- Historic Sites
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
For example, the novelist Hamlin Garland visited the steel towns from which the Carnegie millions came and bore away a description of work that was ugly, brutal, and exhausting: he contrasted the lavish care expended on the plants with the callous disregard of the pigsty homes: “the streets were horrible; the buildings poor; the sidewalks sunken and full of holes … Everywhere the yellow mud of the streets lay kneaded into sticky masses through which groups of pale, lean men slouched in faded garments ” When the famous Homestead strike erupted in 1892, with its private army of Pinkerton detectives virtually at war with the workers, the Carnegie benevolence seemed revealed as shabby fakery. At Skibo Carnegie stood firmly behind the company’s iron determination to break the strike. As a result, public sentiment swung sharply and suddenly against him; the St. Louis PostDispatch wrote : “Three months ago Andrew Carnegie was a man to be envied. Today he is an object of mingled pity and contempt. In the estimation of ninetenths of the thinking people on both sides of the ocean he has … confessed himself a moral coward.”
In an important sense the newspaper was right. For though Carnegie continued to fight against “privilege,” he saw privilege only in its fading aristocratic vestments and not in the new hierarchies of wealth and power to which he himself belonged. In Skibo Castle he now played the role of the benign autocrat, awakening to the skirling of his private bagpiper and proceeding to breakfast to the sonorous accompaniment of the castle organ.
Meanwhile there had also come fame and honors in which Carnegie wallowed unashamedly. He counted the “freedoms” bestowed on him by grateful or hopeful cities and crowed, “I have fifty-two and Gladstone has only seventeen.” He entertained the King of England and told him that democracy was better than monarchy, and met the German Kaiser: “Oh, yes, yes,” said the latter worthy on being introduced. “I have read your books. You do not like kings.” But Mark Twain, on hearing of this, was not fooled. “He says he is a scorner of kings and emperors and dukes,” he wrote, “whereas he is like the rest of the human race: a slight attention from one of these can make him drunk for a week …”
And yet it is not enough to conclude that Carnegie was in fact a smaller man than he conceived himself. For this judgment overlooks one immense and irrefutable fact. He did, in the end, abide by his self-imposed duty. He did give nearly all of his gigantic fortune away.
As one would suspect, the quality of the philanthropy reflected the man himself. There was, for example, a huge and sentimentally administered private pension fund to which access was to be had on the most trivial as well as the most worthy grounds: if it included a number of writers, statesmen, scientists, it also made room for two maiden ladies with whom Carnegie had once danced as a young man, a boyhood acquaintance who had once held Carnegie’s books while he ran a race, a merchant to whom he had once delivered a telegram and who had subsequently fallen on hard times. And then, as one would expect, there was a benevolent autocracy in the administration of the larger philanthropies as well. “Now everybody vote Aye,” was the way Carnegie typically determined the policies of the philanthropic “foundations” he established.
Yet if these flaws bore the stamp of one side of Carnegie’s personality, there was also the other side—the side that, however crudely, asked important questions and however piously, concerned itself with great ideals. Of this the range and purpose of the main philanthropies gave unimpeachable testimony. There were the famous libraries—three thousand of them costing nearly sixty million dollars; there were the Carnegie institutes in Pittsburgh and Washington, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Hague Peace Palace, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the precedent-making Carnegie Corporation of New York, with its original enormous endowment of $125,000,000. In his instructions to the trustees of this first great modern foundation, couched in the simplified spelling of which he was an ardent advocate, we see Carnegie at his very best: Conditions on erth [sic] inevitably change; hence, no wise man will bind Trustees forever to certain paths, causes, or institutions. I disclaim any intention of doing so … My chief happiness, as I write these lines lies in the thot [sic] that, even after I pass away, the welth [sic] that came to me to administer as a sacred trust for the good of my fellow men is to continue to benefit humanity …
If these sentiments move us—if Carnegie himself in retrospect moves us at last to grudging respect—it is not because his was the triumph of a saint or a philosopher. It is because it was the much more difficult triumph of a very human and fallible man struggling to retain his convictions in an age, and in the face of a career, which subjected them to impossible temptations. Carnegie is something of America writ large; his is the story of the Horatio Alger hero after he has made his million dollars. In the failures of Andrew Carnegie we see many of the failures of America itself. In his curious triumph, we see what we hope is our own steadfast core of integrity.
Robert L. Heilbroner—the author of The Worldly Philosophers, The Quest for Wealth , and, most recently, The Future as History —is a free-lance writer who has specialized in economics and published in numerous national magazines.