David Nasaw

Robber Barons or Industrial Giants?

VTR Date: May 19, 2012

David Nasaw discusses Andrew Carnegie.


GUEST: David Nasaw
AIR DATE: 01/19/2012
VTR: 01/26/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And surely over the past half century and more this program has often been blessed by the rich legacy of Andrew Carnegie…in the form both of financial support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and of keen intellectual participation in our on-air conversations by such of its leaders as John Gardner, David Hamburg and Vartan Gregorian.

Then, too, as an American historian I draw heavily upon Carnegie in my Documentary History of the United States in describing the harsh competitiveness and brutal Social Darwinian ethic of our industrial age following the Civil War… and including as a key document of the period Carnegie’s own essay on “Wealth”.

Yet we’ve not spoken much here about Andrew Carnegie himself…until today, that is, now that I’ve lured David Nasaw, whose massive, best selling Penguin Press Carnegie biography has been so widely acclaimed.

The author of another major biography of a controversial American giant — The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst — David Nasaw is Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Now last evening I went back into my now rather ancient file titled: “General Good Things” to dig out an issue of The Saturday Review dated February 6th, 1954 in which I rather remembered that my own teacher, Columbia’s Allan Nevins, had done battle with Matthew Josephson that other great chronicler of our past, essentially as to whether Andrew Carnegie – and others such as Rockefeller, McCormick, Westinghouse and Ford – should be remembered today as America’s “Robber Barons” or as her “Industrial Giants”… a question I would now put to my guest. What do you think?

NASAW: Terrific question. I would say “no”. I think that the term “robber barons” was originally used to describe the railroad entrepreneurs, the railroad builders … Stanford, Crocker, Huntington, Gould … and they were called “robber barons” because like the old robber barons in medieval times and the feudal period, who made money immorally, if not illegally, by putting toll gates on their property and you had to pay to go through their property … so it was said that the railroads robbed … they were barons, they didn’t need to do it … but they robbed the common people … they robbed the nation, they robbed people who could not afford it … by putting extra tariffs …by exploiting the good people of this nation, by charging more than they should for the privilege of riding rackety railroad cars from one destination to the other.

Now, I think of Carnegie as different. And Rockefeller and Ford and Edison and Westinghouse. They were certainly not saints … they were certainly not out to save consumers or purchasers of their products money. They tried to get the most they could. But they manufactured something. They made something. They made steel, they got oil out of the ground and refined it. They created, as Edison did and Westinghouse did … products that changed the way we live.

They made a profit and a very hefty profit, but they created something tangible that created to the material welfare of millions of Americans and millions of people around the world. So I would not put them in the same category as the railroad robber barons.

HEFFNER: I guess what I’m led to then is to, to ask you another question … and I don’t know how I could find the answer in your great biography. Did you like him?

NASAW: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: Was he a good person? Or don’t you …

NASAW: Yup …

HEFFNER: … need a good person to like him.

NASAW: I’ve now … I’ve now … am finishing my third biography … I’m, I’m just about to hand in a manuscript on Joseph P. Kennedy …


NASAW: … and on Hearst and, and Carnegie and on Kennedy the question is, “Did I like them”. With all three, but especially with Carnegie I was blessed … not necessarily by liking them at all moments … and by “liking” him at every moment of his life … certainly didn’t like him around Homestead. I certainly didn’t like him when he outlawed unions. I certainly didn’t like him when he instituted work rules that put men at his plants and his males to work 12 hours a day, six and a half days a week.

But as a biographer, (laugh) as a historian, I was never bored. I was … never for a moment … thought “Why am I doing this?” I was never wanted to stay in my room rather than go to an archive and read letters or read reports.

Carnegie was an absolutely fascinating … human being. And of the three larger than life characters that I’ve written about. Carnegie sustained me and sustained my interest and fascination because he had this, this spirit … this optimism, this buoyancy … this sense of taking joy in every breath he took … every morning he woke up and every evening when he went to bed. He was also an extraordinarily wonderful writer. He was garrulous in conversation. He said too much rather than too little …

HEFFNER: So you indicate … so you indicate …

NASAW: (Laugh) So … yeah … his, his wife … they worked out hand signals so when they were at a dinner party … if he went on …

HEFFNER: “Andy, keep quiet.”

NASAW: … (laugh) … much too long … she would signal to him, you know, “enough, enough, enough, enough”. And for a biographer that’s wonderful.

So I can’t say that I liked him all the time, but I can say that I’m grateful that he held my interest for the many years I worked on this and the many thousands of words I read … by him or about him …

HEFFNER: You know, I come away from what you’re saying, David, with the feeling that your answer is “I didn’t like any of those three guys …” … now I know that’s unfair because it flies in the face of what you’ve just said. Fascinated by them all … Joe Kennedy … William Randolph Hearst … Andrew Carnegie … how could you help but be … they were so much bigger in size than all the rest of us.

But as I read Andrew Carnegie I had the feeling that you were appalled by a number of the things … you mentioned some of them …

NASAW: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … the work hours … increasing them …

NASAW: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … the philosophy that he expressed that was Social Darwinian … am I wrong at that?

NASAW: No, you’re, you’re not wrong … but it, but it’s not my task as a, as a historian to stand in judgment …

HEFFNER: Why not?

NASAW: … of the people I write about. It’s my task to present their lives. I don’t believe in objective history … I believe in being fair. And I believe in sticking to the sources and I believe in doing everything I can to avoid error and avoid mistakes. But I’m not God … a historian can’t be God … a historian can’t rule from above. Historians can’t traffic in theological terms of good or evil. We’re all … you know … bundles of contradictions. We do things that are admirable and we do things that are less than admirable.

And my task in writing all of these biographies is to try to lay out the life in such a way that some people will say “You were too soft on him”. And other people will say, “God, you detested this man … you didn’t like him”.

And when I do that, I think I succeed. Now, with all of these people Carnegie lives an extraordinary life. And a long life. And the second part of his life he dedicates to world peace and to giving away his money for the betterment of mankind.

His years as a peace activist … his years … the money and the energy he expends in trying to stop the great war … World War I … which he sees coming … are admirable. And I was taken by this.

His career early on in which he raises himself from rags to riches and the only American industrialist or entrepreneur who really comes from rags to riches … the rest don’t … Carnegie does. There’s something admirable in that. And then there’s the 12 …

HEFFNER: Even though the 12 hour work day?

NASAW: Well, I said early … (laugh) … then there’s the period in the middle of, of this life … of this long life … in which, you know, day after day, letter after letter I’m appalled … I’m appalled.

HEFFNER: By what?

NASAW: I’m appalled by the self-assurance, the self-confidence, the god-like assurance in which he moves forward.

The traditional story of Carnegie is that once he begins to give away his money and decides to give away his money … he becomes a kinder, gentler loving soul … who could … you know … dislike a philanthropist?

I found the opposite. I found that once he decides to give away his money and he decides to give it away early in life … in, in middle age, rather than, than later. He decides to give, that he’s going to give away his money before he goes into steel, before Homestead, before the strikes.

Once he decides to give away his money … he has a reason for exploiting his workers that allows him to do things … he has to at some level … have known were wrong. And he says so. This is the social Darwinist side … he says that to benefit mankind, to benefit the larger community, people are going to have to be sacrificed.

Herbert Spencer, the original Social Darwinist is even … is worse. Herbert Spencer says “Poor laws will save poor people from starvation”. But is that the best way to spend government money, tax money, state money … charity? To keep alive these people?

So Carnegie understands that in order to produce the cheapest possible steel … and make the largest profit and expand Carnegie Steel, he’s got to cut all his costs … including labor. He’s got to provide the most efficient work force and that’s a work force his engineers tell him is one that works two shifts, not three eight hour shifts, but two shifts. And he does it.

Because the more money he makes, the more he can give away. And I think one of the reasons he leaves Pittsburgh for New York is because he doesn’t want to look … the squalor, the degradation … the human degradation he’s created, he doesn’t want to look it in the face. It’s no accident that Frick is the man who leads the union busting at Homestead and elsewhere.

Carnegie rarely visits Pittsburgh … he spends half the year in New York where he wants to be a writer, an intellectual, a great man … and he is …


NASAW: … and he spends half the year in Scotland.

HEFFNER: How do you evaluate this, this judgment that he’s made … you and I know from the incredible number of Carnegie Foundations, from the incredible sums of money that have come, ultimately, from his riches to benefit … as I said, this program and so many, many, many, many worthy institutions in our times. I mean enumerable and the 100th anniversary now of the establishment of all of these foundations, institutions, testimony to that.

How do you evaluate that notion that I’ve got to build, on the backs perhaps of workers …

NASAW: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … I’ve got to build more and more profit so that those dollars can go … not to my children, I will provide for my wife and child, but to these great causes, to benefit mankind.

NASAW: I find it morally reprehensible. But understandable. Let me … the best answer to that question was Vartan Gregorian who you’ve had on the show …


NASAW: Recently. We gave … when my book came out, we had a conversation at the New York Public Library and someone in the audience asked that question directly. And a lot less kinder than you have asked it (laugh) or posed it.

Someone said to him, directly … don’t you feel guilty or don’t you feel ashamed giving away the money that was earned, that was made by the super exploitation of workers?

And … how … you know … how can you do this? And Gregorian said something to the effect of “Yes, I feel that there was no need to do that. That Carnegie could have made a healthy profit, he could have made millions and millions of dollars to give to the Carnegie Corporation and of provided for the welfare of his workers. It’s not either/or. And Yes the Carnegie Corporation would be a smaller corporation if he had paid his workers a decent wage, but we would still be able to do good. And I both regret that he exploited his workers, but I think that much of the good that we’ve done since then is, is worthwhile”.

HEFFNER: … It does, of course, put the focus back on the Spencerian notions that Carnegie seems to have adopted whole cloth. Did he … was he aware of being … having a philosophy that would guide him … certainly in the essay on “Wealth” …

NASAW: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … he gives wonderful expression to it.

NASAW: Yeah. One of the reasons he was a wonderful subject is that you don’t’ have to … with, with a man like Rockefeller or Edison or any of the other industrial founders, the so called robber-barons … you have to guess at what’s going on in their minds.

Carnegie you don’t. Because Carnegie let’s you know in his letters to his friends and in his published writings … he is absolutely convinced that the laws of social evolution, which Herbert Spencer lays out … that we call Social Darwinism … that the world and its inhabitants are going to live better and better and better lives … there will be some set-backs, but progress is inevitable.

But in order for there to be that progress, in order for people to live longer and live better and eat better and live fuller lives and richer lives, something is going to be … have to … something is going to have to be sacrificed.

And Herbert Spencer teaches him that. And he accepts that. Now, for Carnegie and for the other …the so-called “robber barons” … I’m going to use that term though I …

HEFFNER: Can’t avoid it.

NASAW: … discounted it … no … earlier … it’s the best one around. Herbert Spencer does an incredible service … if Herbert Spencer hadn’t written his Social Darwinian tracts, they would have had to have invented him. Because he is the perfect excuse … whatever they do … whatever crimes are committed against humanity, against the environment, they can be excused for the greater good of the greater people. The, the greater good of the larger population. And again some people will have to be sacrificed. In this case it was the workers in the Carnegie steel mills in Pittsburgh, in surrounding areas.

HEFFNER: Would you say that all three of your subjects adapted, adopted a Social Darwinian philosophy? Kennedy as well as Hearst, as well as Carnegie?

NASAW: No. I don’t think so. I think that Carnegie … the, the exploitation in the Carnegie mills is more palpable, is more direct than anything that went on in Hearst’s enterprises, or in Kennedy’s road to wealth.

Now, on the other hand, one can well say that Carnegie produces … his way to wealth is through producing something. And Carnegie said over and over and over again … I am not a speculator, I don’t gamble in stocks. I make my money … you know … I’m putting words into his mouth … the old fashioned way … by producing something people need.

Hearst’s wealth comes in a slightly different way and Kennedy’s as well. But they don’t feel the same obligation that Carnegie feels to explain himself. They don’t have the same need to say “I’m a good guy. You know, here’s why I’m doing this”.

There’s an extraordinary example of this at a … one of the dedications … I talk about this in the book … at one of the dedications of a library in, in Pittsburgh …there are workers invited, or representatives of workers … they sit in the back … 90% of the audience is politicians, bankers, the recipients of these charities …the upper elites of Pittsburgh.

And Carnegie at one point, looks to the rear and he says there are workers here … and he said … and I salute you. And he said, you probably think that you and the world would be better off, if instead of saving this money and building a library, I had given it back to you in wages.

But let me tell you something, if I had done that … you would have spent those wages on better cuts of meat, on drink … maybe on better houses … he said, but I’ve given you and the community something much more important … a library.

HEFFNER: Those of us who grew and were educated thanks to Carnegie free libraries are, are so grateful to that. You and I, I’m sure, can testify to that.

In just the two minutes that we have left, though, let me go back to the point that you make so strongly, about his involvement in world peace. His great disappointment that he didn’t achieve there. Did he really want to bring the Kaiser and TR and …

NASAW: (Laugh) Yes.

HEFFNER: … the Prime Minister or King of England together?

NASAW: Yes. He had an extraordinary notion that men of reason can settle all the problems. This is part of his Social Darwinian philosophy, that wars belong to the 18th century and 19th century. Now that human beings are enlightened, they can sit down and settle their differences.

And he believed that the best possible mediator would be Teddy Roosevelt, so he worked out a deal with Teddy Roosevelt … “I’ll pay for you to go to Africa on your safari, but when you come back … you bring together the crowned heads of Europe and you get them to sign agreements that they will not go to war. That they will settle their differences peaceably in a world court,” in a … what would later become a prototype of the League of Nations.

HEFFNER: Do you, therefore, chalk Carnegie up to having lots of naiveté about him. Or are you so admiring of his crusade in this direction that that’s difficult to …

NASAW: I think there is a role for utopians, I think there is a role for people of faith. I think there is a role for people who will remind us that much that goes on in this world, is not rational and that we should known better and that we should do better. And I think Carnegie by reminding his contemporaries of that … did something admirable.

HEFFNER: You know, you’ve done something wonderfully admirable with this great book on Carnegie and the one on Hearst … and I must say I’m very eager to see the one on Joe Kennedy. Meanwhile, thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

NASAW: It’s been a delight.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

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