The Robin Hood Robber Baron


By David Nasaw

The Penguin Press -- 878pp -- $35

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Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good Reconciles his paradoxical roles as philanthropist and rapacious capitalist.

The Bad Sometimes the detail can be overwhelming

The Bottom Line A richly drawn account of a paradoxical American original.

By the time of his death in 1919, Andrew Carnegie had firmly established his reputation as one of America's greatest benefactors. Through active personal giving and several foundations, he had bequeathed a total of $350 million, or at least $8 billion in today's dollars. Libraries, of course, were a primary concern. Carnegie created 1,412 of them in the U.S. and more than 2,500 in the English-speaking world. His Carnegie Endowment for International Peace lives on today as an embodiment of his ideals--cooperation among nations, the redistribution of income, and wealth to be valued not as individual property but as a trust to be managed away.

Of all the Gilded Age magnates, philanthropy came most naturally to Carnegie. John D. Rockefeller became a major donor--but only after a public-relations expert, Ivy Lee, told him that donations could help salvage a damaged Rockefeller image. The Vanderbilts, Morgans, and Guggenheims came to an awakening late in life. By contrast, Carnegie began preaching the responsibility to give back beginning in his mid-30s, and it became a second career for him in retirement. But as biographer David Nasaw makes clear in Andrew Carnegie, his roles as philanthropist and rapacious businessman were closely linked. The "decision to give away all he earned...paradoxically encouraged him to be even more ruthless a businessman. Recognizing that the more money he earned, the more he would have to give away, he pushed his partners and his employees relentlessly."

Carnegie's lifetime of giving is a major theme in Nasaw's rich and absorbing story. Nasaw, a professor at the City University of New York and author of a heralded life of William Randolph Hearst, never quite makes it clear just how much of Carnegie's philosophy was the result of a socialistic Scottish upbringing and how much was camouflage intended to distinguish himself from other robber barons. In the end, it was probably a mixture of both.

Carnegie was 12 when he and his family emigrated from Dunfermline, Scotland, to the U.S. Unlike most in the great European migration of 1848, the Carnegies were not "ignorant peasants adrift in a strange, new world." They had relatives in Allegheny City, next to Pittsburgh, and in this coal-besotted industrial town, Andrew thrived. He moved from the factory floor to telegraph messenger boy to Pennsylvania Railroad manager while a teenager. At 17, he took his first public stand in a letter to The Pittsburgh Dispatch protesting a $2 annual library fee levied on working boys. Nasaw makes much of this, noting that Carnegie by then had a "man's job," earning $25 a month. But in arguing for free libraries, he was already revealing "a talent for cloaking self-interest in larger humanitarian concerns."

There are scores of such revealing details in Nasaw's volume. Carnegie was as much of an ironfisted capitalist as any other Gilded Age mogul. He did his best to monopolize steel production, fix prices, restrict foreign steel with tariffs, and maximize state and local subsidies for the rail business. Even though he preached equality for the working man, he more than once used Pinkerton agents to break strikes, culminating in the infamous Homestead (Pa.) lockout and pitched battle of 1892, in which 16 died. He extolled leisure for all, yet he fought bitterly against demands to cut steelworkers' 12-hour days to 8 hours.

Through much of his career, Carnegie campaigned for disarmament and world peace. Meanwhile, he made steel for guns and ship armor, arguing it was better that he, rather than others, profit since he planned to distribute his wealth. When he needed more land in Pittsburgh, he indirectly bribed politicians to get it.

By 35, Carnegie had become an absentee owner. He plunged into a second career as a writer and advocate for his causes. Two of his books, Autobiography and The Gospel of Wealth, helped define his image as a humanitarian.

During his later years, Carnegie's steel empire was investigated for industrial violence, tax fraud, and bribery. But by then he had "reinvented himself as a full-time philanthropist." Appearing before a congressional investigating committee in 1915 with John D. Rockefeller, Carnegie "stole the show," declaring, "My business is to do as much good in the world as I can." In the end, his great regret was that he couldn't give away everything during his lifetime.

Samuel Clemens, a friend, described Carnegie as a little man who "looks smaller than he really is." But even by the standards of today's megabillion givers, he overshadows everyone in preaching the obligations of wealth.

By Bob Dowling

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