Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Alexander T. Stewart

The dry-goods prince of the world. A marble palace for a store, which is entered daily by an average of twenty-five thousand people who buy $75,000 worth of merchandise—a business with daily import duties to the Government of $25,000 in gold. When we look at all this, and then remember that he was proprietor, not only of the palace store of America, but had branches in Philadelphia, Boston, Lyons, Paris, Belfast, Glasgow, Berlin, Bradford, Manchester, Nottingham, and other cities throughout the world. When we behold this great success, and then think how he landed in this country a poor Irish lad of sixteen, friendless, homeless, and almost penniless, alone in a strange land, we involuntarily exclaim, “How was such a change in his position brought about?” Why did he succeed, while others all about him who were far better situated, failed? Let us follow him:

He was born at Belfast, Ireland, October 21st, 1802, and in 1818 came to America. He was a mere lad of sixteen. The first work that he obtained was as assistant in a college; here he worked hard, saved his money, and at last he was able to open a small store in the city where he sold dry-goods. When he became twenty-one he was called to his native country to claim a small legacy left him by a relative who had died. He had made a study of his business, hence invested the entire sum in Irish products, and returning to America rented another store on Broadway, and thus began that great importing business. At this time he was his own buyer, salesman, book-keeper and errand boy. Ah! there is the secret of the success of nine-tenths of our great men. They began at the bottom—never hiring help for the mere appearance or convenience of their assistance. They never hired done what they themselves could do. And then there is another thing to remember—beginning thus at the bottom they, of necessity, became thoroughly familiar with the details of their business, hence were never obliged to leave anything to the ‘confidential clerk’ who has ruined so many business men. Stewart soon felt the need of more room, and was compelled to seek more commodious quarters. After making another move to a larger store-room he made his first purchase of real estate, which was his “down-town” store. After this his “up-town” store was built.

He was a splendid salesman, a perfect gentleman toward customers, and people preferred trading with him rather than any clerk in his employ. His tastes were very simple, and he was always plainly dressed. It has been stated that Mr. Stewart never posed for a photograph, which is a significant fact of itself. His motto was, “Never spend a dollar unless there is a prospect of legitimate gain.” He arose early in the morning, went to his “up-town” store, and thoroughly inspected everything; then to his “down-town” store where he attended to his business at that end of the line.

At the breaking out of the Civil War he aided the Union cause very much. Being in sympathy with the principles of the Republican party, and holding a powerful influence over the commercial world, the President, Mr. Grant, nominated him Secretary of the Treasury, and he was at once confirmed by the Senate; but as there is a law prohibiting any merchant in the importing business from holding this position, he was objected to by opposing politicians; and, although he offered to donate the entire profits of his business to the poor of the city of New York, they still objected, and he was obliged to resign. By this, the country was undoubtedly robbed of the services of a man capable of making one of the best officers for that position our country has ever known. However, it was right that it should be so; it would have been very unwise to have established such a precedent.

In some respects, Mr. Stewart was a very liberal man, although it has been stated otherwise. In his will is his desire to do good especially manifested. Arrangements were made for the building of a church and parsonage, and a school for the benefit of poor boys who desired to fit themselves for a professional life.

Some people may be fortunate in one instance in their life. We do not wholly disregard the idea of circumstances, but we do claim and try to prove that it is not the one instance in the life after all. When we consider a whole life’s history, we are convinced every time that generally where one is seemingly very fortunate, it is the result of careful calculation and down-right hard work. Bad luck is the natural result of carelessness in business matters. Had A. T. Stewart waited for a lucky chance to come to him, he might—probably never would have realized that splendid success that did attend his efforts. Here he came to this country at the age of sixteen. He did not wait for his grandfather to die and leave him that legacy but went right at some work. It may be possible that the grandfather gave him that money because he felt that young Stewart would make good use of it. Certain it is he did not wait but went right to work, saved his money, and was well prepared to use the legacy skillfully when he did receive it. However, if Stewart had never had that money given him, he would have succeeded. His whole life was a series of maturing plans, which had been carefully laid, and then pushed to completion. A man must have ability to plan well, and the courage and backbone to push those plans to success. A. T. Stewart possessed these qualities to a marked degree. He began as his moderate circumstances would warrant, and best of all he never allowed his energies to slacken. He never became a lazy business man. He never allowed himself to rest content with the laurels already his. He was a man of enterprise; while competitors followed the footsteps of their fathers, A. T. Stewart was progressing—he was original in nearly every undertaking.

On the 10th day of April, 1876, this great magnate died. His business was carried on, for a time, by others, but the mainspring was gone, and in 1882 the great clock stopped. Here is an instance that should convince us of the result of courage, energy, and self-reliance. A. T. Stewart began without a dollar, and succeeded, while they who had the benefit of his experience, the use of his vast wealth, and a marble palace, could not succeed.

The history of the stealing of Mr. Stewart’s body is well-known, and as the papers have succeeded so well in keeping the subject before the people, we will not speak further of that here, our object being rather to instruct than to narrate sensational episodes.