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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Andrew Carnegie

Looking Back

Friday November 13 2020

Looking Back: Andrew Carnegie

A tribute to the great industrialist and philanthropist, published in November 1935 to mark the centenary of his birth.


Andrew Carnegie in 1913


It may be held that it is sheer presumption on my part to write about this remarkable man, Andrew Carnegie, who was born at Dunfermline one hundred years ago, since there must be many men and women better equipped than myself. Yet the familiar Carnegie Trust fee-payment forms, of which I signed thousands in my day at Glasgow University, together with the splendid work which is being accomplished at the Dunfermline College of Hygiene and Physical Education, now so constantly before me in my present office, offer, I think, some justification.

I confess, moreover, that there is no Scotsman of the nineteenth century in whose career I have been more sustainedly interested than in that of the Dunfermline weaver’s son who went to America, and who became successively bobbin boy, telegraph messenger, telegraph operator, railroad superintendent, bridge builder, iron maker, steel maker, organiser of industry, and who, having made millions of dollars, gave more than ninety per cent of them away.

There was a period during Carnegie’s lifetime when he was to some folks a figure almost laughable, in spite of what he was doing. The lavish distribution of church organs, the peppering of cities and towns with libraries roused the cynics to merriment.

But when we get to know the man we realise how natural was this activity, how completely part of himself. He, in his youth, felt the lack of education. He got great help from books. He became a reader of discernment and sought, with a keen sense of literary values, the best that literature had to offer. What he got with books he wanted others to have.

So with music. I cannot think that all of us would like to eat our breakfasts to the accompaniment of an organ. But Carnegie thought the organ the grandest of all instruments, and so, in churches and public places, he wanted all to have what he himself enjoyed supremely. There is something not at all laughable, but almost affecting, in this aspect of his generosity, for here, as in all his work of benevolence, he gave from a genuine inner impulse and not merely at the dictates of fashion or the importunities of the needy.

The truth is that there was an element of quixotry in Carnegie that always affects the cynical with a desire to smile. For myself, I consider him a valiant heart. He believed with all his soul in peace. Thus his efforts in the great cause at the Hague and elsewhere, although they seemed to be, in 1914, merely a tilting at windmills, persist to-day in the magnificent endowment he made for international peace, and there can be no doubt that he has reinforced everywhere the hearts and spirits of men and women who will not go down before the onslaught of those whose view of human nature is fundamentally pessimistic.

What one is most anxious to do at this time is to renew in the minds of all men of goodwill the essentially fine nature which Carnegie exhibited throughout a long and successful life. It is, in these days, not amiss to emphasise that he was a man of principle. When he said that he believed it disgraceful not to give away his riches, he meant it. His gospel of the use of wealth was very real. What he planned as a young man he held to consistently throughout all his life, and there is no act of his anywhere that savours of meanness or chicanery.

He had his idiosyncrasies. He could be vain, over-talkative, opinionative, and, on occasion, moody. But if a man who, starting from nothing, makes 370 million dollars and gives nine-tenths away in honourable desire of bettering mankind, is not to be allowed to have idiosyncrasies, who is? From his autobiography, from his letters to Gladstone and Morley one gets a sense of an affectionate creature, a magnificent fighter in business with a prescience in affairs that only genius has, a lover of his kind, impulsive, free from littleness or jealousy, vividly and voraciously alive. And from his life we draw fresh strength to ourselves believing as we must that, though this mortal life be a battleground, it is yet an arena where, in the long run, the spiritual side of man must always triumph over that which is only material.

Previous: Refugees Appeal, 1955

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