On March 13, 1881, Czar Alexander II was in his bullet-proof carriage—he had defied five assassination attempts—riding the snowy streets of St. Petersburg, when a socialist revolutionary hurled a bomb at his caravan. A Cossack guard was killed, but the Russian leader survived uninjured. As his guards apprehended the would-be assassin, Alexander did something stupid. Ignoring his entourage’s pleas that he remain in the carriage, he stepped out. As he paced in the street, a second assailant tossed another bomb. This one hit the target. The czar died hours later.
Weeks later, as rumors flew that Jews were behind the assassination, the pogroms began in Russia, with Jewish towns and villages attacked in a campaign of destruction, rape, and murder. And the death of Alexander II brought to the throne Alexander III, who despised Jews and endorsed a variety of repressive measures against them. All this led to a massive wave of emigration of Jews fleeing Russia and Eastern Europe over the next three decades. Among them were the families of three of my grandparents. Had Alexander II just stayed in that damn carriage, who knows what would have happened? Sometimes history turns on the smallest and dumbest decisions. (Yes, see World War I.)
Why bring this up now? I just finished reading The Money Kings: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America, the new book by Dan Schulman, and I learned this nugget of Jewish history from that. Schulman is my colleague at Mother Jones. He’s a wonderful editor, reporter, and historian—and a good friend. (He edits this newsletter.) Dan’s previous book was a brilliant biography of the Koch brothers, Sons of Wichita. This latest one—which comes out today—is a magisterial account of a handful of men who immigrated to the United States in the mid-1800s from Germany and who rose from being merchants and commodity traders to financial titans. They happened to be Jewish. You might recognize their names: Goldman, Sachs, Lehman. This is the tale of how they helped build America by constructing its financial system and how they did and did not fit into American society, as they forged their own personal empires in the Gilded Age of robber barons and railroad magnates.
It's a masterful history of fascinating people that resonates today, as we discuss such contentious issues as Zionism, immigration, antisemitism, and conspiracy theories on the right. Dan was kind enough to chat with me about the book for an exclusive Our Land interview. (I’m his boss. How could he say no?)
DC: What drew you to this story? How did you go from the Koch brothers to Jewish immigrants a hundred years earlier?
DS: After I finished the Koch book, I was looking around for different topics, and I was interested in the World War I timeframe. I initially began to look at the wave of anarchist violence that occurred in the early 20th century. One of the recipients of an anarchist’s mail bomb was a fellow named Jacob Schiff. His name faintly registered for me. But I didn’t know much about him. He was an early Wall Street financier, a rival of J.P. Morgan. I came to find out that his story tied into my own family story of immigration from what was called the Pale of Settlement, the territory in the western part of the Russian Empire, where Jews were permitted to live. This is where my paternal grandparents had immigrated from in the early 1900s.
Schiff at the time was considered the leader of American Jewry in the United States. It was a much smaller Jewish community, but it was expanding rapidly because of the mob violence and persecution of Jews occurring within the Russian Empire that was unleashing waves of immigration. It was Schiff’s story that I was drawn toward. And you can’t tell it without telling the story of Marcus Goldman of Goldman Sachs, Samuel Sachs, a close friend of Schiff, and the Lehman brothers, also close personally and professionally to Schiff. All of these firms and families were closely interwoven. There were marriages between the families. They were friends and allies. They worshipped together. They did business together.
DC: Schiff was the central and towering figure among these families. What is his backstory?
DS: The first wave of German Jewish immigrants came to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s. Many came after revolutions in Europe, and some had participated in these revolutions in pursuit of human rights. Jews, at that time, especially in Germany, were not able to own property. There were limits on where they could live. The early Jewish immigrants came over and often started out as peddlers. Now Schiff was part of a different wave. He was from a well-established family in Frankfurt. Both sides were merchants and involved in finance. At the age of 18, he came to the United States after the Civil War ended. Very quickly he established himself in finance. Before he was 20, he opened his own brokerage. He started to channel European capital into American industry, particularly the railroads. That was how he rose in finance. And as he did, he became a major philanthropist, a significant player in politics, and the unelected leader of the American Jewish community.
DC: Financing the railroad system was like being in Big Tech today, right? Like financing Facebook.
DS: The railroads at that time were the arterial system of the national economy. Which could also be said of the Big Tech firms today. There are a lot of comparisons between that era and today. Historians have suggested we’re living in a new Gilded Age—in terms of wealth concentration, income inequality, and questions of monopoly power. Schiff and J.P. Morgan were at the forefront of what was called “Morganization”—essentially creating large monopolies. By the early 20th century, the entire railroad system was controlled by six groups of moguls. These factions were buying into each other’s railroad businesses to prevent competition among themselves. This is what touched off the modern trust-busting era.
DC: There is a quote attributed to Balzac, which he did not write: Behind every great fortune there is a crime. Is that what you found?
DS: I’m not sure there’s always a great crime. But if you look at a family like the Lehmans, their fortune was built upon slavery. They established themselves in Montgomery, Alabama, and quickly became integrated in the commercial and social life there. That was not easy for Jews to do at the time. If you look back at the early credit reports on the Lehmans, there are many comments that they cannot be trusted because they are Jewish. Ten years down the road, the credit reports say the Lehmans are “well-established, almost as good as white men.” They were involved in the cotton trade, and after the Civil War, the Lehman firm was managing plantations. In that sense, the origins of their fortune were the slave economy. Then they transferred their entire operation up to New York, where there was more money to be made with the early formation of the commodities markets.
DC: I love writing history because you see that the disputes and controversies of today are often continuations of debates and events of the past. In recent weeks, with the Hamas-Israel war, there has been much discussion of Zionism and antisemitism. In Jacob Schiff’s time, there was a major disagreement regarding Zionism within the Jewish community.
DS: Today, opposition to Zionism is sometimes equated with antisemitism. But the mainstream position of American Jews, especially Jacob Schiff, in the early 1900s was strong opposition to this idea of creating a Jewish nation. They feared Zionism would stir up antisemitism and lend support to the age-old myth that Jews could never be trustworthy citizens because they always had a loyalty to Jews above the nations where they lived. That had been the basis of medieval antisemitism and used to expel Jews from various places where they had lived for centuries.
Zionism emerged during these waves of immigration in the late 1800s. As Jewish immigrants were pouring into America, Schiff and his colleagues realized they had a responsibility to take care of these people, to make sure they rapidly assimilated, to make sure they did not bring down the image of the already-established Jews in this country. They realized how tenuous their own standing was, and how Jews were often judged by what other Jews did. That obviously remains true today. Schiff viewed Zionism as a grave threat. He was very devoted to the United States. This was one of the few places that had accepted Jews, where they could live, work, and worship freely, and where antisemitism, while it was present, did not exist as it did in Germany, where you couldn’t own property, you couldn’t marry who you wanted to marry, you couldn’t hold most professional jobs. So American Jews viewed America as their Zion.
There were very fierce clashes between Schiff and the Zionists. But what ended up changing the game was that immigration led to a nativist backlash. The immigration restrictionists in Congress were trying to impose literary tests and asset requirements and limit immigration from certain parts of the world. Eventually they succeeded, and America was no longer a refuge. At that point, Zionism started to take more of a hold. During World War I, there was an enormous Jewish refugee crisis. Where were these people going to go? So late in his life, Schiff enters negotiations with the Zionists to support Zionism. But he could not back the creation of a political state. Like other non-Zionists, he could agree to the settlement of Israel as a cultural and religious homeland for Jews but not as a political entity, not as a Jewish state.
DC: It was fascinating to read this part of the book. Schiff was very firm that the idea of Zionism was bad for the Jews. Others in his milieu believed that as well. It was a lively and visceral debate within the Jewish community—and it came at a time of profound change for American Jews. With the influx of immigrants from Russia and elsewhere—largely people from poor areas who were not highly educated—there were cultural clashes and political differences between the wealthy established German Jews of uptown Manhattan and those Eastern European Jews crowded into tenements on the Lower East Side and living in squalor.
DS: There was a lot of self-interest, as well as selfless philanthropy. But Schiff and the German Jews realized their fates were tied with the Russian and East European Jews, even though they shared little in common in terms of their backgrounds and their cultures. These differences created tremendous clashes within the Jewish community. At one point, Schiff announced he would no longer be involved in Jewish politics in any form. This was a reaction to coming under attack from Zionists because he gave speeches saying that Zionism was a bad idea and anti-American.