I’ve started to take some advice I’ve heard repeatedly over the years, that advice being to learn from the best. You don’t have to know someone personally for that someone to be your mentor. I’m very glad for that, because I have a certain admiration for Andrew Carnegie. I use the word certain to qualify my admiration. No man or woman is perfect, and so everyone has flaws. This means we have to separate the wheat from the chaff in our mentors — receiving the wheat while rejecting the chaff.
Why admire this man? Wasn’t he one of those robber barons from a past century? Yes, he was an extremely wealthy man, at one time the richest in the world. But he was far different from his millionaire associates. Long before he made his fortune, he determined that he needed only so much and that the excess should be given away to help others. He truly believed that it was the duty of every wealthy person to give away whatever fortune had been acquired.
That’s why I was thrilled to find his essay “The Gospel of Wealth” included in the book when I went looking for a copy of his autobiography. I’ll have more on that important work later, mostly because I have quite a bit to say about it. But for now, I’d like to review the main event, which is his autobiography.
Being autobiography, there is that temptation to gloss over events and make the result seem more glamorous than they actually were. Such is certainly the case with Carnegie’s description of the Homestead riots. Notice I said riot, not strike. It may have started out as a strike, but it turned violent and so became a riot.
I find it most interesting that Carnegie barely mentions Henry Frick at all and passes off the unfortunate turn of events as the responsibility of his associates whom he doesn’t name but to whom (as he claims) he left control of affairs. He also repeats like a broken phonograph the mantra of “Well, everyone knows that if Andy had been here, nothing drastic would have happened. Everyone loves Andy, and so he could have calmed the situation before it went too far.”
The truth is a far cry from that. Carnegie’s mail correspondence with Frick paints a very different picture. Carnegie knew what Frick what doing and how he was approaching the labor problem. In fact, Carnegie had hired Frick precisely because of how he handled labor problems. Frick had a reputation for ruthlessly destroying unions and leaving the hands of other associates “clean.” The idea that Carnegie had no idea how Frick was handling the Homestead riot or that he would not have condoned Frick’s actions is believable only to someone who doesn’t possess more information than what Carnegie presents in his autobiography.
Not all of what Carnegie presents is a shady tale. Some of his lessons learned about life and business are really valuable, and these lessons are one of the principal reasons why I admire Carnegie. Some of his social and religious views are interesting as well, although I must especially part ways with him when he declares himself a fervent disciple of Herbert Spencer. This popular late-19th-century philosopher was most famous for applying Darwin’s theory of evolution to social, economic, and political settings. Carnegie adamantly believed that everything would get only better and better as the stronger elements of society gained power and control while the weaker elements faded away.
I don’t think history has told that story. Are our political institutions less corrupt today than they were 100 or even 200 years ago? Is society more free today than it was in those days? I would argue that we are much less free today than we were then given that the government controls and regulates much more of the activity of its citizens today than it did then. Add to that the taxes we pay today (income tax didn’t really catch on in this country until the end of Carnegie’s life), and what we see is the devolution of society, not its evolution.
Throughout his text, Carnegie tries to make that evolution argument in the realm of religion, but again I would counter him. Carnegie believes that man is progressing towards a more and more refined understanding of God. I don’t believe that is true of society as a whole, especially given that more and more people today don’t even believe in God. Among those who do, we have more churches today than we did 100 years ago. You would think if our understanding of God were being refined we would come together more instead of splintering apart.
All that said, Carnegie’s autobiography is a very pleasant read, especially for someone like myself who has an abiding interest in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the true dawn of the modern technological revolution that drives our society today. My only real gripe with it is that Carnegie never finished it. He worked on it off and on in the years after Teddy Roosevelt was President, but then the text abruptly ends.
Again, it’s good to have information not provided in Carnegie’s text. His text ends just as what we know today as World War I begins. That war absolutely devastated Carnegie, so much so that he entered a very deep depression. Had he lived just one more year longer, he would have seen the end of that war. I’m sad to see the life of a man I admire end that way, but I’m glad that those who came after him did not try to finish his work. Let it stand or fall on Andy and Andy alone.
Overall, I recommend the book to anyone interested in hearing more about Carnegie’s life from his own mouth. I give it 4 out of 5 stars. His abrupt, unfinished ending and the points of disagreement I’ve already outlined really drop it to 3 stars, but the life and business lessons are really quite valuable and so raise the rating up a star. I did enjoy reading the book and look forward to reading a more exhaustive biography on his life in the near future.
Here you can find news and announcements I want to share. In between I'll include reviews of the books I read. Find me on Goodreads.com for more book reviews.