Andrew Carnegie: The Richest Man in the World

If you ever wonder about the richest man in America in the very early days.

Andrew Carnegie’s life seemed touched by magic. He embodied the American dream: the immigrant who went from rags to riches, the self-made man who became a captain of industry, the king of steel. “Carnegie was more than most people,” says Owen Dudley Edwards, historian at the University of Edinburgh. “Not only more wealthy, not only more optimistic, Carnegie is still, right throughout his life, the little boy in the fairy story, for whom everything has to be all right.”

Fond of saying “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced,” Carnegie amassed a fortune, then gave it away. Millions of dollars went to support education, a pension plan for teachers, and the cause of world peace. Most famous as a benefactor of libraries, he funded nearly 3,000 around the world. He preached the obligation of the wealthy to return their money to the societies where they made it — then added, says Carnegie’s biographer, Joseph Frazier Wall, “a very revealing sentence. He wrote, ‘and besides, it provides a refuge from self-questioning.'”

The Richest Man in the World: Andrew Carnegie, produced by Austin Hoyt and narrated by David Ogden Stiers, follows Carnegie’s life from his impoverished origins in Dunfermline, Scotland, through his business career where he was on the cutting edge of the industrial revolution in telegraphy, railroads, and finally, steel. The Richest Man in the World traces the roots of Carnegie’s philanthrophy to his idealistic, egalitarian father, a skilled weaver displaced by the Industrial Revolution. But Carnegie’s mother, Margaret, was a more dominant force in his life. Determined to overcome the shame of poverty and “get to the top,” the frugal Margaret often advised young Andrew, “Look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves.” He lived with her until she died, and only then married, at age 51.

Carnegie’s daughter, Margaret Carnegie Miller, publicly remembered her father as “a kindly, friendly, man. He always wanted to be remembered as one who loved his fellow men.” In private, her thoughts were harsher. “Tell his life like it was,” she urged his biographer. “I’m sick of the Santa Claus stuff.”

“Although Carnegie saw himself as a friend of the working man,” says Hoyt, “the lives of his workers were not fairy tales where everything turns out all right.” According to business historian Harold Livesay, “By the standards of his time, Carnegie does not stand out as a particularly ruthless businessman. But certainly by the standards of ethics and conduct to which we would like to hold businessmen today, he indeed operated extremely ruthlessly.”

His conflicts with labor are best remembered in the 1892 showdown between Carnegie Steel and the unions at Homestead, Pennsylvania, a workers’ town where the steel unions reigned supreme. Carnegie, on vacation in Scotland, had left his partner, Henry Clay Frick, to settle the dispute, wiring him that he approved “anything you do.” But later Carnegie held Frick solely responsible for the violence at the mill that left seven workers and three Pinkerton guards dead. In his autobiography, Carnegie would remember Homestead as one of only two incidents in his career that he regretted. The other was when he turned his back on Thomas A. Scott, the mentor who had guided him to his first fortune while working for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Both events clearly haunted him, but in neither was he able to accept responsibility for what happened.

The Richest Man is a story of a business genius who created a steel empire that made America the most prosperous economy in the world. Everything in his story looms large: The implications of his low-cost steel were enormous for the American economy. The backstabbing, chicanery, and generosity are on the grandest scale. Carnegie’s struggle with the unions would determine the role of labor in industrial America. Frick’s lawsuit against him was the biggest at that point in American history.

In 1900, when he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan for $480 million, the financier told him, “Congratulations, Mr. Carnegie, you are the richest man in the world.” Carnegie proved himself to be a philanthropist of unusual fervor, as over the next decade he gave away $350 million with the same creativity and energy that led to its accumulation.

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