Thanks very much to Al and the others of the Lounge for the invitation to post a few thoughts for the next two weeks. I’ll be blogging about banking regulation, O. Henry, capital regulation, and a few other topics from the pre-market, pre-appointment side of the legal academy. As I do, I’m mindful that if blogging before tenure is an extreme sport, as Christine Hurt and Tung Yin have said, then blogging as a neophyte pre-appointment must be the kind of dangerous activity usually reserved for folks who like to blow stuff up on YouTube. Let’s hope no one gets hurt.
Promises of blogging about banking regulation may send the Lounge’s readership en masse to mini-putt, or their preferred equivalent (full disclosure, and with all modesty: I am very good at this version of mini-putt). To avoid that mass exodus, I’ll start with a topic of likely broader interest than banking regulation, and instead review a book that readers interested in more than banking and financial history will likely enjoy.
I just finished a biography of Andrew Mellon, written by David Cannadine. It’s an extraordinary book, and reflects Cannadine’s impressive range as a historian. Mellon would be a worthy subject of a biography on the basis of any one of his roughly four personal and professional identities: (1) one of the leading bankers/financiers/businessmen in the waning years of the Gilded Age; (2) the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury in US history, spanning three Administrations; (3) one of the leading art collectors of his day, including through his purchase of much of the collection from czarist Russia’s Hermitage, a collection he gifted to the U.S. as the National Gallery; and (4) a successful defendant in a high-profile tax evasion prosecution that doesn’t, by Cannadine’s telling, reflect FDR's and his Attorney General Homer Cummings’s proudest moments. As a bit of social history, Mellon -- the man and the book -- offers an additional, fascinating glimpse at a sordid and scandalous divorce, after which Mellon continued to care for his wife and his in-laws, beyond even the obligations imposed on him by the divorce settlement.
I’ll confess that I read the book exclusively as a perspective on financial, business, and political history, and that I am something of an art history nincompoop. At first, my eyes got glassy during quite lengthy discussions of this Veneziano or that Raphael, and I still could not under the pain of torture or the pleasure of a billion dollars distinghuish a Veneziano from a Harpignies. Indeed, to include the last sentence in this post I had to look back at the book to find references to one artist whose presence in Mellon's collection burnished his reputation as a leading collector, and to another whose presence Cannadine characterized as Mellon's false start. And Raphael's name is familiar to me mostly as the red-bandanaed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. (Here’s a good opportunity for my first Brophyan trivia quiz, however: name the painter and the painting associated with the genius collector and the one associated with the modest tyro, as between Veneziano and Harpignies). But Cannadine’s telling makes these various facets of this secretive, powerful, in many ways brilliant, in other ways quite corrupt man come to life, even for a culturally illiterate hayseed like me. I highly recommend it.
Even from a financial historical perspective, the book does leave several questions unanswered. I’m most intrigued by the sparse telling of the founding of the Federal Reserve, a topic I expect will be the subject of my dissertation. Mellon’s papers didn’t contain a word about Mellon’s own views on the Fed, even though the subject itself was widely debated, and Mellon almost certainly would have had very strong opinions on the subject. As part of my research on this topic, I expect the views of powerful regional bankers – Mellon was, even at that late point, only barely becoming a national presence, and even there by virtue of a half dozen or so very successful investments in several Mellon-sponsored enterprises – on the existential question of the Federal Reserve, and once resolved, the questions of institutional design will be very important. I'm especially interested in how these regional bankers viewed the vital question of the Fed’s “independence,” a term used at cross-purposes by supporters and detractors alike (independent of the government was the aim of Nelson Aldrich and Paul Warburg; independent of the bankers the aim of Wilson and, to a lesser extent, Carter Glass).
But do read the biography if you are interested in financial, business, art, political, or even a certain species of social history in the late 19th and early 20th century.