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.

Indeed, some of Nasaw’s narrative cannot avoid sounding somewhat like the first half of this. (Carnegie’s early success even had a direct relationship with his greatest natural disadvantage: that of diminutive stature, which made people want to exempt him from physical labor. His sheer luck exceeds that of Denry Machin in Arnold Bennett’s The Card.) But an early note obtrudes itself. The boy was evidently rather embarrassed by his ineffectual father, and seems to have at least once pretended that he was dead. He killed him off three and a half years early in his Autobiography as well. Nasaw has no difficulty in showing this and other uplifting Carnegie books to be replete with stories that are improved rather than “improving.” One of the first of these is a case of what we would now call insider trading, whereby, in return for services rendered, the aspirant entrepreneur acquired some sleeping-car stock that was poised to leap in value. It would from then on be his habit to ensure that his careful investments were placed in companies that did business with his own, or were otherwise beholden to, or vulnerable to, him. Carnegie was an early believer in vertical and horizontal integration, or in what used vulgarly to be called monopoly.

There is a certain affected nostalgia these days for a supposed epoch when businessmen were engaged in making things rather than money. Andrew Carnegie was indeed interested in utility and technique, and in the details of manufacturing, but as Nasaw demonstrates, his claim not to have manipulated the stock market was just a part of his later “iron and steel” self-image:

From 1866, when he returned from his year-long tour of Europe, to 1872, when he entered the steel business, Carnegie would accumulate the fortune that was later reinvested in his steel mills by doing precisely what he would later condemn: buying and selling shares in companies whose assets he knew were worth far less than the value of their stock.

Another source of revenue was real-estate speculation, itself a candy-from-baby proposition for anyone who knew where railroad tracks were about to be laid. The same simple skill—of having a bridge-building company plus a partnership in the mill that supplied that company with its iron—enabled Carnegie to deal himself a considerable hand in the westward expansion mandated by President Andrew Johnson. With his keen all-rounder’s eye, Nasaw writes:

Carnegie had to raise capital himself by selling bridge bonds and stocks. But before he could do this, he had to get commitments from the railroads to pay tolls to use the proposed bridges, arrange for terminals and freight yards to be built, secure rights-of-way, purchase the needed land, and design the approachways. He then had to write up the prospectuses.

Bridge building, need it be said, is an honorable occupation, with distinguished ancestors such as Thomas Paine. It is also a good metaphor of humanism and benevolence. As he began to find himself rich, Carnegie began also to concern himself with the state of his soul. “The amassing of wealth,” he wrote in a memo to himself, was “one of the worst species of idolatry.” From then on he resolved to “make no effort to increase fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes.” That was in December 1868. His great period of amassment was still ahead of him.

The critical difference between his first accumulations and his later ones is, I think, that the second phase made of him a large-scale employer. Given the volatile state of the labor movement at the time (largely composed of immigrant strivers like himself) and the ruthless imperatives of capital, there was no avoiding a showdown over who was to be master. Carnegie took care to absent himself from the country during the bloody confrontations at Homestead in 1892, leaving Frick to take the fire (and literally at that, when he was shot in his office by Alexander Berkman), and this argues either an attack of conscience or a display of that hypocrisy that was not unknown in do-gooding nineteenth-century tycoons. The stain of it never left him. When Carnegie took his great public stand against President William McKinley’s annexation of the Philippine Islands, John Hay wrote, in a sarcastic letter, that Carnegie

says the Administration will fall in irretrievable ruin the moment it shoots down one insurgent Filipino. He does not seem to reflect that the Government is in a somewhat robust condition even after shooting down several citizens in his interests at Homestead.

This gibe echoes that of Dos Passos, but Nasaw very fairly shows that Carnegie was sincere in opposing imperialism and war. The industrialist’s voluminous writings on the subject make this plain. He was genuinely convinced that America should be a republic and not an empire. This did not involve him in any contradiction in theory (Adam Smith, too, had believed empires to be wasteful and inefficient), but in practice it did provide the rare spectacle of a defense contractor opposing the policies that would have crammed his coffers. Carnegie Steel furnished the armor plate for the United States Navy, but its proprietor argued for a reduction in fleets and for what would have been a precursor to the League of Nations. The energy that Carnegie expended on this cause was the equal of anything he had put into his titanic private empire of business.

If one had to summarize both the scope and the generosity of the man, as well as his impact, the best case might be that of his relationship with William Jennings Bryan. During the presidential campaign of 1896, Carnegie had done his considerable best—in essays and articles, and in massive contributions to Mark Hanna’s slush fund—to expose and defeat this crank and windbag on the sole issue of the gold standard. He spent a fortune directing propaganda at Bryan’s own base among the low-income voters in marginal states, and deserves some credit for McKinley’s victory in a hard-fought election. H. L. Mencken even thought it was possible that Bryan had really “won” it. But within a short time Carnegie was approaching the very man he had described as a charlatan, and inviting Bryan to join with him in opposing “the twin evils of imperialism and militarism” that were represented by McKinley’s policies in Cuba and the Philippines. Ultimately defeated, and eventually demoralized, in all his dreams of stopping that war—and the next one in South Africa, and the “Great” one that erupted in 1914—Carnegie failed even in his unusual promise to give away all his spare money. His death did not quite shield him from the sad realization that not even such a vast expenditure would have sufficed to ransom the world.

By David Nasaw

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