Business, Religion and the American Fear of Leisure, Post 2: William James of Albany (1771-1832)

Though originally from Western New York (Buffalo to be exact) I spent three and a half years (1969-1972) teaching English at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, located a few miles from Utica in the central portion of the state. At that time I was unaware of the vast influence once exercised over that area by William James of Albany, the grandfather of the novelist Henry James.

William James of Albany was an Irish immigrant who acquired a fortune as an American businessman largely because of his gift for real estate purchases and development. He bought up valuable property in his home city of Albany and once held most of the mortgages in the city of Syracuse and on the campus of Union College in Schenectady. He also operated the Syracuse Salt Company, which produced and supplied salt to the whole of the United States at that time. William was also a backer of the Erie Canal, no doubt because he thought it beneficial to his business opportunities as well as to the state of New York. His home in Albany was a few doors from that of Governor DeWitt Clinton, credited with the building of the Canal.

The village of Clinton, New York where, as mentioned above, I taught at Hamilton College for a while, was named not for DeWitt Clinton but for his uncle, George Clinton New York’s first and longest serving governor. You can understand my attachment to central New York when you consider that my great-great grandfather emigrated from Alsace in 1832, then rode the Erie Canal across the middle of the state from New York City to Buffalo, finally trekking on up to Ontario, Canada where he settled his family. 1832 was the year William of Albany died. My New York roots go deep.

William was a fierce Presbyterian, a believer with the Calvinists that man, though overwhelmingly inclined to sin, could nevertheless be redeemed by faith in Christ and the reading of Scripture. Along with many other successful American Calvinists of his time he also interpreted the money, power and social good he earned from his business as a sign that God had arbitrarily predestined him to be a member of the elect, one of God’s chosen ones. Where in his mind that left those supposedly lacking the practicality, strength and perseverance essential to success, the “lazy ones,” we may well imagine.

This elevated conception of himself and his work helps explain both the cool distance William placed between himself and his family and his certainty about the truth of what he thought. Much like his God, who saved or damned at will, William could be either compassionate or vindictive depending on how he regarded the behavior confronting him. Displeased with the rebellious and money squandering ways of his son Henry (the eventual father of Henry James the novelist), William of Albany punished him with a far from generous will. It took awhile for a court to alter it in fairer terms.

Take together William’s hard driving work ethic, an idea of himself bordering on the narcissistic, and a punitive attitude toward anyone non compliant with his will, and you have the profile of many an American from the founding of our country to our current President, also a Presbyterian but reportedly one who once left cash on the communion plate. Secularize the believing William of Albany, and you have Donald J. Trump, who is not an original but a type. He may do some accidental good during his time as President, but it is hard to accept that his courting of white evangelical Christians is anything but politically self-serving. And their approval of him is nothing short of amazing.

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