Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Chauncey M. Depew, U.S. Senator and Railroad President

Of the busy men of the world, there are none more so than Chauncey M. Depew, until recently president of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, and now president of the board which looks after all the Vanderbilt interests. One must have something worthy his attention to gain admittance to the busy man, and I need say no more for the present interview than that the distinguished orator and statesman saw fit to discuss the possibilities of young men and their future, and gave readily of his time and opinions. I stated to him the object of my interview, —that it was intended to obtain his views as to what qualities in young men best make for success, and to ask him, if possible, to point out the way, by the aid of example, to better work and greater success for them. He smiled approvingly, and, to my question, whether, in his opinion, the opportunities awaiting ambitious young men are less or more than they have been in the past, replied : —

"More, decidedly more. Our needs in every field were never greater. The country is larger, and, while the population is greater, the means to supply its increased wants require more and more talent, so that any young man may gain a foothold who makes his effort with industry and intelligence."

"Do you mean to say that there is an excellent position awaiting everyone?"

"I mean to say that, while positions are not so numerous that any kind of a young man will do, yet they are so plentiful that you can scarcely find a young man of real energy and intelligence who does not hold a responsible position of some kind. The chief affairs are in the hands of young men."

"Was it different in your day, when you were beginning?"

"Energy and industry told heavily in the balance then, as now, but the high places were not available for young men because the positions were not in existence. We had to make the places, in those days; and not only that, but we were obliged to call ourselves to the tasks. Today, a man fits himself and is called. There are more things to do."

"How was it with boys, in your day, who wanted to get an education?"


"With most of them, it was a thing to earn. Why, the thing that I knew more about than anything else, as I grew from year to year, was the fact that I had nothing to expect, and must look out for myself. I can't tell you how clear my parents made this point to me. It absolutely glittered, so plain was it."

"Your parents were Americans?"

"Yes. I was born at Peekskill, in 1834."

Although Mr. Depew modestly refrains from discussing his ancestry, he comes from the best New England stock. He descends, through remote paternal ancestors, from French Huguenots, who were among those who came to America in the early days of the country, and who founded the village of New Rochelle, in Westchester county. His mother, Martha Mitchell, was of illustrious and patriotic New England descent, being a member of the family to which belonged Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; and he is a lineal descendant of the Rev. Josiah Sherman, chaplain of the Seventh Connecticut Continental infantry, and of Gabriel Ogden, of the New Jersey militia, both of whom served in the American Revolution.

"Had you any superior advantages in the way of money, books, or training?" I continued.

"If you want to call excellent training a superior advantage I had it. Training was a great point with us. We trained with the plow, the ax, and almost any other implement we could lay our hands on. I might even call the switch used at our house an early advantage, and, I might say, superior to any other in our vicinity. I had some books, but our family was not rich, even for those times. We were comfortably situated, nothing more."

"Do you owe more to your general reading than you do to your early school training?"

"Yes, I think so. I attended the school in our village regularly, until I went to college; but I was not distinguished for scholarship, except on the ballground."

"Do you attribute much of your success in life to physical strength?"

"It is almost indispensable."


"I was always strong. The conditions tended to make strong men, in those days. I went to college in my eighteenth year. I think I acquired a broader view there, and sound ideals which have been great helps. It was not a period of toil, however, as some would have made it."

His time at Yale was in no respect wasted. The vigorous, athletic, fun-loving boy was developing into a man with a strength and independence of character, very imperfectly understood at first by the already long list of men who liked him.

"What profession did you fix upon as the field for your life work?" I asked.

"That of the law. I always looked forward to that; and, after my graduation, in 1856, I went into a law office (that of Hon. William Nelson,) at Peekskill, and prepared for practice. That was a time of intense political excitement. There were factions in the Democratic party, and the Whig party seemed to be passing away. The Republican party, or People's party, as it had first been called, was organized in 1856, and men were changing from side to side. Naturally, I was mixed in the argument, and joined the Republican party.

"When I was graduated at Yale College, in 1856," he continued, "I came home to the village of Peekskill to meet my father, my grandfather, my uncles and my brothers, all old Hunker, state-rights, pro-slavery Democrats. But I had been through the fiery furnace of the Kansas-Nebraska excitement at New Haven, and had come out of it a free-soil Republican. Two days after my return, I stood, a trembling boy, upon a platform to give voice in the campaign which was then in progress, to that conversion which nearly broke my father's heart, and almost severed me from all family ties. It seemed then as if the end of the world had come for me in the necessity for this declaration of convictions and principles, but I expressed my full belief. In this sense, I believe a young man should be strong, and that such difficult action is good for him."


"Is that where you began your career as an orator ?" I asked.

"You mean as a stump-speaker? Yes. I talked for Fremont and Dayton, our candidates, but they were defeated. We did not really expect success, though, and yet we carried eleven states. After that, I went back to my law books, and was admitted to the bar in 1858. That was another campaign year, and I spoke for the party then, as I did two years later, when I was a candidate for the state assembly, and won."

The real glory hidden by this modest statement is that Mr. Depew's oratory in the campaign of 1858 gained him such distinction that he was too prominent to be passed over in 1860. During that campaign, he stumped the entire state, winning rare oratorical triumphs, and aiding the party almost more than anyone else. How deep an impression the young member from Peekskill really made in the state legislature by his admirable mastery of the complex public business brought before him, may be gathered from the fact that when, two years later, he was re-elected, he was speedily made chairman of the committee on ways and means. He was also elected speaker, pro tem., and at the next election, when his party was practically defeated all along the line, he was returned.

After briefly referring to the active part he took in the Lincoln campaign, I asked: —

"When did you decide upon your career as a railroad official ?"

"In 1866. I was retained by Commodore Vanderbilt as attorney for the New York and Harlem Road."

"To what do you attribute your rise as an official in that field ?"

"Hard work. That was a period of railroad growth. There were many small roads and plenty of warring elements. Out of these many small roads, when once united, came the great systems which now make it possible to reach California in a few days. Anyone who entered upon the work at that time had to encounter those conditions, and if he continued at it, to change them. I was merely a counselor at first."

In 1869, Mr. Depew was made attorney for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, and afterward a director. This was the period of the development of the Vanderbilt system. Mr. Depew was a constant adviser of the Vanderbilts, and, by his good judgment and sagacious counsel, maintained their constant respect and friendship. In 1875, he was made general counsel for the entire system and a director in each one of the roads.


It has often been urged by the sinister-minded, that it was something against him to have gained so much at the hands of the Vanderbilts. The truth is that this is his chief badge of honor. Many times he has won influence and votes for the Vanderbilt interests, but always by the use of wit, oratorical persuasion and legitimate, honorable argument, —never by the methods of the lobbyist. Commodore Vanderbilt engaged him as counsel for the New York York Central Railroad, at a salary of $25,000 a year,—then equal to the salary of the president of the United States, —and he always acknowledged that Mr. Depew earned the money.

He is now the head of the entire Vanderbilt system, or the controlling spirit of thirty distinct railroads, besides being a director in the Wagner Palace Car Company, the Union Trust Company, the Western Union Telegraph Company, the Equitable Life Insurance Society, the Western Transit Company, the West Shore and International Bridge Company, the Morris Run Coal Mining Company, the Clearfield Bituminous Coal Corporation, the Hudson River Bridge Company, the Canada Southern Bridge Company, the Niagara River Bridge Company, the Niagara Grand Island Bridge Company, the Tonawanda Island Bridge Company, the American Safe Deposit Company, the Mutual Gas Light Company, and the Brooklyn Storage and Warehouse Company.

"How much of your time each day," I asked, "have you given, upon an average, to your professional duties?"

"Only a moderate number of hours. I do not believe in overwork. The affairs of life are not important enough to require it, and the body cannot endure it. Just an ordinary day's labor of eight or ten hours has been my standard."

"Your official duties never drew you wholly from the political field, I believe?"

"Entirely, except special needs of the party, when I have been urged to accept one task after another. I believe that every man's energies should be at the disposal of his country."

"On the political side, what do you think is the essential thing for success?"

"The very things that are essential anywhere else — honesty, consistency and hard work."

"It requires no strain of character, no vacillation?"

"For twenty-five years," answered Mr. Depew, "I was on all occasions to the front in political battles, and I never found that political opinions or activity made it neccessary to break friendships or make them."

Mr. Depew's political career is already so well known that it need not be reviewed here.

After three years of service as vice-president of the New York Central Railroad, he was elevated, in 1885, to the presidency. While thus given a position of great influence in the business world, his growing reputation made him eligible for greater political honors than any for which he had yet been named. In 1888 he was the presidential candidate of the Republicans of New York state, at the national convention of the party, and received the solid vote of his state delegation, but withdrew his name. President Harrison offered him the position of secretary of state, to succeed Mr. Blaine, but he declined.


"What do you think of the opportunities to-day? Has the recent war aided us?"

"It is the best thing for the young men of to-day that could have happened! The new possessions mean everything to young men, who are going to be old men by and by. We, as a nation, are going to find, by the wise utilization of the conditions forced upon us, how to add incalculably to American enterprise and opportunity by becoming masters of the sea, and entering with the surplus of our manufactures the markets of the world. The solid merchants are to undertake the extension of American trade, but the young men will be called in to do the work under their guidance. The young man who is ready is naturally the one chosen."

"You think a tide of prosperity waits for every young American?"

"It may not exactly wait, but he can catch it easily."

"It is said," I went on, "that any field or profession carefully followed, will bring material success. Is that the thing to be aimed at ?"

"Material success does not constitute an honorable aim. If that were true, a grasping miser would be the most honorable creature on earth, while a man like Gladstone, great without money, would have been an impossibility. The truth is that material success is usually the result of a great aim, which looks to some great public improvement. Some man plans to be an intelligent servant of some great public need, and the result of great energy in serving the public intelligently is wealth. It never has been possible to become notable in this respect in any other way.

"It is often said that the excellent opportunities for young men are gone."

"If you listen to ordinary comment," said Mr. Depew, "you can come to believe that almost anything is dead—patriotism, honor, possibilities, trade—in fact, anything, and it's all according with whom you talk. There was a belief, not long ago, that the great orators were dead, and had left no successors. Papers and magazines were said to supply this excellent tonic. Yet orators have appeared, great ones, and in the face of the beauty and grace and fire which animates some of them, you read the speeches of the older celebrities, and wonder what was in them that stirred men."

"And this field is also open to young men ?"

"Not as a profession, of course, but as a means to real distinction, certainly. The field was never before so open. I have listened to Stephen A. Douglas, with his vigorous argument, slow enunciation, and lack of magnetism; to Abraham Lincoln, with his resistless logic and quaint humor; to Tom Corwin, Salmon P. Chase, William H. Seward, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips; and, as I look back and recall what they said, and the effect which they produced, and then estimate what they might do with the highly cultivated and critical audiences of to-day, I see the opportunity that awaits the young man here. Only Wendell Phillips strikes me as having possessed qualities which are not yet duplicated or surpassed."


"You recognize more than one kind of success in this world, then?"

"Yes; we can't all be presidents of the United States. Any man is successful who does well what comes to his hand, and who works to improve himself so that he may do better. The man with the ideal, struggling to carry it out, is the successful man. Of course, there are all grades of ideals, and the man with the highest, given the proportionate energy, is the most successful. The world makes way for that kind of young man."

"Do you consider that happiness in the successful man consists in reflecting over what he has done or what he may do?"

"I should say that it consists in both. No man who has accomplished a great deal could sit down and fold his hands. The enjoyment of life would be instantly gone if you removed the possibility of doing something. When through with his individual affairs, a man wants a wider field, and of course that can only be in public affairs. Whether the beginner believes it or not, he will find that he cannot drop interest in life at the end, whatever he may think about it in the beginning."

"The aim of the young man of to-day should be, then—?"

"To do something worth doing, honestly. Get wealth, if it is gotten in the course of an honorable public service. I think, however, the best thing to get is the means of doing good, and then doing it."

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