A Critical Look at Gilded Age Philanthropy

Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall, 1891

The 125th anniversary of the opening of Carnegie Hall provides an opportunity to examine Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy. Before he died in 1919, Carnegie gave away $350 million, which inflation would make several billion today. His gifts included the eponymous New York City music hall, the Carnegie Foundation, and more than 2,500 library buildings.

Born in Scotland in 1835, Carnegie came to the United States in 1848. He made his fortune in steel and grew to embody the contradictions of the Gilded Age. The richest man in the world, he gave away huge amounts of his money because he believed it was his duty to do so. But what exactly was that duty about?

Money on the poor in either wages or charity was wasted, but monuments with his name on them showed his beneficence and guiding hand.

Kathleen Davis calls the philosophy behind his philanthropy “tycoon medievalism.” There was something feudalistic and paternalistic in Carnegie, but also something new in the way he redistributed wealth extracted from the earth and from laborers, thousands of them children, towards his own lasting fame. Davis argues that he “institutionalized philanthropy and thereby established an impersonal, self-perpetuating mechanism for redistributing capital into symbolic capital.” The famous music hall, the many libraries, the continuing work of the Foundation, the symbolic capital, all have done a remarkable job of obscuring the man’s ruthless accumulation of economic capital and, of course, political power.

Carnegie believed that sharing wealth through wages was foolish, since it would be wasted on “indulgence of appetite,” not the perpetuation of the race. In “The Gospel of Wealth” (1889) Carnegie wrote, “While the law of [of competition] may sometimes be hard for the individual, it is best for the race.” He meant, of course, the white Anglo-Saxon race. It was the mission of men like himself to direct the progress of the race by spending for them as he saw fit. Money on the poor in either wages or charity was wasted, but monuments with his name on them showed his beneficence and guiding hand.

Davis argues that Carnegie’s wealth allowed him to perpetuate his self-serving beliefs and the bogus racial science of the day. She reminds us that this kind of philanthropy is a profoundly undemocratic form of social restructuring. Carnegie avowed that economic inequality was necessary and good for the world as he saw it. The fact that inequality is a root cause of authoritarianism wouldn’t have bothered him, since he was at the top of the heap.


JSTOR Citations

Tycoon Medievalism, Corporate Philanthropy, and American Pedagogy

By: Kathleen Davis

American Literary History, Vol. 22, No. 4, Medieval America (Winter 2010), pp. 781-800

Oxford University Press

Matthew Wills

Matthew Wills has advanced degrees in library science and film studies and is lapsed in both fields. He has published in Poetry, Huffington Post, and Nature Conservancy Magazine, among other places, and blogs regularly about urban natural history at matthewwills.com.

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