In 1912 an irate representative at a U.S. congressional hearing accused William Nelson Cromwell of being “the most dangerous man this country has produced since the days of Aaron Burr – a professional revolutionist.” At first glance, it seems an odd charge to have been leveled at the founder of what has since become the nation’s archetypal white-shoe Wall Street firm: Sullivan & Cromwell. Or at the counselor who advised financier J.P. Morgan to form the United States Steel Corporation in 1901. Or at the fixer extraordinaire who, in 1916, managed to arrange for two former presidents of the United States – Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft – to appear as character witnesses for several banker clients who were then being tried on criminal charges. (The jury acquitted after ten minutes.)

But if Cromwell pioneered the concept of the modern corporate lawyer, he never typified the breed. The charge of the irate congressman, who was investigating Cromwell’s arguably manipulative role in the building of the Panama Canal, was not wholly without basis.

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