Rich Man’s Burden

The steely resolve of Andrew Carnegie

If generalizations about national character and national callings were as unreliable as some people purport to think, then the names MacAdam and MacIntosh would not have entered everyday language (albeit abbreviated as the words tarmac and mac). Scots like to boast of the number of practical and engineered devices that their sons have given the world (John Logie Baird’s first TV set might be another, if less eponymous, example), and it used to be said that if you shouted “Mac!” down the hatch to the engine room on any ship in the British Empire, the chief mechanic would very soon make his appearance on deck. (This tradition survived into the naming of “Scotty,” the only man who knew how to keep the Starship Enterprise functioning and on course.) And native enterprise, too, is considered by the thrifty Scots to have been the air that was breathed by that great son of St. Andrews, Adam Smith, the modest herald of modern capitalism.

In contrast, or perhaps in counterpart, the other great tradition of Scotland is rebellion and political radicalism, from Robert Burns to James Keir Hardie to the Red Clydeside. An accompaniment to this is a fierce emphasis on, and respect for, education, especially of the self-taught or self-acquired variety. If one takes any or all of these indicators as typical, then Andrew Carnegie of Dunfermline, Fife, would have been the very personification of a Scotsman.

To say that this is not how he has come down to us would be an understatement. For decades, his name was inseparable from the two stock phrases (robber baron and Gilded Age) that were allowed to define late-nineteenth-century American industrialism. John Dos Passos makes him a no-less stock character in The 42nd Parallel, the first volume of the U.S.A. trilogy, in which someone has to embody—as in an E. L. Doctorow cameo—the figure of the incarnate acquisitionist. When I taught at the University of Pittsburgh, in the 1990s, the remains of the old Homestead steel plant were much visited by both locals and tourists, either as a museum of the American Rust Belt or as a shrine to the Gettysburg of the lutte de classe. Elsewhere in the city, if a gallery or museum or university was not named for Andrew Carnegie, it was named for one or another of his partners or rivals in the shape of either a Mellon or a Frick. This was widely viewed as the tribute, in the form of conscience money, that had been originally raised from the blood of the toilers. In cities with less radical traditions, Carnegie and his benefactions were regarded with equal simplicity as the living proof of the American dream and the Horatio Alger principle. The great strength of this immense biography is the way in which David Nasaw causes these tributaries—capitalism, radicalism, and educational aspiration—to converge like the three rivers (the Allegheny, the Ohio, and the Monongahela) whose confluence makes the site of Pittsburgh possible.

Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835, the son of a weaver who was a tenant of the vast estate of Lord Elgin, delapidator of the Parthenon. His early memories were of the Chartist agitation by which, for the first time, the more educated British workers attempted to secure not just economic but political reform, demanding their own voice in Parliament and an end to the tyranny of the hereditary nobles lampooned by Burns in “For A’ That.” Though the struggle was very advanced for its time and did eventually lead to enfranchisement, it was powerless to halt the decline of the smaller weaving towns. The Carnegies were compelled to do what many had done before them, and board a ship for the United States.

Nasaw reminds us of a time that many people have forgotten: that period of the “Hungry ’40s” when the United States was considered by the radicals of Europe to be a lantern of liberty, equality, and fraternity. (It was to try to dispel this very illusion that Charles Dickens wrote his American Notes and, later, his dreadful novel Martin Chuzzlewit.) Young Andrew was almost as excited by America as Chuzzlewit himself: no kings or aristos, no distinctions of rank, no established church or clerisy (he was always hostile to the Calvinism of so many Scots), free land under the Homestead Act, and a chance for every aspiring lad. Dos Passos lampooned the myth and the man in a sub-Joycean manner in the “Prince of Peace” section of The 42nd Parallel:

Andrew Carnegie
was born in Dunfermline in Scotland,
came over to the States in an immigrant
ship worked as bobbinboy in a textile factory
fired boilers
clerked in a bobbin factory at $2.50 a week
ran round Philadelphia with telegrams as a Western Union messenger
learned the Morse code was telegraph operator on the Pennsy lines
was a military telegraph operator in the Civil War and
always saved his pay;
whenever he had a dollar he invested it …

The sarcasm goes on, hymning Carnegie’s many successful investments, until the conclusion:

Andrew Carnegie gave millions for peace
and libraries and scientific institutes and endowments and thrift
whenever he made a billion dollars he endowed an institution to promote universal peace
except in time of war.
Presented by

Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In