“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community – the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.” – Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth (1889)
The Industrial Revolution represents the primary impetus by which the United States transitioned from an agrarian-based to an industrial-based economy, which resulted in a massive and unprecedented shift in the population moving from the rural country to the urban city. While the wealth of the country significantly increased, much of it was held by a select few, populated by familiar names such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. This group, eventually coined the Robber Barons, led incredibly luxurious lives that were far removed and in no way resembled the existences lived by the vast majority of the rest of the population. Counted among this group was a man whose name today would be recognized by very few and whose story is told in a 2013 biography written by John M. Adams: Theodore Montgomery Davis.
The life of Mr. Davis in many ways exemplified both the American Dream and the Gilded Age. He was born in 1838 to a well-liked minister known for his fire-and-brimstone preaching and was left destitute, along with his mother and two siblings, when his father died of consumption in 1841; Mr. Davis’ oldest sibling, Arthur, would join his father the following year. Despite further challenges and setbacks, Mr. Davis provided himself with education and eventually became a lawyer. While many of his colleagues had aspirations for politics or other public endeavors, it would seem that Mr. Davis’ sole interest was the employment of all means available to him to build a great fortune, and a great fortune is precisely what Mr. Davis acquired – in a rather dubious manner; a true rags-to-riches story peppered with shady dealings.
Now we come to the point that connects the excerpt that opened this short review. Once his great fortune was secure, Mr. Davis could have spent the remainder of his life in the pursuit of selfish desires, and even though he did engage in those activities that were the hallmark of his class at that time, he developed a passion for Ancient Egypt and its antiquities, and he personally funded expeditions in the Valley of the Kings in the early 1900s that employed scientific methods to excavate tombs; he was not a simple grave robber. By 1914, Mr. Davis believed that no tombs of any import were left in the Valley of the Kings, and his concessions were passed on to Lord Carnarvon, whose funding provided the famous archaeologist Howard Carter with the means to eventually locate the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922, totally eclipsing the discoveries of Mr. Davis. Through the efforts and patronage of Mr. Davis, several very famous and important discoveries were made that significantly contributed to Egyptology, and those artifacts that were uncovered by his excavations were donated during his life or bequeathed after his death to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Cairo Museum. As with his contemporaries, it would seem that Mr. Davis felt philanthropy was his duty.
Alternating between archaeological digs and stages in the life of Mr. Davis, Mr. Adams has captured an era in the United States when great fortunes produced a class of Americans of such wealth that the world was literally their oyster. It is fortunate for us, I suppose, that they were willing to share.