Fiat money and the dollar are the bedrock of the global system, and Brown Brothers is part of the underwritten history of how that world came to be. Money is the power contained in the atom, which is why having people who believe their role is to serve the greater good and consider themselves stewards is a necessary prerequisite for a stable society. The Hippocratic oath does not guarantee that doctors will do good, but it tries to ensure that they knowingly do no harm. And in an age of pandemics and economic crises, Brown Brothers also demonstrates that being ever prepared for a storm is not just prudent; it is imperative.
The story of the Brown Brothers is the secret history of Wall Street. It is a story of sustainable capitalism. You might not like it if you object to capitalism, but you might want to emulate it to guard against capitalism's inevitable excesses and imbalances. After the 1980s, their model of capitalism was superseded by more avaricious and ultimately more toxic variants, which is all the more reason to remember that other paths are possible. The partners of Brown Brothers have never wanted to be 'the story,' and that reticence has made the firm's centrality easy to overlook. But it is an underground river that flows through the American past, and its saga is a window into the crucial nexus of money, power and influence that made America. It is at times a heroic tale, sometimes prosaic and beneath the veneer of gentility, occasionally brutal and rapacious. But such is the history of America, of global capitalism and of any rise to power. Celebrated or reviled, it is necessary history, and in the case of Brown Brothers, one that has never been adequately understood. This is their story, and ours.
COMING TO AMERICA
Like most things American, the Establishment had immigrant roots. Brown Brothers started life not in New York and not in the United States but in Ireland. The business that eventually morphed into a pillar of Wall Street began with the ambitions and tribulations of a middle-class Irishman named Alexander Brown, born in 1764 in the town of Ballymena, in County Antrim, some twenty-five miles north of Belfast. Alexander was destined at birth for a modest life, a destiny he defied.
By the age of twenty, he was married to Grace Davison, forever known thereafter as Mrs. Alexander Brown, and in short order they had seven children. Four survived infancy: William (born in 1784), George (1787), John (1788), and James (1791). The deaths of the other three were painful but in that era and in that place hardly unusual. By the early 1790s, Alexander had moved to Belfast to become a linen merchant, and by all accounts proved more than adept. He was better than decent looking, with fine, defined features, high cheekbones, sharp but not unkind eyes seen behind a pair of scholarly spectacles, a slight hook in his nose, and a mess of wavy curls that stayed tight even as they turned gray.
Linen was the primary industry of Ireland. The flax was grown on local farms, and in the words of one observer at the time, "There is scarcely a cottage without a loom." Once spun, in modest batches at farm after farm, the linen cloth was bleached to make it attractive for sale, dried out on the local grass, and then sent on to Belfast, where it was auctioned at Linen Hall by men such as Alexander Brown. Dublin was also a vibrant linen trading center, but Belfast had the advantage—or disadvantage, depending on your denomination and allegiance—of closer links to England. Unlike the predominantly Catholic south, Belfast and its surroundings had a considerable population of Protestants, many of whom were Presbyterian, descended either from Scottish settlers or from the Huguenots who fled France at the end of the seventeenth century.
Like most Ulstermen, Brown was from a Presbyterian family. Creed mattered, but Alexander focused his passion on business and family, not doctrine and politics. As in most families, there were struggles. All of the four sons who survived infancy performed poorly at the local classroom, no matter how much their parents implored, and no matter how much their teachers cajoled or punished them. The reasons for their academic woes were hard to fathom. Alexander and Grace did not think that their sons were especially slow; quite the opposite. The boys were curious and animated, in varying degrees, and by all rights they should have been doing well at school. They had loving, supportive parents and a stable home. Something was clearly off. After a few exasperating years, the family discovered the problem: the boys were all extremely nearsighted. Once they had each been fitted with glasses, their academic performance improved and the disciplinary issues vanished. But the genetics remained. Poor eyesight was passed down over the generations and became known in the family as Brown sight.
Wanting to make the most of their sons' nascent talents, the Browns looked to better schooling. Alexander was by then successful enough that he was able to send each of the sons to a boarding school in England, in Yorkshire, run by a local Presbyterian reverend. Family lore held that the boys received a stellar education in typically drab, dull and austere conditions. The budget-conscious headmaster skimped on food costs but promised the hungry students a second helping of pudding (hardly a treat but rather a mushy starch flavored with the fat drippings of the roast) provided that they didn't eat too much of the meat itself. Whatever lesson that imparted, the boys learned the classics by rote, along with a steady diet of bland pudding, staid liturgy and arbitrary discipline.
And there things might have stayed, with Alexander primed for the life of a prosperous linen merchant and broker in Belfast, had it not been for the Irish rebellion of 1798. Not for the first time and not for the last, Ireland was rent by sectarian conflict combined with resistance to English rule. The United Irishmen—a movement that included both Catholics and Protestants and was inspired by the American and French revolutions—rebelled after years of trying to move peacefully toward independence from the British Crown. They looked to the French, embroiled again in war with the British, for aid. The French were willing but not able. The rebellion ended badly for the Irish, who were not only slaughtered at the battle of Vinegar Hill but who also then fragmented violently into Protestant versus Catholic and Protestant versus Protestant factions. Much of the fighting took place in the counties surrounding Belfast and sharply disrupted the linen business. Apolitical though he was, Alexander could not escape the collateral damage of the rebellion and its violent defeat.
This excerpt ends on page 15 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Be Exceptional: Master the Five Traits That Set Extraordinary People Apart by Joe Navarro, Toni Sciarra Poynter.