“Never bought a man that wasn’t for sale”
Oligarch Part I

A meaningful nomination for the title of Word of the Year 2022 could be “oligarchy”. Everyone talks about the oligarchs, but each in a different context. The British talk about cleansing the society of Russian – but also Ukrainian, African and Indian – oligarchs who until recently felt at home in Londograd (sorry: London), and took full advantage of the benefits of the British “golden visas” and the British banking system. Americans, for their part, view the sky-high estates and the overwhelming social impact of people like Jeff Bezos from Amazon or Mark Zuckerberg from Meta.

It is necessary to mention the mythical influence of oligarchs in Asian countries such as Korea, Japan and China.

Even the European Union has problems. In August this year, the Polish Prime Minister stated bluntly that: “formally we are dealing with democracy, and in fact with an oligarchy in which the strongest have power.” Mateusz Morawiecki also stated that EU imperialism should be fought as strongly as Russian imperialism.

Resource control and contact network

To move to a more stable ground than what politicians say, it is worth to take a look at the definition of the word “oligarchy” on the reliable Wikipedia website.

“Oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people. These people may or may not be distinguished by one or several characteristics, such as nobility, fame, wealth, education, or corporate, religious, political, or military control."

Sheldon Adelson Caricature
Public opinion does not have a clear picture of what an oligarchy is. It is commonly believed that it is a group of extremely wealthy people who informally shape and influence politics, economic and social life. A contemporary caricature of Sheldon Adelson, the head of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, known for his repeated attempts to influence the US and Nevada elections. © DonkeyHotey / Bectrigger

The wealth and influence of modern oligarchs is unprecedented. This does not mean, however, that earlier generations were protected against this destructive phenomenon. In the past, you can find many examples of people with similar motivations to those of modern oligarchs. Similar were the actions and techniques of achieving a lot of money, unlimited influence, a sense of impunity and omnipotence. Such a man was the hero of this episode of déjà vu – William Andrews Clark.

Tough guys

When you look at the first known photographs of William Andrews Clark, it cannot be denied that it fits in with the idealistic image of the pioneers who civilized the so-called US Wild West. Immortalized – with two other young people – in a photograph from the mid-nineteenth century, the man presents himself as a perky seeker of precious minerals. His hairy face exudes strength and determination. In the photo, all three of them look like typical representatives of the American ideal of masculinity. At the time of the photo, both Clark and his companions were wearing ragged clothes that had seen better days (many years ago). They were classic tough guys . Details such as a water bottle necessary for survival in the desert, a shotgun and tools enabling the study of found minerals confirmed that we are dealing with people of the act who know their purpose and destiny. There was no doubt that they were people with heads, ready for hard work and not afraid of daring challenges. Their motto, as well as the call of hundreds of thousands of other explorers, was the fight for “water, gold and women”. The pioneering mentality of the time required people to win these trophies not by strenuous, many years of work, but a bit of shortcuts – as quickly as possible, in accordance with the norms of the time or against them.

miners with horses Goldfield Nevada 1907
The images of the West that have been shown in Hollywood movies and historical shows like the Buffalo Bill had little to do with real life. The pioneers remembered the Wild West as a place and time of poverty, sacrifice, great hope, and even greater disappointments. It was life in a parched sun, a dry, windy hell. A group of miners in Goldfield , Nevada in 1907. © Waldon Fawcett , Library of Congress

The pioneers traversing the endless expanses of the West left behind the standards of the Victorian East Coast, along with everything that restricted their freedom and extended their path to great money. William Andrews Clark, like thousands of other pioneers, has set himself free to pursue personal happiness with no limits. Cunning, calculation, lack of – in some moments – elementary honesty did not bother, what is more – they repeatedly helped Clark to achieve the position of one of the richest people in the world at the beginning of the 20th century.

Patriotic career - intense, but extremely short

William Andrews Clark – the son of poor Scottish-Irish immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania – became a walking legend in his lifetime. At the peak of his career, he owned a number of banks, sawmills, railroads, mines and newspapers. He had in abundance everything that at the beginning of the 20th century was a measure of wealth: sugar and tea warehouses, crude oil, gold, silver and, above all, copper. Before he got to this fantastic wealth, however, there were so many extravagant and unusual moments in his biography that they would be enough for the scripts of several historical movies, westerns and comedies.

Clark, born in 1839 in Pennsylvania, began his career in the political arena with a bang. During the Civil War, he did not follow in the footsteps of most Yankees and sided with the South. His career in the ranks of the Confederate army, which began in 1861, was intense, but extremely short. A year later, Clark stated that it was not his destiny to defend the independence of the South, and simply withdrew from the army. Not only did he defect, but unlike others, he managed to escape justice from a military tribunal that customarily executed undisciplined amateurs of free life.

Twenty-year-old William had completely different plans. He found mining to be his true calling, and for this reason he moved to the West – first to Colorado and then to Montana. His interest in arid, desert areas had a simple explanation. What for laymen was useless and fruitless land, for him was a true paradise. Deserts and other barren stretches of the country were a treasury containing huge fortunes in the form of precious metals. But instead of gold, which of course he did not despise in any case, Clark concentrated on discovering, mining and processing quartz, silver and especially copper. These were raw materials necessary – during the industrial revolution that was under way – for the production of new goods. The beginning of the electric age needed copper, zinc, nickel and other rare metals. Gold, silver and oil were no longer the only foundations of great fortunes.

Everything was a good business opportunity

 Clark searched, found, and owned valuable deposits. He built small and large processing plants and steel mills around them. Over time, it has become completely independent in the entire process of mining and processing metals. The more his independence and financial strength grew, the more apparent was the powerlessness of his competitors – even such powerful candidates for the title of “king of copper” like Marcus Daly of the mining company Anaconda Copper Mining Company or F. August Heinze from United Copper , who fought a fierce battle for deposits and markets.

Portrait of William Andrew Clark
William A. Clark was known for his outstanding wealth and boundless corruption. Defending himself repeatedly against the accusation, Clark insisted that he "never bought a man that wasn't for sale." © The Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress

Both Clark and his competitors in the mining industry tried by all means – including extortion, blackmail or bribery – to do what senior U.S. industrial barons had already done, namely to build cartels that guaranteed a monopoly over the production and sale of certain commodities. and exercise control and price dictates. A great idol and role model for Clark was John D. Rockefeller, who amazed the world with the construction of his Standard Oil empire and became the richest man in the world.

Over time, Clark’s outstanding entrepreneurship began to turn into a brutal dictate to anyone who could stand in his way to build a planned industrial empire. You could say that he spent half a day controlling his own businesses, and the other half devoted to destruction and speculation destroying competitors. When Marcus Daly discovered great copper deposits in Montana and decided to expand his factories and smelters around the city of Butte, he was surprised to find that the rights to exploit the water – so needed for production – had been bought by his largest competitor. Clark’s actions of this type were many times the seed of his fierce, long-term struggle with competitors. The growing group of Clark’s enemies every day waited just for the opportune moment to bite back from previous failures or – at least – to protect themselves from his future attacks.

Purchase of gold dust

Buying out the rights to exploit the life-giving water was a complicated and expensive operation. Therefore, Clark was not ashamed of other, less impressive projects that could quickly increase his rapidly growing fortune. When Clark and his men were not busy mining their own deposits or buying up debt companies, they were busy buying the gold that had already been brought to the surface in competitors’ mines. Gold miners have always had problems with cash, and that problem was solved by Clark’s people. They bought gold dust from miners as part of the wages for a week of hard and dangerous underground work. Every Sunday, i.e. on payday, Clark’s envoys appeared near the mine and bought precious dust from the miners. The price offered by Clark was $ 18 an ounce, $ 2 below the official purchase price.

Everything was a good deal for Clark to do business. The list of his endeavors was long and astonishing. Clark owned – among other things – private mail, newspapers, stagecoach companies, and freight cars. However, he was most famous for organizing the trade in vegetables, fruit and other fresh food products. The idea was as simple as a classic recipe for the success of the rich in the era of mature socialism in Eastern Europe. In Salt Lake City, fragrant specialties were loaded into freight cars, and then (as quickly as possible) transported to the secluded but very wealthy mining city of Virginia City. The price of fresh vegetables and fruit obviously rose sharply after they reached their destination. Legendary business was carrying frozen eggs bought at 20 cents a threescore and sold in Virginia City for $ 3. This was a great breakthrough at a time when the best-earning miners’ day wages were $ 4. The eggs, of course, were not intended for the morning scrambled eggs for the local wealthy, but were the basis for the recipe for the favorite egg liqueur of the time, “Tom & Jerry .”

Staunch Catholic vs zealous Protestant

A fierce rival competing for the title of the most influential citizen of the state of Montana (Clark’s residence) was Marcus Daly . It was his mining projects that Clark had previously blocked, depriving them of access to water sources. As Clark and Daly’s fortunes grew and their influence grew, no one doubted that a frontal engagement would only be a matter of time. The two gentlemen had a serious fight in 1898. The battlefield was what wealthy people wanted most – power.

Clark’s interest in politics, of course, was not related to a genuine commitment to public affairs. The policy was to be the crowning achievement and confirmation of the already existing, real control exercised over business competitors and the masses. The elections also played an important role from Marcus Daly ‘s perspective . He was the first Irish in the West to gain such enormous wealth and high social status that he could seek election to the highest positions in the state. Daly has become the darling and patron of Irish immigrants who have felt discriminated against, disregarded and humiliated for generations. His election to high public office was to be proof that the Irish had recovered from the gutters of crowded cities, they were no longer condemned to exist at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and their only occupation from then on did not have to be garbage disposal, digging ditches and laying railway tracks. The choice of Marcus Daly was to show the American West that the Irish, despite their strong nationalism and Catholic faith, can assimilate in the USA and, contrary to popular opinion, can accept the American style and social values.

The Anaconda Standard political cartoon 28 October 1900
"The Anaconda Standard" newspaper presented its readers with a way of "supporting" democracy in the elections to the US Senate in 1900. © Library of Congress

Daly demonstrated his private financial strength as well as the growing political potential of Green Island immigrants. A unique opportunity arose in 1893. The territory of Montana has become a full-fledged state of the United States. In the new state, the highest public officials had to be elected, including a senator sitting in the federal Congress in Washington. Such a magnificent position was the natural target of both Marcus Daly , a staunch Catholic with a weakness for horse racing, and William Clark, an equally zealous Protestant with an undisguised love of art. The election campaign was carried out in the style of a true Wild West, and it included such phenomena as theft, destruction of ballots and shooting at election officials. As a result of the fierce struggle, none of the candidates won a majority in the state parliament, which at that time had the right to appoint future senators.

Take democracy into your own hands

In view of the protracted election procedures, Clark decided to take the fate of democratic elections into his own hands. The recipe for resolving the stalemate was very simple: it was necessary to buy the favor of members of the state parliament. Clark showed what potential he has. There were tens of thousands of dollars in discreet envelopes addressed to parliamentarians. Such an argument caused a sharp change in the views of members of parliament, who in 1899 elected Clark without much trouble as the senator to represent Montana in the capital of the country.

The echoes of the ruthless electoral struggle immediately reached Washington, DC, which – to Clark’s surprise – was not at all thrilled with this method of electing the nation’s representatives. Clark humbly accepted the conviction for bribery of one of his closest associates in the election campaign, but considered himself an impeccable statesman who could not be accused of anything. Even so, the Senate got its own way and, faced with the blatant evidence of corruption, refused to acknowledge Clark’s election. But he did not return to Montana with a sense of defeat or shame. To show that even the US Senate would not dictate its terms, he performed a skillful maneuver. He did not allow himself to be formally expelled from parliament and, anticipating the announced investigation into the violation of the electoral order, resigned himself. This procedure enabled him to carry out a clever plan. First, he created a vacancy for a position that no one could fill for some time. Second, it gave him publicity and the opportunity to publicly criticize his competitor and the opposition. Defending himself repeatedly against accusations of corruption, Clark insisted that he “never bought a man that wasn’t for sale.”

Weapons more effective than bribes

Clark’s greatest asset, which seemed to be lost forever in the political arena, was the fact that the next Senate elections were to be held just two years later, in 1901. In this election, Clark chose to bet on weapons that were even more effective than bribes. As befits an experienced and racial politician, he bet on election promises that he never had the intention or the possibility of realizing. The citizens of Montana learned in 1901 that thanks to Clark they would be guaranteed: permanent work, an eight-hour working day, compensation for injuries caused during work, and cheaper goods in stores near the mine. Such a campaign could not fail. In the 1901 election, Clark achieved his life goal – he became a US senator. He prided himself on this title until the end of his days, considering it the crowning achievement of his life career.

A hundred years later it was still possible to buy a seat in the Senate.

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