by David Nasaw
Penguin Press, 2006
801 pp. $35.00
Given his importance, there have been many books about Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) over the years. But until now, there have only been two significant biographies. The first, Burton J. Hendrick’s The Life of Andrew Carnegie (1932), is the authorized biography. Hendrick was, in fact, an employee of the Carnegie family while he wrote the book, and Carnegie’s widow Louise could have vetoed publication. But he was one of the better biographers of the era (his numerous awards included a Pulitzer).
Joseph Frazier Wall’s Andrew Carnegie (1970) remains the best biography. Wall consulted all the important sources available to him, and his account remains the most dispassionate and judicious.
David Nasaw’s Andrew Carnegie is the third serious biography of Carnegie. Nasaw, a historian at the City University of New York, has available to him many sources closed to his predecessors. The most notable of these is a cache of papers unearthed in 1995 from a long-forgotten safe deposit box in a New Jersey bank about to be torn down. Among these papers was the Carnegies’ prenuptial agreement.
Nasaw’s judgments about Carnegie must be taken seriously, and he is to be commended for the diligence of his research. But Nasaw’s book is significantly flawed in one minor and one major way.
One problem with the book is its tone. While Hendrick painted a portrait of a heroic entrepreneur and Wall was more coolly academic in his approach, Nasaw acts as if he is a prosecutor and Carnegie is under indictment, belittling Carnegie for countless misdeeds through much of the book. Nasaw constantly reminds his readers that Carnegie was a little man, less than five feet tall, who would only allow his portrait to be taken if he was made to seem taller than he was. He accuses Carnegie of making his money by dubious means, although Carnegie did nothing illegal and acted ethically by the standards of his day.
Of course Carnegie had his flaws. Like many entrepreneurs, he had a very large ego. And in 1892, while his subordinates crushed a strike at Carnegie Steel’s Homestead, Pennsylvania, plant in a violent confrontation in which scores of strikers died, Carnegie was spending his summer in a Scottish estate 30 miles away from the nearest telegraph office. Although Carnegie claimed he was out of touch during the conflict, Nasaw shows that Carnegie knew what his staff was planning to do and did nothing to stop them. For the rest of his life, Carnegie regretted that he did nothing to prevent the Homestead catastrophe.
Nasaw’s more serious omission is that he constantly downplays Carnegie’s ideas. Carnegie was a forceful writer, whose views guided his philanthropy and the reasons why he gave. Nasaw passes over most of the passages where Carnegie discussed his political principles. As a result, readers of Nasaw’s book will have an inadequate understanding of Carnegie’s reasons for giving.
Andrew Carnegie called himself an “individualist.” We would call him a libertarian. He carefully studied the works of such important free-market thinkers as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. And in 1902, when the great classical liberal Lord Acton was dying, Carnegie bought Acton’s library as a way to help him out.
Throughout his life, Carnegie said that government should have no role in welfare. In Triumphant Democracy (1886; revised, 1893), Carnegie wrote that a government-installed welfare program would “foster the idle and improvident at the expense of the industrious and prudent: whenever paupers regard charity as a right, they are apt to demand it in cases where they would hesitate to ask for favors.”
Carnegie expanded on these ideas in his great essay “The Gospel of Wealth,” first published in 1889. Most people know this essay from one or two of its most famous lines, such as “the man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” But the reasons why Carnegie urged people to give have been sadly neglected.
In his essay, Carnegie said that the primary task for givers was to help the poor. But he warned of the danger that such aid would promote dependency. “It were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.”
Carnegie illustrated his point with an anecdote about “a well-known writer of philosophic books” who gave a quarter to a beggar in the street. “He knew nothing of the habits of the beggar; knew not the use that would be made of this money, although he had every reason to suspect that it would be spent improperly. This man professed to be a disciple of Herbert Spencer; yet the quarter-dollar given that night will probably work more injury than all the money will do good which its thoughtless donor will ever be able to give in true charity.”
Nasaw doesn’t quote these passages, except to say that Carnegie “sounds like Ebenezer Scrooge.” But Carnegie accurately described a problem every poverty-fighter must face. How do you help poor people climb the ladder out of poverty without being permanently dependent on your aid?How do you teach the vital lesson that work is better than begging?
Carnegie’s solution was that “the best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise.” He said that donors interested in aiding the poor should “give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all.”
This advice is as valid today as it was in 1889. The private scholarship movement, for example, requires that recipients of these scholarships pay half the costs of tuition to a private school. The donors do this not because they’re mingy, but to reward struggling parents who are willing to sacrifice to make sure their children have a good education.
Carnegie’s way to help the poor was through libraries. When he was a teenager and working as an assistant telegraph operator in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Carnegie discovered literature through the generosity of James Anderson, a donor who allowed young people to come to his home every Saturday and borrow a book. Carnegie wanted to make sure that poor people of future generations could come to a library and learn the skills they needed in order to advance in life. But he insisted that a city that wanted a grant for a library had to supply the land and an endowment to run the library. By imposing these requirements, Carnegie made sure a community wanted a library and was willing to maintain it after his grant money ran out.
Donors can also learn a valuable lesson from the conclusion of Carnegie’s giving. For most of his career, Carnegie set up organizations with narrow, specific aims. Most of these organizations still largely do what Carnegie wanted them to do.
Carnegie was a fervent peace advocate, and spent much of his energy late in life trying—and failing—to get the nations of the world to end war through a series of treaties that would subject all international disputes to binding arbitration. The vast number of supplicants hounding him for his wealth also wore him out. By 1906, Joseph Frazier Wall notes, “Carnegie was tired of the game” of giving, and by 1910 “was desperately tired of it.”
In “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie warned donors of the dangers of creating perpetual foundations. “The cases are not few in which the real object sought by the testator is not attained,” he wrote. “In many cases the bequests are so used as to become only monuments of his folly.”
But Carnegie was left with half his fortune and had run out of ideas. His associates, most notably former senator and secretary of state Elihu Root, persuaded Carnegie to use $125 million to create the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911. Nasaw only devotes six paragraphs to the Carnegie Corporation’s creation, a significant development that should have been given more space. For in creating this organization, Carnegie “had been forced to abandon all the basic tenets of philanthropy he first expressed in ‘The Gospel of Wealth.’”
Moreover, Carnegie found that once he had created the Carnegie Corporation, he could not reverse his decision. In 1912 he tried to take $10 million out of the Carnegie Corporation’s endowment to create a similar organization for Great Britain and was told by Root and other advisors that this was legally impossible. Admonished, Carnegie then took the money from his personal fortune to create the British organization.
David Nasaw’s Andrew Carnegie is a significant book. But by belittling his subject and neglecting many of Carnegie’s ideas about giving, students of Carnegie’s philanthropy will find Nasaw’s book distorted and incomplete. Readers interested in Carnegie’s ideas ought to consult Wall’s and Hendrick’s biographies—or take the time to read Carnegie’s forceful, passionate, and eloquent essays and books.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster explores Andrew Carnegie’s ideas in The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of “Donor Intent.”