The Rich Man’s Burden And How Andrew Carnegie Unloaded It


The thesis of the “Gospel” was simply and boldly stated: “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth.” To Carnegie there appeared only three alternatives by which a man of great wealth could dispose of his fortune: he could leave it to his family, he could bequeath it in his will for public purposes, or he could administer it during his lifetime for public benefit. Of the three, the least desirable both for society and for the individual was the first, and on this point Carnegie gave his oft-repeated homily on the evils of inherited wealth. The wife and daughters should be provided with moderate sources of income, he believed, but as for the sons, he felt that “The thoughtful man must shortly say, ‘I would as soon leave to my son a curse as the almighty dollar,’ and admit to himself that it is not the welfare of the children, but family pride, which inspires the legacies.”

The second alternative, while socially more responsible, is frequently thwarted by disappointed heirs contesting the will, he wrote. Even when a philanthropic bequest is successfully carried out, “it may be said that this is only a means for the disposal of wealth, provided a man is content to wait until he is dead before he becomes of much good in the world.” Carnegie approved of heavy inheritance taxes, or “death duties,” to ensure society’s reaping some benefits from the accumulation of wealth if either of the first two alternatives was chosen.

“There remains, then,” he wrote, “only one mode of using great fortunes; but in this we have the true antidote for the temporary unequal distribution of wealth, the reconciliation of the rich and the poor—a reign of harmony. … It is founded upon the present most intense Individualism and … under its sway we shall have an ideal State, in which the surplus wealth of the few will become, in the best sense, the property of the many, because administered for the common good, and this wealth, passing through the hands of the few, can be made a much more potent force for the elevation of our race than if distributed in small sums to the people themselves.” In short, the rich man should spend his fortune during his lifetime in ways that will most effectively benefit and advance society. “This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds which he is called upon to administer … the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

In the second part of his essay, Carnegie, at the request of the editor, presented “some of the best methods of performing this duty of administering surplus wealth for the good of the people.” First, the millionaire who adheres to the gospel must “take care that the purposes for which he spends it shall not have a degrading pampering tendency upon its recipients, but that his trust shall be so administered as to stimulate the best and most aspiring poor of the community to further efforts for their own improvement. It is not the irreclaimably destitute, shiftless, and worthless which it is truly beneficial or truly benevolent for the individual to attempt to reach and improve. For these there exists the refuge provided by the city or the State, where they can be sheltered, fed, clothed … and, most important of all—where they can be isolated from the well-doing and industrious poor. …”

The specific fields of philanthropy in which the wise trustee of surplus wealth would invest, according to Carnegie, were seven, listed in descending order of importance: (1) universities—the founding of universities, of course, being possible only “by men enormously rich”; (2) free libraries—for Carnegie himself, he said, this “occupies first place”; (3) the founding or extension of hospitals “and other institutions connected with the alleviation of human suffering” ; (4) parks; (5) halls suitable for meetings, concerts, etc; (6) “swimming baths”; and (7) churches—but only the building, not the maintenance of the church activities, which should be done by the entire congregation. “It is not expected,” Carnegie added, “that there should be general concurrence as to the best possible use of surplus wealth. … There is room and need for all kinds of wise benefactions for the common weal.”

It is fortunate that Carnegie did not expect “general concurrence” on his list of proper fields for philanthropy, for he certainly did not get it. Ministers and mission boards, in particular, were outraged to find churches seventh on the list—just after swimming baths. Artists, writers, and musicians also wanted their share of patronage, as did private schools, orphanages, and other charitable institutions.