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."..a fascinating biography of the man who built the biggest steel company in the world..." ("Glasgow Evening News", 20 December 2003)
On a bleak twenty-fifth day of November in 1835, a quixotic clan gathered in the one-room ground floor of a weaver's cottage in Dunfermline, Scotland, to await the arrival of its newest member. That day, Andrew Carnegie-or Andra as his relatives would call him-was born into a large family of political activists, radicals, and eccentrics. These blood relations, with all their passions and idiosyncrasies, would inspire and haunt Andra; they would infuse him with proletarian social and political convictions that would create merciless internal conflict as he came to embody the quintessential American rags-to-riches story.
The first in the family tree on record to protest the British monarchy and the oppressive living conditions suffered by the working class was James Carnegie, Andra's great-grandfather, who was of Celtic blood. A shadowy figure in family lore, James had settled in Pattiemuir, just north of Edinburgh, where he leased land for farming and took up weaving. The village encompassed about a dozen cottages with red-tiled or thatched roofs nestled among softly rolling pastureland. During the Meal Riots of 1770, which followed a bad harvest, he was arrested for sedition against the local gentry who controlled the land and bore the blame for the food shortages. While he was in prison, a mysterious lady visited him and gave him a jewel-encrusted snuffbox, which prompted rumors thatthe Carnegie lineage was of a more exulted rank than mere peasant weaver. The earls of Northesk and of Southesk both bore the name Carnegie, but the family proudly denied any connection. Although James escaped conviction and quietly returned to his family, the name Carnegie, a Gaelic compound word meaning "fort at the gap," would be forever associated with the radical element.
James's oldest son and Andra's grandfather, Andrew Carnegie, was more of an eccentric than a radical. Also a natural leader, he was more blithe than his father and lived by the Scottish proverb "Be happy while you're living, for you're a long time dead"-a trait he bequeathed to Andra, who later reflected, "I think my optimistic nature, my ability to shed trouble and to laugh through life, making 'all my ducks swans,' as friends say I do, must have been inherited from this delightful old masquerading grandfather whose name I am proud to bear." Grandfather Carnegie relished consorting with the hamlet's men either at the smithy or the Black Bull Inn. In order to instigate political and social debate, he founded Pattiemuir College, which was no more than a single-room cottage in the village center were the men gathered weekly to argue over the important issues of the day. Grandfather Carnegie was dubbed the Professor, as were most of his cohorts, and considering that the so-called professors far outnumbered the students, whispers in town that rumored the college to be "a drinking place" were not unfounded.
To initiate the meetings, Grandfather Carnegie would climb upon his throne and, lifting his dram of malt whiskey, toast the common man's king of poets, Robert "Rabbie" Burns, or some other Scottish icon. Although the temperance movement was actively attempting to put an end to public and private drinking, the ability to imbibe, otherwise known as "quaffing the goblet" or "chasing the rosy hours," said a good deal about a man, and these men had much to say. After a benedictory toast, he would instigate heated debate by reading the news from either the London Times or the Edinburgh Scotsman. Topics ranged from theological matters to corruption in Parliament to factory reform. Regardless of the issue, whether national or foreign, Professor Andrew proved to be the expert. He was celebrated for his power of persuasion, his passion for debate, his skilled storytelling, his devotion to democratic ideals, and his righteous indignation (particularly true after a few drams at the college)-all traits that later manifested themselves in Andra, who would become renowned for his grandiloquence and derive exceptional pleasure from startling people with his wild stories and radical ideals.
As a second-generation weaver, Grandpa Carnegie accompanied his father, James, to cities such as Dunfermline and Edinburgh to sell their linens. During one such excursion to the nearby coastal town of Limekilns, he became smitten with Elizabeth Thom, the daughter of a customer. Their courtship began in earnest, but there was a major obstacle: Elizabeth's wealthy father, a sea captain and shipowner, wanted his precious daughter to have nothing to do with a village weaver who offered no sign of being "specially successful in the acquisition of worldly gear." (Here the characters of Grandpa Carnegie and his namesake Andra diverged completely; Andra would prove himself a prodigal capitalist.) Despite the wizened captain withdrawing Elizabeth's dowry, she and Andrew married for love, eventually producing ten children.
Andrew and Elizabeth's seventh child was William, born on June 19, 1804, the future father of the world's most rapacious steel master. The flaxen-haired boy with blue eyes bright against his milk-pale skin became a third-generation weaver and eventually specialized in damask, a craft involving the use of a lustrous fabric such as cotton, linen, or silk to create flat patterns in a satin weave. The patterns were intricate and beautiful, and William produced spectacular tablecloths as his feet worked the treadles and his hands deftly moved the shuttle from side to side. At that time, Dunfermline, two miles north, was the center for the damask trade. William, realizing an independent life in Pattiemuir would put few shillings in his pocket, journeyed there circa 1830, his father to follow. It was a brave act moving from a mere hamlet to a burgh of more than ten thousand people, but William was young and ambitious.
Nicknamed "Auld Grey Toun" because all the buildings were constructed of gray sandstone, the seemingly dour Dunfermline nevertheless had a certain romantic lure that pervaded the inhabitants' spirits, including that of Andra. It stood on high ground overlooking the Firth of Forth, a long, narrow bay backed by the silhouette of the Pentland Hills beyond, and had once been the capital of Scotland. Rich with tradition and treasure, at the start of the fourteenth century Dunfermline's "Abbey and Monastery buildings stood unrivalled in Scotland for their extent and 'noble adornments,'" according to town historian Ebenezer Henderson. On his death in 1329, King Robert the Bruce was buried in the center of the abbey, surrounded by past kings and queens, including Queen Margaret, the patron saint of Scotland. But in the mid-1400s, the capital was relocated to Edinburgh, a far more powerful military seat, with its imposing fortress and ability to protect the royal family. When William Carnegie made his way to Dunfermline, the majestic monastery and royal palace were but ruins, though the air of nobility and pride remained, the noble ghosts of William Wallace and the Robert the Bruce alive in the streets.
William rented half of a cottage duplex on the corner of Moodie Street and Priory Lane, paying between $15 and $20 a year. He set up his loom on the main floor, the room's dimensions a mere eight paces by six, and his living quarters in the cramped attic above. He shared the stairs with the other renters, along with the privy out back. While Captain Thom had thumbed his nose at William's father, in Dunfermline the damask handloom weaver was considered aristocracy, the nobility of the working class and relatively prosperous, in stark contrast to the suffering tenant farmers, coal miners, and factory workers who were paid starvation wages.
Recognized as a sober and skilled weaver, William Carnegie quickly made friends, including the Morrison family, who lived up the street. He became smitten with Margaret Morrison, who was born on June 19, 1810, the third of six children. Her father, Thomas, was a political activist, reminding William of his own radical heritage. Like all Morrison women, Margaret had a stout body and strong, dark facial features, her square chin and high cheekbones prominent in what was otherwise a plain face. As a polite Scotsman would say, she was a "wiselik" girl, or "She's better than she's bonny." In other words, she was a woman with character. Considering her mother died when Margaret was just four, she had little choice but to become strong-willed, and it was her penetrating eyes with heavy, almost seductive lids that first captivated William. No fool, he recognized an efficient woman of good stock, and in December 1834 he took her hand in marriage. Although Andra was named after his paternal grandfather and had his father's blond hair and blue eyes, he would inherit his mother's resoluteness and tenacity, as well as the fiercely independent fighting spirit of his maternal ancestors.
The bellicose Morrison spirit was due to their Norse blood, their Viking ancestors having invaded northern Scotland and conquered the people there in the ninth and tenth centuries. They then migrated south. Some seven hundred years later found Thomas Morrison's father, John, to be a prosperous leather merchant in Edinburgh. Thomas married Ann Hodge, the daughter of a wealthy Edinburgh merchant, and was running the family's leather business when, according to family legend, he made some speculative investments and lost both the business and his wife's inheritance. He moved the family to Dunfermline to begin anew, to rebuild his life. There he became a respectable cobbler, a trade he had learned as a boy.
Although a widower since 1814, Thomas found the time to pursue political activities, and derived great satisfaction in haranguing audiences about his favorite topic, land reform. It was time for the monarchy, the lords, and the privileged few to relinquish the land they had controlled since the beginning of the feudal system. In one torrid lecture, "Rights of Land," he delivered his core doctrine: "Our rule is Each shall possess; all shall enjoy; Our principle, universal and equal right; and our 'law of the land' shall be Every man a lord; every woman a lady; and every child an heir." His brooding black eyes would stare out at the crowd, and his wild outcropping of sable hair would shake as he gestured wildly with each point he shouted, his strong jaw jutting outward. His extravagant use of body language-a thrown-out chest, rollicking lips, violent hand motions-were so identically reproduced in Andra that it unnerved his relatives. As for Thomas Morrison's politics, they were embraced by the entire clan, including Andra, who came to despise inherited privilege and aristocratic tendencies in any form.
To further his political agenda, Morrison organized a Dunfermline political union of fellow radicals in the 1820s, which had the adopted battle cry "Agitation is the order of the day-the night of monastic ignorance is passed." He also founded The Precursor, a newspaper "devoted to the interests of the Tradesmen and Mechanics in particular," but it was considered so provocative that only a radical printer in Edinburgh would set it in type. Whether it was a readership too timid to buy the paper or the cost of sending each manuscript the sixteen miles to Edinburgh via horse-drawn carriage, the newspaper was declared defunct after just three issues. Enthusiasm unabated, Morrison took up his pen against the district's representative to Parliament, the Tory nobleman Lord Dalmeny, and in an audacious stream of correspondence he advised and criticized Dalmeny on everything from his support of the monarchy to his grammar. A land reform evangelist until the end, Thomas Morrison died on the road in 1837, haranguing the public and collecting money to continue his mission.
There was good cause for Morrison's land reform agitation, as well as the general desire for revolution that pervaded Britain's working class: the country's deteriorating economic and living conditions had become unbearable. While Andra was yet too young to comprehend his immediate world, he was a creature of his environment, and these threads of history would be woven into the fabric of his soul. Social conditions, now and in the future, would shape his moral convictions.
No longer ignorant, voiceless peasants taking swipes at the monarchy by poaching deer on the nobility's properties, the members of the disenfranchised working class were becoming more vocal, organizing themselves into trade unions, demanding reduced work hours and reasonable wages, and their leaders were inserting themselves into the political fray. Several issues in particular stirred the public's ire, but, foremost, the middle and lower classes demanded the seemingly basic rights to vote, which would give them representation in Parliament, and to own property. Another thorn was the Corn Laws, which artificially supported the price of corn and wheat to benefit the farmers. The majority of the working class, however, lived in factory and mining towns where they couldn't grow their own food and were forced to pay the artificially inflated prices or face starvation. It became difficult to earn a living wage and conditions continued to deteriorate, a situation described so depressingly well by Charles Dickens in such classics as Oliver Twist (1838). These problems were not just political; they were also the side effects of the Industrial Revolution, a revolution that was beyond the control of politicians.
Great Britain had taken an early lead in the Industrial Revolution. The isles, with rich coalfields to provide fuel for steam engines, many natural waterways for cheap transportation, and a booming international trade with its colonies, was ideally suited for a transformation from an agricultural-based economy to a manufacturing-based economy, from a handicraft system to a factory system. As country folk, in search of steady jobs, migrated to the cities in increasing numbers, the transition proved painful because already poor living conditions in urban centers were exacerbated by a population explosion. Contributing to this unprecedented growth were the Irish, who, seeking work, arrived in waves. Thus, employers had such a large labor pool to select from that they were able to dictate low wages and long hours, further suppressing the working poor. Disillusioned and embittered, the working class formed both trade and political unions to exert pressure, and activism increased dramatically.
Nationalistic-minded Scotland raised a collective cry of protest as industrial towns such as Dunfermline, Glasgow, and the mining towns that sprang up around the expansive central coalfields suffered more than most. The police superintendent of Glasgow, reporting on his own city streets, observed, "There is concentrated everything that is wretched, dissolute, loathsome, and pestilential.
Excerpted from Carnegie by Peter Krass Excerpted by permission.
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1. Flesh and Blood.
2. Odyssey to America.
3. $1.20 a Week.
4. The Scotch Devil.
5. Tree of Knowledge.
6. Blood Money and Black Gold.
7. An Iron Coup.
8. Many Hands, Many Cookie Jars.
9. Bridges to Glory.
10. Epiphany of Legend.
11. Template for Domination.
12. Rekindling the Flame.
13. War against the Steel Aristocracy.
14. An Attack on Britain.
15. Bleeding Hearts and Bleeding Newspapers.
16. Patronizing the Peasants.
17. The Pale Horse and the Gray Dress.
18. Gospel of Conscience.
19. Rewards from the Harrison Presidency.
20. Prelude to Homestead.
21. The Homestead Tragedy.
22. The Great Armor Scandal.
23. Seeking a Measure of Peace.
24. Illegal Rebates and a Fight with Rockefeller.
25. A Point of Disruption and Transition.
26. The Crusades.
27. UnCivil War.
28. The World's Richest Man.
29. Tainted Seeds.
30. Human Frailty.
31. The Peace Mission Begins.
32. The Metamorphosis of Andrew Carnegie.
33. Covert Deal with Taft.
34. The Last Great Benefaction.
35. House of Cards.
36. The War to End All Wars.
The Carnegie Legacy.
Posted May 5, 2004
In more than 600 pages, author Peter Krass delivers an almost overwhelming volume of facts about Andrew Carnegie, who certainly merits detailed study. Much in his life and work remains relevant today. The book is marred by frequent editorial asides and judgments. However, a man emerges out of the mountain of facts who was unusually sensitive to the impact of new technologies and extraordinarily able to position himself to take advantage of them. Carnegie was a man of contrasts, ruthless, hypocritical, forceful and diffident, idealistic and amoral, driven to amass a fortune and philanthropic. We appreciate the effort behind this full scale biography of Carnegie, the first one offered for almost 30 years, and recommends getting to know this American icon.
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Posted March 12, 2012