From poor weaver's son to giant of philanthropy

Review Biography

March 11, 2007|By Richard R. John | Richard R. John,Chicago Tribune

Andrew Carnegie

David Nasaw

Penguin / 878 pages / $35

Industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie has long occupied an honored place in the annals of American business. No leading industrialist more fully embodied the rags-to-riches immigrant saga that is such an enduring feature of popular mythology. Few Americans of any generation can match the range and significance of his charitable bequests. To a degree that was unprecedented among his peers, Carnegie commented extensively in the press on the affairs of the day and mingled comfortably with statesmen and literati at home and overseas. His own writings fill 10 volumes; his best-known book, Triumphant Democracy (1886), is a still-readable overview of America's rise to industrial power.

Much of the continuing fascination with Carnegie stems from the various causes in which he has been posthumously enlisted since his death in 1919. Business analysts point with admiration to Carnegie's obsessive preoccupation with cost-cutting while social critics treat his many pronouncements on business and politics as emblematic of wider currents in American thought. Since Andrew Carnegie extravagantly praised the laissez-faire strictures of English moral philosopher Herbert Spencer, cultural commentators have long assumed (with little evidence other than Carnegie's own prose) that Spencerian social Darwinism suffused the 19th-century business elite. Anti-war activists similarly have found much to celebrate in Carnegie's courageous anti-imperialism. A consistent and outspoken critic of U.S. overseas military adventurism, Carnegie publicly urged U.S. soldiers not to fight in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, a position that would be hard to imagine a business leader of comparable stature taking today. Even the many champions of organized labor who remain understandably outraged by Carnegie's complicity in the labor violence that roiled his Homestead Steel Works in 1892 are hard-pressed not to admire his insistence that wealth was the "joint product" of the entire community.

Much of Carnegie's renown lies in his legendary enthusiasm for work. "Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately," Carnegie confessed in a revealing memorandum that he addressed to himself at age 33. "Put all your eggs in one basket," Carnegie famously advised budding entrepreneurs, and "then watch that basket." Equally celebrated was his sage admonition to anyone hoping to reap great wealth from a radical new invention: "Pioneering don't pay." For more than 100 years, Carnegie acolytes have heeded their master's advice.

Nothing Carnegie accomplished in his business career did as much to endear him to posterity as his philanthropy. "The man who dies thus rich," Carnegie famously wrote, "dies disgraced." He endowed more than 1,500 public libraries, enriched numerous universities and cultural institutions, and established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His Gospel of Wealth, a two-part magazine article first published in 1889, remains the single most compelling indictment of inherited wealth ever written by an American business leader. For Carnegie, legal devices to limit the intergenerational transfer of wealth, such as a hefty inheritance tax, were not death taxes but bulwarks of a free society.

Carnegie arrived in the U.S. in 1848 at age 13, the penniless son of an impoverished Scottish weaver. Through a combination of hard work, good luck and a genius for what we would today call networking, he was, by age 33, a successful financier. Yet mere moneymaking, Carnegie reminded himself - after having secured the princely income of $50,000 a year, mostly through skillful investments - was the "worst species of idolatry." Fearful that a life devoted to such pursuits might "degrade" him beyond "hope of permanent recovery," he briefly contemplated moving to London to establish a newspaper dedicated to ameliorating the condition of the poor. Only after he rejected this idea as impractical would he found the manufacturing empire that dominated U.S. steel production in the final quarter of the 19th century. In 1901, Carnegie sold out to financier J.P. Morgan in a transaction that culminated in the founding of United States Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation in the U.S.

David Nasaw's Andrew Carnegie is the first full-scale biography of the steelmaker-turned-philanthropist in 30 years. The product of an age in which the industrial ascendancy of the U.S. is a less compelling theme than its decline, it complements, without superseding, the magisterial biography of Carnegie published in 1970 by Grinnell College history professor Joseph Frazier Wall.

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