Andrew Carnegie: “The Gospel of Wealth” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

For the extremely wealthy, the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century was a time of excess. Many of the so-called robber barons amassed huge fortunes while spending extravagantly on themselves and giving little thought to the morality of what they did with their wealth. However, one of the wealthiest men in the world, who also happened to grow up in poverty, would speak to and define the responsibility of the wealthy toward society at large and the poor in particular. Andrew Carnegie, owner of the largest steel company in the world, was certainly a product of his time, and the way he treated his employees was not much different than the way many of his contemporaries treated theirs. But after selling his company, Carnegie put his words into action by using his vast fortune to improve society and offer the poor an opportunity to change their futures themselves.

Summary Overview

For the extremely wealthy, the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century was a time of excess. Many of the so-called robber barons amassed huge fortunes while spending extravagantly on themselves and giving little thought to the morality of what they did with their wealth. However, one of the wealthiest men in the world, who also happened to grow up in poverty, would speak to and define the responsibility of the wealthy toward society at large and the poor in particular. Andrew Carnegie, owner of the largest steel company in the world, was certainly a product of his time, and the way he treated his employees was not much different than the way many of his contemporaries treated theirs. But after selling his company, Carnegie put his words into action by using his vast fortune to improve society and offer the poor an opportunity to change their futures themselves.

Defining Moment

The term “Gilded Age” may imply a sense of glamour, but when Mark Twain wrote his 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, he had something else in mind, satirizing the wealthy and powerful, who gave the illusion of glitter and shine but instead were hollow and corrupt. “Robber barons” is a derogatory term popularized in the nineteenth century. It was used to refer to wealthy businessmen who amassed even more wealth through dishonest or unscrupulous means, particularly when dealing with one another, smaller business owners, or with the workers they employed.

In some ways, Carnegie agreed with Twain’s assessment of Gilded Age business practices and social relations, and in some ways he embodied them; more significantly, however, he viewed the accumulation of wealth by the robber barons as beneficial. Indeed, these businessmen were instrumental in transforming the United States from a predominantly agricultural, rural nation to an urbanized, industrialized world power. Carnegie believed that the actions of the robber barons were the engine of the American economy, which, in turn, led to an increase in industrial jobs, the start of the American Industrial Revolution, and ultimately the creation of the middle class.

Carnegie was as ruthless as other businessmen of the era in stifling dissent and minimizing the strength of unions among his workers. Though his partner, Henry Clay Frick, did the dirty work, Carnegie gave Frick a free hand, making him chairman of Carnegie Steel. In 1892, Frick shut down Carnegie’s massive Homestead mill rather than accede to union demands that he not cut wages. He hired Pinkerton detectives to act as the company’s army, waging a gun battle with strikers that resulted in ten deaths. After the National Guard arrived to establish order, Homestead reopened as a nonunion mill.

Carnegie saw no benefit in giving workers wages higher than the market would force him to pay, and he viewed giving money to the poor as morally bankrupting the recipients. His goal was to give common people the chance to succeed in the same way he had: by pulling themselves up from poverty through determination, hard work, and force of will. His “Gospel of Wealth” embodied this ethos. Carnegie was willing to use the bulk of his massive fortune to provide the tools for those people who had the kind of determination to achieve through their own efforts.

Author Biography

Andrew Carnegie was born the son of a linen weaver in the town of Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1835. When the burgeoning Industrial Revolution in Britain put his father out of work, the Carnegies moved to the United States when Andrew was thirteen. He then began work as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory, but his drive for knowledge and self-improvement enabled him to move up. After making a good living at the Pennsylvania Railroad, he left to take over the Keystone Bridge Company, and there, he saw that the future of the nation’s prosperity lay in steel. Investing in the new Bessemer steelmaking process, he quickly outstripped his competitors’ profits by producing steel at a lower cost. Wanting to use his fortune to pursue his vision of social uplift, he sold Carnegie Steel to financier J. P. Morgan in 1903, becoming the wealthiest man in the world. He devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy, building libraries and supporting cultural and higher educational institutions.

Document Analysis

When Andrew Carnegie wrote “The Gospel of Wealth” in 1889, he transferred the notion of noblesse oblige (the social responsibility of the European nobility) to the context of industrialized America. He believed that the business leaders of the time had a responsibility to use their wealth not just for self-aggrandizement but also for the common good of humanity. The idea of the common good was shaped by one of the most popular ideologies among the wealthy of the time, Social Darwinism.

It is ironic that a man who would become the wealthiest man in the world would state, “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced,” but the saying, which Carnegie often repeated, encapsulated his viewpoint. Carnegie also believed that an increased gap between the wealthy and the poor defined civilization in a positive way. Earlier, less “civilized” societies, Carnegie argues, had equality, but only an equality of poverty, meaning civilization could not progress because there were no wealthy individuals to fund it.

Following the ideas of Herbert Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest” as it relates to societal organization, Carnegie believes that individualism and the drive to become wealthy were “the soil in which society so far has produced the best fruit.” He states that collectivism and forced equality were to be abhorred, and the wealthy were obligated by their position in society to lead and to provide opportunities for others who had the ability to achieve more, thus uplifting civilization as a whole. Charity, as it was commonly practiced–giving money or other necessities to the poor–is an unwise use of money according to Carnegie because it only serves to perpetuate the social ills they were trying to cure.

Though a product of the ideas of his time, Carnegie’s application of those ideas was far ahead of his contemporaries. He criticizes those who bequeathed their wealth to their children as both depriving society and doing a disservice to their children by not forcing them to earn their success. Instead, the wealthy are obligated by their position to use their wealth “in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community.” The wealthy are trustees for the poor, “doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

Essential Themes

Carnegie proposed a new and different solution to the crisis of poverty in the United States in his “Gospel of Wealth” essay. Indeed, the fact that he was so willing to tell his fellow millionaires what to do with their money was controversial, as were his ideas about Social Darwinism and the futility of the most common type of charity. Regardless of the debate his ideas generated, he would not back down and continued to write on the topic of philanthropy. He devoted his life and fortune to realizing his vision after he sold Carnegie Steel. At the time of his death in 1919, he had given away more than ninety-five percent of his personal fortune.

Though very few of the wealthy have followed Carnegie’s advice to the extent that he did, many have followed the Carnegie pattern of donating and dispersing their money. Today, the Carnegie Corporation, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the Carnegie Endowment for the Humanities still carry on the philanthropic work started by Carnegie’s fortune.

Even if the terminology has changed, the Social Darwinistic bent of Carnegie’s philanthropy has lived far beyond his years. Many among the wealthy see themselves as possessing a unique responsibility to society. Additionally, some political philosophies common to the wealthy hold to this view of the proper use of wealth: not giving direct charity to the poor, but instead enabling them to rise out of poverty if they possess the drive to do so.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Burgoyne, Arthur G. The Homestead Strike of 1892. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1979. Print.
  • Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2011. Print.
  • Kahan, Paul. The Homestead Strike: Labor, Violence, and American Industry. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.
  • Lagemann, Ellen Condliff. The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy, and Public Policy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print.
  • Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
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