The Du Pont Family

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

John D. Gates’s The du Pont Family is an admittedly modest family history that is long on anecdote and praise and short on real critical analysis. Author Gates, a former Wilmington, Delaware, newsman, is, as he notes, partial to the du Ponts, having at one time married into the family and having been on friendly terms with several family members. Believing the du Ponts to have been unduly abused by past critics such as Ralph Nader, he sets out to “right the balance,” only to end up overpraising his subjects. Moreover, his book suffers from an overabundance of monetary facts and figures and a corresponding paucity of explanation and elaboration. The most satisfactory way to approach The du Pont Family, therefore, is to treat it simply as a collection of fascinating anecdotes bogged down in places by dreary lists of financial information. Nevertheless, Gates’s early chapters do a fine job of establishing the cultural and social milieu of the first du Ponts: patriarch Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, who founded the company bearing the du Pont name, and his son Irénée, who advanced its fortunes.

Unlike most immigrants, Pierre Samuel du Pont was financially well-to-do and had a secure position among France’s elite when he took his large family from France to the infant United States in 1799. His interest in gunpowder making was not his chief interest; he also had visions of establishing a Utopian colony in the wilderness to be called Pontiana, a venture which proved impossible to fund. Even though the family had considerable resources upon which to draw, funding for the proposed powder works also proved difficult, owing to the sheer magnitude of the project. Irénée du Pont was able to secure the needed money to build sizable facilities in Delaware by borrowing heavily from various sources; and he not only kept the family in business, but was also able to expand its operations. The plant he built was a first-class concern in which worker safety was a priority (although any powder mill of the time was inherently unsafe). Around it, he built a village for his employees in which amenities such as gardens and cow pastures were provided.

Later du Ponts added to the size and scope of the family’s commercial empire. Among them was Alfred Victor, Irénée’s eldest son, who followed his own concise advice: “Make it safer. Make it better.” In spite of a number of explosions (which he deeply lamented) at his powder plants, Alfred got along well with workers, never driving them to strike his company. One possible reason for this rapport was the unusual amount of contact between du Pont children and those of du Pont Company employees, many of whom played and went to school together.

Alfred may have been loved by his workers and may have worked hard at his job, yet it took his energetic brother Henry to “make things happen” in the years preceding and directly following the Civil War. Known for his John D. Rockefeller-like cheapness and shrewdness, “Boss Henry” ruled strictly yet benevolently. Although the approach of the war would divide the du Ponts for the first time, Henry made certain that the company—and his home state of Delaware—were kept in the Union ranks.

The du Pont Company flourished dramatically during the Civil War and was able to pay old debts and expand its operations. After the war, it dominated the powder trade, especially after its directors formed the Gunpowder Trade Association from the “Big Three” powder manufacturers of the day, thus achieving a stranglehold on industry prices. Gates, however, overlooks the ethical implications of this kind of trust-formation, choosing instead to concentrate on other matters.

Still later, in 1902, the du Pont Company grew greatly in power and wealth in the hands of Pierre, Coleman, and “Colonel Henry” du Pont, who took the advice of Alfred I and decided to capture control of their rival powder company, Laflin and Rand, in a $5.5 million deal. Following some intricate (and possibly illegal) maneuverings, the company executed the takeover, after which they controlled the entire powder industry without any competition from other companies. By creating a monopoly, the du Ponts in 1911 fell afoul of the new Sherman Antitrust Act, under which they were sued by the federal government. The outcome of the suit was momentous: du Pont was forced to sell two of its assets,...

(The entire section is 1804 words.)