by Alan Taylor

Andrew Carnegie’s Vaulting Ambition

November 9, 2009 | by Alan Taylor

ANDREW Carnegie did not, as some revisionists insist, invent philanthropy or capitalism. However, he practised both arts as a master, the latter feeding the voracious appetite of the former. But it was not until his death in 1919 at the age of 83 that he finally achieved his ambition of divesting himself of his phenomenal wealth. He left an estate worth $26 million, having previously given away some $350 million, the equivalent today, estimates David Nasaw, of tens of billions of dollars.

His wife Louise, who was half his age and whom he married when he was past fifty, had happily signed a prenuptial agreement on their wedding day, giving her an annual income of $20,000, which would allow her to continue to live in some splendour. On his death, she also acquired Carnegie’s real estate, library, works of art, horses, carriages, cars and the contents of several dwellings. Shopping was something else Carnegie did consummately well.

It has been suggested that Carnegie decided to devote himself to philanthropy because of guilt. This was decidedly not the case as Nasaw, the least hagiographic of his biographers, is at pains to point out. “Contrary to a common, but quite mistaken notion,” writes Nasaw, “Carnegie began giving away his money long before he retired.” He also began to give it away several years before the violent breaking of the strike at his Homestead steel mill in 1892, in which hired guns from the Pinkerton Detective Agency killed numerous employees.

Homestead may have been Carnegie’s lowest hour but it was not what spurred him into giving. What his motives were is unclear. He was not, as Nasaw notes, someone like John D. Rockefeller who regarded philanthropy as a “religious duty” and began giving away significant sums from his first paycheck onwards. To Carnegie the story of the rich man unable to gain admittance into heaven through the eye of a needle was meaningless. Rather he was driven by a desire to improve the lot of the less well off. Giving also undoubtedly made him feel good. Quite simply, it was fun. What, after all, was he going to do with all that money?

Making money, though, was the means by which he could give so much away. It seems never to have occurred to him, however, that there was a contradiction at the heart of his philosophy which the events at Homestead magnified but could not resolve. Carnegie may have been able in his own mind to reconcile the need to make money in order to give it away while simultaneously driving down the wages of his workers but, even with the benefit of charitable hindsight, his behaviour seems cruelly bizarre.

That he was a top drawer schemer is beyond dispute, hoodwinking officials of the Knights of Labor, the predominant union in his mill, to accept a deal in which their members’ salaries went up when steel prices were high and went down when they dropped. What Carnegie appears not to have appreciated was that while men of means have the wherewithal to withstand fluctuations in the marketplace those much lower in the pecking order are soon thrown on the breadline when the amount of money coming onto households dramatically falls.

On that occasion Carnegie’s ploy failed. But the fact that he was willing to make such a proposition shows to what extent his philanthropy was at odds with his ethos as a ruthless businessman. Homestead, then, deserves the centrality given it by Nasaw. At the time events were beginning to unfold in Pittsburgh, Carnegie was enjoying his annual sojourn in the Highlands, being driven “behind four superb grays in the most elaborate coach that Scotland has ever seen upon its roads.” The night before, relates Nasaw, after dedicating yet another new library in Aberdeen, he had received a telegram from Henry Clay Frick, who was minding the store while Carnegie was at play: “Small plunge, our actions and position there unassailable and will work out satisfactorily.” At Braemar Carnegie was met by reporters but he refused to comment. He did, however, reply to Frick. “Cable receieved. All anxiety gone since you stand firm. Never employ one of those rioters. Let grass grow over works. Must not fail now. You will win easily next trial only stand firm law and order wish I could support you in any form.” Interviewed shortly thereafter Carnegie tried to distance himself from events 3,000-plus miles away. “I have nothing whatever to say. I have given up all active control of the business, and I do not care to interfere in any way with the present management’s conduct of this affair.”

Making money, Carnegie always humbly insisted was easy, which it probably is when you know how.
All it took, he reckoned, was luck, an eye for the main chance and a lack of anxiety over risk.

If one were inclined to be generous one might describe Carnegie’s reaction as disingenuous. It is hard, though, not to conclude that it was nothing less than a barefaced, shameful, cowardly lie. Carnegie, if not in “active control” of the business, was its power base and string puller and dynamic. He had approved the use of the Pinkertons and been privy to the plans to break the strike and gave Frick his instructions not to recognise the Amalgamated union. The idea that workers might be bussed in from elsewhere could not be countenanced by it. Apart from anything else Homestead was a company town. No work, meant nowhere to live. Nasaw quotes a contemporary journalist, Arthur Burgoyne: “The feeling of ownership had a place in the reasoning of these simple people. Many of them had bought and paid for their homes and were pillars of the borough government. Some were still paying for their dwellings….It was clearly impossible that men of substance, heads of families, solid citizens of a prosperous municipality could be rooted up, as it were, out of the soil in which they were so firmly planted and beaten to earth by the creature of their labour – for without labour, it was argued, capital would be impotent and valueless.”

In the face of such criticism, Carnegie kept his silence, which speaks volumes. Apropos Homestead, he told the editor of the Review of Reviews, “some day the story may be told.” But for Carnegie this was an episode best brushed under the carpet, the chapter in his life when he was unable to control events and their aftermath as he would have liked. Whatever gloss one puts on it, and however much one tries to see it from his distant point of view, there can be no other conclusion that Carnegie knew perfectly well what was happening and determined not to stop it. He may have regretted the loss of life, as Frick did, but he was in no way apologetic about the use of the Pinkertons or his right as the chief shareholder in Homestead to employ whomever he liked. After all, he was a capitalist living in a largely unregulated age when owners could wheel and deal pretty much as they pleased. Had he been in business today Carnegie would have been under scrutiny on several counts – illegal trading, insider dealing, fraud – but in the last decade of the nineteenth century nothing stuck. And, when it came to turning muck into brass, Carnegie was nonpareil. He was Midas.

Making money, Carnegie always humbly insisted, was easy, which it probably is when you know how. All it took, he reckoned, was luck, an eye for the main chance and a lack of anxiety over risk. In the beginning, though, it was his willingness to work which marked him out. Of Nasaw’s nearly 800 pages just twenty-three are devoted to his first twelve years spent in Dunfermline. This is the one undernourished part of this arm-breaking biography. The Dunfermline Carnegies were no slouches, neither politically, educationally or inventively. Nevertheless they, like so many others, were left in the mid-nineteenth century with no option but to leave Scotland and seek their fortunes in America. “The Carnegies were not,” writes Nasaw, “as most of the new immigrants were, ignorant peasants adrift in a strange, new world.” Carnegie’s father, Will, was a weaver, who came from a family who had little to do with the organised church in Scotland. The same was true of his beloved mother, Margaret, nee Morrison, whose family were “as close to practising atheists as anyone in mid-nineteenth-century Scotland.” Rather they were drawn – in Scotland and America – into the Church of the New Jerusalem and followed the tolerant teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. But enlightened as they were, they could not protect the Carnegies from the market forces which rendered Will’s job as a weaver redundant and which ‘Andra’ would later employ to such amazing effect in an America. Dunfermline, like Homestead, may have been “a one-industry town” but any similarities between the two seem to have been lost on Carnegie. Sympathetic he may have been to the conditions of the workers but when that threatened to impact on his own ability to produce steel and fulfill contracts he was an unreconstructed capitalist.

What distinguishes Nasaw from his predecessors is his ability to sift through the myths to reveal Carnegie in the raw. The first myth-maker, inevitably, was Carnegie himself whose autobiography is as trustworthy as a wonky signpost. Did he mean it to be so? Possibly not. Carnegie, like many rich men, told the stories so often about his early rise to wealth that he came himself to believe them. On the other hand, writing about Homestead, his memory was suspiciously selective. He apparently believed that union officials had sent him a telegram that read: “Kind master, tell us what you wish us to do and we will do it for you.” His first biographers were in his debt, as were many who followed, the recipients of Carnegie grants and favours. Nasaw’s bibliography records no Scottish biographers of their countryman. There is no mention, for example, of James Mackay’s insubstantial and unreliable Little Boss. Why, one wonders, are we so poor at writing biography, a genre we invented?

The Carnegie whom Nasaw presents is, for all his faults, strangely likeable and very recognisable. Like David Livingstone, say, or John Muir, he was much more a product of his upbringing that Nasaw thinks worthy of exploring. For Carnegie, as for Livingstone and Muir, wealth was not so much about what one had in the bank but in the head. The human mind was a vault worth packing and as soon as Carnegie had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his days – when he was in his mid-thirties – he went part-time and devoted himself to travelling and reading. It was from this impulse his charity sprang. The giving of knowledge to others through books and libraries was an immeasurable gift. That is Carnegie’s great legacy, for which we can forgive him a lot.


Andrew Carnegie;
by David Nasaw
The Penguin Press; £18.99;
pp 878 ISBN: 1-59420-104-8

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