Zachary KarabellJun 22, 2021
Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power
In 1800 a Belfast linen merchant named Alexander Brown emigrated with his wife and eldest son to Baltimore. Today his family’s name lives on in the investment firm Brown Brothers Harriman, a company that has long played an outsized role in American history. As Zachary Karabell details in his book Inside Money: Brown Brothers Harriman and the American Way of Power (Penguin, 2021), a key factor in its endurance over the country’s long and often tumultuous financial history has been the importance it has accorded to the values of trust and reputation which Alexander Brown championed. These he taught to his sons, who branched out beyond Baltimore and Liverpool and spearheaded the transition from trade into finance. By the second generation the Browns were fixtures in both London and New York, from where their respective firms endured the Civil War and grew as the country expanded.
By the end of the 19th century Brown Brothers was among the nation’s elite financial firms. Karabell shows how their founder’s values were shared by the others of a new emergent ruling, who were educated at a handful of top schools and who moved easily between finance and politics. Though Brown Brothers steered clear of the volatile transactions that were associated with the Gilded Age, they formed ties with some of its participants, most notably railroad tycoon and financier E. H. Harriman. It was the financial firm created by Harriman’s sons Averell and Roland that merged with Brown Brothers in 1930 to create Brown Brothers Harriman, which nurtured a generation of cabinet members, governors, and United States senators. As Karabell demonstrates, these leaders carried forward the ideals Alexander Brown advocated, which have not only shaped America’s role in the world but have ensured the firm’s survival while its counterparts around them have risen and fallen in the unrestrained pursuit of wealth.