November 25: How to Die Unwealthy
2016/11/26 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1835 Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland.
Emigrating to the US at the age of 13, Carnegie worked manual factory jobs and up the ladder, saving as he went. Through shrewd business dealings and investments, smart adaptations to market forces and of technological innovation, he became the ruler of the world’s most extensive and profitable steel empire by the turn of the century–an empire that made him one of the wealthiest men in the country.
With names like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Astor, Carnegie’s is always listed among the elite nineteenth-century tycoons who amassed nearly inconceivable wealth. Carnegie is distinguished among them in his conception of what to do with that wealth. As a young man he had set a course for himself–and believed it to be a good one for all men–to focus the thirds of one’s life on education, earning, and philanthropy. While his theory has its reasonable critics (and also depends on a certain prophetic sensibility that allows one to know when he passes from one third to the next), it cannot be denied that he lived by this dictum and his observation that “a man who dies wealthy dies disgraced.” By the time of his death in 1919 Carnegie had contributed well over $350 million to various causes. You know the concert hall and university named after him. Then there are the 2,509 libraries, most of them in the United States. Although there is a certain paternalistic ickiness in Carnegie’s work, it shouldn’t dim the shine on this gift to communities across the country that found their public and intellectual life enhanced by one of the thousands of libraries built by his largesse (and they tend to be really good buildings: check out Ridge Farm IL, Richfield UT, Fresno CA, Beatrice ND, and the whopper in Pittsburgh PA). We are all for the current trend by zillionares supporting education and health care in non-industrialized countries, but do regret there aren’t more of them cut of Carnegie’s cloth anymore.
Image: Carnegie at his Scottish home, Skibo, with a great big Collie dog. We’d prefer a dozen Cairn Terriers with little coats that matched his own, or maybe just one giant Deerhound, but won’t be picky. P.S. You can tell that J. P. Morgan liked cats just by looking at him.