Andrew Carnegie, who died 93 years ago, remains a polarizing figure. He has been labeled a great industrialist by some, a robber baron by others. Even his unparalleled philanthropy — which continues to shape the American educational and cultural worlds to a remarkable degree — has sparked its share of criticism.
After immigrating to the U.S. from Scotland at age 12, Carnegie worked a series of low-wage jobs until landing a position as personal assistant and secretary to Thomas A. Scott, superintendent of the Pittsburgh division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Scott, along with Pennsylvania Railroad President J. Edgar Thomson, taught Carnegie several valuable investing lessons. Among the most significant was how to exploit inside information whenever possible, which was legal at the time.
At 65, Carnegie sold Carnegie Steel and many of his other enterprises to J.P. Morgan for $480 million, netting $225,639,000 (about $6.5 billion today) for himself. Carnegie’s deal with Morgan would eventually make him the world’s richest man — significantly wealthier than anyone alive today. Carnegie “would be richer than the top six richest people in the world at the moment,” Evans says. “And he chose to give that away.”
Before his death in 1919, Carnegie donated $350 million to hundreds of organizations and individuals around the world. He funded universities, libraries and established pensions for professors and the workers in his mills. Still, not everyone agreed with the way he distributed his wealth. Contemporary articles and cartoons called into question his focus on higher education, which at the time was considered a luxury of the rich, as well as the extent of his international giving.
Puck magazine published a satirical cartoon in 1901 criticizing his founding of the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland. According to Carnegie biographer Peter Krass, the grand scale of Carnegie’s philanthropy also frightened many people, who thought it was anti-democratic.
Despite the divergence of opinion about Carnegie’s methods, the scale of his charity remains unrivaled. According to Anthony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library — which was founded with a gift from Carnegie — his legacy of giving is without equal, even compared with today’s most generous philanthropists. “Andrew Carnegie was, as far as I can tell, the greatest philanthropist in history,” Marx says. “The New York Public Library system was created by a gift of $5.2 million, which in today’s dollars is equivalent to $2.7 billion.”
–From a Bloomberg article by Kristin Aguilera