The Carnegie legacy

By Laurie Bennett

September 6, 2013 at 8:59am

Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest Americans in history, retired with a plan.

At age 65, he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan, then set to giving away his fortune.

Six years earlier he had written down this philosophy in an article that became known as “The Gospel of Wealth.”

Carnegie believed that society was improved by a system “which inevitably gives wealth to the few.”

But like Warren Buffett, a billionaire who would follow his path a century later, he balked at simply passing this wealth along to descendants.

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie

“Why should men leave great fortunes to their children?” he asked. “If this is done from affection, it is not misguided affection? Generally speaking, it is not well for the children that they should be so burdened.”

Instead, Carnegie advocated higher estate taxes and philanthropy during one’s lifetime, rather than bequests after death.

In this way, he wrote, “The surplus wealth of the few will become, in the best sense, the property of the many, because administered for the common good.”

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display of extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent on him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community …

While Carnegie’s views have not been warmly embraced by most of the top 1 percent, his philanthropic legacy endures.

Before his death in 1919, Carnegie had given away more than $350 million, nearly 90 percent of his fortune.

He donated more than $56 million to establish 2,509 libraries around the world, many of them still in existence.

As the Muckety map above shows, he also established an array of institutions that continue to play important roles in education, the arts and public policy. (To see more relation, double-click on any box with a + in the corner.)

Probably the most influential is the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, whose analysts are widely cited on foreign relations, energy and the global economy.

Founded by Carnegie in 1910, the endowment is headed by Jessica Tuchman Mathews, former under secretary of State and daughter of historian Barbara Tuchman.

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