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Andrew Carnegies Defense: The Gospel Of Wealth

During the Industrial Revolution, several changes shaped American society. Inventions such as the railroad and electricity contributed to the massive change in American life. A movement from the rural farms to the industrial cities and factory owners’ desire to maximize profit and minimize cost started the battle between laborers and large capitalist bosses. Throughout this era, daring entrepreneurs such as John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, J.P. Morgan, and the Vanderbilt family helped shape the economy, and became known as the robber barons, because of their ruthless treatment of workers and underhanded business deals. Through their economic and political leverage, they accumulated massive amounts of wealth and had enormous influence. Robber barons utilized their wealth in a variety ways, such as purchasing extravagant mansions or hosting wasteful parties. However in the article “Wealth,” unlike the other millionaires of the Gilded Age, Andrew Carnegie encouraged fellow capitalists to live humbly and use their excess capital to assist the “unfit” poor, but only because he felt that the millionaires were most qualified to help.

In “Wealth,” Carnegie argues that the “fit” and wise rich men of American must be the ones who distribute the wealth because they have the essential skills to do so. He emphasizes that millionaire class, to which he belonged, is very skilled and elevates their status in society with his self-praising writing. For example he says, their “talent for organization and management is rare among men” and this talent, “secures for its possessor enormous rewards, no matter where or under what laws or conditions.” [1] The rich are again represented as greater than the poor by having “superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer [wealth].” [2] They are shown to have skills are unique and rare allowing them to do amazing things in all aspects of life-an indomitable group of people who can solve any problem. This resembles the widespread doctrine of social Darwinism, because if a person is “fit” by being skilled, it is natural that they will succeed and survive. Carnegie wrote that it is because of their skill that only they must be responsible for the control and distribution of their wealth.

While Carnegie elevates the rich’s image and portrays them as superior beings, he describes the poor as foolish, impudent, and unskilled. Throughout the text, Carnegie argued that it must be the rich class’s responsibility to guide the poor, because their class can do “for them better than they would or could do for themselves” since the poor are, “slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.” [3] Carnegie demonstrates the “unfit,” foolish, lazy, and ignorant workers and laborers as the foils of the “fit,” skilled, wise, and hardworking millionaires. According to social Darwinism and Carnegie’s article, the poor at the bottom of society deserve to be there, because they are “unfit” and failed take advantages of their situation and earn millions of dollars, like the capitalists.

By emphasizing the differences between the rich and poor, Carnegie’s article illustrates the prevailing belief of social Darwinism. “Wealth” was published during 1889 an era when public believed in the theory of social Darwinism. This belief stemmed from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner used “the popular catchwords of Darwinism, ‘struggle for existence’ and ‘survival of the fittest [and] applied [them] to the life of man in society” [4] . Indeed Carnegie uses these terms in his article, as he says “the law [of competition]…insures the survival of the fittest in every department.” [5] By applying Darwin’s biological theory to man and society, the “fittest” or strongest members of society should be at the top and lead society, while the weak, “unfit” should be on the bottom and allowed to suffer and die out. This is echoed in Carnegie’s article as the millionaires should have all the control and power of their wealth, while the poor must be changed and learn to be “fit” or be left to die out. “Successful business and entrepreneurs apparently accepted almost by instinct the Darwinian terminology which seemed to portray the conditions of their existence.” [6] For example, as a child Carnegie had to support his family and by taking advantage of the situations provided to him. By doing so, he was able to own the biggest and most successful steel industry. In his article, a businessman’s success and money are rewards of being “fit,” while the poor’s lack of money is a symbol of their “failure” in society.

By presenting the rich and poor as skilled and unskilled, wise and foolish, Carnegie is able to justify that the rich were the only ones who were knowledgeable enough to share and keep their wealth. Carnegie arrogantly says that, “this wealth, passing through the hands of the few, can be made much more potent force for the elevation of our race than if distributed in small sums to the people themselves.” [7] The “few” or the rich should must have the money, because they will be able to properly distribute it to the poor. If the “people themselves” obtained this money, they would not have as grand a result as the millionaires.

In his article, Carnegie needed to defend their immense accumulation of wealth, before explaining the more efficient methods of helping the poor. During this era, there was a huge economic gap between the rich and poor. “In 1890, 73 percent of the nation’s wealth was held by the top 10 percent of the population.” [8] This disproportionate distribution of money caused the laborers and poor to see the wealthy and business as evil and millionaires as corrupt robber barons stealing their money. This distrust was inflamed by the immense differences in living conditions of each class. While millionaires lived comfortably in extravagant, laborers and factory workers lived in dirty and disease filled slums. However, in “Wealth” Carnegie attempts to “bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship” [9] and provides a humble interpretation of the rich as they are just a “the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren.” [10] He wishes to have peace between the two classes and portrays the rich as helpful caretakers of poor. In their crusade in helping the poor become ‘fit,’ the rich must have control over their capital in order to help them. Carnegie states that they would provide them with “ladders upon which the aspiring can rise – free libraries, parks, … works of art,…and public institutions of various kinds.” [11] He wanted to provide resources to “those who will help themselves”, just as he had brought himself up from working in a factory to owner of a steel factory. However, he would not just hand out money to the poor, because they would use it foolishly. [12] By providing with poor with these institutions, Carnegie hoped that they would learn how become “fit” and become more like the refined and educated millionaires. Even if the rich has so much, they should be willing to return some of their resources in the form of libraries and other services to assist the poor. By explaining that their wisdom and wealth will be used to assist the poor, the wealthy are given a legitimate reason to keep all their money and continue with the laissez-faire system of government.

Even though Carnegie felt he provided the poor with ladders to success. The poor had no time to take advantage of them. As the wealthy obtained an immense amount of money, most of the population suffered in poverty. The poor had to work in dangerous factories in long 12 hour work days. After a day of hard work, laborers would barely make enough money to eat as Carnegie’s steel workers “earned from $1.50 to $2.00 per day. While a family in the Pittsburg area needed $15 a week to live, most workers made less than $12.50.” [13] Even if factory workers wanted to go to the local library they had no time or energy to do so. During this time, the wealthy were really not focused on “relieving the needy” with handouts. Carnegie felt that just giving foolish man money would cause him to spend it recklessly. He wanted to help the poor become more like the rich by providing them with the resources which would teach them how to be “fit” and if the poor really wanted to advance themselves, they would go to a library and learn the skills necessary to do so. Given the circumstances, this would be unlikely, but Carnegie still proposes that this is a viable option, as he really does not know how the poor live.

Since the government practiced laissez-faire politics which ensured that the government would stay away from business affairs, businessmen had full control over their finances and factories. If the government did interfere, they could only do so to benefit business, specifically those of the robber barons. Andrew Carnegie’s article “Wealth” supported this hands-off policy on business. As an article which drew heavily on the beliefs of social Darwinism, lack of government action would be beneficial to the evolution of society. The law of competition is “not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race” and “competition between these [businesses], as being not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race.” [14] Carnegie and many other businessmen believed that businesses should be free to compete against each other and that the government should stay out the way. If the government would get involved, they would only do so to protect competition between businesses. According to social Darwinism, competition would destroy the weak, leave only the fit in society. Thus, the skilled “fit” that remain are able to advance society and harvest their rewards. If the government created regulation that hindered competition between businesses, competition would be destroyed, and society would not be able to move forward. Therefore, any disruption or attempts to hinder the law of competition or defend the “unfit” were not allowed by the business owners. As Irvin Wyllie states in the article “Social Darwinism and the Businessman,” “Herbert Spencer became the oracle of the age … in defense of laissez-faire” as he applied the idea of evolution and completion to society. [15] Social Darwinism’s law of competition became a bulwark for a government which did not interfere with businesses and left workers with despicable work conditions. In “Wealth,” Andrew Carnegie use of the law of competition to support the laissez-faire image of government helped protect the businessmen’s interest.

In “Wealth,” Carnegie also supported millionaires’ decision to fight against unions’ desires. Due to the harsh conditions in factories, low wages, long workdays, and lack of help from the government, unions like the Knights of Labor formed in an attempt to obtain a shorter workday and better working conditions for workers. Eight work days and higher wages would increase the bottom line and lessen the businessman’s profit causing create deal of resistance from businessmen. “Unfit” laborers are portrayed by social Darwinism and “Wealth” as lazy and deserving of their suffering giving the idea that factory owners do not need listen to them. In “Wealth,” the wealthy are portrayed as all-knowing, as they know “the best interests of the race.” [16] Indeed, in this era, millionaires found unions to be hindrances to their companies and had the full support of federal government in stopping them. By emphasizing that the poor are unworthy, lazy, and ignorant and the wealthy knew what they were doing, “Wealth” defended why millionaires disliked unions and did everything they could to stop them.

Andrew Carnegie’s article, “Wealth,” was a result of prevailing belief of social Darwinism in the Gilded Age. The rhetoric of Spencer and Sumner’s view of social Darwinism are apparent in his work and though this belief, Carnegie is able to say that the rich were the most capable group of people to hold and distribute the wealth. Through his ingrained belief of social Darwinism, he was also able to defend the wealth’s large accumulation of wealth, the laissez-faire government, and their aggression toward labor unions found during the Industrial era.

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