- Historic Sites
The Rich Man’s Burden And How Andrew Carnegie Unloaded It
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
No one, however, was too important or too proud, it would appear, to write a begging letter to Carnegie. Those letters from friends and distinguished persons he would have to see and to answer. On one day alone, he had letters from John Morley, Herbert Spencer, and William Gladstone. Morley, who never begged, had simply written a personal letter, but Spencer was begging for help for some sociological study a friend was engaged in, and Gladstone wanted Carnegie to give money to the Bodleian Library. Carnegie was impressed. “Just think,” he wrote in reply to Gladstone, “one mail brought me three letters.
One from you—Gladstone
One from Herbert Spencer
One from John Morley
I am quite set up as no other one can say this. A.C.” But not set up enough to become softheaded. Carnegie politely but firmly turned down both Spencer and Gladstone.
Mark Twain, who was a frequent correspondent and who always addressed Carnegie as Saint Andrew, wrote the most delightful begging letters of all those that Carnegie received. Sometimes it would be a joke:
You seem to be in prosperity. Could you lend an admirer a dollar & a half to buy a hymn book with? God will bless you. I feel it. I know it. N.B. If there should be another application this one not to count. P.S. Don’t send the hymn-book, send the money. I want to make the selection myself. Sometimes it would be a serious request for Carnegie to enter some business venture with him or to rescue him from one in which he was already caught. Either way, he took Carnegie’s refusals with good grace.
On an early spring morning in 1901, when Carnegie sailed for Europe, having sold out to Morgan and leaving behind him safely locked in a vault in Hoboken the world’s largest negotiable fortune, he had some understanding of the size of the task that lay before him. Just prior to his departure he had sent to the managers of the Carnegie Company, now a subdivision of United States Steel, five million dollars of those bonds to be held in trust for the following purposes: Income for $1 million to be spent in maintaining Libraries at Braddock, Homestead & Duquesne works. Income from other 84 million to be applied: 1st, to provide for employees of Carnegie Company injured in service and for dependents of those killed 2nd, to provide small pensions to employees after long service, help in old age. Not to be regarded as a substitute for what the Company is already doing. … I make this first use of surplus wealth upon retiring from business, as an acknowledgement of the deep debt I owe to the workmen who have contributed so greatly to my success.
He also left letters granting $5,200,000 to New York City for sixty-five branch libraries throughout the five boroughs, under the same conditions as applied to all of his library gifts; and to St. Louis, one million dollars for branch libraries. Thus, by three letters written in a single day, Carnegie had given away $11,200,000. All of his previous gifts up to that date had totalled $16,363,252. But the interest on his bonds and other investments alone amounted to over fifteen million dollars a year. Carnegie knew he would have to do much better than this if he were to make any substantial cut into his vast amount of capital.
But for the next ten years Carnegie gamely ran on in a race that he had set for himself, with handicaps that were self-imposed. Library giving, which he regarded as his specialty, took care of $60,364,808 of his fortune by providing 2,509 free public libraries throughout the United States, the British Isles, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. But spectacularly popular as this field of philanthropy proved to be, it amounted to only one seventh of his total fortune.
The question remained: What other fields could he enter in view of the restrictions he had laid upon himself? He would not enter the medical field, for he felt that this had been pre-empted by John D. Rockefeller. Giving to churches, and particularly to missionary enterprises, was antithetical to his most fundamental beliefs. The substantial exception he made to this rule was in providing church organs—a form of philanthropy into which he rather inadvertently stumbled when he presented the organ in 1873 to the small Swedenborgian church in Allegheny. Once this gift became publicized, other requests began to come in, and soon Carnegie found himself involved in a major operation. Knowing the prejudice of Scottish Calvinists against instrumental music in church, particularly the pipe organ—”a kist fu’ o’ whistles”- Carnegie took a certain delight in seeing a Scottish Presbyterian church swallow its pride and ask for an organ, in the hopes that this would induce Carnegie to make other and more holy contributions to the congregation. After a time this game, however, became no longer a sport but a big business. By 1919 Carnegie had given 7,629 church organs throughout the world at a cost of $6,248,312—a chest full of whistles large enough to have impressed John Knox himself.
Still the interest on his bonds continued to accumulate, and the years of grace left to him in which to dispose of his fortune were fast slipping by. Ruling out medicine, religion, and charitable social work, he had left to him only one major field in which to dispense his largess—education. Here the need was great, the opportunities many, the demands unlimited. But Carnegie was exceedingly cautious. University presidents throughout the United States and Great Britain were more than eager to help relieve Carnegie of his money, but he remained as deaf as Ulysses’ sailors to the siren calls from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge.