Andrew Carnegie: A Tribute

Scanned portrait 
photograph of Andrew Carnegie.

"My heart is in the work." -- Andrew Carnegie

Neither a rags-to-riches biographical sketch nor a perfectly scanned-in image of Mr. Carnegie could serve as as great a personal tribute to the great Founder of Libraries, the earnest Champion of Peace and the resolute Captain of Industry as presenting his own words online--available electronically and immediately to the whole world through the World Wide Web. He would be tickled pink.

Mr. Carnegie loved to promote his ideas and opinions in print. As one of America's most successful businessmen and, perhaps, the world's richest man, it can be assumed that he felt his opinions and advice were not without proven merit. In fact, his journalistic career had begun early when the young man found himself barred from free membership in Col. James Anderson's "Mechanics' and Apprentices' Library." In 1853 Carnegie took the matter to the pages of the Pittsburgh Dispatch; and, as Joseph Wall notes in his definitive biography of Andrew Carnegie, the victory the young man won through his letters to the editor left a lasting impression:

It was also his first literary success, and for Andrew nothing else that he had known in the way of recognition by others had been quite as exhilarating as this experience of seeing his own words in print. It fed his vanity and at the same time increased his appetite for more such food. At that moment a journalistic ambition was born which he would spend the remainder of his life attempting to satisfy. (1)

An American possessed of nineteenth century grandeur, he was yet a man of contradictions. The wealthiest human being of his time, he was convinced of the merits of poverty in developing character. His vast wealth, produced by the sweat of "the toilers of Pittsburgh," he returned to the city he loved, to America, to Scotland, to England and to the world. Not a religionist, he yet spoke in spiritual terms when expressing what he hoped his benefactions would accomplish in the world and in the lives of those very toilers whose labor had produced his wealth:

"Man does not live by bread alone." I have known millionaires starving for lack of the nutriment which alone can sustain all that is human in man, and I know workmen, and many so-called poor men, who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself. Exalted beyond this, as it sometimes is, it remains Caliban still and still plays the beast. My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth. (2)

In fact, by the time he died in 1919, he had given away $350,695,653 (3). At his death, the last $30,000,000 (4) was likewise given away to foundations, charities and to pensioners.

Andrew Carnegie was convinced of and committed to the notion that education was life's key. He was convinced of the power of, what we term today, access to information. He learned that lesson profoundly in the libraries of Col. Anderson in Allegheny City. It was an experience he never forgot and which motivated his campaign of world-wide library-building. Over the doors of The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, carved in stone, are his own words, "Free to the People." (5)

William F. Buckley, Jr., in a newspaper column, describes a proposal for a portable mini-computer ("TeleRead") able to effectively store and display the texts of hundreds of books--"everyone's personal library." Buckley pays Mr. Carnegie this perspicacious compliment:

Andrew Carnegie, if he were alive, would probably buy TeleRead from Mr. Rothman for $1, develop the whole idea at his own expense, and then make a gift of it to the American people. (6)

Andrew Carnegie stood somewhere between 5'2" and 5'6". But inside, where the meanings are, there had to be a great, tough, disciplined and determined giant of a man--a spirit much akin to the gracefully powerful and wonderfully purposeful image of The Reading Blacksmith, the focus of Mr. Carnegie's memorial to his childhood benefactor, James Anderson.

Although a Captain of Industry, he was peculiarly naive or perhaps just eternally optimistic about human nature--sharing with old Walt Whitman an abiding democratic faith in the common sense, decency and nobility of spirit of the people. Andrew Carnegie lived through the industrialization of America and was one of the leading actors in that drama. He was a shrewd and alert businessman who could charm Mark Twain with his adage, "Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket." (7) He was also a millionaire with an extraordinary social conscience. "The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced," (8) he so wrote and so believed.

His legacy lives on in the hundreds and hundreds of libraries that his wealth made possible. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, one of Mr. Carnegie's chiefest joys, celebrates this November its 100th anniversary, a refuge to August Wilson and to thousands and thousands of inquiring minds over ten decades. The spirit of Andrew Carnegie, his faith in the ability of individuals to better themselves and thus the society in which they live, now prepares to face the challenges of the 21st Century. Through the power of a technology unforeseen in his day, may his ideas and his example gain a new audience and a new life.


* Mr. Carnegie Speaks (567K 52.68 sec.)

I quote from The Gospel of Wealth, published [25] years ago:
This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: first, to set an example of modest unostentatious living, shunning display; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds which he is strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community.