“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”
The Gilded Age still exerts a strange pull on the American imagination. It was a time of larger-than-life people and larger-than-life business entities. It featured conspicuous consumption—including palatial mansions, yachts, international travel, and international scandal—that seems almost to exceed anything we have today. Today’s celebrity businessmen—Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Robert Rubin—simply can’t hold a candle to John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon.
These biographies of Carnegie and Mellon are massive. Nasaw’s runs to 800 pages of text; Cannadine’s, to 620—big books about big men. Carnegie and Mellon had some things in common, both being of that Scotch-Irish stock that was so important in furnishing the leaders of the American Revolution, and of 18th- and 19th-century America generally. They were quintessential American WASPs, yet their personalities and personal histories were very different.
Andrew Carnegie immigrated to this country at the age of 13, after his father failed to make a living as a weaver in Ireland. He lived most of his life with his mother, marrying very late, and, from his teen years, threw himself into the world of business, starting as a bobbin boy at a cotton mill and eventually acquiring huge holdings in the iron-and-steel industry. Aided by massive tariffs and driving his workers for long hours at low wages, he amassed what would be many billions in today’s dollars, a large portion of which he proceeded to give away, especially for local libraries and church organs across the nation. He also founded and endowed a few notable institutions, such as Carnegie Hall in New York and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, which, with an infusion of Mellon money, eventually became Carnegie-Mellon University, an unparalleled research facility. Carnegie seems to have been preternaturally happy, enjoying something very much approaching bliss in his late marriage and merrily bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic, consorting with kings, prime ministers, and famous authors. (Samuel Clemens was among his closest friends.)
Carnegie wrote prolifically, most notably his “Gospel of Wealth,” in which he maintained that it was the duty of rich men to give away their fortunes in the public interest. He followed his own advice, but not before building a couple of palatial residences for himself in this country and in England. Carnegie saw nothing wrong in squeezing his workers to the utmost and believed, with Herbert Spencer, that the practice played a role in the survival of the fittest. His responsibility, as a titan of American industry, was to do good by dispersing his fortune in the manner that he saw best. He would seek to elevate his workers by building libraries for them, thus affording them the chance in their little spare time to cultivate their minds and become better citizens, all to the greater glory of the republic. Carnegie, regarding himself as a wise and benevolent man of business, believed he had a role to play as presidential advisor, in particular on behalf of the promotion of world peace through arbitration and international agreements. His naive faith in internationalism was shattered by World War I; and the American presidents he “advised,” while tolerating his financial support, seem to have regarded him as something of a self-deluded crank.
Andrew Mellon’s father, Thomas, was a wise investor, a judge, and the author of an autobiography (a somewhat more austere version of Benjamin Franklin’s) that his son Andrew seems to have lived by. (Apt quotations from Thomas Mellon and His Times are sprinkled throughout Professor Cannadine’s biography.) For a long time overshadowed by his successful father, Andrew Mellon labored away in the family businesses, gradually enhancing and developing each of them. Carnegie, after dabbling in a variety of industrial pursuits, eventually ended up dominating two—iron and steel—but Mellon was involved with, and remained in, municipal transportation, oil, railroads, aluminum, coal, and, above all, banking. Both Carnegie and Mellon had managerial talents that surely amounted to genius, and their success was, in part, owing to their skill in picking brilliant subordinates (although Carnegie seems to have micromanaged his enterprises rather more than did Mellon). Carnegie pontificated in public and fancied himself an advisor to governments, but Mellon actually was.
Late in life, Mellon moved to Washington, D.C., where he became probably the greatest secretary of the treasury since Hamilton. He lowered the oppressive taxes left over from the war, helped reorganize devastated European economies, balanced the federal budget, and brought this country to unparalleled prosperity and industrial hegemony in the 1920’s. Carnegie bamboozled himself into thinking he knew more than the U.S. presidents with whom he was acquainted; Mellon actually did.
Like Carnegie, Mellon married late in life, but his marriage was a disaster. His young, irresponsible, and somewhat brainless wife, Nora, ran off with an English roué; his two children never recovered from their parents’ eventual divorce; and Mellon, throughout his life, seemed essentially devoid of emotion, feeling, or real love. He eventually reconciled, more or less, with his errant spouse, but Nora never was able to convince him that she had really changed her unfaithful ways, and he never yielded to her attempts to persuade him to remarry her. Mellon’s daughter, Ailsa, was a hypochondriac; his son, Paul, had no interest in business and, at least in his early years, frittered away his time as an international playboy. Mellon, unlike Carnegie, never was able to take much satisfaction in his immediate family. Carnegie had one child—a daughter, Margaret—born when he was 62 years old and his wife, 40. Margaret married well and, like her mother, was a joy to Andrew.
Andrew Carnegie was a diminutive man who carefully posed himself in pictures so as not to appear significantly shorter than his fellows. Rarely seen in public without a grin on his face, he could have passed for Santa Claus’s slimmer sibling. Mellon was tall and of aristocratic mien, like God with a mustache and no beard. Carnegie never held public office, but Mellon was a Cabinet member and a successful ambassador to the Court of St. James, the most prestigious American diplomatic post. Carnegie was probably richer, financially as well as emotionally, but, paradoxically, Mellon was the greater man and philanthropist. Mellon, too, eventually gave away much of his fortune, but in a very different manner from Carnegie. Late in life, he developed a passion for art and built the greatest private collection in the world. Inspired perhaps by his visits to the British National Gallery, Mellon donated his personal collection to the U.S. government, hoping his country could maintain a gallery to equal or exceed England’s. Mellon refused to allow the gallery to be named in his honor, and it is now the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In the architectural splendor of its buildings, it exceeds its English equivalent, though its contents probably do not.
Mellon’s gallery gift had been in his mind for years before the United States accepted it, but the immediate circumstances surrounding the bequest were bizarre, to say the least. Once the stock market crashed in 1929, the Great Depression began, and the Hoover administration foundered in a series of measures to end the economic catastrophe (through such ill-advised measures as raising interest rates, which only exacerbated the problem of economic stagnation and joblessness). Understandably, if fecklessly, the American people rejected the Republicans and turned to the Democrats and their presidential candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself had sterling patrician credentials but governed as a demagogue, blaming “malefactors of great wealth”—such as Carnegie and Mellon—for the nation’s ills. Carnegie was long gone, but Roosevelt’s attorney general, Homer Cummings, at Roosevelt’s direction, went after Mellon, seeking to make an example of him. Roosevelt denied his involvement, but Professor Cannadine shows quite convincingly that FDR was lying, and that beyond his façade of irresistible charm was a positively reptilian unscrupulousness. The federal government sought to recover three million dollars that it alleged Mellon fraudulently withheld from his tax payments, but after years of litigation, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, thousands of pages of documents, and countless hours of testimony, Mellon was cleared on charges of fraud, although the Court of Tax Appeals did declare that he owed $600,000 as a result of errors in calculation made in good faith. This was more or less a vindication for Mellon, though his Democratic detractors hardly saw it as such. The President remained silent on the issue. Then, shortly after the conclusion of the legal proceedings, he accepted Mellon’s gallery gift on behalf of the nation, hypocritically lauding it’s donor’s nobility and generosity.
Both biographies appear to suggest that their subjects and the times they lived in are over and gone. That, however, is hardly a foregone conclusion. The divisions between the Democrats and the Republicans of the post-World War I era, and the progressives and the conservatives of that time, seem still to be unresolved in our own. Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon both saw nothing wrong with keeping the nation’s wealth predominantly in private hands and believed that any schemes for social betterment were better handled by philanthropists than by governments. Neither, ultimately, had much use for organized labor, and, while Carnegie could sometimes pose as a friend to it, Mellon could not. Carnegie’s protégé, Henry Clay Frick, at Carnegie’s direction (which he later denied), engaged in armed industrial warfare with some of his striking workers; Mellon deemed unions, collective bargaining, and compelled arbitration unacceptable. Carnegie was able to persuade the government to restore order by calling in troops to quell unrest at his plants, but Mellon lived to see FDR’s New Deal administration pass legislation enacting labor’s program and creating an agency—the National Labor Relations Board—which, upheld by a newly cowed Supreme Court, basically did labor’s bidding. We are still living in an era characterized by redistribution through the tax laws and an overweening central government, but there are at least several Supreme Court justices, and even some law professors, who believe (as Mellon must have) that the New Deal was unconstitutional and that the Supreme Court’s “switch in time that saved nine,” upholding the NLRB in 1937, got it wrong. Duplicity in our politicians has been a constant perhaps since the earliest days of the republic, and the demagoguery of modern Democrats echoes that of FDR. Perhaps a deeper consideration of the beliefs of Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, which these two fine volumes provide, might remind the current Republicans what they are supposed to stand for.
This is not necessarily to suggest that Carnegie and Mellon were unalloyedly virtuous and noble. Carnegie, perpetually trumpeting his probity, appears to have engaged in conduct in restraint of trade which arguably violated both the federal antitrust laws and the state common law against anticompetitive practices, and Mellon lied blatantly and repeatedly about whether he was simultaneously serving as secretary of the treasury and manipulating Mellon enterprises, activity which also violated the law of the land. It is doubtful whether either of these titans could have amassed the fortune he did without the tariffs and favorable governmental contracts which enhanced his profits. And neither of their biographers finds it easy to justify Carnegie’s and Mellon’s relative indifference to the plight of their industrial workers, who were enduring six-day work weeks and twelve-hour days under horrific conditions, which reduced them to little more than beasts of burden. Yet Carnegie and Mellon, Frick, Rockefeller, and their fellows collectively created a colossus that became the richest and most-powerful nation the world had seen. Almost instinctively, they seem to have arrived at business systems involving decisionmaking by line managers, but also coordination and strategic planning by centralized authority, that continue to be taught in the nation’s business schools. Their innovations in finance and sound management continue to make American enterprise the model for the world.
Mellon: An American Life and Andrew Carnegie are models of biography; both should be the definitive works on their subjects for decades to come. David Nasaw’s book may be a bit longer than it needed to be, but it is meticulously researched, corrects many misconceptions deliberately perpetrated by Carnegie over the years, yet leaves the reader with the impression that the biographer has, in the end, told the story of a relatively simple, and basically good, man and bon vivant. David Cannadine found the better story to tell; also, he is a superb writer. A Brit who studied at Cambridge, Oxford, and Princeton, he is one of a handful of truly talented historians at work today. Though Mellon was commissioned by the great banker’s son, Paul, it is anything but hagiography. Nasaw is an American, Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and has written for the Nation, the London Review of Books, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Not surprisingly, his 800 pages are a monumental achievement, revealing Carnegie’s life in full detail. The Mellon who emerges from Cannadine’s equally detailed and scrupulous research is a flawed, scarred, and extremely interesting human being. Carnegie, when all is said and done, seems a relatively simple and satisfied man, but Mellon, poor soul, is clearly tormented, ultimately finding solace not in any of his fellow human beings but in his pictures. One plows through the Carnegie book, learning immense amounts about what Pittsburgh, New York, and Europe were like in the time of the great industrialists, but Cannadine, the award-winning author of The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, has actually produced a 600-page page-turner. The reader is sucked in and buffeted along as Mellon endures abuse from his wife, from FDR, from his children, from the tax court, and from his times. One reads Nasaw’s book and, perhaps, admires Carnegie for his persistence and his enjoyment of his friends and family, but is little moved. One reads Cannadine’s thoughtful meditation on the much more interesting Mellon and is touched and dazzled.
Tocqueville thought that what made England great, in no small part, was her hereditary aristocracy, which had been bred to the notion that its privileges carried with them a responsibility to the people, though England’s aristocratic government ultimately could not help formulating rules that benefited its own class and shortchanged others. Carnegie and Mellon were among a small group that believed that we could exceed England by producing an aristocracy of our own that could help the nation produce previously unimagined wealth and employ it for public purposes. Both men may have been happiest when they were in England, but both were clearly members of the kind of “natural aristocracy” that Jefferson thought should govern America. Again as Tocqueville recognized, there is an element of the American character that abhors any kind of aristocracy and seeks to bring all men down to a common level. In an America where politicians bray for equality, there is always the risk that we will descend further into mediocrity. Currently, we are awash in multibillionaires whose wealth actually dwarfs Carnegie’s and Mellon’s, and even Rockefeller’s. Much of today’s billionaire philanthropy, like some of Carnegie’s, seems to be engaged in international efforts that may produce little more than Carnegie’s own schemes for international peace, cooperation, and arbitration succeeded in doing. But there is still time, perhaps, for the latter-day titans of industry and commerce to spurn the demagogues and, through their philanthropy, to seek to elevate the soul of this nation, as Andrew Mellon did. They would do well to read David Cannadine’s superlative book.
[Mellon: An American Life, by David Cannadine (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 779 pp., $35.00]
[Andrew Carnegie, by David Nasaw (New York: The Penguin Press) 878 pp., $35.00]