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Epitaph For The Steel Master
Who dies rich, dies disgraced, said Andrew Carnegie. An economist re-examines his brash career in the light of that noble philosophy
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
Toward the end of his days, at the close of World War I, Andrew Carnegie was already a kind of national legend. His meteoric rise, the scandals and successes of his industrial generalship—all this was blurred into nostalgic memory. What was left was a small, rather feeble man with a white beard and pale, penetrating eyes, who could occasionally be seen puttering around his mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, a benevolent old gentleman who still rated an annual birthday interview but was even then a venerable relic of a fastdisappearing era. Carnegie himself looked back on his career with a certain savored incredulity. “How much did you say I had given away, Poynton?” he would inquire of his private secretary; “$324,657,399” was the answer. “Good Heaven!” Carnegie would exclaim. “Where did f ever get all that money?”
Where he had got all that money was indeed a legendary story, for even in an age known for its acquisitive triumphs, Carnegie’s touch had been an extraordinary one. He had begun, in true Horatio Alger fashion, at the bottom; he had ended, in a manner that put the wildest of Alger’s novels to shame, at the very pinnacle of success. At the close of his great deal with J. P. Morgan in 1901, when the Carnegie steel empire was sold to form the core of the new United States Steel Company, the banker had extended his hand and delivered the ultimate encomium of the times: “Mr. Carnegie,” he said, “I want to congratulate you on being the richest man in the world.”
It was certainly as “the richest man in the world” that Carnegie attracted the attention of his contemporaries. Yet this is hardly why we look hack on him with interest today. As an enormous money-maker Carnegie was a ilashy, but hardly a profound, hero of the times; and the attitudes of Earnestness and SelfAssurance, so engaging in the young immigrant, become irritating when they are congealed in the millionaire. But what lifts Carnegie’s life above the rut of a one-dimensional success story is an aspect of which his contemporaries were relatively unaware.
Going through his papers after his death, Carnegie’s executors came across a memorandum that he had written to himself fifty years before, carefully preserved in a little yellow box of keepsakes and mementos. It brings us back to December, 1868, when Carnegie, a young man Hushed with the first taste of great success, retired to his suite in the opulent Hotel St. Nicholas in New York, to tot up his profits for the year. It had been a tremendous year and the calculation must have been extremely pleasurable. Yet this is what he wrote as he reflected on the figures: Thirty-three and an income of $50,000 per annum! By this time two years I can so arrange all my business as to secure at least $50,000 per annum. Beyond this never earn—make no effort to increase fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes. Cast aside business forever, except for others.
Settle in Oxford and get a thorough education, making the acquaintance of literary men—this will take three years of active work—pay especial attention to speaking in public. Settle then in London and purchase a controlling interest in some newspaper or live review and give the general management ol it attention, taking part in public matters, especially those connected with education and improvement of the poorer classes.
Man must have an idol—the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry—no idol more debasing than the worship of money. Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately; therefore should I be careful to choose that life which will be the most elevating in its character. To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery. I will resign business at thirty-five, but during the ensuing two years I wish to spend the afternoons in receiving instruction and in reading systematically.
It is a document which in more ways than one is Carnegie to the very life: brash, incredibly self-confident, chockablock with self-conscious virtue—and more than a little hypocritical. For the program so nobly outlined went largely unrealized. Instead of retiring in two years, Carnegie went on for thirty-three more; even then it was with considerable difficulty that he was persuaded to quit. Far from shunning further money-making, he proceeded to roll up his fortune with an uninhibited drive that led one unfriendly biographer to characterize him as “the greediest little gentleman ever created.” Certainly he was one of the most aggressive profit seekers of his time. Typically, when an associate jubilantly cabled: “No. 8 furnace broke all records today,” Carnegie coldly replied, “What were the other furnaces doing?”
It is this contrast between his hopes and his performance that makes Carnegie interesting. For when we review his life, what we sec is more than the career of another nineteenth-century acquisitor. We see the unequal struggle between a man who loved moneyloved making it, having it, spending it—and a man who, at bottom, was ashamed of himself lor his acquisitive desires. All during his lifetime, the moneymaker seemed to win. But what lifts Carnegie’s story out of the ordinary is that the other Carnegie ultimately triumphed. At his death public speculation placed the size of his estate at about five hundred million dollars. In fact it came to $22,881,575. Carnegie had become the richest man in the world—but something had also driven him to give away ninety per cent of his wealth.