Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard was born in Speyer, in the Rhenish Palatinate of the Kingdom of Bavaria. His parents were Gustav Leonhard Hilgard and Katharina Antonia Elisabeth "Lisette" Pfeiffer. His father belonged to the Reformed Church, while Heinrich's mother was Roman Catholic. Both his parents were of well-known, upper-middle-class families.
While he had aristocratic tendencies, he shared the republican interests of much of the Hilgard clan. His granduncle, Theodore Erasmus Hilgard, had emigrated to the United States during a clan move of 1833-1835 to Belleville, Illinois. His granduncle had resigned a judgeship so his children could be raised as "freemen."
|Friedrich Heinrich Hilgard (Henry Villard) on left, at about age 13, with mother (center), sister Emma (right) and uncle Robert (top)|
|Revolutionary Demonstrations in Berlin, 1848|
|Friedrich Hecker, |
|Emile Erckmann |
and Alexandre Chatrian (on right)
Two of his uncles were strongly in sympathy with the revolution, but his father was a conservative, and disciplined him by sending the boy to continue his education at the French semi-military academy in Phalsbourg (1849–50). He showed up for classes a month early so he could be tutored in the French language by the novelist Alexandre Chatrian. He later attended the Gymnasium of Speyer in 1850-52.
In 1852, at age 17, he enrolled at Munich University, where he intended to dedicate his life to writing and literature. By joining an upper-class fraternity, however, he was distracted from learning and soon found himself in unbearable debt. His father threatened to enlist him in the Bavarian army, but relented and allowed him a second start as a student of law at the University of Wuerzburg.
In 1853, having had a disagreement with his father at the age of 18, he emigrated—without his parents' knowledge—to the United States.
On emigrating to America, he adopted the name Villard, the surname of a French schoolmate at Phalsbourg, to conceal his identity from anyone intent on making him return to Germany.
He later recalled: "My landing upon American soil took place under anything but auspicious circumstances. I was utterly destitute of money, had but a limited supply of wearing apparel, and that not suited to the approaching cold season, and I literally did not know a single person in New York or elsewhere in the Eastern States to whom I could not apply for help and counsel. To crown all, I could not speak a word of English." Another passenger on his ship kindly lent him $20. Henry did not find any work in New York, but he did receive $50 from his uncle in Belleville, who did not want him to come to stay with him. This gift allowed Henry to repay his loan to the passenger, and travel to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he hoped to find work among the large German population.
Douglas spoke first for an hour, followed by Lincoln for an hour and a half; upon which the former closed in another half hour. The Democratic spokesman commanded a strong, sonorous voice, a rapid, vigorous utterance, a telling play of countenance, impressive gestures, and all the other arts of the practiced speaker. As far as all external conditions were concerned, there was nothing in favor of Lincoln. He had a lean, lank, indescribably gawky figure, an odd-featured, wrinkled, inexpressive, and altogether uncomely face. He used singularly awkward, almost absurd, up-and-down and sidewise movements of his body to give emphasis to his arguments. His voice was naturally good, but he frequently raised it to an unnatural pitch. Yet the unprejudiced mind felt at once that, while there was on the one side a skillful dialectician and debater arguing a wrong and weak cause, there was on the other a thoroughly earnest and truthful man, inspired by sound convictions in consonance with the true spirit of American institutions. There was nothing in all Douglas’s powerful effort that appealed to the higher instincts of human nature, while Lincoln always touched sympathetic chords. Lincoln’s speech excited and sustained the enthusiasm of his audience to the end. When he had finished, two stalwart young farmers rushed on the platform, and, in spite of his remonstrances, seized and put him on their shoulders and carried him in that uncomfortable posture for a considerable distance. It was really a ludicrous sight to see the grotesque figure holding frantically to the heads of his supporters, with his legs dangling from their shoulders, and his pantaloons pulled up so as to expose his underwear almost to his knees. Douglas made dexterous use of this incident in his next speech, expressing sincere regret that, against his wish, he had used up his old friend Lincoln so completely that he had to be carried off the stage. Lincoln retaliated by saying at the first opportunity that he had known Judge Douglas long and well, but there was nevertheless one thing he could not say of him, and that was that the Judge always told the truth.
I was introduced to Lincoln at Freeport, and met him frequently afterwards in the course of the campaign. I must say frankly that, although I found him most approachable, good-natured, and full of wit and humor, I could not take a real personal liking to the man, owing to an inborn weakness for which he was even then notorious and so remained during his great public career. He was inordinately fond of jokes, anecdotes, and stories. He loved to hear them, and still more to tell them himself out of the inexhaustible supply provided by his good memory and his fertile fancy. There would have been no harm in this but for the fact that, the coarser the joke, the lower the anecdote, and the more risky the story, the more he enjoyed them, especially when they were of his own invention. He possessed, moreover, a singular ingenuity in bringing about occasions in conversation for indulgences of this kind.
I firmly believe that, if Stephen A. Douglas had lived, he would have had a brilliant national career. Freed by the Southern rebellion from all identification with pro-slavery interests, the road would have been open to the highest fame and position for which his unusual talents qualified him. As I took final leave of him and Lincoln, doubtless neither of them had any idea that within two years they would be rivals again in the Presidential race. I had it from Lincoln’s own lips that the United States Senatorship was the greatest political height he at the time expected to climb.
"My wife insists, however, that I am going to be Senator and President of the United States, too.” These last words he followed with a roar of laughter, with his arms around his knees, and shaking all over with mirth at his wife’s ambition. “Just think,” he exclaimed, “of such a sucker as me as President!” …
|Abraham Lincoln in 1858|
Villard supported the nomination of William Seward as the Republican candidate for president He was disappointed that Abraham Lincoln got the nomination: "I had not got over the prejudice against Lincoln with which my personal contact with him in 1858 imbued me. It seemed to me incomprehensible and outrageous that the uncouth, common Illinois politician, whose only experience in public life had been service as a member of the State legislature and in Congress for one term, should carry the day over the eminent and tried statesman, the foremost figure, indeed, in the country." Despite these opinions, as a reporter he followed Abraham Lincoln throughout the 1860 presidential campaign, and gave Lincoln his full support after his election as president. He was on the presidential train to Washington in 1861.
He worked as correspondent of the New York Herald in 1861. During the Civil War, he was a correspondent for the New York Tribune with the Army of the Potomac (1862–63) and was at the front as the representative of a news agency he established in 1864. Villard reported several of the major battles including Bull Run (July, 1861), Perryville (October, 1862), Fredericksburg (December, 1862), Murfreesboro (January, 1863) and the Wilderness (June, 1864). Out of his experiences reporting the Civil War, he became a confirmed pacifist.
While on a short vacation in Boston in 1863, Villard became acquainted with William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator and one of the most outspoken abolitionists of the time. He also met Garrison’s daughter, Helen Frances “Fanny” Garrison.
|William Lloyd Garrison |
and his daughter, Fanny
He married Fanny Garrison on January 3, 1866.
His son, Oswald Garrison Villard was born in Germany on March 13, 1872.
In April 1874 he returned to the United States to represent his constituents, and especially to execute an arrangement with the Oregon and California Railroad Company.
Villard first visited Portland, Oregon in July 1874. Visiting Oregon, he was impressed with the natural wealth of the region, and conceived the plan of gaining control of its few transportation routes. His clients, who were also large creditors also of the Oregon Steamship Company, approved his scheme, and in 1875 Villard became president of both the steamship company and the Oregon and California Railroad. In 1876, he was appointed a receiver of the Kansas Pacific Railroad as the representative of European creditors. He was removed in 1878, but continued the contest he had begun with Jay Gould, and finally obtained better terms for the bond holders than they had agreed to accept.
In 1879, Villard bought 100 acres and the important mansion, “Thorwood”, at Dobb’s Ferry, which he renovated and enlarged.
The Pacific Northwest was the booming sector of American expansion. In 1879, Villard formed an American syndicate which operated fleets of steamers and portage railroads on the Columbia River. The three companies that he controlled were amalgamated under the name of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company. He began the construction of a railroad up Columbia River. He then succeeded in obtaining a controlling interest in the Northern Pacific Railroad property, and organized a new corporation that was named the Oregon and Transcontinental Company. This acquisition was achieved with the aid of a syndicate, called by the press a “blind pool,” composed of friends who had loaned him $20 million without knowing his intentions. Villard was elected president of a reorganized board of directors on 15 September 1881.
A large portion of the $30 million of stock in the Northern Pacific Railway controlled by Villard had been invested by the Deutsche Bank of Germany.This bank, the largest bank in Germany, had been founded a short time earlier by Georg von Siemens, a brother of Werner von Siemens, the founder of the famous Siemens Company, a European leader in the electric industry.
With the aid of the Oregon and Transcontinental Company, his railroad line to the Pacific Ocean was completed, but at the time when it was opened to traffic in September 1883, the project had cost more than expected. Some months later these companies experienced a financial collapse. Villard's financial embarrassment caused the collapse of the stock exchange firm of Decker, Howell, & Co., and Villard's attorney, William Nelson Cromwell, used $1,000,000 to promptly settle with creditors. On 4 January 1884, Villard resigned the presidency of the Northern Pacific.
When Villard was forced out of the Northern Pacific Railway Company, he also had to leave his beautiful new residence in New York, where large groups of unhappy investors congregated daily and threatened him. Villard and his family moved temporarily to his native Palatinate in Germany, where they were celebrated for their philanthropies. Later they moved to Berlin, where they resided for two years in style on the Kurfürstendamm. Thomas Edison asked him to assist in the reorganization of the German Edison company, the Deutsche Edison Gesellschaft. Werner von Siemens was greatly impressed by Henry Villard and promptly appointed him as the new representative of Siemens in the United States. At the same time, Werner’s brother, Georg von Siemens, founder and president of the Deutsche Bank, offered Villard a position of defining and implementing future industrial investments of his bank in the United States.
In 1881, he acquired the New York Evening Post and The Nation. These publications were then edited by his friend Horace White in conjunction with Edwin Godkin and Carl Schurz.
In 1883, he paid the debt of the University of Oregon, and gave the institution $50,000. Villard Hall, the second building on campus, was named after him.
He also donated money to Harvard University, Columbia University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History.
|Memorial Church in Speyer|
In Speyer, he was a main benefactor for the construction of the Memorial Church and a new hospital. In Germany, he was still known as Heinrich Hilgard, and a street was named after him (Hilgardstrasse). In Zweibrücken he built an orphanage in 1891. He has also financed a school for nurses. He devoted large sums to the Industrial Art School of Rhenish Bavaria, and to the foundation of fifteen scholarships for the youth of that province.
Villard, with Thomas Edison, merged the Edison Lamp Company of Newark, New Jersey, and the Edison Machine Works at Schenectady, New York, to form the Edison General Electric Company. Villard was the president of this concern until 1893, when he retired. The large Thomson-Houston Company was consolidated with the Edison General Electric Company and renamed the “General Electric Company.”
|Monument at Villard's Grave|
|Back of Villard Monument|
His only son, Oswald Garrison Villard, took over his business interests.
|Oswald Garrison Villard|
|Fanny Garrison Villard|