Cooper Thomason, 04 March 2019
“Andrew Carnegie was the only autocrat of industry and finance who ever designedly made the fashioning of millionaires a by-product of his own wealth-accruing activities,” wrote New York’s The Evening World the day after Carnegie’s death from pneumonia in 1919 at the age of eighty-three. A destitute Scottish-born immigrant to America who began his career working six twelve-hour days a week for a paltry dollar and twenty cents, Andrew Carnegie ended his career with the sale of the Carnegie Steel Company for four hundred and eighty million dollars. After he arrived in America as a poor Scottish immigrant, Andrew Carnegie accumulated a vast fortune by capitalizing on profitable opportunities, and he spent there last part of his life giving his wealth away for the education of the poor.
Andrew Carnegie’s early life can be accurately described as the beginning of a classic “rags-to-riches” story. Carnegie claimed in his autobiography that he was born in 1835 in the “attic of a small, one-story house” in Dunfermline, Scotland, to “poor but honest parents.” He spent much of his youth battling poverty with his family after the newly-introduced steam-loom’s efficiency made the hand-loom with which his father supported the family superfluous and forced his mother to enter the workforce to earn enough money to keep the family “respectable.” During this period of deprivation, Carnegie resolved that he would “cure [his father’s poverty] when [he] got to be a man,” and indications of his capacity to generate wealth began to appear immediately. Demonstrating that he possessed, even early in life, the “organizing power” which he later came to believe was partially responsible for his eventual success, he managed to convince his playmates to “gather dandelion and clover for a whole season” to earn the privilege of naming his pet rabbits. However, conditions in Dunfermline continued to worsen for his family, and his parents were forced to sell their looms, market their furniture, and take out a loan to afford passage to America. Carnegie was thirteen when he left Scotland with his family to eventually settle near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his father became employed in a cotton factory after failing to sell hand-woven tablecloths (2, 12-13, 24-25, 34). Because this account of his origin helps one to understand his interest in serving the poor and could serve Carnegie as insulation against characterization as a bourgeois “robber baron” of the Gilded Age, it deserves further discussion to determine its veracity.
Carnegie’s account can be tested for authenticity by examining contemporaneous sources who could confirm his story, analyzing potential motives for fabrication, and seeking out the prevailing opinion among modern authorities. A dearth of primary sources makes corroboration difficult; however, a lack of evidence per se cannot disprove Carnegie’s account of his childhood because, as he was not yet famous, there would have been no reason to record his deeds in writing or remember them for posterity. Writing his autobiography during the height of the Populist movement in America, Carnegie would have had reason to downplay his privilege to avoid attacks on his character and threats to his riches. The Populist Party’s platform included condemnation of the “fruits of the toil of millions [being] boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind” (“Platform of the People’s Party”); by making the story of his life one of a successful poor immigrant rather than one of an entitled, miserly capitalist, Carnegie could have evaded Populist wrath. However, Carnegie portrays his early life not as the struggle of an entirely destitute bunch of Scotsmen but rather as the struggle of a noble family which manages to escape the clutches of poverty through tremendous effort and emigration. His inclusion of details such as his mother earning enough to keep the family “respectable” and the employment of his friends for the purpose of feeding pet rabbits would have undermined efforts to portray himself as anything but a poor-yet-comfortable youth. Though Carnegie had reason to falsify information regarding his childhood, he either refused to do so or attempted to do so and failed, presenting a mediocre case in support of any claims to severe youthful deprivation. One is inclined to believe the former scenario. Furthermore, Carnegie’s account is accepted by the United States Library of Congress, a reputable scholarly body. They affirm, saying:
Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland on November 25, 1835. His family immigrated to the United States when he was a child and eventually they settled in Pennsylvania. Carnegie worked his way though [sic] a series of jobs, including one as a messenger and operator at the Ohio Telegraph Company and as a secretary/telegraph operator at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. (Terrell)
Because there is no contradictory evidence, no suggestion that he acted on any motive to falsify his story, and nothing but support from national organizations, Carnegie’s account cannot be rejected. It can therefore be said that Andrew Carnegie emerged from humble beginnings though he was far from destitute.
Carnegie managed to become wealthy because he was presented with profitable opportunities and worked tirelessly to capitalize on them. According to Carnegie, his career began with a job as a “bobbin boy” at the cotton factory where his father worked. Carnegie’s diligence earned him higher wages and new responsibilities which included monitoring boilers for safety and dipping garments into vats of noxious oils. However, the manager of a telegraph company in Pittsburgh soon requested a new messenger boy, offering even higher wages, and Carnegie journeyed to meet the manager. Carnegie writes of this encounter, “The interview was successful. . . . He asked me how soon I could come, and I said that I could stay now if wanted.” Carnegie believed that his seizing of the aforementioned opportunity to become a messenger boy was “how in 1850 [he] got [his] first real start in life.” After a series of promotions from his position as messenger left him as the assistant to the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Carnegie again stumbled into money; he encountered the inventor of the “sleeping-car,” was offered an eighth interest in the production of the railcars, and “promptly accepted [the] offer” after the “importance [of the invention] flashed upon [him].” Carnegie says, “The first considerable sum I made was from this source.” He continued his upward trajectory of promotions until the outbreak of the Civil War which raised the price of iron and made new rails difficult to acquire; seeing ample reason, he ventured into the iron industry in 1861 and founded the Keystone Bridge Works in 1863 to provide quality iron bridges and rail for the railroad. After succeeding in the iron bridge business because he “used only the best material and enough of it,” Carnegie was eventually obliged to resign from the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1865 to attend to his business full-time (35-36, 38, 87-88, 115, 131, 116, 122, 141). Carnegie’s explanation of how he earned his wealth is not widely disputed, and modern authorities confirm that Carnegie made his fortune in the iron and steel industry. Carnegie’s utilization of the bessemer process of steel production and vertical integration methods allowed him to dominate the American steel industry and push it to surpass the industry of Great Britain in output for the first time in history (Britannica). In fact, Carnegie Steel Corporation was the largest producer of steel in the entire world (“Keen Eye for Opportunity”). Carnegie accrued wealth by seizing opportunities as he did when securing a job as a messenger, as he did when he invested in the “sleeping-car,” and as he did when he founded his iron and bridge companies during the Civil War. However, he did not acquire his wealth without scandal.
Andrew Carnegie was involved in the violent suppression of a strike, an incident which undermines his reputation as a benefactor of the poor. In 1892, three years after Carnegie’s holdings were consolidated into the Carnegie Steel Company, workers at a mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania, went on strike. Agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency were employed to break the strike, and they opened fire on the workers with Winchester rifles and revolvers in broad daylight, beginning a fight (The Evening World 1892). The strike was eventually broken at the cost of several lives, but the incident severely harmed Carnegie’s reputation (Terrell). Though Carnegie had not specifically instructed the pay cuts which caused the strike, he had appointed Henry Clay Frick, an industrialist with a reputation for brutality, to run the mill while he visited Scotland and had given Frick carte blanche to break Homestead’s workers union before the union’s labor contract expired in 1892 (Adamczyk). Carnegie’s treatment of unions could function as a contrast to his later philanthropic work, but in the case of the infamous Homestead Strike, Carnegie is not entirely culpable. It was Frick, not Carnegie himself, who cut the laborers’ pay, and it was Frick, not Carnegie, who organized the massacre. Furthermore, Carnegie cannot be blamed wholly for misbehavior in the appointment of Frick because Frick was an exceptionally qualified candidate for the management position despite his reputation for brutality. Frick was a competent businessman who helped to manage the Carnegie Steel Company mills at the peak of their productivity, and his appointment may be considered as evidence for an intuition within Carnegie more capable of discerning who were men of profit than who were men of character but not as evidence for malicious intent to harm the lower class. Carnegie himself said of the incident, “Nothing I have ever had to meet in all my life, before or since, wounded me so deeply. No pangs remain of any wound received in my business career save that of Homestead” (232). Begun in modesty and progressing by chance and effort despite some disrepute, Carnegie’s “rags-to-riches” story ends with him selling the Carnegie Steel Company at its apex.
After amassing a fortune, Andrew Carnegie spent the last decades of his life giving all of his money to charity,1 notably for the construction of libraries. Carnegie was motivated primarily by his gratitude for the generosity of Colonel James Anderson,2 who loaned books to Carnegie while Carnegie worked as a messenger for a Pittsburgh telegraph company. According to Carnegie:
Colonel James Anderson – I bless his name as I write – announced that he would open his library of four hundred volumes to boys, so that any young man could take out, each Saturday afternoon, a book which could be exchanged for another on the succeeding Saturday. . . . Colonel Anderson’s books were first opened to “working boys,” and the question arose whether messenger boys, clerks, and others, who did not work with their hands, were entitled to books. My first communication to the press was a note, written to the “Pittsburgh Dispatch,” urging that we should not be excluded; that although we did not now work with our hands, some of us had done so, and that we were really working boys. Dear Colonel Anderson promptly enlarged the classification. . . . Books which it would have been impossible for me to obtain elsewhere were, by his generosity, placed within my reach; and to him I owe a taste for literature which I would not exchange for all the millions that were ever amassed by man. . . . Nothing contributed so much to keep my companions and myself clear of low fellowship and bad habits as the beneficence of the good Colonel. . . . It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community willing to support it as a municipal institution. I am sure that the future of those libraries I have been privileged to found will prove the correctness of this opinion. For if one boy in each library district, by having access to one of these libraries, is half as much benefited as I was by having access to Colonel Anderson’s four hundred well-worn volumes, I shall consider they have not been established in vain. (Carnegie 45-47)
Carnegie clearly aimed to provide posterity with ample opportunities for improvement and advancement by investing in public libraries, and he was driven primarily by the kindness done to him by one man: Colonel James Anderson. Colonel James Anderson can therefore be considered one of the most influential people in the history of philanthropy because Carnegie, inspired by Anderson, spent fifty-six million dollars (roughly fifteen percent of his wealth) to construct 2509 libraries throughout the Anglosphere, Eastern Europe, and Asia (Bobinski). Because there is no central registry that tracks Carnegie libraries, it is somewhat difficult to determine the exact number still in operation (Capps); however, many Americans have first been introduced to the “worlds of information and imagination offered by reading” within Carnegie libraries (National Parks Service). According to Professor Wayne Wiegand of Florida State University:
Without Carnegie, we’d still have public libraries, but they’d be different and probably fewer in number. . . . What Carnegie did was stimulated the desire for libraries in communities across the country. Just by giving local communities those grants for constructing buildings, he generated a desire among others to do the same thing. (qtd in Capps)
Though the exact number of people reached may never be determined, it can be said that without Carnegie’s leadership in constructing libraries, America may not have been able to reap the benefits of readily accessible and free public education; his efforts eventually earned him the nickname “Patron Saint of Libraries” (“Wealthiest Man in the World”). Carnegie aspired “to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to . . . sweetness and light” (qtd in Government of Ontario), and because he laid the foundations for America’s public libraries and put knowledge within the reach of America’s people, his goal can rightly be considered to have been achieved.
After battling poverty alongside his family, Andrew Carnegie arrived in America as a young Scottish immigrant, accumulated an immense amount of capital by exploiting profitable opportunities such as the offer to become a messenger, the chance to invest in “sleeping-cars,” and the ability to create iron and bridge companies while the Civil War made the iron industry profitable, and he spent the last part of his life giving vast sums of money for the construction of libraries because of his gratitude for a kindness done in his childhood by Colonel James Anderson. Having given away more than ninety percent of his estate (Babinski), he passed virtually no wealth on to his family upon death (Sorvino). Though he was eulogized by his contemporaries for his impressive ability to generate riches, he may be rightly remembered as a model of philanthropy.
1. See the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s article “Giving and Legacy” for a list of Carnegie’s lesser-known philanthropic endeavors. Coverage of these works is outside the scope of this paper.
2. For discussion regarding the general motivation for his philanthropy, look to Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 essay “The Gospel of Wealth” in which he articulates his philosophy of giving to the deserving poor. Mention of “The Gospel of Wealth” was omitted because proper analysis of the essay would demand research beyond the scope of this paper.
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Bobinski, George S. “Carnegie Libraries: Their History and Impact on American Public Library Development.” ALA Bulletin, vol. 62, no. 11, 1968, pp. 1361–1367. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25698025. Accessed 03 Mar. 2019.
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