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

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“How dog-sick you must be of all these meetings, addresses, and Hallelujah business,” Morley wrote Carnegie, who was then on one of his whirlwind collecting tours. “I shouldn’t wonder at your longing for Skibo [Carnegie’s castle in Scotland] and what Mr. Smith calls ‘the quiet stream of self-forgetfulness’—blessed waters for all of us.” But this was the kind of “quiet stream” that Carnegie never cared to fish in, and Morley’s sympathy was quite wasted on him. Carnegie, for all his loudly proclaimed radical republicanism, dearly loved the pomp and circumstance of the medieval ritual—riding in an open carriage through the old twisting streets lined with crowds and flags; being met at the town hall by the Lord Mayor, resplendent in his robes and silver medallion of office, who made the formal presentation of the Freedom of the City to Carnegie. Finally came the opportunity to address the assembled crowd and to spread his gospel of wealth.

How sweet it all was! “Never so busy, never so happy,” Carnegie would frequently write to his Cousin Dod or friend Morley, neither of whom could understand why he was either.

Carnegie would always insist that these shows were all for the purpose of dramatizing and publicizing the gospel of wealth, in the hope that other millionaires might be converted. As he wrote to one friend in explanation of his “Hallelujah business”: “Well do I remember my apprehensions when you advocated keeping all you did quiet. No show . No advocacy. Only go on & do the work in a quiet way, when I knew that advertizing was essential for success, i.e. to spreading abroad what could be done. … Of course its disagreeable work & puts me forward as a vain trumpeter but one who isn’t willing to play this part for the good to be done, isn’t much of a man.”

Carnegie enjoyed his trumpeting too obviously to convince anyone that he found it disagreeable work. The ceremonies and speeches continued, and ultimately he was to collect the Freedom of fifty-seven cities, the all-time record for Great Britain. For a time after World War II it appeared that Winston Churchill might surpass it, but he never quite equalled this total.

The flamboyant public displays of course enhanced Carnegie’s already notorious reputation for being a publicity seeker. It was generally believed both in Britain and in America that he never gave a cent that was not returned to him tenfold in public adulation. Poultney Bigelow, who worked with Carnegie for the establishment of the New York Public Library system, wrote one of the harshest indictments of the philanthropist: Never before in the history of plutocratic America had any one man purchased by mere money so much social advertising and flattery. No wonder that he felt himself infallible, when Lords temporal and spiritual courted him and hung upon his words. They wanted his money, and flattery alone could wring it from him. Ask him for aid in a small deserving case or to assist a struggling scientific explorer—that would be wasted time. He had no ears for any charity unless labelled with his name. … He would have given millions to Greece had she labelled the Parthenon Carnegopolis.

Such criticism, while understandable, was quite unfair, and although Carnegie generally ignored such comments, on occasion he felt it necessary to speak out. When he offered to match the six-hundred-thousand-dollar endowment of the Franklin Institute in Boston, he was greatly disturbed to receive an inquiry from Charles Eliot, president of Harvard, one of the trustees of the institute, asking if this meant that Carnegie expected the name to be changed to the Franklin-Carnegie Institute. Carnegie felt obliged to deny this at some length: The idea of tampering with Franklin’s name never entered my mind any more than when I duplicated Peter Cooper’s gift of six hundred thousand. … I find it difficult to avoid having gifts for new things called after the donors. Carnegie Hall New York was called by me The Music Hall a la Boston. Foreign artists refused to appear in “A Music Hall” —London idea. The Board changed it in my absence in Europe without consulting me. … “The way of the Philanthropist is hard” but I don’t do anything for popularity and just please my sel’—do what I think is useful. I never reply to attacks. Altho I confess I was surprised that you should have for a moment imagined there was a man living who could dream of coupling his name with Franklin or with any founder .

There were many instances of Carnegie’s philanthropy that, at his express order, received no publicity whatsoever. He had many people on his private pension lists, from obscure boyhood friends in Dunfermline to such celebrities as Rudyard Kipling and Booker T. Washington. The publicity he did seek and get for his gospel of wealth after 1890, however, resulted in an almost unbelievable torrent of letters from individuals requesting aid for themselves or for some project in which they were interested. His faithful secretary, James Bertram, who handled all of this correspondence, estimated that Carnegie received on the average of four to five hundred letters a day, and after the announcement of some large benefaction, this number might increase to seven hundred a day. The great majority of these letters Carnegie, of course, never saw. They came from all over the world, from writers who could not get their books published, from inventors with patents to revolutionize industry, from persons who claimed kinship with Carnegie, or simply from desperate people having no other recourse but the blind hope that a simple scrawled message to that magical name would be the open-sesame to help.