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

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But Carnegie’s fundamental assumptions were not allowed to go unchallenged either. A sharp critique of Carnegie’s gospel was offered by William Jewett Tucker, the liberal American theologian, professor of religion at Andover Theological Seminary, and later to be the distinguished president of Dartmouth College. Writing a review of “The Gospel of Wealth” in 1891 for the Andover Review, Tucker, as no other critic of the time did, examined the essence of Carnegie’s gospel—and found it fallacious. First, Tucker pointed out, it was based upon a false assumption of inevitability. He quoted Carnegie as saying, “We start with a condition of affairs [referring to the prevailing competitive system] under which the best interests of the race are promoted, but which inevitably gives wealth to the few.” This Tucker found unacceptable. “[T]he assumption … that wealth is the inevitable possession of the few, and is best administered by them for the many, begs the whole question of economic justice now before society, and relegates it to the field of charity, leaving the question of the original distribution of wealth unsettled, or settled only to the satisfaction of the few. …”

Tucker also found fault in Carnegie’s plan for the redistribution of wealth, generous and praiseworthy as it seemed to be. “Just as formerly it was contended that political power should be in the hands of the few, because it would be better administered, so now it is contended—I quote Mr. Carnegie’s words, slightly transferring them, but not changing their meaning—that ‘the millionaire is intrusted for the time being with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, because he can administer it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.’ This, of course, if accepted and carried out in any complete way, becomes patronage … and, in the long run, society cannot afford to be patronized.”

This was striking at the real inner defense line that protected Carnegie’s self-esteem and provided a justification for his life. In an essay, “The Advantages of Poverty,” Carnegie made one brief statement that was far more revealing of his own motivation for philanthropy than he probably ever intended or realized. In discussing the question of why the very rich should avoid extravagant living, he wrote, “they can, perhaps, also find refuge from self-questioning in the thought of the much greater portion of their means which is being spent upon others.” It is the phrase “perhaps, also find refuge from self-questioning” that is the tip-off. This is the kind of refuge Carnegie must have been seeking for twenty years, ever since as a young man in 1868 he had warned himself against the degradation of money worship. But the old doubts persisted. What was really happening to an America in which one man could accumulate a fortune that ran into nine figures? Carnegie had to justify his life to himself. Unlike some of his contemporaries—Fisk, Gould, Drew—he could not accept for himself the innocent animal amorality of the freebooter, nor on the other hand could he, having rejected the tenets of orthodox religion, now retreat with John D. Rockefeller into pious Baptism and say, “The Good Lord gave me my wealth.”

Carnegie must have felt that he had at last found justification for plutocracy by his gospel of wealth: a man may accumulate great wealth in a democracy, but he has a responsibility to return that wealth in a way that will not destroy society’s own responsibility to preserve individual initiative. To give through the usual charitable outlets is wrong, for such charity is primarily concerned with the hopeless “submerged tenth.” It keeps the weak weak and upsets the equality of opportunity. To give library buildings with the provision that the community must then furnish the books is right, for this makes available opportunities for all—it encourages the salvageable “swimming tenth” and at the same time respects the responsibility of the community. And who is better prepared for the responsible task of being steward for a nation’s accumulated wealth than the man who, starting with nothing, has through his own initiative gathered in this wealth? Carnegie must have felt with the writing of his “Gospel of Wealth” that he had at last made peace with his conscience, had at last found that “refuge from self-questioning.”

He, of course, had begun to practice long before he had had a gospel to preach. That is why he was convinced that he was a “scientific philanthropist.” His principles of philanthropy, he felt, were pragmatically based upon experience. His earliest philanthropic bequests, however, were based on no discernible system. Sentiment and his own idiosyncratic interests dictated his choice more than any rational philosophy. By the time his essay “Wealth” appeared in 1889, he had given a swimming bath and library to Dunfermline, the Scottish town in which he was born, a library to Braddock, Pennsylvania, and a pipe organ to the small Swedenborgian church in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, that his father and aunts had attended in the iSso’s. His only gift to higher education was a grant of six thousand dollars extended over a fiveyear period to the Western University of Pennsylvania (later to be the University of Pittsburgh). This is not a tremendously impressive list, and sentiment was clearly a major factor. But the list is interesting in its diversity. It is evident that these early gifts determined his ideas about “the best fields of philanthropy.”