Lewis Lapham: Carnegie Urged Rich to Help Poor Rise Up

Immigrating from Scotland to the U.S., Andrew Carnegie took his first job at age 13 as a bobbin boy, toiling 12 hours a day, six days a week at a cotton factory.

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He later made a fortune in the railroad and steel industries and spent much of his life figuring out how to give his money away. “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced,” he wrote in “Wealth.”

Leaving your heirs vast sums only encouraged them to live dissipated, idle lives. It was also no good giving the poor alms -- you needed to make ladders for them to climb out of their misery.

The accumulated riches of the new capitalists should be used for the greater good of the community, Carnegie decided, and he devoted his wealth to creating libraries, museums, schools and scientific research.

I spoke with Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corp. of New York and formerly president of the New York Public Library and Brown University, during the Good Talk series at Bloomberg. In considering philanthropy, we focused on the following topics:

1. American Giving

2. Paine’s Individualism

3. Action, Not Motivation

4. Laboratory for Nation

5. Acid Cynicism

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

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