Front Page Titles (by Subject) AN OLD TRUST - The Forgotten Man and Other Essays (corrected edition)
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AN OLD “TRUST” - William Graham Sumner, The Forgotten Man and Other Essays (corrected edition) 
The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918).
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AN OLD “TRUST”
AN OLD “TRUST”1
In the year 1579, Conrad Roth, a merchant of Augsburg, the who had been interested in the trade in spices between Lisbon and Germany, proposed to an officer of the treasury of the Elector of Saxony a scheme for a company to monopolize the pepper trade. The Elector was one of the most enterprising and enlightened princes of his time, and the proposition was really intended to be made to him as the only person who could command the necessary capital and had, at the same time, courage and energy to undertake the enterprise.
A company was formed of officers of the treasury, called the Thuringian Company, and a warehouse was prepared at Leipzig. It was reckoned that if the company could raise the price of pepper one groschen per pound, the profits would be over 38,000 florins per annum. Roth and the Thuringian Company were to participate in the enterprise equally, but the Prince was to put up all the capital, and Roth was to do all the work. The latter also owned a very valuable contract with the King of Portugal, according to which he was, for five years, to send to India money enough to buy up all the pepper produced, so that none could come into Europe through Egypt and Italy. Before that time the Portuguese officers had illegally sold some of it, so that it did get into Europe that way; but by buying in India this was now to be stopped.
Roth proposed to divide Europe into three sections: Portugal, Spain, and the West; Italy and the South; Germany and the North. The Saxon company was to have the last as its share of the monopoly. It was hoped that the gains might be forced up to a much higher figure than the one above given, if only all pepper then in Frankfort, Venice, Nuremberg, and Hamburg could be bought up.
No sooner was the plan formed, however, than Roth began to reach out after extensions to it. He wanted to include the trade in other spices. He also proposed that the Elector should provide the capital for an exchange bank to do the exchange business between Leipzig and Lisbon. Next he found that the existing postal arrangements were entirely inadequate to the requirements of his business, and he proposed to the Elector a complete plan for a postal service between Italy, Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal. Then, having found the shipping facilities unsatisfactory, he proposed that the Elector should enter into a contract with the King of Denmark, by which the latter, who owned ships, should provide a regular service between Lisbon and the Elbe.
These plans all show the grand energy of this projector, and the Elector entered into them all. He could not carry out the postal service without the consent of the Emperor, and this he was unable to get. Roth and the Elector were ahead of their time; the Emperor was not; he said that the plan proposed “something new, which had never been in use in the time of their ancestors.” The attempt to unite private merchants in the speculation also failed at Leipzig, and elsewhere the attitude toward it was extremely unfriendly.
When the stock of pepper began to accumulate at Leipzig, it was found that the article did not begin to be scarce elsewhere. Although the advances of the Prince were already far greater than he had promised when the plan was formed, it was found impossible to begin sales until all the pepper on the European market elsewhere could be bought up; and at the same time reports came that, in spite of Roth's contract, any one who had money could buy all the pepper he wanted in India, and that it was coming into Europe freely through Egypt and Venice. In the spring of 1580 the supply in the cities of Holland and Germany was ample. It appeared that Roth could not prevent the contractors for other parts of Europe from shipping to Germany, and the price was falling there; instead of being at fifteen groschen, where the speculators hoped to hold it, it was below twelve. At this point Roth's creditors began to put attachments on his property. All this led the Elector to say: “We fear that there has been a great mistake in Roth's original and still repeated assertion that all the pepper which comes into Europe comes through Lisbon.”
In April Roth committed suicide upon hearing of the death of the King of Portugal. It was known that the King of Spain intended to claim the succession, and that the Portuguese would resist; this war and the possibility of a Spanish succession meant ruin to the speculation. The Elector was obliged to send agents in every direction to get possession of the assets of the company, in order to recover his funds. In the end it appears that he escaped without very serious loss; he sold the whole stock to a syndicate of South German merchants, at a price which restored all his capital. After moralizing on his experience he declared: “In as much as I am now weary and sick, and am anxious to pass the remaining time which God vouchsafes me in quiet, I have firmly determined to have done with commerce, whether it would bring me gain or loss.” “I have,” he says again, “strengthened my head and I will have done with false commerce.”1
This enterprise was plainly an attempt to exploit a natural monopoly, and to do it by an operation which should embrace the whole world; it was a purely money-making scheme, unrelieved by any social or industrial advantage. It shows how erroneous it is to suppose that the merchants of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were inferior in boldness to those of to-day, or superior to them in disposition to sacrifice themselves for the public good; it would be easy to accumulate any amount of evidence that they were, on the contrary, entirely unscrupulous in the pursuit of gain, and that they were bold beyond anything known to modern merchants. They might well be so. This story shows what great risks, dangers, perplexities, and disappointments they were subject to. The risk element was plainly enormous, but the gains corresponded, of course, and hence we find some of these men enormously rich; but it is plain that there was no routine to help the man who had less natural ability. There was no regularity in any of the contributory operations, such as shipping lines and post-office; there were no regular and adequate banking facilities. If by “trust” we mean a combination to exploit a monopoly, either natural or artificial, the men of that period had made an art of that sort of undertaking, and had a skill in it of which the moderns have no conception.
One cannot help admiring the courage and energy of this Roth. He had everything to contend with; he was far in advance of his age. If he had lived in our time he would have been a great captain of industry — we could have given him something better to do than making a corner on pepper.
In our current social discussions there is a special kind of fallacy which consists in quasi-historical assertions. For instance, it is said that the power of capital is increasing and is greater than it ever has been. This is in form an historical assertion, but those who make it never expect to be held to an historical responsibility for it. They throw it out with a kind of risk, because they are not very accurately informed as to the power of capital in former times, and have not heard that it used to act as it does now. Capitalists never had less irresponsible power than now. It is said that monopoly is growing evil; that it never was so great. If people choose to pass laws to make monopolies, they must, of course, take the consequences; but there never was a time when the control of natural monopolies was so rational as now, and there never was a time when the efforts of cliques to make artificial monopolies could be so easily frustrated as now. It is said that trusts embracing the whole world are a new and threatening danger, never heard of before. It has seemed to me that, if we are to have history, it might be well for once to see some facts which illustrate “the good old times” as they really were. Of course nothing is thereby proved as to the good or ill of trusts; but something is proved as to the fallacy of that class of quasi-historical assertions which I have described.
The Independent, June 13, 1889.
Falke, “August yon Sacheen.”