Some of history’s great consequential events are easy to take in, even many years later: wars, the creation of new nations, the triumphs of social movements. One that isn’t so easy, but was no less consequential, was the sudden and unexpected rise of big business to a position of great economic and political power in the decades following the Civil War. The founding ideas of the United States concerned the power of the state, not of private economic interests, because it was hard to imagine that those interests could ever become full rivals to the national government. But now here they were, dominating nearly every aspect of the life of the country. Industrial capitalism gave rise not only to extremes of wealth and poverty but also to big cities, mass immigration, political machines, and other developments that upended everyone’s assumptions about how the country worked. For two or three generations, what to do about big business was the central question of American life.
In 1911, Justice John Marshall Harlan of the U.S. Supreme Court, who was born in 1833 and was only a few months away from the end of his life, wrote an opinion in the case that affirmed the government’s breakup of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. He recalled the situation, two decades earlier, that led to the country’s first major law limiting the power of big business, the Sherman Act:
All who recall the condition of the country in 1890 will remember that there was everywhere, among the people generally, a deep feeling of unrest. The nation had been rid of human slavery—fortunately, as all now feel—but the conviction was universal that the country was in real danger from another kind of slavery … namely, the slavery that would result from aggregations of capital in the hands of a few individuals and corporations controlling, for their own profit and advantage exclusively, the entire business of the country, including the production and sale of the necessaries of life.
It was into this situation that Adolf Augustus Berle, Jr., was born, in 1895. Solving the problem of big business would be the dominant concern of his life. Berle was an overwhelmingly ambitious man who spent his long career jousting with the major figures of his time over the business question, wanting to be recognized as the one who had come up with the best solution to the most vexing problem of the twentieth century. How, exactly, could concentrated economic power be counteracted in a way that preserved freedom and prosperity and offered a decent life to most people? He felt that he was competing, at home and abroad, and before and after the early New Deal period that represented the peak of his political influence, with socialists and communists, with fascists and free marketeers, with antitrusters and economic technicians. By the time he died, in 1971, Berle, who was never modest, felt that he had, indeed, solved the problem. The solution was the corporation, which for Berle’s generation represented an astonishing new kind of economic institution, the advent of which, at least to Berle’s mind, rivaled in importance the earlier advents of the church and the state. Initially all-powerful and threatening, the corporation, Berle felt, had by the middle of the twentieth century been tamed by government to the point that it could play the central role in a good society dominated by large, stable institutions that would provide people’s material needs, protect them from economic shocks, and generate cohesion. That was what he saw as his life’s achievement.
Berle’s father, also named Adolf Augustus Berle, was born in 1866, the son of a German immigrant who died of the long-term effects of wounds he had suffered as a soldier under the command of Ulysses S. Grant in the Union Army. A physically tiny man with no inherited resources or connections, the elder Berle had somehow by his early adulthood, in the closing years of the nineteenth century, acquired a superpowered personal force and drive. As a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, he met and married Mary Augusta Wright, the daughter of one of the most renowned members of the faculty, George Frederick Wright, a Congregationalist minister and professor of religion who was also, improbably, an accomplished geologist. Berle himself studied theology, first at Oberlin and then at Harvard Divinity School, and became a Congregationalist minister. The Berles had four children. Adolf Jr. was the second, their first son.
Adolf Berle, Sr., was a brilliant man with a very grand conception of his place in the world. This meant, on one hand, that he regularly alienated the congregations of the churches over which he presided, so he wound up moving around, never having long-term control of a major pulpit; on the other hand, he somehow knew everybody worth knowing, especially if the person was a prominent liberal. Vastly ambitious for his children, he taught them all at least the rudiments of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, plus some mathematics, at the age of three. Years later, after the children had grown, Berle used them as instructors in a summer school he operated at his house in New Hampshire, which promised “to instruct a small number of superior children in such a way as will make them natural companions of knowledge.” He also wrote a book called The School in the Home and another called Teaching in the Home: A Handbook for Intensive Fertilization of the Child Mind for Instructors of Young Children, both meant to make his prodigy-producing techniques widely available.
Adolf Jr. was admitted to high school at the age of nine and to Harvard College at the age of thirteen (his father didn’t think he was quite ready then, so he actually enrolled at fourteen). As a small child, he was taken to meet the most celebrated social reformer in the United States, Jane Addams, a friend of his father’s, at Hull House in Chicago. At eighteen, through another friend of his father’s, he had an audience at the White House with President Taft. By the age of twenty-one he had acquired three Harvard degrees: a bachelor’s, a master’s in history, and a law degree, the last of which made him the second-youngest graduate in the history of Harvard Law School. Then he got a job in the Boston law office of another of his father’s exalted friends, Louis D. Brandeis, the crusading lawyer and future Supreme Court justice, who was the only person to have graduated from Harvard Law School at twenty—at an even younger age than Berle. A few years later, the elder Berle testified at Brandeis’s Senate confirmation hearing, conferring the blessing of a Christian man of the cloth on the first Jewish justice.
Copyright © 2019 by Nicholas Lemann