By what criteria should we judge people of the past? Their strengths alone? Only their foibles? A few select moments? Or by the fullness of their lives?
Rushing to judgment on a small slice of knowledge is a national pastime. People do it to avoid deep thought, to affirm a preconception or ideology or to signal virtue.
A classic case is James Buchanan Brady (1856-1917), known as “Diamond Jim” because he wore precious stones in superabundance. I first heard his name from a biased “progressive” history teacher who presented Brady as “typical of the greedy capitalists” of his day. According to a New York Times story in April 1917,
“He wore a $9,000 watch and in the handle of an umbrella he had set a jewel worth $1,500. His garter clasps, his suspender buckles, and even his underwear were ornamented with jewels.”
Brady’s critics point out another extravagance — his ravenous passion for food. George Rector, owner of a seafood restaurant, loved to see his bejeweled friend walk in the front door. He claimed that Brady was “the best 25 customers I ever had.”
Author William Grimes declared that Diamond Jim exemplified “the rich at play” and “the outsized appetites of a gaudy, grasping, exuberant America.” Take one man’s eccentricities, project them onto millions of others, and then leap to a negative generalization that fits your ideology. A “progressive” like Grimes will never tell you that the richest people in socialist Venezuela are the socialist politicians who impoverished everyone else, or that the greedy extravagance of socialists is an indictment of socialism.
If all you knew about Diamond Jim was his jewelry and his appetite, your assessment would be incomplete, unjust and uninformed. The fullness of Brady’s six decades should lead most fair-minded people to a more favorable view.
His was a true rags-to-riches story. He grew up poor but brimming with ambition and a tireless work ethic. He earned his way through the railroad business — as a clerk to a builder of railroad cars to the best salesman of equipment to railroads the industry has ever known.
He was a savvy investor in stocks and bonds, generating a substantial fortune in those financial instruments and encouraging the formation of capital for all kinds of employment-providing, invention-producing enterprises.
He was fun to be around, a nice person and a big tipper. Even that Times story noted, “Personally, he was an exceptionally sweet-tempered man, who would go to the limit for a friend or to help someone in distress … There never was an appeal made to him for money or clothes by man or woman to which he did not respond.”
What about those jewels? He generously left them to New York’s Metropolitan Museum. He bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to Johns Hopkins University Hospital — several hundred million in the dollars of today.
Diamond Jim had his quirks. So what? He didn’t steal, mooch or demand anything from others that wasn’t owed him. Like privileged kings, he enjoyed the finer things with one big difference: He earned it. Enjoying life in your own way with what your efforts and genius produce is what freedom is all about.
So unless you donate more to a hospital than Brady gave to Johns Hopkins, don’t judge him or anyone else too harshly until you know the full story.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .