What was philanthropy like 100 years ago? One answer can be found by looking at Andrew Carnegie’s papers at the Library of Congress. These unpublished papers comprise many of the letters Carnegie wrote and received throughout his working life.
In April 1901, Carnegie retired and began his second career as a full-time philanthropist. He had already given heavily to public libraries and church institutions, and created his first important nonprofit, the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh. But most of the great foundations that bear Carnegie’s name—the Carnegie Hero Fund, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York—were yet to be created.
Carnegie’s fortune was the subject of intense speculation both in the United States and in Great Britain. The Review of Reviews, a British publication, calculated that if Carnegie were to spend out his wealth before his death at 80, he would have to give away £4 million a year. “If Mr. Carnegie were to give away a £5 note a minute to anyone who cared to apply for it,” the Review wrote, “he would . . . at the end of the year find. . . that he had only disposed of about £2,500,000, and would have £1,599,000 left over to play with.” Only by giving away £8 a minute, the Review calculated, would Carnegie be able to spend himself out.
Carnegie’s philanthropic intentions were even the subject of a national contest, sponsored by Mother Seigel’s Syrup, a British patent medicine, which offered to pay 20 shillings to anyone who came up with an idea that Carnegie actually used. Of the 11,000 responses received, the three most popular were “begging for self,” giving away free Mother Seigel’s Syrup, and “begging for others.”
Carnegie left the U.S. in the spring of 1901 to vacation in the south of France and then in his castle in Scotland. He returned to New York in October 1901. What follows are selections from the Andrew Carnegie Papers from November and December 1901, edited to show the many philanthropic projects in which Carnegie was involved.
Educating the Country
Carnegie had long been interested in education, and had thought about setting up a national university based in Washington, a project originally conceived by George Washington. His advisers persuaded him that a scientific research institute would be a better idea, a suggestion that led to the creation of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.
During this period, Carnegie worked steadily on the creation of the institution. He traveled to Washington to meet with President Theodore Roosevelt and Speaker of the House David B. Henderson. But many questions remained about the new organization. Who would serve on the board and for how long? Where would the institution be located? And would the Carnegie Institution be private or become a quasi-governmental organization similar to the Smithsonian?
To Theodore Roosevelt, November 28, 1901:
For some time I have been considering the propriety of fulfilling one of [George] Washington’s strongest wishes, the founding of a University at Washington, but the conclusion reached was that, if with us today, he would decide that under present conditions greater good would ensue from cooperation with, and strengthening of, existing universities throughout the country, than by adding to their number . . . .
To establish the new institution I offer to erect the necessary buildings in Washington upon a site designated by the Government and when ready for opening to hand over to the Treasurer of the United States Ten Million, Five percent bonds of the United States Steel Corporation, thus ensuring Five Hundred Thousand Dollars annual income.
These bonds do not mature for fifty years, when redeemed, it will rest in the Congress to decide what rate of interest will be paid upon the principal . . . . That Congress, fifty years hence will judge well and act wisely in the matter, I am well assured, and therefore make no conditions [on how the grant would be spent].
Mr. President, believe me that I am made a very happy man this day of thanksgiving by the thought that I have been so favored as to be enabled to express, at least in some degree, my gratitude to, and love for, the Republic to which I owe so much.
After meeting with President Roosevelt, Carnegie decided to make the Carnegie Institution a private organization with some government officials as ex officio trustees. Carnegie then sent invitations to most of the prominent scientists in the U.S. asking them to serve on the board. U.S. Geological Survey director Charles D. Wolcott had some reservations:
From Charles D. Wolcott, December 30, 1901:
As I recall, something was said about having the trustees serve for life. I sincerely trust that this will not be done, as it means the accumulation of men in the Board who cannot attend the meetings, or if present will take very little active interest in what is going on. A number of our most important institutions in the country are now suffering from dry rot as the result of permanent membership in their boards of trustees.
Despite Wolcott’s advice, the institution’s trustees were appointed for life until 1981, when they began to serve three-year terms. President Roosevelt, however, felt no hesitation about sitting on the Carnegie Institution board.
From Theodore Roosevelt, December 31, 1901:
I will serve with the greatest pleasure. Let me congratulate you upon the very high character—indeed I may say the extraordinary character—of the men whom you have selected as trustees; and I congratulate the nation upon your purpose to found such an institution. It seems to me precisely the institution most needed to help and crown our educational system by providing for and stimulating original research.
One of the activities Carnegie most enjoyed as a philanthropist was Founder’s Day at the Carnegie Institute, and in 1901 he approached former President Grover Cleveland to give the day’s keynote address. This took some persuasion on Carnegie’s part, because Cleveland intensely disliked public speaking. Here Carnegie rewards the former president for his labors with a suitable present. (He also gave Cleveland a case of whiskey.)
To Grover and Frances Cleveland, November 12, 1901:
Your speech, Mr. President was truly deep, wide and the peroration a gem not likely to fade . . . . You have made me deeply your debtor, and I have just rec’d a note from Madam [Carnegie] extolling the speech and rejoicing that Mrs. Cleveland was here and received her due.
Director Beatty [of the Carnegie Institute’s art gallery] and I have just finished examination of the Pictures. I liked Mr. Wall’s sheep picture greatly, and upon expressing my feelings was also told that Mrs. Cleveland also liked it. I wanted to bring it and have asked Mr. Beatty to send it to her upon close of the exhibition that in your home you may have a memento of your visit to Pittsburgh. Let it also serve to recall in after years that once you soon faced ease and desire and went forth to perform a use—a duty—which commended itself to you.
I know well what it cost the Master to expel ease and comfort and also the Mistress to take the journey and encounter the crowds and am profoundly touched by the work you undertook for me—wish I could ever have it in my power to promote your happiness.
From Frances Cleveland, December 10, 1901:
I thought your box of whiskey was champagne, and as Mr. Cleveland was not thinking much about champagne, I did not have it opened until this morning, and then I found your card with the whiskey—Mr. Cleveland is very grateful . . . .
. . . Thank you, in my name, for your great courtesy and generosity in selecting that beautiful painting for me. You must know how the thought touched and pleased me, and how I shall treasure the purchase as a reminder of the delightful day I spent in Pittsburgh—and of a good friend.
Carnegie was a close friend of Lord Acton, the British political philosopher. Acton was not wealthy, and in 1890 Carnegie decided to help Acton by purchasing his library, while allowing Acton use of it during his lifetime. But late in 1901, Acton was near death, and his lawyer wrote to Carnegie with an assessment of the situation.
From William D. Freshfield, November 17, 1901:
You may or may not know that Lord Acton has been seriously ill for some months past and he has determined to make a Conveyance of the whole of the Alderhan Estate to his only son, the Hon. Richard Acton.
Any such Conveyance must of course contain provenance to protect your interest under the deed respecting the books.
The books are at present in the Library at Alderhan and in the house. In and so far as I know, there is no suggestion that they should be removed, but as control of the property is passing out of Lord Acton’s hands into the hands of his son, for whom neither I nor my firm act, I think it right to acquaint yourself with the facts and to ascertain whether you have any instructions to give your Trustees as to what shall be done . . . .
To William D. Freshfield, December 16, 1901:
I would be very sorry to give my friend Lord Acton trouble in any way in regard to the Library. Much better for the matter to remain as it is, and should he pass away you as one of the Trustees will no doubt see that my rights are safeguarded.
When Lord Acton died in 1902, much of his library was sent to Carnegie’s Scottish castle.
Carnegie at Play
Carnegie spent much of November 1901 organizing the annual banquet of the St. Andrew’s Society, a Scottish-American fraternal organization. The banquet, held at Delmonico’s, featured seven speakers, including future president Woodrow Wilson, who talked about “Colonial Scotsmen.”
Carnegie personally invited all the speakers, and many of their RSVPs are preserved in the Carnegie Papers. Here Mark Twain, a long-time friend of Carnegie’s, agrees to speak at the event.
From Mark Twain, November 21, 1901:
Dear friend St. Andrew,
I find I am to be there. Mrs. Clemens came in, a minute ago, and furnished the information. If I had another 18 hours, I could have made up my mind myself. At bottom I am afraid of religious banquets, but now that the matter is settled I am not feeling as worried as I was.
To me, the clatter and clash of two or three hundred men rattling dishes and talking is maddening; so you must let me feed at home and take my doze and my smoke and arrive at Delmonico’s at 9:20 or 9:30—my train pulls in at the Grand Central at 9:15.
. . . Put me in the speaker list at No. 3—can’t you? Not earlier, and not more than one later.
Won’t you send this page to Mr. Morrison [secretary of the St. Andrew’s Society] in lieu of a formal acceptance from me? I’m a crowded and busy poor devil.*
Return to Sender
Like any philanthropist, Carnegie received his share of unsolicited mail. Here are some letters that Carnegie never answered.
From the Clan Mackay Society:
It was moved by the Chairman, and was unanimously agreed to—that the Clan Mackay Society wish to express to Andrew Carnegie, Esq., of Skibo, their deep appreciation of the benefits conferred by him on Scotland generally . . . . They value the example shown by him to those whom God has endowed with an exceptional measure of the world’s goods, and they pray that God may grant him wisdom in the use of his riches, and that God’s blessing may rest on the work which will be carried out in accordance with the generous donor’s wishes, to whom it may be given to witness an abundant harvest.
From Herr von Scholtz, December 13, 1901:
I ask for nothing—I would like, however, to call your attention to the immeasurable pain and the great disgrace which vivisection carries with it daily in the civilized world . . . .
What the world knows of you (Was die Welt von Ihnen weiss) will excuse me my letter, and permit me to subscribe myself,
Your admiring, and obedient servant,
Doctor of Law, honoris causa, of the
University of Bonn,
Royal Prussian minister of state,
From Lewis M. Haupt, December 10, 1901:
Please accept my hearty congratulations on your magnificent bequest to endow a University for Research. It will be a magnificent step forward and go far to promote peace and the humanities. A suggestion of this kind is found in my first address to the Eugenics Club of Phila. in 1879 which it may interest you to read . . . .
From Andrew MacDonald, December 20, 1901:
I am aware that to receive a letter from an unknown person, making unsolicited suggestions does not produce a good impression. As I have spent ten years in Universities in post-graduate work . . . and ten years in a government position in Washington, in research work, mostly, I take the liberty of making a few remarks as to the University research plan with which your name has been attached. . ..
* Mark Twain’s previously unpublished words are ©2001 by Richard A. Watson and Chase Manhattan Bank as trustees of the Mark Twain Foundation, which reserves all reproduction or dramatization rights in any medium. Quotation is made with the permission of the University of California Press and Robert H. Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project.
** Translation by the American Embassy in Berlin.
Martin Morse Wooster, a contributing editor of Philanthropy, is the author of The Foundation Builders.