Three Islands, Political Power, and Environmentalism

Mount Desert Island, Maine, is the prototype Establishment enclave in America. There are three of them, all islands: Mt. Desert, Jeckyl (Georgia), and Jupiter (Florida). Mt. Desert Island is where a major aspect of the modern environmental movement was created: the lock-out.

In 1910, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought a 104-room granite mansion there, importing tiles from the Great Wall of China. [Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), p. 97.] Rockefeller then used Mount Desert Island as his first great experiment in permanently sequestering property away from the free market, which has an unappreciated tendency to develop properties aimed for sale to middle-class buyers.

Rockefeller and his elite neighbors — Edsel Ford was one of them — were concerned about “overdevelopment.” [John Ensor Harr and Peter J. Johnson, The Rockefeller Century (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), p. 199.] This is an elitist code word for “real estate sales to the upper middle class.” They created an association and donated 5,000 acres to it; then they gave it to the Federal government. President Wilson used executive authority in 1916 to create a special monument; in 1919, Congress passed a law making it Lafayette National Park. Junior bought more land and donated it to the government; this is now Acadia National Park.

He and his peers repeatedly adopted the lock-out strategy, using tax-deductible money, to remove prime real estate from the market in wilderness areas surrounding elite enclaves. This raises the value of the remaining properties, and it secures an insulated social world for them. The area around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is one of the prime areas where the Rockefellers own large tracts. This area has long been the focus of a Rockefeller-inspired lock-out, beginning in 1919. [Harr & Johnson, pp. 201-211.] Land values there reflect this: astronomical. But the original model was Mount Desert Island.

The Rockefeller family biographers say of Junior’s role: “Very shortly, he became a towering figure, the greatest ally the National Park Service ever had.” [Ibid., p. 198.] The assistance was mutual. The National Park Service provides the authority to keep the rest of us out of these areas on a permanent basis.

This program to seal off prime wilderness areas from economic development had its origins in the special role of wilderness in the coming of age for the sons of the super-rich. It is one of the three ordeals of youth and early manhood: the wilderness summer (wealthy scion Teddy Roosevelt is the most famous exemplar); the academy (Exeter, Groton, etc.), and military service in wartime (again, Roosevelt the “Rough Rider” is most famous). [Nelson Aldrich, Jr., Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America (New York: Knopf, 1988), ch. 5: “Three Ordeals.”] Mount Desert Island has been a big part of this. [Ibid., pp. 164, 166.] Nelson Aldrich, Jr., as part of the Old Money Establishment, is quite forthright about environmentalism’s social function for the Establishment: “The social religion of Nature, which began with rich kids going outdoors for their health, ends in political action against the condo developers, the shopping-mall impresarios, the army of entrepreneurs whom Old Money (and not Old Money alone) imagines despoiling Arcadia.” [Ibid., p. 169.]

The economics of the environmental movement points to an interest group that is more permanent and far better organized politically than part-time nature-lovers who backpack along the John Muir Trail during one memorable summer vacation at age 19. Economist Thomas Sowell, who grew up in rural North Carolina and urban Harlem during the Great Depression and war years, has put his insightful finger on the problem: the non-rich have too much money in the aggregate for the minority rich to compete against successfully. The non-rich are foreclosing on the rich because they have more money. “There are infinitely more of them, and real estate dealers and developers would rather get $10 million from 10,000 people than get $1 million from one millionaire.” [Sowell, Pink and Brown People and Other Controversial Essays (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1981), p. 104.] The rich have found a way to fight back.

In the natural course of economic events, the non-rich would end up taking more and more land and shore away from the rich. Spectacular homes with spectacular views would be replaced by mundane apartment buildings with only moderately pleasant vistas. A doctor or movie mogul who can now walk the beach in front of his house in splendid isolation would be replaced by whole families of ordinary grubby mortals seeking a respite from the asphalt and an occasional view of the sunset.

The climax of the story is when the affluent heroes are rescued by the government. In the old days, this used to be the cavalry, but nowadays it is more likely to be the zoning board or the coastal commission. They decree that the land cannot be used in ways that would make it accessible to the many, but only in ways accessible to the few. Legal phrasing is of course more elaborate and indirect than this, but that is what it all boils down to. This is called “preserving the environment” (applause) from those who would “misuse” it (boos).

Where the Elite Meet to Eat

On Mount Desert, Bar Harbor and Seal Harbor are where the elite have built their homes for almost a century. I love those town names — Bar, as in barring off the masses, and Seal, as in sealing off the masses. As William Hutchison has described it, “On Mount Desert, year after year, Browns and Peabodys of the religious establishment vacationed with Eliots, Rockefellers, and Peppers — that is, with education, business, and political leadership.” [William R. Hutchison, “Protestantism as Establishment,” in Hutchison, ed., Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 10. See also Collier and Horowitz, The Rockefellers, p. 147.]

American church historian George Marsden hints at the island’s existence and importance: “The major university founders, such as White [Cornell], Gilman [California, Johns Hopkins], Angell [Michigan], and Eliot [Harvard], kept in close touch and sometimes vacationed in the same vicinity in Maine.” [George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 196.] He does not elaborate.

The man known in the 1950’s as the Chairman of the American Establishment, John J. McCloy, spent his middle-class youth on the island prior to World War I, where his mother was the favored hairdresser of wives of the elite. [Kai Bird, The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), pp. 30, 54-55.] From that crucial geographical entry point, he made the personal contacts that led to his becoming the most influential private citizen in the United States, and presumably the world, from 1949 to at least 1970, and possibly into the early 1980’s. [Alan Brinkley, “Minister Without Portfolio,” Harper’s (Feb. 1983).] Geography has consequences.

We could use detailed studies of the well-connected residents of the three Island enclaves of the American Establishment: prior to World War II, Mount Desert and Jekyl (Georgia); beginning in the early 1930’s and accelerating after 1945, Jupiter, located in Florida’s Hobe Sound.

Jeckyl Island, where J. P. Morgan had a home, as did William Rockefeller, John D. Senior’s brother, was where the secret meeting — first names only — was held in 1910 to plan the Federal Reserve System. This important meeting is rarely mentioned in history textbooks. See Thomas W. Lamont, Henry P. Davidson (New York: Harper & Bros., 1933), pp. 96-101; Nathaniel Wright Stephenson, Nelson W. Aldrich: A Leader in American Politics (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat, [1930] 1971), ch. 24: “Jekyl Island”; Thibaut de Saint Phalle, The Federal Reserve: An Intentional Mystery (New York: Praeger, 1985), p. 49. See also the oblique reference to this conference by one of the participants, Paul Warburg, in his authoritative history, The Federal Reserve System: Its Origin and Growth, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Macmillan, 1930), II:58.

Most historians think that a conspiracy theory of history is naive. This is why they are generally ignorant of these three islands and the social and economic background of their richest and longest-residing inhabitants. The few historians who know about these enclaves refuse to write much about this intriguing aspect of American history: a few side remarks and hints, perhaps, but nothing detailed. Walter Lippmann, a late-comer, bought property on Mt. Desert in the early 1940’s. He did not write about its importance.

The Old Boy Network is alive and well, and in the summers, they separate themselves by water from the rest of us.

November 10, 2000

Gary North is the author of a ten-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Sacrifice and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Acts. The series can be downloaded free of charge at

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts