Born of modest origins in Scotland in 1835, Andrew Carnegie is best known as the founder of Carnegie Steel.... Carnegie, the son of an impoverished linen weaver, moved to Pittsburgh at the age of thirteen. The embodiment of the American dream, he pulled himself up from bobbin boy in a cotton factory to become the richest man in the world. He spent the rest of his life giving away the fortune he had accumulated and crusading for international peace. For all that he accomplished and came to represent to the American public - a wildly successful businessman and capitalist, a self-educated writer, peace activist, philanthropist, man of letters, lover of culture, and unabashed enthusiast for American democracy and capitalism - Carnegie has remained, to this day, an enigma. -http://www.booksinprint.com.
Nasaw presents Carnegie as an almost indomitable force of nature, confident of his own abilities and point of view even as a young man. An immigrant to the United States as a child, along with his mother and brother, Carnegie seems a precocious teenager, eager to work, impressing his bosses with his abilities and work ethic, and evidently invited by them to begin investing in their ventures. Soon enough, Carnegie owns his own company, which he parlays over time into the massive Carnegie Steel empire.
Having achieved this vast fortune, Carnegie focused his energies on two other goals, even as he oversaw his industrial company. First, Carnegie desired to become a man of letters, admired for his published writings and sought after for his opinion on economic and political issues. Second, and perhaps as a consequence of the first, Carnegie dreamed of becoming a great philanthropist who, before his death, would give away his entire fortune to benevolent organizations.
Using these three overarching aspects as the framework for Carnegie's biography, Nasaw details the complex relationships he had with many people, including his mother, his brother, his wife, his daughter, and his main business associates, particularly Henry Clay Frick. The portraits of these relationships, and his nuanced presentation of Carnegie as a man who desires to be both esteemed as a colleague and respected as a father-figure, is probably the most successful part of Nasaw's biography.
In addition, Nasaw offers an exhaustive look at Carnegie as a would-be man of letters, drawing not only on Carnegie's published pamphlets and newspaper columns, but on his extensive correspondence, particularly with political leaders in the United States and England. From Nasaw's treatment alone, it would seem that Carnegie achieved the status and respect he craved.
Less successful is the description of Carnegie's rise from immigrant poverty to wealthy industrialist. While Nasaw focuses several chapters on this, it seems unclear how Carnegie actually achieved such wealth. There is an explicit suggestion that his infant iron company benefited from price collusion agreements with Pennsylvania railroad companies, but no real presentation of how Carnegie acquired the capital to start an iron company in the first place. Later stories about how Carnegie relied on the business and technical expertise of those who worked for him suggest that Carnegie's financial success was a result of the decisions of his underlings -- but certainly Carnegie must have possessed significant understandings of both his industry and of the world of finance. Nasaw's treatment is inadequate, to say the least.
It also should be noted that the biography, well written though it is, becomes rather tedious at points. For a while, it felt like the book would never end, and that Nasaw was chronicling a never-ending cycle of Carnegie giving interviews and essays to the press, writing presidents and prime ministers, giving away libraries and church organs, and summering at his Scottish estate.
In the end, Nasaw's biography is a competent, but uneven book. It is detailed, but for its successes in drawing a psychological portrait of Carnegie and his relationships it leaves some important questions about Carnegie's business acumen unanswered. It is at points an enjoyable read, but then also a frustrating and exhausting one.
This is the story of the American hyper-rich and price others paid on their behalf. It is also the tale of the mess that the good-intentioned rich can make. Many of our current foreign policies have their source in Carnegie's vision of world peace.
An important, but difficult read.
His goal was to give away all of his fortune before his death. He funded many library throughout the country. He was self-educated. He was against war and worked tirelessly against war and imperialism.
He was against the occupation of the Philippines. He worked closely with President Roosevelt and President Wilson for an international peace league.
Despite having no formal education, Carnegie was certainly a very intelligent man. He educated himself over the years to the extent that he was considered a very philosophical author and sought after speaker on many of the issues of the day. He hitched his wagon to the right horse when he became assistant to an up and comer in the Pennsylvania Railroad. From an early age, Carnegie discovered the beauty of dividends and compound interest, money earned not by virtue of labor, but solely by virtue of having money. Due in large part to his connections, he was able to parley inside information into increasingly lucrative investments, to the point that he was soon able to turn over daily operation of his several businesses to very able lieutenants while he enjoyed the good life. These lieutenants, assisted by a series of unique events and developing technologies, made Carnegie the richest man in the world.
While it may sound as if Carnegie was merely an observer and accumulator, he certainly deserves much credit for his success. He was an early pioneer in the concept of cost accounting and through a ruthless system of unit cost reduction, both in the areas of vertical integration and labor cost, was able to successfully grow his business and survive numerous economic downturns which bankrupted his competitors.
Many decry Carnegie's business practices, most notably in the areas of labor/manangement relations and anti-competitive practices. However, this demonstrates a very common failing in many commentators; holding historical personages to current standards. The same people that condemn Carnegie's labor practices, denigrate George Washington for owning slaves, or Harry Truman for making racist comments. Each of these, though immoral by current standards, were men of their times.
Owners of manufacturing entities were expected to battle with labor. Labor, in the mid-late 19th century was heavily connected with the burgeoning socialist movement which was looked upon with disfavor by much of society. In fact, it is no coincidence that those of Carnegie's competitors whose labor forces became organized, were largely those that failed in the repeated economic panics of the day. Carnegie succeeded, and grew, as a result of reinvesting profits and maintaining low unit cost. Ironically, though his Homestead steel works became the symbol for labor/management violence, he considered himself one of the most enlightened managers of the day.
Carnegie is viewed, with Rockefeller, Morgan and Vanderbilt in the class of "Robber Barons" which sprang up during the era, however, Carnegie is vastly different than each of these individuals. While many of his contemporaries benefited and suceeded largely due to watered stock and market manipulation, he was very proud, and quick to point out that he never operated a corporation and never sold a share of stock. He was definitely NOT a monopolist (U.S. Steel was formed as a result of his sale of Carnegie Steel to J. P. Morgan and investors). He was simply a supreme capitalist and the first of his type and scale.
He is condemned by others for taking advantage of political and business connections not available to others. Again, that was common practice in the era. Many things that he did, while legislated against now, were perfectly legal and accepted business practices of the times.
All that having been said, I get the impression, especially in the later parts of the book, that Carnegie could be an insufferable prig. I imagine it becomes easy to view ones self as omnipotent and all wise, when everything one touches turns to gold and one is constantly praised for his good works. However, it is telling that he constantly bragged of being successful while only working 2-3 hours/day, lecturing his many employees to enjoy leisure time, while at the same time instituting a 12 hour/7 day a week work schedule. It seems almost unbelievable that he was unaware of the hypocrisy of some of actions, but after reading the book, I actually believe that he was. By letting his managers do the dirty work of making his money, he was able to "keep his hands clean" and disavow any unpleasantness that might result.
Though hopelessly naive, it is difficult to condemn a man who literally pioneered the concept of philanthropy and spent his last decade in a never flagging crusade for world peace. He tirelessly advocated the formation of a League of Nations/United Nations style world arbitration body, with military enforcement powers, well before any of his contemporaries. While he would doubtless be overjoyed to learn of the existence of the current United Nations, he would nonetheless be less than pleased with its corruption and lack of effective authority.
All in all, a rather good treatment, not just of Carnegie, but of the period itself and many of the historical figures of the era. At times, the book dragged and became tiresome, but not exceedingly so. I would highly recommend the book for anyone interested not just in Andrew Carnegie but in late 19th century American and British history.