Ward disposed to sharp study of ancestor
A DISPOSITION TO BE RICH. By Geoffrey C. Ward. Knopf. 413 pages. $28.95
As one of our nation’s foremost writers of biography and history, Geoffrey Ward here takes on history of a more personal nature, writing about his great-grandfather, Ferdinand Ward.
But it is our American history as well since Ferdinand Ward was a business partner of the son of President Ulysses S. Grant.
Ferdinand’s financial maneuverings bankrupted Grant as well as thousands of others in a pyramid scheme on the scale of Bernie Madoff.
The author goes into great detail describing his Puritan ancestors and analyzing the elements that created the manipulative and self-serving Ferdinand.
Few people know as much about their parents, much less about earlier generations of their family. While interesting as a case study, some may find it a bit too detailed.
The story really begins when Ward finally gets to his great-grandfather. We are shown the inner workings of 19th-century banking, unfettered by even a fraction of the safeguards and restrictions that today’s bankers live by.
Ward explains it well and in a way that even the financially naive should be able to grasp. It is fascinating to observe the ways in which so many deceive themselves.
We are shown case after case where those who should know better pocket the profits and fail to listen to their own better judgment telling them that such high returns over such a long period were not likely to be real. It was the classic “get rich quick” scenario.
We are given an in-depth story of a man without a conscience, one who manipulated and fooled even those who knew him well.
Ward’s insight into Ferdinand’s personality and psychological shortcomings combined with extensive historical research combine to provide a consuming tale.
At the beginning, Ward quotes George Bernard Shaw: “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” Ward does just that.
Reviewer Iris Silk, a writer based in Charleston