David Nasaw is the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the current president of the Society of American Historians. His historical research and writing over the past decade has taken the form of biographies. He is the author, most recently, of The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (2012), a Pulitzer Prize finalist and one of the New York Times best 10 books of the year; Andrew Carnegie (2006), also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and The Chief: Life and Times of William Randolph Hearst (2000), winner of the Bancroft Prize and the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize.
There are two intertwined strands to the Andrew Carnegie story: the rags to riches journey from Dunfermline to Pittsburgh which ended with his becoming, according to J.P. Morgan in 1901, “the richest man in the world”; and his decision, even before he had retired, to give away every penny he had earned. What was it that drove the little man, proudly known as the “Star-Spangled Scotsman,” to do something no one had done before him and few, if any, have done since? The answers are not what one would expect. Andrew Carnegie was not ashamed of his wealth nor was he guilty that he had accumulated so much in his lifetime. He was proud of his success, as he should have been. To understand why he not only gave away his fortune, but proclaimed to his fellow millionaires on both sides of the Atlantic that they must follow his example or risk dying “unwept, unhonored and unsung,” we must look to his life story and to his understanding of the role of the capitalist entrepreneur in Gilded Age America.