europe’s banker nathan rothschild -- 12/8/20

Today's selection -- from The House of Rothschild, Volume 1: Money's Prophets: 1798-1848 by Niall Ferguson. In the early 1800s, London’s Nathan Rothschild was the wealthiest and most powerful businessman in Europe and was informally the head of a group of Rothschild brothers with offices in Frankfurt, Paris and beyond. Rothschild clients were the governments of those countries and the royalty and powerful ministers who headed those governments. Here we catch a glimpse of Nathan:

"After a dinner at which Nathan had brutally deflated a fellow guest, the German ambassador Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote to his wife:

'Yesterday Rothschild dined with me. He is quite crude and uneducated, but he has a great deal of intelligence and a positive genius for money. He scored off Major Martins beautifully once or twice. M. was dining with me too and kept on praising everything French. He was being fatu­ously sentimental about the horrors of war and the large numbers who had been killed. 'Well,' said R., "if they had not all died, Major, you would probably still be a drummer." You ought to have seen Martins face.'

"Even in less exalted company Nathan could seem a boor: witness the Liberal MP Thomas Fowell Buxton's account of Nathan's table talk at a dinner they both attended at Ham House in 1834. Here, it seems, is the self-made millionaire at his self-satisfied worst, proffering pat explanations for his own success and banal advice to others:

'I have seen ... many clever men, very clever men, who had not shoes to their feet. I never act with them. Their advice sounds very well, but fate is against them; they cannot get on themselves; and if they cannot do good to themselves, how can they do good to me? ...

'To give ... mind, and soul, and heart, and body, and everything to business; that is the way to be happy. I required a great deal of boldness and a great deal of caution to make a great fortune; and when you have got it, it requires ten times as much wit to keep it. If I were to listen to all the projects proposed to me, I should ruin myself very soon. Stick to one business, young man ... stick to your brewery, and you may be the great brewer of London. Be a brewer, and a banker, and a merchant, and a manufacturer, and you will soon be in the Gazette.'

"When a guest at the same dinner expressed the hope 'that your children are not too fond of money and business, to the exclusion of more important things. I am sure you would not wish that,' Nathan retorted bluntly: 'I am sure I should wish that.'

"Nathan struck some who encountered him as a tight-fisted philistine. The ornithologist Audubon recalled failing to persuade Nathan to subscribe to his lavishly illustrated Birds of America, instead sending him the work in advance of pay­ment. But when Nathan was presented with the bill he 'looked at it with amaze­ment and cried out, "What, a hundred pounds for birds! Why sir I will give you five pounds, and not a farthing more!"' A frequently repeated anecdote has Nathan telling the composer Louis Spohr: 'I understand nothing of music. This' -- patting his pocket and making his money rattle and jingle -- 'is my music; we understand that on 'Change.'  In another he responds irritably to a request for a charitable contribution: 'Here! Write a cheque; I have made one [damned] fool of myself!' Buxton was shocked by Nathan's somewhat crass attitude towards philanthropy. 'Sometimes,' he explained, 'to amuse myself, I give a beggar a guinea. He thinks it is a mistake, and for fear I shall find it out, off he runs as hard as he can. I advise you to give a beggar a guinea sometimes; it is very amusing.' It was entirely in char­acter for him to point out to his own dinner guests that a particular service had cost £100.

Nathan Mayer Rothschild

"The notion that an ill-educated Jew could behave this way in polite society and get away with it purely on account of his newly acquired and largely paper wealth variously fascinated and appalled contemporaries, depending on their social posi­tion and philosophical attachment to the traditional hierarchical order. Prince Pück­ler, for example, did not apparently resent the way Nathan teased him when he first presented himself at New Court with his credit note. On the contrary, he summed him up as 'a man who one cannot deny has geniality and even a kind of great char­acter ... really un très bon enfant and generous, more than others of his class -- as long, that is, as he is sure he is not risking anything himself, which one can in no way hold against him . . . This man is really a complete original.' As we have seen, Humboldt was also condescendingly amused by the combination of bad manners, sharp wit and Jack of deference which Nathan brought to polite society.

"In the Paris of the Bourbon Restoration, by contrast, James's many faux pas -- his unprompted introduction of his own wife to the duc d'Orléans, for example, or his use of Count Potocki's Christian name Stanislas -- were viewed with distaste. Like so many of James's socially superior guests, the maréchal de Castellane did not much care for his host even as he accepted his hospitality: 'His wife ... is pretty enough and very well-mannered. She sang well, though rather tremulously; her German accent is disagreeable. James ... is small, ugly, arrogant, but he gives banquets and dinners; the grand seigneurs make fun of him and yet are no less delighted to go to his house, where he brings together the best company in Paris.'

"According to Moritz Goldschmidt's son Hermann, whose memoir is one of the few detailed first-hand descriptions we have, Salomon was even more lacking in social graces. 'Why should I eat badly at your place, why don't you come and eat well at mine,' he was once heard to reply to a dinner invitation from the Russian ambassador. Another 'highly placed personality' who asked for a loan received a blunt negative: 'Because I don't want to.' Salomon therefore 'seldom went into high society, [because] he felt that because of his lack of education he would have to play a difficult and uncomfortable role,' and preferred to leave 'intercourse with the beau monde' to Goldschmidt's father. On the rare occasions when he did have the Metternichs to dine with him, he could not resist vulgar displays of wealth, showing them the contents of his safe as a post-prandial treat. Even in his own more famil­iar (that is, Jewish) circle, he cut a coarse figure. If his barber was late in the morning -- and Salomon habitually rose at 3 a.m. -- he would be reviled as 'an ass.' If someone came into the office smelling slightly, Salomon would press his handker­chief to his nose, open the window, and shout: 'Throw him out, the man stinks.' He dined unsociably early at 6.30 p.m. and habitually drank two bottles of wine before going for a stroll in the park with 'blindly loyal toadies and hangers-on.' When he visited the Goldschmidts at their house in Döbling on Sundays he flirted with the prettier girls present 'in a manner which was not always proper or polite.' This included cracking crude jokes if any women present were pregnant.

"It is not that all these stories are wholly misleading; no doubt Nathan and his brothers did seem to many who met them like the incarnation of 'new money,' with all its rough edges. Nothing makes the point more explicit than the 1848 car­toon (produced as the first of a series of ';) which cruelly juxtaposed Moritz von Bethmann and Amschel, the former elegant on his coach and four, the latter slouched atop a money box. Yet such judgements are not the best kinds of historical evidence. Firstly, they tell us only how the Roth­schilds seemed to others. Secondly, because 'new money' has been the object of scorn for more than 2,000 years, there are tropes which tend to be repeated no matter how little the nouveau riche individual in question actually conforms to the stereotype. The brothers' own letters tell a very different story.

"In fact, the brothers themselves disliked intensely the great majority of social functions they gave. Amschel 'thanked God' when his dinners were over, and Carl thought them expensive 'humbug' -- 'it was very nice, but the money was nicer,' he commented when the chef they had hired presented his bill. 'However,' he conceded, 'it is as good as bribes': it is noteworthy that at least five of the guests at the 1817 dinner also received parcels of the new city of Paris loan. In Berlin too, where he had relatively little difficulty in securing prestigious invitations from Hard­enberg and the British and Austrian ambassadors, Carl retained his scepticism about the value of such socialising: 'I don't really care, because I find we always do better business with those who do not invite us.' Nathan was as much out of his natural element in the ballroom or the salon as in the countryside. As Amschel said of him in 1817, if Nathan gave a mere tea party, he felt his morning had been 'stolen.' Even his daughter Charlotte expressed a utilitarian view in 1829 when she hoped that 'the Season will be very lively as this is always, I think, an encouragement for trade.'

"James shed light on his brother's fundamentally anti-social temperament when, contemplating yet another ball, he said: 'I now feel exactly as you do. I would gladly stay at home and don't want to drive myself crazy with all the rubbish.' He too was much less enamored of such occasions than his condescending guests generally assumed. From the outset, he took much the same functional view of socializing. 'I think of nothing else but business,' he assured Nathan, 'If I attend a society party, I go there to become acquainted with people who might be useful for the business.' To prove the point, early social contacts like Richelieu's secretary were pumped for useful information. Privately, James admitted to being weary of his lavish balls; he continued to give them, he confessed to Nathan in January 1825, only lest people think he could no longer afford to. 'My dear Nathan,' he wrote wearily, 'I am obliged to give a ball because the world claims that I am broke, for the people who have become accustomed to my giving three to four balls, as I did during the previous winter, will otherwise set their tongues wagging, and quite honestly the French are evil people. Well, the carni­val takes place next week and I wish it were already over. I give you my word that my heart is not in it but one must do everything to put on a show for the world.'

"Six years later, in the wake of the revolutionary crisis of 1830, Charlotte discerned the same link between her uncle's economic performance and his sociability: although Betty felt too 'fatigued' to give 'her customary balls,' 'the rentes still [continue] to rise so rapidly [that] James would be disposed to give them.' As we shall see, throwing balls was one of the vital ways in which James signalled to the Parisian beau monde that he had survived the financial and political storm of 1830."



Niall Ferguson


The House of Rothschild, Volume 1: Money's Prophets: 1798-1848


Penguin Books


Copyright Niall Ferguson, 1998


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