During a trip back to my homeland of Scotland I visited the town of Dunfermline, close to my home town of Kirkcaldy where I was born, and had the chance to visit the birthplace and museum of Andrew Carnegie.
Andrew Carnegie was a name I was familiar with but did not really understand the full story of his life and the magnitude of his wealth and philanthropy. Andrew Carnegie was among the wealthiest and most famous industrialists of his day and he was to become a philanthropist whose fortune supported everything from the discovery of insulin and the dismantling of nuclear weapons, to the creation of Pell Grants and Sesame Street. Millions of people have benefited from Carnegie’s foresighted generosity — a legacy of real and permanent good. If you compare the wealth of Andrew Carnegie in today’s terms he was far wealthier than the like of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet by 3 – 5 times.
Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline in 1835, a town which was Scotland’s capital during medieval times. Dunfermline was well known for producing fine linen but after the industrial revolution which made home-based weaving obsolete this left Andrew’s father in a difficult situation to support his family.
In 1848 the family sold their belongings and booked a passage on a ship to America to start a new life.
Andrew Carnegie’s family decided to settle in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh where they had friends and relatives. Their ship landed in New York City, which he found bewildering: “New York was the first great hive of human industry among the inhabitants of which I had mingled, and the bustle and excitement of it overwhelmed me,” Carnegie wrote in his autobiography. Next the family traveled west by canal and steamboat, arriving in Allegheny three weeks later (a 370-mile, six-hour trip by car today). They moved into two rooms above a relative’s weaving shop, which his father took over, but the business ultimately failed, putting the family once again in need of money.
At the age of 13, Carnegie worked from dawn until dark as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill, carrying bobbins to the workers at the looms and earning $1.20 per week. A year later, he was hired as a messenger for a local telegraph company, where he taught himself how to use the equipment and was promoted to telegraph operator. With this skill he landed a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad, where he was promoted to superintendent at age 24. Not just ambitious, young Carnegie was a voracious reader, and he took advantage of the generosity of an Allegheny citizen, Colonel James Anderson, who opened his library to local working boys — a rare opportunity in those days. Through the years books provided most of Andrew Carnegie’s education, remaining invaluable as he rapidly progressed through his career.
Mortgaging their house, Andrew Carnegie’s mother Margaret Carnegie obtained $500 to buy the shares in the Adams Express Company, and soon the first stream of dividends began rolling in.
While associated with the railroad, Carnegie developed a wide variety of other business interests. Theodore Woodruff approached him with the idea of sleeping cars on railways, offering him a share in the Woodruff Sleeping Car Company. Carnegie secured a bank loan to accept Woodruff’s proposal — a decision he would not regret. He ultimately bought the company that introduced the first successful sleeping car on a U.S. railroad.
By age 30, Carnegie had amassed business interests in iron works, steamers on the Great Lakes, railroads, and oil wells. He was subsequently involved in steel production, and built the Carnegie Steel Corporation into the largest steel manufacturing company in the world.
Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic career began around 1870. Although he supported myriad projects and causes, he is best known for his gifts of free public library buildings, beginning in his native Dunfermline and ultimately extending throughout the English-speaking world, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1887, Carnegie married Louise Whitfield of New York City. She supported his philanthropy, and signed a prenuptial marriage agreement stating Carnegie’s intention of giving away virtually his entire fortune during his lifetime. Two years later he wrote The Gospel of Wealth, which boldly articulated his view of the rich as trustees of their wealth who should live without extravagance, provide moderately for their families, and use their riches to promote the welfare and happiness of others. This statement of his philosophy was read all over the world, and Carnegie’s intentions were widely praised.
Andrew Carnegie sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million in 1901. Retiring from business, Carnegie set about in earnest to distribute his fortune. In addition to funding libraries, he paid for thousands of church organs in the United States and around the world. Carnegie’s wealth helped to establish numerous colleges, schools, nonprofit organizations and associations in his adopted country and many others. His most significant contribution, both in money and enduring influence, was the establishment of several trusts or institutions bearing his name, including: Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, Carnegie Institution for Science, Carnegie Foundation (supporting the Peace Palace), Carnegie Dunfermline Trust, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Carnegie UK Trust.
One of the most tangible examples of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy was the founding of 2,509 libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of these libraries, 1,679 were built in the United States. Carnegie spent over $55 million of his wealth on libraries alone, and he is often referred to as the “Patron Saint of Libraries.”
It is said that Carnegie had two main reasons for supporting libraries. First, he believed that in America, anyone with access to books and the desire to learn could educate him- or herself and be successful, as he had been. Second, Carnegie, an immigrant, felt America’s newcomers needed to acquire cultural knowledge of the country, which a library would help make possible.
Carnegie indicated it was the first reason that mattered most to him. Growing up working long hours in Pittsburgh, he had no access to formal education. However, a retired merchant, Colonel Anderson, loaned books from his small library to local boys, including Carnegie. As he later wrote in praise of Anderson, “This is but a slight tribute and gives only a faint idea of the depth of gratitude which I feel for what he did for me and my companions. It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community.
In 1911 Andrew Carnegie established Carnegie Corporation of New York, which he dedicated to the “advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” It was the last philanthropic institution founded by Carnegie and was dedicated to the principles of “scientific philanthropy,” investing in the long-term progress of our society. Carnegie himself was the first president of the Corporation, which he endowed in perpetuity with his remaining fortune — $135 million — to be used principally to promote education and international peace. While his primary aim was to benefit the people of the United States, Carnegie later determined to use a portion of the funds for members of the British Overseas Commonwealth. For the Trustees of the Corporation, he chose his longtime friends and associates, giving them permission to adapt its programs to the times. “Conditions upon the earth inevitably change,” he wrote in the Deed of Gift, “hence no wise man will bind Trustees forever to certain paths, causes or institutions…. They shall best conform to my wishes by using their own judgment.”
By the time of his death, Andrew Carnegie, despite his best efforts, had not been able to give away his entire fortune. He had distributed $350 million, but had $30 million left, which went into the Corporation’s endowment. Toward the end of his life, Carnegie, a pacifist, had a single goal: achieving world peace. He believed in the power of international laws and trusted that future conflicts could be averted through mediation. He supported the founding of the Peace Palace in The Hague in 1903, gave $10 million to found the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910 to “hasten the abolition of international war,” and worked ceaselessly for the cause until the outbreak of World War I. He died, still brokenhearted about the failure of his efforts, in August 1919, two months after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
So although Scots have the unfortunate reputation of being mean and tight with money Andrew Carnegie is a wonderful example of someone who was willing to give away his fortunes for the good of society and the people.
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