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The Rich Man’s Burden And How Andrew Carnegie Unloaded It
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
On one of the last nights of the year 1868, Andrew Carnegie, who had recently moved to New York from Pittsburgh and was living with his mother in the elegant St. Nicholas Hotel, sat down at his desk to total up his various investments and his annual returns from those investments. It was an impressive statement of accomplishment for a man who, as a child of thirteen, had accompanied his parents in steerage class from Scotland to America and had found his first employment as a bobbin boy in a textile mill at $1.20 a week. Now, twenty years later, he had assets of four hundred thousand dollars and an annual income of $56, no. How gratifying it all should have been! Yet, in a curious way, it was not entirely satisfying. Carnegie had for some time realized that most of the successful men he had encountered were men with one ambition —money, and with but one talent—the ability to get it. He could not help comparing these business associates with the heroes of his childhood, Uncle Tom Morrison, Uncle George Lauder, and his father, radical Chartists who would discourse at length upon literature, history, politics, and economics.
The end of the year for a Scottish Calvinist is a time for sober reflection, for pondering upon man’s sinful frailty and God’s awesome majesty. Carnegie had, to be sure, never accepted the Calvinist view of either man or God, but the ethos of Scotland was bred into him. With all the introspection of a Jonathan Edwards or a John Knox, he took a hard, unpitying look at himself. Then he wrote down another kind of balance sheet to accompany his statement of business holdings: Man must have an idol—The amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolitary [sic]. No idol more debasing than the worship of money. Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately therefor 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 …
Carnegie, however, did not resign business at thirty-five. For the next thirty-two years he continued to “push inordinately,” and by 1900 he had built a steel empire so vast and so independently powerful that it endangered even the complex, interlocking financial world of J. P. Morgan. In February, 1901, Morgan, representing all of those interests in steel products and railroads that were threatened by Carnegie’s ever-expanding empire, offered to buy Carnegie Steel and quickly accepted Carnegie’s price of $480,000,000. Paying a visit to Carnegie’s home, Morgan shook the Scotsman’s hand and said, “Mr. Carnegie, I want to congratulate you on being the richest man in the world!”
And, during all of these years, Carnegie’s note, written in 1868 and addressed to himself, had lain in his desk, undisturbed, yet ever disturbing to his self-esteem. Now with this vast fortune in first mortgage, 5 per cent gold bonds of the newly created United States Steel Corporation in his possession, Carnegie turned his full attention away from getting to giving—to debasing the idol at whose altar he had so long and so successfully worshipped. Carnegie was under no illusions about the problems that would confront him. His friend John Morley, an English statesman, had written him a month after the sale to Morgan had been consummated, “I say to you what Johnson said to Burke, when B. showed him his fine house, ‘I don’t envy, I do admire.’ You’ll have some difficulty, tho’ in adapting the principles of accumulation to the business of distribution.” To which Carnegie wrote in answer, ”… I don’t see it needs the same principles as acquisition—but it needs some of these. Tenacity and steady sailing to the haven we clear for—supreme confidence in one’s own ideas, or conclusions rather, after thought —and above all, placing use above popularity.” These were qualities of character with which Carnegie had proved himself to be well endowed, but he also showed a quality of capriciousness that often made his philanthropic gestures—or lack of them—an enigma to those soliciting him for aid.
Yet Carnegie would always believe that his philanthropic practices, like his business practices, were based upon rational, systematic principles. These principles in some respects made his task of giving more difficult but, he felt, far more so’cially significant and beneficial than the simple random distribution of largess. He had explained his system in a remarkable two-part essay entitled “Wealth,” which appeared in the June and December, 1889, issues of the North American Review .
Carnegie’s essay created a considerable stir when it first appeared, and deservedly so. The editor of the North American Review , Alien Thorndike Rice, called it the “finest article I have ever published in the Review.” It was quickly picked up in Britain, where it appeared in Pall Mall Gazette under the title “Gospel of Wealth.” It caught the attention of the reading public of two nations because of its candor, its specific proposals for the distribution of wealth, and, of course, because of its author—a well-known American millionaire who was openly critical of his own class.