Fighting Formidable Foes
E. H. Harriman has come to blows since then with J. J. Hill, J. P. Morgan, the First National Bank, the Rock Island crowd, Edwin Hawley, George J. Gould, Stuyvesant Fish, and almost everyone else with whom he has been in contact…. If his ambition crossed theirs, he forgot about theirs. If his mood prompted he did not hesitate to insult them—in fact he did not know he was doing it.
—Wall Street Journal, August 25, 1906
Sitting with a well-known financial writer in the dregs of a gray afternoon, indulging himself in a rare moment of introspection, Harriman toyed with a familiar question: was it his withering candor that made him so unpopular? Did he pay a steep price for his lack of tact? “I suppose people think so because I don't truckle or toady to any of the big men,” he answered earnestly. “I don't have to. Why should I?” 1
The writer choked back a laugh at the idea of Harriman truckling to “big men” like Morgan or Hill, but knew he was dead serious. Once, in his excitement, Harriman had given H. H. Rogers so violent a scolding that the bewildered Rogers backed him off only by crying, “Do you know whom you are talking to?”
“I never fight unless somebody fights me,” he continued. “As long as they pound I pound. But I'd rather be let alone. Let the other side go to work and succeed and prosper; so long as they leave me alone I'm satisfied. I drop all revenge. Often my associates have expressed their astonishment that I don't follow up a fight after it's stopped.” He paused as if to share that astonishment, then added, “I am not vindictive.”
These remarks drew cynical smiles in some quarters and outright guffaws in others. Like Jay Gould, Harriman had earned a reputation for prizing revenge as a beacon to guide his course. That this simplistic explanation made little or no sense did nothing to diminish its popularity. More to the point was his inability to leave alone anyone he thought posed the slightest threat to his own plans. Interference was to Harriman the most intolerable of crimes.
In the community of interest it was impossible for one man to move without jostling someone else. Every action posed a threat, immediate or potential, and