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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
Actually, his contemporaries knew of Carnegie’s inquietude about money. In i88g, before he was worldfamous, he had written an article for the North American Review entitled “The Gospel of Wealth”—an article that contained the startling phrase: “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” It was hardly surprising, however, if the world took these sentiments at a liberal discount: homilctic millionaires who preached the virtues of austerity were no novelty; Carnegie himself, returning in i8^g from a trip to the miseries of India, had been able to write with perfect sincerity, “How very little the millionaire has beyond the peasant, and how very often his additions tend not to happiness but to misery.”
What the world may well have underestimated, however, was a concern more deeply rooted than these pieties revealed. For, unlike so many of his selfmade peers, who also rose from poverty, Carnegie was the product of a radical environment. The village of Dunfermlinc, Scotland, when he was born there in 1835, was renowned as a center of revolutionary ferment, and Carnegie’s family was itself caught up in the radical movement of the times. His father was a regular speaker at the Chartist rallies, which were an almost daily occurrence in Dunfermline in the iS^o’s, and his uncle was an impassioned orator for the rights of the working class to vote and strike. All this made an indelible impression on Carnegie’s childhood.
“I remember as it it were yesterday,” lie wrote seventy years later, “being awakened during the night by a tap at the bark window by men who had come to inform my parents that my uncle, Bailie Morrison, had been thrown in jail because he dared to hold a meeting which had been forbidden … It is not to be wondered at that, nursed amid such surroundings, I developed into a violent young Republican whose motto was ‘death to privilege.’ ”
From another uncle, George Lauder, Carnegie absorbed a second passion that was also to reveal itself in his later career. This was his love of poetry, first that of the poet Burns, with its overtones of romantic cgalitarianism, and then later, of Shakespeare. Immense quantities of both were not only committed to memory, but made into an integral—indeed, sometimes an embarrassingly evident—part of his life: on first visiting the Doge’s palace in Venice he thrust a companion in the ducal throne and held him pinioned there while he orated the appropriate speeches from Othello . Once, seeing Vanderbilt walking on Fifth Avenue, Carnegie smugly remarked, “I would not exchange his millions for my knowledge of Shakespeare.”
But it was more than just a love of poetry that remained with Carnegie. Virtually alone among his fellow acquisitors, he was driven by a genuine respect for the power of thought to seek answers for questions that never even occurred to them. Later, when he “discovered” Herbert Spencer, the English sociologist, Carnegie wrote to him, addressing him as “Master,” and it was as “Master” that Spencer remained, even after Carnegie’s lavishness had left Spencer very much in his debt.
But Carnegie’s early life was shaped by currents more material than intellectual. The grinding process of industrial change had begun slowly but ineluctably to undermine the cottage weaving that was the traditional means of employment in Dunfermline. The Industrial Revolution, in the shape of new steam mills, was forcing out the hand weavers, and one by one the looms which constituted the entire capital of the Carnegie family had to be sold. Carnegie never forgot the shock of his father returning home to tell him, in despair, “Andra, I can get nae mair work.”
A family council of war was held, and it was decided that there was only one possible course—they must try their luck in America, to which two sisters of Carnegie’s mother, Margaret, had already emigrated. With the aid of a few friends the money for the crossing was scraped together, and at thirteen Andrew found himself transported to the only country in which his career would have been possible.
It hardly got off to an auspicious start, however. The family made their way to Allegheny, Pennsylvania, a raw and bustling town where Carnegie’s i’ather again sought work as an independent weaver. But it was as hopeless to compete against the great mills in America as in Scotland, and soon father and son were forced to seek work in the local cotton mills. There Andrew worked from six in the morning until six at night, making $1.20 as a bobbin boy.
After a while his father quit—Factory work was impossible for the traditional small enterpriser—and Andrew got a “better” job with a new firm, tending an engine deep in a dungeon cellar and dipping newly made cotton spools in a vat of oil. Even the raise to $3 a week—and desperately conjured visions of Wallace and the Bruce—could not overcome the horrors of that lonely and foul-smelling basement. It was perhaps the only time in Carnegie’s life when his selfassurance deserted him: to the end of his days the merest whiff of oil could make him deathly sick.