Study the lives of the great philanthropists, and you’ll find that most of them wrote very little. James Buchanan Duke, for example, only wrote one article for publication during his lifetime. John D. Rockefeller wrote a very short autobiography and little else.
But Andrew Carnegie is a great wealth-creator who could write. He produced eight substantial books in his lifetime. After his death, two more volumes of uncollected articles appeared, as well as a lengthy autobiography that he stopped writing the day World War I began. He had strong, vigorous ideas, which he consistently held throughout his life. It’s easy to see Carnegie, were he alive today, creating something like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; it’s also easy to see him regularly showing up at the endowment and arguing with the fellows as an intellectual equal.
Carnegie not only had a substantial literary corpus, he also left well-organized archives. His personal papers are at the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, while the Carnegie Steel papers are at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. Given these good archives and strong, clear literary voice, you would think Carnegie would be a good subject for the biographer.
You would be mistaken. There have been only three substantial biographies of Carnegie. Burton Hendrick’s Life of Andrew Carnegie (1932) was the first, and it suffers many of the limitations of authorized biographies. Nonetheless, it remains valuable. Joseph Frazier Wall’s Andrew Carnegie (1970) was second and remains the standard life; it is a fair, judicious account.
Peter Krass’s biography of Andrew Carnegie is the third major life of the man, the first in three decades. As such, it is noteworthy. But Krass’s account is a flawed and misleading look at Carnegie’s ideas and philanthropy. Krass has many criticisms of Carnegie-some practical (Carnegie made millions and paid his workers little), some intellectual (Carnegie, in Krass’s view, was a social Darwinist).
Concerning the wages Carnegie paid his workers, Krass is correct. Carnegie Steel workers were paid on a sliding scale, in which their pay would rise in good times and be cut in hard times. In the early 1890s, as America suffered a protracted depression, Carnegie Steel repeatedly asked its workers to work longer hours for lower pay. Unions resisted, particularly at Carnegie’s Homestead, Pennsylvania plant. Carnegie Steel management retaliated by hiring Pinkerton guards, and eventually union organizers and the Pinkertons engaged in a pitched battle in which 13 people died. In the middle of the standoff, terrorist Alexander Berkman shot top Carnegie Steel lieutenant Henry Clay Frick twice at point-blank range. Miraculously, Frick survived.
Carnegie was on his annual summer vacation in Scotland when the Homestead battle took place, and his subsequent defense of Carnegie Steel’s labor policies was half-hearted and unconvincing. But Krass offers no evidence that Carnegie Steel’s competitors treated their workers any better than Carnegie did. Krass claims that Carnegie, guilt-ridden over the Homestead disaster, substantially increased his giving. But all the evidence suggests that Carnegie gave as early as he could, raising his giving when his wealth rose to about $25 million in the 1890s, and raising it even more when he sold his enterprises to U.S. Steel in 1901 for $480 million.
Krass’s handling of Carnegie’s intellectual views, however, is the worst part of his work. Although Carnegie was influenced by Social Darwinism, he called himself an individualist. We would call him a classical liberal. It’s true that Carnegie studied—and became friends with—such important Social Darwinists as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. (Sumner, whom Carnegie studied closely, is not mentioned in Krass’s book.) But Spencer and Sumner were also champions of limited government—and checking the growth of government was one of Carnegie’s principles. In his early work Triumphant Democracy, for example, Carnegie writes that programs of state-supported welfare would “foster the idle and improvident at the expense of the industrious and prudent . . . . When paupers regard charity as a right, they are apt to demand it in cases where they would hesitate to ask for favors.”
If Carnegie were a pure Social Darwinist, he would have celebrated the already-successful and cared little for the poor. But one of Carnegie’s admirable obsessions was helping what he called “the swimming tenth—the industrious workers who keep their heads above the water and help themselves.” Like most poverty-fighters of his era, Carnegie’s goal was to find ways to help the poor without encouraging dependency—or, as Carnegie put it, to “provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so.”
Building on the example of Baltimore industrialist Enoch Pratt (whom Krass does not mention), Carnegie chose libraries as his primary philanthropic venture. But Carnegie insisted that, while he would pay for a building, communities that received his gifts had to match his grant with an endowment to keep the library running. Krass assails Carnegie for being stingy with his money, but a century’s worth of experience shows that matching grants are one of the best ways to ensure that a recipient puts a gift to good use. Carnegie’s ideas are used today by private-voucher providers who offer partial scholarships, and by Habitat for Humanity, which insists that recipients of their houses put in hundreds of hours of “sweat equity” before getting their new homes.
Krass’s distorted views of Carnegie’s ideas are further hampered by his writing style, which is gassy and pompous. Instead of saying that Carnegie was a good writer, Krass says Carnegie’s prose was “imbued with literary vivacity.” Krass peppers his prose with irrelevant quotations from Machiavelli and Shakespeare. Through his previous work—collections of business quotations—he has absorbed a great number of corporate clichés. For example, he writes that when Carnegie advanced his business career, he “took it to the next level.”
The most awful sentence in Krass’s biography occurs on page 116, when he describes how Carnegie adapted the Bessemer process, which substantially improved steel-making. “As Carnegie stood before the dazzling Bessemer converter,” Krass writes, “the white ingots glowed in his eyes and the heat of the glow inflated his five-foot-three inch frame until he was as big as President Ulysses S. Grant.”
In a 1917 profile of Carnegie, journalist B.C. Forbes said that the steel titan would primarily be remembered “as a giver, not as a maker.” Forbes’s judgment is correct. But the reason Carnegie remains one of the greatest givers is not just because of the organizations he created with his wealth, but because his ideas remain as forceful today as they were during his life.
If you want to read a life of Carnegie, read Joseph Frazier Wall’s fine book, which remains in print from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Peter Krass’s work only reminds us that Carnegie’s writings are important—and worth studying closely by the donors of today.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster is the author of The Foundation Builders: Brief Biographies of Twelve Grea Philanthropists, which has a chapter on Carnegie and an excerpt from The Gospel of Wealth.