by Andrew Boyd

Click here for audio of Episode 2938

Today, the gospel of wealth. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Much has been written about Andrew Carnegie, the nineteenth century robber baron turned philanthropist. Carnegie was one of the wealthiest men in history. But what do we really understand about his views on wealth?

Andrew Carnegie, American businessman and philanthropist. [Wikipedia/Library of Congress]

Actually, quite a bit. In 1889, when Carnegie was fifty-four, he wrote an article on the subject called The Gospel of Wealth. From the outset it's clear: Carnegie unequivocally believed enormous wealth was completely justified. Certain people, he reasoned, possess business skills that revolutionize the world. In Carnegie's day, those were entrepreneurs who ran railroads, made steel, pumped oil — in short, enablers of the industrial revolution. For these transformative giants, wealth was inevitable — a natural "law" in Carnegie's words.

So Carnegie was fine with wealth. The question that preoccupied him was what to do with it. He articulated three ways to dispose of wealth. The first was to pass it on to family. Carnegie quickly concluded this served neither society nor recipients of the windfall, leading him to famously proclaim that a thoughtful man would just as soon leave his child "a curse as the almighty dollar."

Carnegie was equally opposed to a second means of parceling out wealth: leaving it to a worthy cause. Carnegie wasn't averse to good works. His disdain centered on posthumous giving — holding money 'til death then expecting someone else to do something good with it.

This naturally led him to his third means of dispersing wealth: get busy and champion your own worthy causes. Build schools. Build libraries.

College of Fine Arts hallway
College of Fine Arts building, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [Wikipedia/Daderot]

Carnegie Hall building
Carnegie Hall [flickr/Oliver Regelmann]

Carnegie wasn't a fan of charity. Son of a handloom weaver, by age thirteen he was working full time at a textile mill. Hard work loomed larger in his vocabulary than charity. But his commitment to the greater social good was without question. As he writes in his Gospel of Wealth:

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; [second] to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and [finally] to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon ... as a matter of duty to administer ... to produce the most beneficial results for the community ...
Carnegie didn't always live up to his ideals. His idea of unostentatious living was the "roomiest" mansion in Manhattan. But he gave unstintingly, and he always held fast to the heart of his philosophy: build a better community. To Carnegie, the financially successful don't have a choice — they have a moral obligation to give back to society. It's a refreshing perspective. And it helps us remember. Money isn't in itself a bad thing. It's what we do with it that counts.

Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy as golden shower cartoon
Andrew Carnegie's philanthropy as golden shower. Puck magazine cartoon by Louis Dalrymple. published New York City 1903. [Wikipedia/Louis Dalrymple]

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

For a related episode, see Carnegie and Rockefeller.

A. Carnegie. The Gospel of Wealth. 1889. From the Carnegie Corporation of New York website: The Gospel of Wealth publication. Accessed March 25, 2014.

Carnegie, Andrew, Mansion. From the National Park Services' National Historic Landmarks website: . Accessed March 25, 2014.

This episode first aired on April 2, 2014.