Excerpts From the Introduction to The Gospel of Wealth Essays and Other Writings by Andrew Carnegie
by David Nasaw
In 1901, Andrew Carnegie sold his interest in Carnegie Steel to J. P. Morgan, who was in the process of organizing U.S. Steel, America's first billion-dollar corporation. After paying Carnegie more than $200 million, Morgan was reported to have told him that he was now "the richest man in the world." And he probably was.
Andrew Carnegie was, however, as proud of his career as a published writer as he was of his success as a steelmaker. He began sending letters to newspaper editorsand seeing his name in printwhen he was in his teens, and kept writing through his eighties. He published seven books during his lifetime in addition to his Autobiography, which was published posthumously, and hundreds of articles, pamphlets, speeches, and letters to the editor.
Although Carnegie wrote on dozens of different subjects, ranging from foreign policy to the gold standard, and on to banking, tariffs, politics, education, World's Fairs, African American history, war, imperialism, disarmament, and golf, his most famous writings were the "Gospel of Wealth" essays, in which he developed a coherent and compelling case for the obligation of millionaires to give away their fortunes during their lifetimes. Though his advice was taken by no one but himself, it resonated widely throughout Gilded Age America.
Carnegie's first article on the subject was entitled "Wealth" and was published in the North American Review in June 1889. He now declared in print that his decision to give away his entire fortune had not been one of whim or personal idiosyncrasy. It was, he declared to his fellow millionaires, the duty of the wealthy man, after providing "moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him," to give away to the community all he had accumulated during his lifetime.
Never before had one millionaire taken it upon himself to tell his comrades what to do with their money. The arguments were compelling, the advice harsh. The article caused such an uproar that it was immediately reprinted in England in the Pall Mall Gazette under the title "The Gospel of Wealth."
On the suggestion of the editor of the North American Review, Carnegie followed his first article with a second, "The Best Fields for Philanthropy," which was published in December 1889. In this article, he suggested to his fellow millionaires how they might best give away their fortunes. Discussion of his articles was intense in literary and political journals on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the many reviewers were W. E. Gladstone, the British Prime Minister. In March 1891, Carnegie responded to his critics in a long article, "The Advantages of Poverty," published in the Nineteenth Century.
Andrew Carnegie would remain in the news for the rest of his lifeas author, millionaire steelmaker, philanthropist, opponent of the Spanish-American War, and peace activist. With the sale of Carnegie Steel to the Morgan interests in 1901, his fame grew still. The more money he made, the more he insisted that he intended to give it all away. He preached his "Gospel of Wealth" in hundreds of speeches on both sides of the Atlantic and published it in article, pamphlet, and book form. In 1906, in response, he claimed, to a note from Theodore Roosevelt praising his 1889 articles, Carnegie asked the editors of the North American Review to reprint it, which they did in their September issue. In December 1906, he published another article in the North American Review, entitled "The Gospel of Wealth II." The essay, which appears here in its original form, was later expanded for inclusion in his 1906 collection, Problems of To-Day: Wealth, Labor, Socialism.
To understand the intellectual roots of the "Gospel of Wealth" essays, we must start with the fact that Andrew Carnegie was a self-professed disciple of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, founder of social Darwinism and the first author to use the term "survival of the fittest." Spencer's evolutionary philosophy provided Carnegieand his generation of Gilded Age millionaireswith a framework for rationalizing and justifying their outsized material success. Spencer banished chance, luck, superstition, and happenstance from the universe, certified "scientifically" that industrial society was governed by "the very laws of life," and then endowed those laws with moral purpose. In the Spencerian universe, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and their fellow millionaires were not renegade "robber barons" but agents of a new industrial age.
"It should be remembered always," Carnegie wrote in his 1906 "Gospel of Wealth II" essay, "that wealth is not chiefly the product of the individual under present conditions, but largely the joint product of the community." In the "commercial and industrial age in which we live...wealth has been produced as if by magic, and fallen largely to the captains of industry, greatly to their own surprise."
While, according to Carnegie, it suited a larger schema that capital accumulate in the hands of a few like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, it did not mean that these men had "earned" this money and could therefore do with it what they pleased or hand it over to their progeny. On the contrary, in the larger evolutionary scheme of human history, they had been entrusted with these fortunes as "trustees" because they were best suited to distribute them on behalf of the community at large.
The millionaire businessman who spent his accumulated wealth on himself and his family was guilty twice: of keeping for himself that which did not belong to him and of depriving the larger community of his talents. The same talents that had led him to accumulate millions were the talents needed to distribute those millions. Indiscriminate giving wrecked lives and communities. It took a wise man to give money wisely.
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