Ron Chernow’s 1990 book “The House of Morgan” offers a sweeping inside look at the power, wealth and influence behind the legendary J.P. Morgan empire. Immerse yourself in the cutthroat world of high finance by following the fascinating evolution of a family-run Wall Street institution through 150 years of American history.
The House of Morgan (1990) chronicles the influential Morgan dynasty, who shaped the course of modern finance through their shrewd financial acumen and keen understanding of world economic currents. This portrait, spanning four generations, details the rise of the Morgans from Victorian London to their pinnacle during the 1987 financial crisis.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Learn how one family shaped a century of global finance
- 1830–1860: The rise of the House of Morgan
- Junius Spencer Morgan: Shaping a financial legacy
- The 1907 financial crisis: John Pierpont Morgan’s crucial intervention
- The House of Morgan and the First World War
- 1933–1938: The House of Morgan’s transformation during the New Deal Era
- Alliances, antitrust, and adaptation
- The 1980s: Morgan Stanley under Reagan
- About the Author
Introduction: Learn how one family shaped a century of global finance
What does it take to build a financial empire – one that impacts the world and leaves a lasting legacy?
This summary to Ron Chernow’s The House of Morgan explores a name synonymous with financial power. It’s a history of the Morgan banking empire, tracing its roots from the mid-nineteenth century. You’ll learn how the dynasty survived more than a century of economic and social upheaval, legal challenges, and regulatory reforms – and you’ll get a glimpse into a complicated web of family ties, money, and immense influence.
1830–1860: The rise of the House of Morgan
In the 1830s, London wasn’t just a city; it was the beating heart of global finance. London’s financial district buzzed with power and prestige, hosting banking titans like Barings and Rothschild & Sons.
Meanwhile, it was a period of turmoil for American states – they were mired in debt, and their reliability was in question. Enter George Peabody, a Baltimore native who crossed the Atlantic to London. His mission? To renegotiate Maryland’s debt. In a world skeptical of American stability, Peabody was an ambassador not just for his state but for his nation’s financial credibility.
Peabody, born into a modest family, climbed the ladder to financial prominence. His past, shadowed by hardship, shaped him into a man of frugality. In 1837, he established a merchant house in London, reversing the trend of London banks sending representatives to America. However, the 1840s brought a spate of American state defaults, further blemishing the nation’s financial reputation. Peabody, deeply impacted by Maryland’s debt, devoted himself to restoring faith in American securities. His efforts underscored his character: resilient and unwavering in crisis.
As his wealth burgeoned, Peabody turned to philanthropy – and his personal life remained an enigma. His search for a successor culminated in his partnership with American banker Junius Spencer Morgan in 1854, an event that marked the beginning of what would become the House of Morgan.
The Morgans’ fortitude was put to the test during troubles such as the 1857 Panic. But these financial storms weren’t just challenges. They were opportunities that honed their banking strategies and resilience, setting the foundation for their future dominance.
Junius Spencer Morgan: Shaping a financial legacy
Could the ideals of a single person really shape an entire sector for over a century? This was the case for Junius Spencer Morgan, the patriarch whose methodical approach and steadfast temperament established the House of Morgan. But what was it about Junius that left such a lasting mark, not only on his family but on the world’s financial landscape?
The Morgans’ journey wasn’t rags-to-riches. Their tale was one of sustained security and wealth spanning generations. This stable and privileged base paved the way for their distinct approach to business and society. But how?
John Pierpont (J. P.) Morgan, the son of Junius and his wife, Juliet, was raised in a life of luxury, receiving an education that sent him around Europe. His early career in finance was defined by speculative trading during the Civil War. But Pierpont, as he liked to be called, wasn’t as lucky in his personal life – he experienced health issues, a rocky relationship with his father, and tragedy when his first wife, Amelia Sturges, died young. Pierpont was deeply affected by this loss, which contrasted strongly with his subsequent, stable marriage to Frances Louisa Tracy.
Junius was instrumental in shaping Pierpont’s career. He exerted a steadying influence on his son by pairing him with Charles H. Dabney to form Dabney, Morgan, and Company. As such, Pierpont was poised to continue the family’s banking traditions.
The Morgans rose to prominence during a pivotal era in banking – an age marked by the expansion of the railroad and heavy industries. During this time, lenders like the Morgans wielded immense power, often dictating terms to both trade and governments. They adhered to the Gentleman Banker’s Code: a set of customs emphasizing discretion and a passive approach to acquiring clients. Because of this ethos, the Morgans were able to keep an enviable and influential position in finance.
The 1907 financial crisis: John Pierpont Morgan’s crucial intervention
In late October 1907, the stock market began to buckle, signaling a financial disaster. Multiple factors contributed to the Panic: stringent monetary policies, President Roosevelt’s criticism of wealthy players, and speculative investments in copper and railroad stocks. A major revelation was the fragility of trust companies, which had engaged in risky ventures without holding adequate cash reserves.
P. Morgan was instrumental in preventing the American financial system from collapsing. He gathered a small group of bankers and convinced them to pool their resources and redirect money to avert the crisis. He also helped secure a significant loan from the US Treasury to help with market stabilization. Pierpont’s initiatives contributed to the restoration of faith in the financial system and the avoidance of a severe recession or depression.
At the age of 70, he effectively assumed the role of America’s de facto central bank. In doing so, he oversaw the rescue of countless financial institutions, including the city of New York itself – the first of four New York rescues in the twentieth century. While successful, his actions raised concerns about the concentration of financial power in the hands of one person.
Pierpont’s efforts to safeguard the trust businesses were also seen as ironic – previously, these institutions had been at odds with Wall Street’s established banking sector. But their fragility during the crisis highlighted the critical need for a more stable and regulated financial sector. The Panic generated momentum for a banking reform, which eventually led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System. This signaled a notable shift away from private financial bailouts and toward government economic oversight.
The House of Morgan and the First World War
The summer of 1914 marked the outbreak of World War I. This was a time of turbulence and risk, especially in the financial world, and the House of Morgan was at the heart of this chaos. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, sending shockwaves through Wall Street, which was already grappling with a bear market and a looming recession.
Enter the House of Morgan, with partner Harry Davison at the helm. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the Morgans orchestrated a move by rallying Wall Street’s heavyweights to shut down the New York Stock Exchange. Why? That way, they could avert a disastrous market crash. This period saw the United States emerge as the world’s leading creditor nation – another seismic shift that marked the end of England’s financial reign.
Initially, the House of Morgan toyed with the idea of mediating peace in the Balkans, but this plan was eventually shelved. The Morgans’ role evolved substantially as the war progressed. They were instrumental in coordinating and paying for the Allies’ purchase of war materials, starting with a $12 million horse acquisition. They ended up overseeing roughly half of all American supplies sold to the Allies, totaling about $3 billion.
However, the Morgans’ involvement in the war wasn’t without controversy. Their dominance, coupled with allegations of profiteering, favoritism, and close ties to British interests, sparked cries of disloyalty and undue foreign influence. Despite these challenges, the family’s support for the Allied cause never wavered. Their commitment was shaped by their connections to England and a belief in the Allies’ mission.
1933–1938: The House of Morgan’s transformation during the New Deal Era
Let’s return to a crucial time in financial history, when the Glass-Steagall legislation sent tremors across Wall Street. The House of Morgan faced a crucial choice between deposit or investment banking. There’d been some hope that the Securities Act of 1933 would be repealed. However, as the New Deal reforms progressed, political clout and public support dwindled.
So, what effect did the Act have? This law ushered in a new financial age by requiring the registration of new securities as well as full transparency about companies and underwriters. The switch from “buyer beware” to “seller beware” posed a notable challenge to the Morgan House, a business recognized for its discretion and power.
But here’s where it gets interesting. In 1934, the House of Morgan, alongside Richard Whitney, president of the New York Stock Exchange, fiercely contested the Securities Act. Their goal? To stem the tide of growing financial regulation. Despite their formidable efforts, the Act passed, signifying a triumph for oversight advocates and a blow to Wall Street’s traditional giants. Inside J. P. Morgan & Co., frustrated partners – particularly J. P. Morgan Jr., who went by Jack – felt defeated. The company was hesitant to accept the new political and economic reality.
A year later, in 1935, the House of Morgan reached a crossroads. They chose to maintain J. P. Morgan & Co. as a deposit bank while giving birth to Morgan Stanley, an investment banking entity. This decision was influenced by several factors, including the state of Depression-era stock markets, the need to retain a significant workforce, and the potential for future reintegration.
Across the Atlantic, Morgan Grenfell – the House of Morgan’s British arm – was also making moves. It transitioned into a limited company, partly owned by the New York firm, enhancing its authority and reshaping transatlantic financial dynamics. Morgan Grenfell rose as a guardian of the House of Morgan’s securities underwriting legacy, aligning with the evolving regulatory framework.
So, was this a stroke of genius or a mere survival tactic? The House of Morgan had set its course, and only time would tell if their decisions were wise.
Alliances, antitrust, and adaptation
Step into the 1950s, a turbulent decade for Wall Street. But one small group remained strong: Morgan Stanley. Since its conception – and despite its modest stature – the investment bank had swiftly affirmed itself as an unrivaled trendsetter, wielding enormous power over large corporations. Its actions, albeit discrete, were highly effective, thanks to a close network of partners and personnel.
Morgan Stanley’s client list read like a who’s who of industrial heavyweights, and their influence on these corporate giants was unbreakable. The Fortune 500s bowed to their expertise. But what was the firm’s secret to its dominance?
Let’s rewind a bit. Remember the Glass-Steagall legislation that split investment and commercial banking? Despite this break, J. P. Morgan & Co. and Morgan Stanley forged an unexpected alliance. They funneled business to each other and even shared facilities. Morgan Stanley became a byword for luxury and high standards. They steered clear of political tangles, concentrating solely on their business operations. Their approach was characterized by a conservative stance on client selection and a cautious attitude toward the financial market’s ups and downs. Morgan Stanley emerged as the undisputed king of investment banking, while J. P. Morgan & Co. retained its commercial banking roots.
In the late 1940s, the US Justice Department launched an antitrust attack targeting 17 investment banks, including Morgan Stanley. The charge? Monopolizing underwriting. The lawsuit, which spanned several years, eventually landed before Judge Harold Medina. But in the end, he found no evidence of illegal collusion among these firms.
Post-World War II, the financial industry faced more upheavals. The once cozy relationships between companies and their bankers were dissolving, courtesy of structural market changes. Investment banks like Morgan Stanley were compelled to adapt, confronting a more competitive and diverse financial market.
How did they fare? Well, Morgan Stanley retained its crown as the beacon of investment banking. Their focus on blue-chip clients and cautious approach to new ventures steered them through the complexities of the post-war era. The House of Morgan, however, encountered fresh obstacles as the twentieth century advanced – as we’re about to find out.
The 1980s: Morgan Stanley under Reagan
The Reagan era transformed Wall Street into a speculative hub similar to the 1920s. This period was characterized by soaring stock markets and tax cuts. But amid a facade of euphoria, the United States was masking its declining economic position against Japan and Europe. The stock market’s surge didn’t boost US competitiveness or reduce trade deficits, but instead increased global borrowing.
Trading culture underwent a significant change as well. The financial sector’s allure drew America’s brightest minds, moving away from a genteel Wall Street to a more zealous and macho-driven environment. The era also saw a decline in relationship banking as young, profit-driven executives took the lead, often ignoring broader political or social concerns.
In 1985, a key transition occurred at Morgan Stanley. Eric Gleacher’s leadership of the Mergers and Acquisitions division pioneered a daring approach to acquisitions that went beyond established methods. The change in tactics echoed a larger shift on Wall Street, as investment bankers like Gleacher sought deal-making that didn’t necessarily align with client wishes.
Morgan Stanley’s new strategy scrutinized every deal for profit potential. Their involvement in substantial transactions like the acquisition of Revlon underlined their busy role in high-stakes corporate takeovers. These methods typified the 1980s when investment banks led the charge in global market integration. But the emphasis on self-enrichment sparked concerns about capital mismanagement and the financial health of American firms.
Another crucial development was Morgan Stanley’s entry into leveraged buyouts (LBOs), often financed by junk bonds and bank loans. These deals burdened corporations with substantial debts, resulting in asset sales and cost-cutting measures. Morgan Stanley’s role in these trades marked its transition from a conservative broker to an aggressive financial player.
Were these reforms beneficial to Wall Street and the overall economy, or were they a double-edged sword? The answer can be found in the stormy aftermath of the Reagan revolution. Fewer rules allowed financial companies to innovate and develop quickly, but they also set the stage for future financial disasters owing to a lack of oversight.
The House of Morgan shaped not just their family’s destiny but the entire financial industry, its practices, and its integration into broader social and political arenas. Their story depicts a century of global financial dominance governed by shrewd business decisions, philanthropy, and a blend of conservative and aggressive banking practices.
About the Author
Money, Investments, History, Economics, Biography, Memoir, Finance, Biography, Business, Politics, Banking, Gilded Age, Family saga
Published in 1990, Ron Chernow’s sweeping history chronicles the power, influence and complex inner workings of the storied J.P. Morgan financial empire. Spanning from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, Chernow profiles the intertwined lives and machinations of the many ambitious Morgan partners who transformed American business, defined modern Wall Street finance, and funded war efforts along the way.
Chernow brings to life the cutthroat deal making, political maneuverings, scandals, betrayals and succession drama inside this profoundly influential institution. From the tyrannical founder Junius Spencer Morgan to his son, the eccentric yet brilliant financier John Pierpont Morgan, through the House’s evolutions to adapt to economic turmoil and global conflict, Chernow unspools the human stories behind the family dynasty with novelistic flair.
Balanced in its critique, the book shows how the Morgans’ insider networking and financial wizardry transformed the nation, while exposing how their cozy relationships with the wealthy induced risky speculation and facilitated the concentration of power. More than just a financial history, Chernow’s masterwork reveals how one family’s vaulting ambitions fired the emergence of America’s modern global financial supremacy.