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November 10, 1994


Autobiographies of Wall Street wizards and captains of industry tend to be uninspiring stuff.

Andrew Carnegie churned out a Horatio Alger potboiler about a Scottish bobbin boy who made a fortune for the express purpose of blowing it on public libraries.

Joseph Kennedy Sr. could not write the truth about his own fascinating but shady career for fear of hurting the careers of his sons.

Lee Iacocca's autobiography was as bland and shoddily constructed as a Chrysler K-car.

But the memoirs of Thomas Mellon (1813-1908) are an exception. Newly published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, "Thomas Mellon and His Times" (560 pages, $35) is frank, reflective and sometimes surprisingly moving — "an exceptional book by one of the most interesting men of his time, a voice too long unheard," as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough writes in his foreword to the new edition.

Mellon, founder of the Pittsburgh-based banking empire, published his autobiography privately in 1885 for his family and a few close friends. In the original preface, he wrote that the book must never be "for sale in the bookstores, nor any new edition published." But Paul Mellon, 87, disobeyed his grandfather's instructions. In a preface to the new edition, the art collector and horse breeder writes that he always treasured his grandfather's book and felt that it deserved a wider audience. He approached the University Press because of its long-time interest in regional history.

Possibly because Thomas Mellon expected his book to reach only a small and sympathetic audience, he comes across as a strongly opinionated patriarch who, at age 72, acknowledges that he is nearing the end of his days (actually, he would live another 23 years) and is anxious to pass along to his loved ones the lessons he has learned as a farm boy, student (he studied at the predecessor of the University of Pittsburgh and later received an honorary degree here), lawyer, judge, investor and banker.

Many of Mellon's opinions may sound discordant to the ears of late 20th century Americans. One reviewer recently wrote that Mellon "often comes across as a poster boy for the politically incorrect." He offers observations on a wide range of topics, including: Capital punishment — "It may seem a hard task to condemn fellow creatures to long years of confinement in prison, or 'to be hanged by the neck until dead'; but it is not so hard if they clearly deserve it." Irish Catholics — The "malevolent passions" of violence and irrationality "were so long and thoroughly cultivated among the Irish, and so perfectly ingrained into their nature, that modern civilization has as yet been unable to extract the virus. Their improvement by connection with England has been exceedingly slow…They have never been able to attain the same degree of thrift and industry as the Protestant part of the population of Ireland and Scotland." Christian pacifism — "The proposition that we should encourage wickedness and violence by extending safety and immunity to its perpetrators: as by exposing one side of the face to blows because we have been beaten on the other; or encouraging idleness and indolence by dividing all we have among the poor and consequently adding ourselves to their number; or giving away our clothing even to the coat off our back to any tramp who may ask for it, is too great an absurdity in the line of religious teaching to be imputed to Christ." Mellon gives eyewitness accounts of two disasters — Pittsburgh's Great Fire of 1845 and the nation's financial Panic of 1873 — but he writes virtually nothing about the Civil War, except to note that he urged his sons to avoid serving in it. Mellon believed such fighting was best left to crude and useless young men, not promising ones like his sons. Nor does Mellon offer any inside stories about any of his great contemporaries. Fellow Pittsburghers Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick aren't even mentioned.

Instead, Mellon focuses on his own interesting but relatively uneventful career, his family life, and details of 19th century everyday life "which, because they were unremarkable at the time, often went unreported," as grandson Paul Mellon points out.

Thomas Mellon's rags-to-riches story began in rural Ireland, where his parents were hard-working farmers of Scotch-Irish heritage and modest means. In 1818, when Mellon was 5, the family emigrated to the United States. They settled on a small, hilly farm in an area called "Poverty Point," about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Mellon notes that the journey from Ulster to Westmoreland County took 17 weeks — 12 to cross the Atlantic to New Brunswick, two to sail from there to Baltimore, and three more to travel by Conestoga wagon to Westmoreland County. When, 64 years later, Mellon made a sentimental journey to Ireland by steamship to visit the old family farm, the trip took only nine days.

At age 10, Mellon walked to Pittsburgh and beheld the brick mansion of the Negley family. He was awe-struck. "The whole scene was new to me, and impressed me with an idea of wealth and magnificence I had before no conception of," Mellon wrote.

Twenty years later, in 1843, Sarah Jane Negley accepted his offer of marriage after a long and frustrating courtship. Mellon grumbled that the process took "much valuable time, somewhat to the prejudice of my professional business." In his book, he recommends detailed reforms in the marriage game, beginning as follows: "I would have it conducted in an open, candid, earnest, truthful and practical spirit. Instead of the shy, coy, evasive methods in use it should be first settled between the parties that both are candidates for matrimony; second, whether each is acceptable to the other." Thomas and Sarah Jane were devoted to each other. Their marriage lasted 65 years and Mellon considered it to be "the luckiest event of my life." But it was not the turning point of his life. That came at age 14 when he read the "Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin." Mellon wrote: "Here was Franklin, poorer than myself, who by industry, thrift and frugality had become learned and wise, and elevated to wealth and fame. After that I was more industrious when at school, and more constant than ever in reading and study during leisure hours. I regard the reading of Franklin's Autobiography as the turning point of my life." If Mellon had not read Franklin's book, he probably would have become a farmer like his father. In fact, his father was riding to Greensburg to close the purchase of a farm for Thomas when the latter, aged 17, "suddenly realized the tremendous importance of the moment. The utter collapse of all my fond young hopes…nearly crazed me. I could stand it no longer. I put on my coat, ran down past the house, flung the axe over the fence into the yard, and without stopping made the best possible time on foot for the town. My father had taken the only available saddle horse, but my feet were light under the circumstances." Thomas overtook his father in Greensburg just in time to stop the purchase.

Mellon subsequently taught Latin and studied at Western University, worked in a Pittsburgh law office and became a clerk for the Allegheny County prothonotary. He saved enough money to open his own law office and earned $1,500 in his first year of practice, a considerable sum in those days.

Mellon spent 20 years as a lawyer before launching his 10-year career as a judge. Early in his legal career he had begun buying up Downtown Pittsburgh real estate, making a number of shrewd investments. He retired from the bench in 1870 and opened T. Mellon & Sons' Bank.

Mellon could not resist indulging in the frantic real estate speculation of the post-Civil War era. He nearly went bankrupt during the 1873 panic when depositors made a run on his financially strapped bank. However, Mellon talked them into waiting a month for their money, which gave the institution time to recover.

In the last chapter of his book, Mellon confesses to losing confidence in his countrymen and their institutions. "In early years, I had great faith in our form of free government to preserve the blessings of individual liberty; but of late, seeing the way political power is obtained, and the character of those who obtain it, I begin to lose confidence," he wrote.

Writing as a man born prior to the Battle of Waterloo, just one generation after the birth of the United States, the Thomas Mellon of 1885 sadly concluded: "To the general public which surrounds me now, I am as a stranger in a strange land." Five of Mellon's eight children lived to adulthood, including bankers Andrew W. Mellon, secretary of the Treasury under presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover and founder of the National Gallery of Art, and Richard B. Mellon, who became president of Mellon Bank. Pitt English professor Mary L. Briscoe, who edited the University Press edition of "Thomas Mellon and His Times," points out in her introduction to the book that by 1936, one generation after Thomas Mellon's death, the Mellons had become one of the four wealthiest families in the United States, along with the Rockefellers, DuPonts and Fords.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 6

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