Even those who consider American history one long triumphal march tend to pass quickly over the decades of industrial expansion and consolidation between the Civil War and the early years of the 20th century. Industrialization was a necessary prelude to mass prosperity; but in America, as elsewhere, it often made for a dispiriting spectacle—pollution, urban blight, glaring material inequalities, ethnic and class conflict, moral dislocation.
To observers at the time, modern America’s coming of age often seemed like an unraveling of the social fabric. Because so much had changed so quickly, precise explanations were hard to come by, but the responsibility for what had gone wrong settled quickly on those who had most obviously benefited. If, broadly speaking, industrialization was the problem, the men who ran the system—and who often got enormously rich doing so—had to be made to answer for its shortcomings.
Thus was born the notion of the “robber barons,” and it has had a long historical shelf life. Until well into the second half of the 20th century, historians of post-Civil War industrial capitalism echoed contemporary observers both in their emphasis on the system’s costs and in their indictment of those in charge.
In recent decades, a measure of economic sophistication has crept into accounts of the era, and the tendency to dwell on personal or institutional villainy has abated. For all its unlovely aspects, the period was one of dynamic economic growth, and those at the top must have been doing at least some things right. They may have gained disproportionately from economic progress, but most workers found their own real wages on the upswing. Industrial development was not the zero-sum game that progressive historians imagined it to be, nor is the concept of “robber barons” an adequate rubric to summarize either the men or the age to which it refers.
Evidence for this view abounds in two outstanding new biographies—David Nasaw’s Andrew Carnegie1 and David Cannadine’s Mellon: An American Life.2 Nasaw teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Cannadine at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. Neither author ignores or minimizes the flaws in his subject’s behavior. But by offering portraits in the round, both resist historical reductionism. Readers may not come away admiring Andrew Carnegie or Andrew Mellon, but they will know better than simply to relegate them to historical pigeonholes.
That is particularly the case with Carnegie, a force of nature and, as Nasaw makes clear, a figure of fascinating complexity. In his business operations, he was sometimes a robber baron, sometimes an enlightened industrial statesman. More significantly, his life was about much more than business, and in his various non-business ventures he fit into no consistent analytical category. As a man, he was devious, deceptive, egomaniacal, and occasionally ruthless; he was also kindly, generous, dutiful, and possessed of an encompassing curiosity that suggested broad human sympathies. He defies convenient summing-up.
Carnegie’s career was the American Dream personified. He was born in 1835 in Dunfermline, Scotland, to a poor, none-too-industrious weaver and his ambitious and resourceful wife. The family emigrated to America in 1848, settling near relatives and friends just outside Pittsburgh. Andrew, who had next to no formal education, went immediately to work as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill. Dissatisfied with the physical drudgery, he became a telegraph messenger, taught himself Morse code, and soon became the private telegraph operator and chief assistant to Thomas A. Scott, head of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the Pittsburgh region.
Bright, energetic, and personable—his inveterately optimistic and positive disposition attracted people to him all his life—Carnegie rose quickly in the railroad and considerably augmented his income with investments on the side, especially in oil.
After leaving the company at age thirty, he continued to work with Scott and the railroad’s president, J. Edgar Thomson, in a number of joint ventures, contracting with the Pennsylvania and other railways to supply raw materials and grade crossings, and manufacture rails, bridges, and rolling stock of all varieties. He was already a rich man when he expanded from iron to steel in the early 1870’s. By the time he retired in 1901, his share of the proceeds from the sale of Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan came to almost $120 billion in today’s currency, making him the richest man in America, quite possibly the world.
Carnegie considered himself a businessman of probity and integrity and, by the standards of the day, he was. Attacks on his character genuinely baffled and appalled him. Nonetheless, as Nasaw notes, over the course of his career he engaged in activities that included sweetheart deals with corporate cronies, profiting from inside information, the floating of overvalued bonds, stock speculation, and involvement in pools to set minimum prices and allocate market shares. Carnegie operated in an intensely competitive and lightly regulated business environment. Although he acted decently enough by the lights of the day, those lights appear somewhat dim in retrospect.
The greatest blemish on Carnegie’s reputation was the notorious lockout and strike at the Homestead steel works near Pittsburgh in July 1892. Carnegie considered himself a friend of the working man—he referred proudly to his family’s involvement in the radical Chartist movement in Britain in the 1830’s and 40’s—but the theoretical rights of workers gave way when they came in conflict with his companies’ profit margins. His operating partner Henry Clay Frick attempted to break the Homestead strike by bringing in Pinkerton men, but workers were there to block them. Violence broke out, and by the time order was restored there were dead and wounded on both sides. For the rest of his life, Carnegie, who was vacationing in Scotland at the time of the strike, disavowed responsibility for Homestead, but Nasaw shows that he had prior knowledge of Frick’s intentions—they kept in contact by cable—and cites instances of earlier labor conflicts in which Carnegie employed similar tactics.
Still, Carnegie’s image as an industrialist of generally enlightened opinions was not without substance. A member of the GOP’s progressive wing—he had first been drawn to the party for its antislavery sentiments—he favored establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission, backed Theodore Roosevelt on railroad regulation, and spoke in favor of a government commission to regulate prices. He defended the progressive income tax and proposed stiff levies on inherited fortunes. He was even known to speak favorably, if vaguely, of a possible socialist future. In foreign policy he was a fervent anti-imperialist, a strong internationalist, and a near fanatical advocate of world peace.
When he was just thirty-three, Carnegie determined that he would no longer preoccupy himself with material gain. “The amassing of wealth,” he wrote in a personal memo, “is one of the worst species of idolatry.” He began to work only three or four hours a day, spending the rest of his time at intellectual pursuits, philanthropy, and leisure. Much of his effort was devoted to self-education. More than anything else, Carnegie wanted recognition as a man of letters, and to a considerable degree he attained it. He moved in distinguished literary circles in America and Britain (Matthew Arnold and Samuel Clemens were among his close associates), published in fashionable journals of ideas, and wrote the best-selling Triumphant Democracy (1886), which, as its title suggests, was an extended celebration of the achievements wrought by America’s political and economic institutions.
For Carnegie, America’s moral and material progress showed it to be in conformity with the scientific imperatives of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, under whose influence he himself had converted from “theology and the supernatural” to “the truth of evolution.” Evolutionary progress was not, to be sure, without its conundrums. “In particular,” he wrote, “I don’t at all understand the mysterious law of evolution, according to which the higher forms of life live upon the lower, rising through slaughter and extinction. That is profoundly, tragically obscure and perplexing.” Still, the evolutionary consolation by which he overcame all doubts remained: “All is well, since all grows better.”
Evolutionary theory provided, among other things, an argument for the social utility of millionaires like himself. Beginning in the 1880’s, Carnegie elaborated that argument in a series of articles, later gathered into a book, that created the catchphrase with which his name is enduringly associated: the Gospel of Wealth. The simplest defense for great wealth was that it was a necessary byproduct of modern development. Earlier societies were restricted to the household or workshop method of manufacture and provided goods of uneven quality at high prices. Modern industrial society might generate greater inequalities of income, but it also produced dependable products at prices so low that now the poor could enjoy a style of material life available in the past only to the rich. Complex industrial society required as its leaders men with a special talent for organization and management; such men were relatively rare, and so could command a high level of compensation.
As Carnegie saw it, the emergence of the millionaire class resulted from the workings of immutable economic laws that societies ignored at their peril. Those in doubt about this “beneficent necessity,” he explained, need only look about them: desperately poor nations like India, China, and Japan had few if any millionaires; as one went up the economic scale, from Russia to Germany to England, the incidence of millionaires proportionately increased. But none of these societies produced anything like America’s abundant supply of the very rich, and in America—here, for Carnegie, was the clincher—the income of the many far surpassed that achieved anywhere else. The wealth gap was not a problem to be solved; it was an essential element in a system that worked to the good of all.
Another boon offered to society by millionaires was the proper use of the riches they accumulated that exceeded their personal needs. “The duty of the man of wealth,” Carnegie said, is “to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer . . . in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community.”
That duty followed from the fact that, while the wealthy surely earned their riches, wealth itself came ultimately from the community. It was only the growth in the size and needs of the population that created the context in which business leaders could exercise their superior talents. In that sense, Carnegie noted, “the community created the millionaire’s wealth.”
Not all of his fellow millionaires, Carnegie conceded, did what duty required. Some left their fortunes not to the community but to their children, a practice Carnegie condemned as both self-regarding and, in the end, no favor to the children, for whom unearned wealth often turned out to be more blight than blessing. (Thus his support for steep inheritance taxes. Carnegie himself did not marry until he was past fifty, and he had only one child, a daughter.) Others earned Carnegie’s rebuke by leaving their estates to be administered, often badly, by lesser men after their deaths. “It is well to remember,” Carnegie warned, “that it requires the exercise of not less ability than that which acquired it to use wealth so as to be really beneficial to the community.” Then there were those who gave their money away in their lifetimes but did so unwisely. Better to toss money into the sea, Carnegie thought, than to spend it “to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.” It was philanthropy that was needed, not heedless charity.
Whatever one thinks of his rationale, Carnegie was indeed serious about his philanthropic responsibilities. He did not quite succeed in his intention of giving away all of his money before his death in 1919, but he did disburse vast amounts and left the remainder (minus relatively modest bequests to his wife and various employees and friends) in a charitable trust.
His giving was diverse and sometimes idiosyncratic: it included, inter alia, thousands of community library buildings and endowments in America and Britain, thousands more organs for churches (to introduce parishioners to classical music), pensions for college professors, free tuition for students in Scottish universities, a scientific research institution in the nation’s capital, a peace endowment, and a library, music hall, art gallery, and natural-history museum in Pittsburgh.
Carnegie’s philanthropy was not motivated—as was the case with so many of his fellow millionaires—by guilt, religious convictions, or a desire to affect public opinion. He felt no pangs of conscience concerning his wealth, harbored no Calvinist or other theological beliefs, and settled on giving away his money long before he became a prominent target of public criticism. He surrendered his fortune because he thought it the right thing to do.
Carnegie had hoped that his retirement would be committed primarily to philanthropic activities. As it turned out, however, philanthropy became subordinate to the cause that consumed his final decades: world peace. He took a major role in opposing Britain’s Boer War in South Africa and America’s war with Spain and subsequent conflict with rebel forces in the Philippines. But his broader target was war itself, which he considered a moral anachronism among nations in the same way dueling had once been among individuals. The progress of civilization had eliminated the latter evil; that same progress, in combination with the increasing economic interdependence of nations, would do away with the former.
In this case, of course, what Nasaw terms his subject’s “almost intolerable self-confidence” failed him. In his incessant, imperious, often condescending badgering of political leaders in Washington, London, and Berlin, he finally made himself “slightly ridiculous.” Teddy Roosevelt bore more or less patiently with Carnegie’s importunities in public, but referred to him privately as the leader of a “male shrieking sisterhood.”
The outbreak of war in 1914 shattered, at least in the short run, Carnegie’s naive faith that the ultimate result of the various policies he urged—bilateral arbitration treaties, international disarmament conferences, a permanent world court, a league of peace with enforceable powers—would be the cessation of armed conflict among nations. But if the Great War shook his pacifist dreams, it did not entirely destroy them. One of his last public acts was to write to Woodrow Wilson congratulating the President on his decision in 1917 to enlist America in what both of them believed would be the war to end war.
David Cannadine’s biography of Andrew Mellon suffers in comparison with Nasaw’s masterful work, but that has to do more with the book’s subject than with its author. The historian Burton J. Hendrick, who wrote biographies of both Carnegie and Mellon (the latter was never published) and was thus uniquely positioned to offer a comparative judgment, concluded succinctly that “Mr. Mellon lacks the personal qualities that made Mr. Carnegie so attractive a subject, nor, in other ways, was he so great a man.” Mellon’s career was less interesting than Carnegie’s, his mind less lively and original, his personality less compelling, his impact less memorable. Still, as Cannadine notes, his range of experience in business, politics, art collecting, and philanthropy has no equivalent among those commonly classed as robber barons, and it is well past time that he received full-scale treatment.
Cannadine concedes that he began his research prejudiced against his subject. At the outset, he says, he found Mellon “an unsympathetic person with unappealing politics.” Mellon is best known to history as Secretary of the Treasury in the 1920’s in the conservative administrations of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Cannadine, who is English (though he has studied and taught in the U.S.), admits that had he been an American during that period he would have voted against the Presidents whom Mellon served and thereafter in favor of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nonetheless, he assures us that he has tried to remain evenhanded in his judgments, and he does scrupulously attempt to provide a comprehensive account of his subject that might satisfy both admirers and detractors. It does not, however, take a terribly perspicacious reader to conclude that the author’s final estimation differs little from the one with which he began.
Mellon’s career had none of the rags-to-riches romance of Carnegie’s. He was born into comfortable circumstances in Pittsburgh in 1855; his father Thomas, whose Ulster Scots family had come to America in 1818 when he was five years old, had prospered as a lawyer, judge, businessman, and banker. Andrew inherited his father’s aptitude for business, and already by 1882 had assumed control of T. Mellon and Sons Bank. Through the bank he gradually acquired interests in a broad range of enterprises: real estate, utilities, transportation, coal, steel, chemicals, oil, aluminum. By the turn of the century T. Mellon and Sons had become Mellon National Bank, and its head was now a very rich and powerful industrial financier.
Wealth and power did not translate into fame. Of the great industrialists of the age, Mellon was, until his entry into national politics in the 1920’s, the least known. He was associated with no one major business, worked behind the scenes, and avoided publicity. He had none of Carnegie’s flair and no desire for his notoriety. (The two men, twenty years apart in age, knew each other but were never close. In his dealings in steel, Mellon carefully avoided competition with Carnegie.) From childhood Mellon had been, even among his several siblings, a shy loner, remote and self-sufficient. He achieved his success through intellect and shrewd judgment, not force of personality.
Mellon’s only experience in the public spotlight prior to the 1920’s had been embarrassing and personally disastrous. He delayed marriage until 1901 when he was forty-six. He had met Nora McMullen on a cruise three years earlier, when she was nineteen, and had, for the first and only time in his life, fallen immediately and hopelessly in love. The two were utterly mismatched, their marriage a failure from the start. (Cannadine compares the union to that of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer.) Within a few years Nora had entered into a flagrant affair, and by 1912 the marriage was over, its dissolution marked by ugly, protracted, and widely publicized divorce proceedings that titillated the public and left the Mellons’ two young children, Ailsa and Paul, with psychological scars that never entirely healed.
After the divorce, Mellon turned his attention not just to work but to the avocation of art collecting, which he had taken up in the late 1890’s. Over the years, making his purchases through the prominent art dealers Roland Knoedler and Joseph Duveen, he built a magnificent personal collection. His greatest coup came in 1930-31, when he secretly purchased 21 of the finest paintings from the Hermitage collection in the Soviet Union for some $7 million, an acquisition—Cannadine calls it “the sale of the century”—made possible by Stalin’s need for cash in his efforts to modernize the Soviet economy.
By 1920, Mellon was sixty-five and thinking about retirement. He was instead about to enter on a new career in national politics. Long active behind the scenes in the Republican party, he was particularly involved in the 1920 presidential campaign, pleased with the conservative turn in the party and nation that resulted in the nomination and landslide election of Warren Harding. His generous contributions and success at money-raising brought him to the attention of party leaders, and his name was put forward by conservatives to join Harding’s cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury, in part to offset the presumed progressive influence of the incoming Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover.
Mellon would serve under three Presidents, from 1921 to 1932. His major policies included reductions in interest rates and the national debt, cuts in taxes and government spending, and settlement of the huge debt that the European allies had incurred with the U.S. to finance their war efforts. On all these matters he achieved, over time, considerable success, and with the return of national prosperity he became a highly regarded figure. Mellon was hailed as “the greatest Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton” and was even mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 1928. This, of course, was before the stock-market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, when praise turned to condemnation.
Examining Mellon’s stewardship through the prism of the Depression, historians have more often than not been highly critical of his policies, even those prior to 1929. Cannadine, though a liberal in his politics and often disdainful of his subject’s views, concludes that Mellon’s tenure in the cabinet deserves “a more sympathetic appraisal than it has generally received.” He defends in particular Mellon’s tax policies, which have frequently been dismissed as special favors for the rich.
In cutting rates at the top, in fact, Mellon wanted to induce the wealthy to pay more in taxes, not less. The high wartime federal rates had prompted the wealthy to concentrate their investments in state and municipal bonds, which were tax-exempt. Mellon rightly supposed that lower income taxes would redirect investment from bonds, where returns were low, to taxable industrial stocks whose generally higher returns would offset the tax bite. Mellon, Cannadine notes, consistently held to the principle that payment of federal taxes should be proportionate to income. His reduction in top rates meant that the rich paid more than they had before, while his elimination of taxes for the first several thousand dollars of income meant that most Americans paid nothing.
Nor, Cannadine thinks, could Mellon have done much either to prevent the crash or to restore the economy in its aftermath. The government’s monetary and fiscal tools were inadequate to both tasks. All in all, he concludes, “most of what happened in America between 1929 and 1932 would probably have happened regardless of who had been running the Treasury.”
Where Cannadine is critical of Mellon concerns his practice, despite public denials, of continuing to look after his personal business interests while in office. There is no evidence of corrupt dealings, but there were times when Mellon urged policies that had favorable implications for companies he was involved in, like Gulf Oil and Alcoa. As Cannadine puts it, Mellon “simply never understood or accepted the notion of conflict of interest.” Nor was this the first time that Mellon had cut ethical corners. Like Carnegie, Mellon thought of himself as a businessman of probity and honor, and by prevailing standards, he mostly was. On occasion, though, he indulged in practices that were similar to Carnegie’s and that similarly would not pass muster today.
The triumph of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal turned Mellon’s world upside down. As Cannadine writes, the new President considered Mellon “the embodiment of everything in the pro-business Republican world before 1932 that [he] loathed and was determined to destroy.” Immediately upon assuming office in 1933, the administration ordered the Bureau of Internal Revenue to audit Mellon’s income-tax returns during his last years in office. When the investigation found nothing amiss (the bureau’s agents in fact recommended that Mellon be granted a refund for 1931) the administration, in an action Cannadine calls “wholly without precedent,” turned the matter over to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.
In May 1934, a grand jury unanimously refused to indict Mellon for knowingly filing a false return. But, instead of dropping the matter, the administration turned to a civil suit before the federal Board of Tax Appeals. Cannadine’s careful analysis shows that Mellon had not, knowingly or unknowingly, violated the law. He died of bronchial pneumonia on August 26, 1937, some three months before the tax board announced its decision vindicating him.
What adds peculiar irony to this unsavory episode is that while the administration was proceeding in its political vendetta against Mellon, it was also negotiating with him about an extraordinary philanthropic gift he intended for the nation. For many years, Mellon had been planning to deed his art collection to “the people of the United States” and to build a gallery in the nation’s capital in which that collection might be housed. In December 1936, after the tax board had concluded its hearings in his case, he made a formal offer to the President. Whatever his personal feelings toward Mellon, Roosevelt accepted the offer in a cordial meeting that proceeded as if the tax case did not exist.
Thus was born the National Gallery of Art, a philanthropic contribution that, in Cannadine’s estimation, is without “precedent or parallel in the nation’s history.” The final worth of the gift, including the art, the building, and a substantial endowment, came to some $60 million in 1936 dollars. Mellon’s gesture was self-effacing as well as generous: in an effort to encourage other patrons to make their own gifts of art to expand the collection, he stipulated that his name not appear on the building. Mellon’s philanthropy, Cannadine makes clear, was as straightforward in motivation as Carnegie’s had been: he felt no guilt for his fortune, was only nominally religious, and had always been disdainful of public opinion.
Cannadine devotes the final pages of his book to weighing Mellon’s life in the balance. Though he attempts to do his subject justice, his own expressed support for the New Deal makes it difficult for him fully to comprehend Mellon’s conservative political and social views, about which he offers frequent denigrating comments. Mellon should have been more critical of the social order in which he grew up, Cannadine suggests, and more sympathetic toward a Roosevelt who, he says again and again, was only striving to preserve capitalism. Thus he characterizes Mellon’s antipathy to the New Deal as “imprudent, unimaginative, chilling.” That anachronistic criticism, one feels sure, would utterly have baffled Andrew Mellon.
Cannadine is even harder on Mellon’s personality than on his politics. He consistently places the overwhelming burden of blame on Mellon for his troubled relations with his wife and children, a judgment that appears to discount evidence of ambiguities and mutual misunderstandings that Cannadine himself presents. His sweeping condemnations of Mellon—“one of the most famously cold, taciturn, and repressed men of his generation”; “a hollow man, with no interior life”—seem imposed and gratuitous, unwarranted extrapolations from a life that, in the author’s own account, sounds more complicated than the conclusions he puts forward about it.
None of this is to belittle Cannadine’s achievement in writing an absorbing, intelligent, well-researched biography. But David Nasaw’s approach seems preferable to me. While describing and analyzing Andrew Carnegie in brilliant detail, and offering occasional critical comments along the way, Nasaw does not attempt to characterize him. He says to his readers, in effect: here is a fascinating and multifaceted man, make of him what you will. Nasaw’s own political views are decidedly liberal—as I discovered by stumbling across an op-ed piece he recently wrote—but they do not intrude on his narrative.
Carnegie and Mellon were very different creatures, but both of their lives bring into question the stereotype of the robber baron. Two men do not an era make, of course, but other recent biographical studies of industrial titans—Ron Chernow on John D. Rockefeller and Jean Strouse on J.P. Morgan, for example—point in the same direction.
In one key respect, however, the accounts of Nasaw and Cannadine do not support the efforts of an earlier generation of revisionists. In the 1950’s, for instance, Allan Nevins defended John D. Rockefeller in part by arguing that he brought necessary order out of the chaos of the oil industry in the immediate post-Civil War period. Similar cases have been made for leaders in other industries. In this view, early industrial competition—cut-throat and frequently corrupt—had led to an untrustworthy boom-and-bust economy that undermined national prosperity. Against the backdrop of a reigning laissez-faire philosophy that precluded effective government intervention, the great industrial oligopolists supplied a measure of rough-and-ready economic stability that preceded the more formal controls on industry provided by Progressive and New Deal reforms.
Neither Cannadine nor Nasaw tries to make this case. Cannadine does not raise the issue, and Nasaw says quite explicitly that “the source materials I have uncovered do not support the telling of a heroic narrative of an industrialist who brought sanity and rationality to an immature capitalism plagued by runaway competition, ruthless speculation, and insider corruption.” (“Nor,” he immediately adds, “do they support the recitation of another muckraking exposé of Gilded Age criminality.”)
Ultimately, the most persuasive way to rebut the robber-baron school of thought is to step back from its emphasis on the actions and intentions of particular individuals. Critics have presupposed that during this era the rich became rich at the expense of the general population. But (as I noted at the outset) this supposition flies in the face of the evidence of rising real wages. Indeed, as Milton Friedman once observed: “There is probably no other period in history, in this or any other country, in which the ordinary man had as large an increase in his standard of living as in the period between the Civil War and the First World War, when unrestrained individualism was most rugged.” If Friedman is correct—or even anywhere near correct—the robber barons stand rehabilitated.
More precisely, they may be somewhat beside the point. Friedman did not mean to suggest that, but for specific men, the greatest economic boom in human history would not have occurred. Carnegie and Mellon were players—not interchangeable, of course, but also not indispensable—in an epic economic story whose outcome they only incidentally determined. Just as they were neither creators nor despoilers of general economic abundance, so too were they neither heroes nor villains in the roles they played. Like the rest of us, Carnegie and Mellon were made of mixed stuff, and were morally accountable as individuals, not as members of a class.
In that perspective we can appreciate the biographies of David Nasaw and David Cannadine without worrying whether they help to make or unmake a thesis. The stories they tell are not without larger significance; but the best stories, and the people who inhabit them, have never been reducible to neat moral and ideological categories.