Date Posted: September 2011
In mid-1894, shortly after the death of David Dudley Field (one of the most powerful and famous, and least-loved, American lawyers of the 19th century), lawyer-journalist Irving Browne published an implausibly laudatory anecdote about Field, based on a letter in which Field claimed to have engaged in a longstanding act of secret philanthropy that was wholly out of character. An experienced observer of public affairs in 1894, or in 2011, surely could be forgiven for doubting the veracity of such a self-serving, out-of-character story, told only posthumously by a friendly journalist, and with no evidence to back it up. The Gilded Age was, after all, a time when politicians and power-mongers like Field could rely on select reporters and editors to serve as virtual publicists – mixing innuendo with truths, half-truths, and non-truths (often supplied by unidentified sources) in news stories that boosted their favorites. Neither Browne nor anyone else seems to have made any effort to verify Field’s story, even though there were seemingly easy ways to do so. It is perhaps for those reasons that Browne’s parable of the secretly saintly David Dudley Field, revealed only post-mortem in all the glory of his selfless kindness and generosity, was largely ignored at the time and has been ever since. But the story is true, or true at least as to Field’s initial generosity. And there is evidence to back it up.