Between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, the American economy was transformed. Huge new industries – petroleum, railroads, iron and steel, natural gas, and aluminum – emerged and a rural, agrarian nation became urban and industrial.
One aspect of this transformation that has long fascinated Americans is the role that a small band of men – collectively known as "the Robber Barons" – played in this revolution. The names are well known: Morgan, Carnegie, Frick, Gould, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Mellon. But we tend to view them as stereotypes – greedy, rapacious individuals who accumulated vast fortunes by buying politicians and exploiting employees.
The truth is, of course, far more complex as two superb new biographies reveal. David Cannadine's Mellon: An American Life and David Nasaw's Andrew Carnegie bring these important men to life and, taken together create a vivid portrait of the era that Mark Twain labeled "The Gilded Age."
Andrew Mellon is perhaps less well known than his fellow industrial titans because he was a banker who invested in multiple industries rather than focusing on one in particular. But his impact was extraordinary: "He financed and facilitated the massive industrial expansion of Western Pennsylvania" and created, among other firms, Alcoa, Gulf Oil, and National Carborundum.
Late in life, despite personal misgivings, he became Treasury secretary for three US Presidents. He presided over the Roaring '20s and was referred to as the "greatest Treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton" until the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression shattered his image.
Another US president – Franklin Roosevelt – used Mellon as the personification of a "malefactor of wealth" and indicted him on trumped-up charges of tax fraud. But at the same time that the government was prosecuting him, Mellon created the National Gallery of Art and donated his art collection to the country, instantly creating one of the finest art museums in the world.
British historian David Cannadine brings this important and elusive figure to life in a book that is a model of the biographer's craft. Paul Mellon, Andrew Mellon's son, commissioned the book and gave Cannadine free access to the family's records. The result is an extensive, careful, fascinating study that will satisfy the scholar and appeal to a general audience as well. This is, surprisingly, the first full-length biography devoted to Mellon since his death and, given his seminal place in American history, is a welcome and much needed work.
Cannadine portrays Mellon fairly and sympathetically but, at the same time, leaves no doubt that this shy, intense, taciturn business genius was not a terribly likable human being.
Cannadine devotes a great deal of time to Mellon's personal life – his impetuous marriage to a much younger woman who did not love him, his insensitivity to her needs and feelings, her infidelities, a scandalous divorce, and the crushing impact it had on their children. The book conveys a great feel for Mellon's entire family and illustrates how the personality that served him so well in business undermined his personal life.
Andrew Carnegie was completely different. His was the prototypical rags-to-riches story. The son of a poor Scottish weaver, he went to work at age 12. He began working on the Pennsylvania Railroad and advanced rapidly, thanks to his intelligence, drive, and a gift for befriending his superiors. He later moved into iron and then steel to amass his fortune. He was small in stature, but his ebullient, outgoing personality and natural affection for others made him a human dynamo.
Carnegie, like Mellon, married a much younger woman in his middle age, but for Carnegie it proved a very happy union. Mellon worked constantly and followed his business interests intently but Carnegie "semi-retired" in his forties, worked just a few hours a day, moved to New York, and spent most of the year abroad. Thereafter he devoted most of his time to writing, lecturing, philanthropy, and working for interests like world peace.
He claimed to be a "working man" and cultivated an image as a friend of labor. Not really. Carnegie and his partner Henry Clay Frick had no reservations about cutting the pay of their employees, replacing their eight-hour shifts with a 12- hour day, and busting their labor unions.
Charges of strikebusting
Indeed, one of the most infamous labor clashes in the 19th century occurred when Carnegie and Frick broke the union at Homestead Steel Mill in 1892 and strikebreakers killed a number of workers.
Carnegie later claimed that he was "unaware" of the situation and suggested that he would have handled it differently. He was in Scotland as the violence unfolded, but Nasaw shows that he was in constant contact with his partner and at least partly responsible.
Carnegie was richer than Mellon. In fact, he was richer than anybody. According to Nasaw, after J.P. Morgan bought Carnegie Steel (renaming it US Steel) Carnegie was by far the world's richest man. So he began to give his money away.
He built 1,800 libraries, funded scientific research, gave organs to more than 800 churches around the world, created a pension plan for college professors (known today as TIAA-CREF), established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and created the Carnegie Corporation, still one of the world's largest philanthropic foundations.
But giving money away proved harder than expected. He was so wealthy that, thanks to the "miracle of compound interest," his fortune grew at the same rate that he gave money away.
Some historians have suggested that Mellon and Carnegie both turned to philanthropy to help restore their reputations. After carefully examining the historical evidence, however, both Nasaw and Cannadine conclude that both men had clearly stated their philanthropic plans long before divorce, tax troubles, and labor violence clouded their names.
Nasaw has written the definitive biography of this iconic American. He includes a huge array of evidence either overlooked or unavailable to earlier scholars and shapes his material into a fascinating book – highly readable despite its 900-page length.
Both books naturally invite comparisons between the Gilded Age and our own era. There are obvious differences, but readers will undoubtedly be struck by the similarities. To name just a few: an economy that created great wealth disparities, corporations that misled investors, insider trading, and a tendency to conflate private gain with the public interest.
Even specific incidents are as current as today's headlines. When Carnegie, by then an outspoken peace activist, expressed strong opposition to American plans to annex the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, he was publicly accused of wanting to "scuttle and run."
In the end, the reader will conclude that Carnegie and Mellon were both of their time and ahead of it. Their business practices are deeply troubling, even shocking ,to 21st-century sensibilities, and their casual disregard for the well-being of their employees would embarrass any business leader today. But they were certainly no worse than their contemporaries.
On the other hand, their willingness to give their fortunes for public benefit helped establish patterns of private philanthropy that continue to reverberate to our own day. This, perhaps, is their most important legacy.
• Terry Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.