Meet Andrew Carnegie: The Two Andrews
Generous and naive while often grasping and ruthless, Andrew Carnegie personally embodied the contradictions that divided America in the Gilded Age. At a time when America struggled--often violently--to sort out the competing claims of democracy and individual gain, Carnegie championed both. He saw himself as a hero of working people, yet he crushed their unions. The richest man in the world, he railed against privilege. A generous philanthropist, he slashed the wages of the workers who made him rich.
The roots of Carnegie's internal conflicts were planted in Dunfermline, Scotland, where he was born in 1835, the son of a weaver and political radical who instilled in young Andrew the values of political and economic equality. His family's poverty, however, taught Carnegie a different lesson. When the Carnegies emigrated to America in 1848, Carnegie determined to bring prosperity to his family.
Carnegie's climb from the slums of Pittsburgh to the mansions of New York paralleled America's transformation from a sleepy agricultural nation into the world's foremost industrial power. By 1868 Carnegie, then 33, was worth $400,000 (nearly $5 million today). But his wealth troubled him, as did the ghosts of his radical past. He wrote himself a telling letter, promising that he would stop working in two years and pursue a life of good works: "To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares... must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery."
Yet Carnegie's business cares held him in sway. For three decades, he dominated the steel industry, and although he allowed himself time for vacations in Scotland and for his troubled courtship of Louise Whitfield, his thoughts rarely strayed from his mills.
Carnegie did not forget his radical roots. In a period of turbulent labor unrest, Carnegie publicly supported the unions. In his own mills, though, his position was less clear. He usually avoided using strike breakers, but drove a hard bargain and typically got his way, most notably during the bloody lockout at his Homestead works in 1892.
With his partner Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie broke the steel unions. His empire grew. By 1900, Carnegie Steel produced more steel than the entire British steel industry. When he sold the company to J.P. Morgan in 1901, Carnegie personally earned $250 million (approximately $4.5 billion today).
Carnegie then turned his enormous energies to philanthropy and the pursuit of world peace, hoping perhaps that donating his wealth to charitable causes would mitigate the grimy details of its accumulation. In the public memory, he may have been correct. Today he is most remembered for his generous gifts of music halls, educational grants, and nearly 3000 public libraries. By the time of his death in 1919, he had given away over $350 million (more than $3 billion in 1996 dollars).
Next: From Scotland to America