THE ONLY MAN wealthier than J. P. Morgan in 1912 was a Scottish immigrant from Dunfermline, County Fife, who emigrated with his family to Allegheny, Pennsylvania, at the age of twelve in 1848. He got his first job as a bobbin boy in a Pittsburgh cotton mill when he was thirteen, changing spools of thread twelve hours a day for $1.20 a week. Two years later he was a messenger boy in the Pittsburgh office of the Ohio Telegraph Company: $2.50 per week. At seventeen the Pennsylvania Railroad employed him as a telegraph operator: $4.00 per week. By the time he was eighteen he was superintendent of the railroad’s Pittsburgh Division, and that year he had started investing his money. The returns he reinvested . . . and reinvested . . . and reinvested, slowly built up Andrew Carnegie’s base of capital.
Having served out the Civil War running the Union’s military railways and telegraph operations in the east, Andrew Carnegie left the railroad and turned his attention to iron and steel. By 1889 he was the largest producer of pig iron, rails, and coke in the world. His two major innovations, introducing the Bessemer furnace, which purified pig iron quickly by burning away its carbon content, and vertically integrating all of his suppliers, made Carnegie steel cheaper than anyone else’s. In 1901 Carnegie retired at age sixty-six, selling his steel interests to J. P. Morgan for $492 million and becoming the richest man on earth.
But even as he was living the life of a robber baron during the Gilded Age, piling up capital and repressing striking workers, Carnegie was already formulating a different outlook on wealth than most of his tycoon friends. “Man must have no idol,” he wrote, “and the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry! No idol is more debasing than the worship of money! . . . To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery.”
Abdu’l-Baha spoke at many meetings sponsored by Carnegie, including the Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration, which Carnegie’s millions had underwritten. In November Carnegie called on Abdu’l-Baha in New York, and gave him a copy of his essay, The Gospel of Wealth. In it Carnegie had argued for the responsibilities the rich had to improve society. Not only should they give away all their wealth, but they had to do it wisely, ensuring that they controlled the organizations who would use it, so the money wouldn’t be frittered away. Later he refused to make a donation to a peace organization that a friend had recommended, because he felt that the money would cause harm, not good: “I wonder that you do not see this,” he wrote, astonished. “There is nothing that robs a righteous cause of its strength more than a millionaire’s money. Its life is tainted thereby.” He also approved of the high estate taxes that had been established in England. “By taxing estates heavily at death,” Carnegie wrote, “the State marks its condemnation of the selfish millionaire’s unworthy life. It is desirable that nations should go much further in this direction.”
At least since 1875, when he wrote The Secret of Divine Civilization, Abdu’l-Baha had upheld a similar set of views on the responsibilities of the wealthy. “Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree,” Abdu’l-Baha wrote, “if it is acquired by an individual’s own efforts and the grace of God, in commerce, agriculture, art and industry, and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes. Above all, if a judicious and resourceful individual should initiate measures which would universally enrich the masses of the people, there could be no undertaking greater than this.”
Abdu’l-Baha read The Gospel of Wealth and wrote back to Andrew Carnegie on January 10, 1913, shortly after he had arrived in London after his American journey. Carnegie was so impressed with the letter that he had it printed in The New York Times. But in one particular Abdu’l-Baha felt that Carnegie’s argument had to go a step farther. A critical aspect of successful wealth redistribution, Abdu’l-Baha explained, was the need to maintain unity among the different classes of society. “‘Human Solidarity’ is greater than ‘Equality’,” he wrote. “‘Equality’ is obtained, more or less, through force (or legislation), but ‘Human Solidarity’ is realized through the exercise of free will.” Abdu’l-Baha argued that although laws of redistribution were necessary, the lasting solution to the problem of rich and poor was that the rich should change their fundamental attitudes, going out of their way to give lavishly without being coerced. “For such coercion would be followed by disintegration, and the organization of the affairs of society would be disturbed. But the idea of ‘Human Solidarity,’ would be the cause of the illumination of humanity.”
By the time the two men met in November, 1912, Carnegie had already built hundreds of public libraries, given pensions to his former employees, funded Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and founded Carnegie Mellon University and England’s University of Birmingham. On December 11, 1910, he created the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Gentlemen — I have transferred to you as trustees of the Carnegie Peace Fund $10,000,000 in 5 per cent first mortgage bonds . . . the revenue of which is to be administered by you to hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot on our civilization. Although we no longer eat our fellow men nor torture prisoners, nor sack cities, killing their inhabitants, we still kill each other in war like barbarians. Only wild beasts are excusable for doing that in this, the Twentieth Century of the Christian Era, for the crime of war is inherent, since it decides not in favor of the right but always of the strong.”
In May, 1915, in the midst of the war, the two men corresponded once again, which Carnegie also printed in the Times. Abdu’l-Baha’s praise of the philanthropist was effusive. “A number of souls who were doctrinaires and unpractical thinkers worked for the realization of this most exalted aim and good cause [i.e. a basis for universal peace], but they were doomed to failure, save that lofty personage [Carnegie] who has been and still is promoting the matter of international arbitration and general conciliation through words, deeds, self-sacrifice and the generous donation of wealth and property.” “Rest thou assured,” Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, “that thou wilt become confirmed and assisted in the accomplishment of this most resplendent service and in this mortal world thou shalt lay the foundation of an immortal, everlasting edifice and in the end thou wilt sit upon the throne of incorruptible glory in the Kingdom of God.”
Today’s richest man, the Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim, enjoys a net worth of $69 billion, and Bill Gates of Microsoft, the second on Forbes magazine’s 2012 World’s Billionaires List, clocks in at $61 billion. Back in 2008, the magazine printed a list of the wealthiest Americans of the past, basing its calculations of their net worth on the percentage of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that they owned. Forbes estimated Andrew Carnegie’s personal fortune at $298.3 billion in 2007 dollars, or, in other words, almost five Bill Gateses. And by the time Carnegie died in 1919, he had given more than ninety percent of it away.
On April 15, 1912, Abdu’l-Baha’s fifth day in America, he held a compelling interview with Hudson Maxim, the arms dealer. In the course of the conversation Abdu’l-Baha encouraged Maxim to give up his business interests of supplying raw materials for the armaments of a militarizing society, and to turn his efforts to building peace. “Then will your life become pregnant and productive with really great results,” Abdu’l-Baha told him. “God will be pleased with you and from every standpoint of estimation you will be a perfect man.” When Abdu’l-Baha met Andrew Carnegie a few days before he sailed from New York, he met an American who had done exactly that.
Read the next article in the 239 Days in America series: Jim Crow Makes an Unwelcome Appearance at the Great Northern Hotel
Read the previous article in the 239 Days in America series: The Trouble With J.P. Morgan’s Millions
This article was originally published on November 20, 2012 at 239Days.com, a social media documentary following Abdu’l-Baha’s 1912 journey through North America. © Jonathan Menon, 2012. This article may not be republished without prior written permission. Contact info@239Days.com.