely than those in any other vocations to win material success.
In the days when get-rich-quick concerns flourished especial attention was given to the ministry, and alluring circulars were sent to them giving them special rates on the consideration that they would recommend stocks to the members of their flocks. Occasionally one fell into the trap, to his great sorrow and to that of those who had accepted his counsel.
In these days it is the "nudge" and the "whisper" which so often leaves the clergyman with little save his library. Some friend who knows or thinks he does bestows the kindly hint upon the man of the cloth, who takes all that is said as gospel and gives over his savings.
The anxiety of the minister to provide for the future of his family is as intense as is that of men in other professions, and he has little opportunity for making those sudden coups which so often lead others to fortune.
Those who are familiar with the inventories of estates are impressed with the wide variety of worthless stocks and bonds which find their way into the strong boxes of ministers, of physicians and even lawyers. These professions are noted for their accumulations of "cats and dogs." Even in the appraisal of the property of the greatest financiers are found many securities purchased often on account of personal friendship which are not worth the paper on which they are printed. The business man makes losses and retrieves them, the professional man intent on his own affairs is likely to drop the game, to sell house and goods and become a slave to debt. The Rev. Dr. Dwight Hillis is following in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott, of Mark Twain, of General Grant, and of a host of others who found themselves at middle age in much the same predicament.
The great historic instance is that of Sir Walter Scott. He saw himself the head of a great publishing house, producing costly books and rare editions, and issuing scholarly reviews from the ever busy press. The fall of the house of Ballantyne & Co., of which he was the secret partner for years, was one of the great failures n the publishing trade. His commercial advisers, so confident were they in his genius, followed his directions without question. Finally came the crash under [pound sign] 130,000 of debt, for which the novelist assumed the responsibility. Despite his advancing age and his growing infirmities he evolved poems and novels from his fertile brain and repaid a large portion of the staggering debt. In the course of two years the earnings of his pen contributed [pound sign] 40,000 to his creditors.
Mark Twain had for many years received large royalties. Through the advice of friends he was induced to invest in the firm of Charles L. Webster & Co. of this city. When disaster came he pledged himself to pay off the full amount. By writing unceasingly, and lecturing around the world, he did it.
The erroneous impression prevails to this day that the late H. H. Rogers, Standard Oil millionaire and long his friend, contributed money to tide the author over his period of misfortune. As a matter of fact, Mr. Rogers never gave a cent. He constituted himself general manager for Mark Twain, and gave the business of authorship the benefit of that acumen and common sense which it so often lacks. The indebtedness was discharged, and the name of Samuel L. Clemens will always be connected with an honorable and courageous life.
The last days of the life of General Ulysses S. Grant were also clouded by his financial troubles. Although a successful leader of men, he was never able to make a success as the captain of his financial destiny. As a business man he had been a failure in civil life. He returned to the army, became the leader of thousands on embattled fields, gained the Presidency, and in his old age wandered into Wall Street. Through the failure of Grant & Ward he was involved in financial ruin. In his last days, and while suffering excruciating pain, he sat down to the writing of his memoirs in order to provide for his wife. The world has no finer example of the force of a fine nature struggling against adversity than is afforded by the last days of the great Captain of the armies of the North.
The acknowledgment by Dr. Hillis of what he considered a grievous fault in mixing with secular affairs has its parallel in recent times in that dramatic scene in the House of Commons two years ago, when Lloyd George confessed in the presence of political friends and opponents alike that he had been indiscreet in investing in Marconi stocks and expressed regret for his mistake. On that occasion the House rang with applause.
It seems, however, that it is the literary worker who carried most the burden of debt by reason of his lack of attention to business detail and of understanding of commercial dealings.
Samuel Johnson, the Great Cham of Literature, working with incessant industry and yet often without means to buy the comforts of like, writing his "Rasselas" to pay the expenses of the mother's funeral, was harassed by debt for nearly all his days.
We have Balzac forsaking his writings and conceiving himself to be a leader of industrial enterprise, going to Sardinia to make his fortune from the slag heaps of the abandoned Roman mines. The idea was almost feasible, and perhaps he might have accumulated wealth by extracting the fabled gold had not his idea been anticipated and what little there was in it had redounded to the profits of others.
Here looms the great figure of Alexandre Dumas the elder, who conquered hundred of thousands by the magic of his pen, and yet had so little grasp of detail in the handling of his own affairs that in his later years he was a fugitive of debt. He built his castle of Monte Cristo at a cost of 500,000 francs and surrounded himself by a retinue of servants. His literary labors were often interrupted by his numerous lawsuits, for he made impossible contracts and broke them cheerfully, and snapped his fingers in the faces of irate publishers.
The fame of the great South Sea Bubble, in which many thousands lost their all in speculation, still echoes, and tradition says that the scheme really grew out of the brains of Daniel Defoe and Robert Harley. Be this as it may, there was never a man who combined so wonderful a faculty for giving advice on finance to others and profiting by it so little himself as the author of "Robinson Crusoe." His descriptions of the life of Selkirk abound in details for the guidance of man in trying circumstances. His contributions to the literature of finance are wonderfully convincing. Such wisdom and such experience seemed to come from the books of Defoe that it would seem that no man in that period could have done anything better than to have pondered all that he wrote and hastened on to fortune. And yet every venture in which Defoe, the writer and the economist, plunged was fraught with disaster.
One who has read the prose tales of Edgar Allan Poe finds among them passages which would seem to bear the impress of one who would have been able to make his way in the most difficult situations, and yet as manager of his own affairs, he was a failure in every sense and was beset by poverty all his mortal days.
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