At the height of the Gilded Age, in 1883, William Graham Sumner, the foremost exponent in America of Herbert Spencer’s philosophy of social Darwinism, asked a very good question: The Yale professor wanted to know What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. Virtually nothing, beyond a modicum of everyday courtesy, was his blunt conclusion. “A free man in a free democracy,” Sumner proclaimed, “has no duty whatever toward other men.” On the contrary, every man’s duty was to take care of himself; all else amounted to a kind of insidious sentimentality. (His exact words were “the next pernicious thing to vice is charity.”) Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon were true believers in social Darwinism. Carnegie was a devoted acolyte and great friend of Spencer’s. Mellon’s father, Thomas, was a social Darwinist avant la lettre, and his scrupulously dutiful son remained loyal to the creed till the day he died–and that would be in 1937, long past the time when many, even of his own class, had abandoned ship.

They were hard, implacable men, relentless in their pursuit of profit, human engines of capital accumulation. Carnegie and Mellon, although born twenty years apart (in 1835 and 1855, respectively), were founding members of Matthew Josephson’s “robber baron” generation of American capitalists (a ripe metaphor actually invented by Kansas Populists). They come down to us as “captains of industry.” In fact, Carnegie was above all a salesman and Mellon a banker. While they presided over great industrial empires–iron, steel, coal and coke in Carnegie’s case; steel and coal but also aluminum, oil and aeronautics in Mellon’s–they left matters of actual production to managers, engineers, scientists and technicians who knew a great deal more about such things. Still, the penumbra of muscular ruthlessness that attaches itself naturally to our image of the industrial tycoon is an apt characterization of both men, although in a purely physical sense an improbable one. Both were tiny people, Carnegie rather cherubic and elfish, Mellon more dour and gnome-like.

Big questions about wealth, power and democracy echo in the background of these two new artfully constructed but constrained biographies, sounding like the residual hum given off by the Big Bang. Sometimes, as in Cannadine’s brilliant portrait of the clannish solidarity of Pittsburgh’s Scotch-Irish industrial gentry, or in Nasaw’s nuanced treatment of Carnegie’s approach-and-avoidance relationship with the Republican Party’s high command, this background radiation becomes more visible. Both authors, however, stay close to the particulars of their subjects’ private and public lives. They do this because that is what biographers are supposed to do, but also perhaps because we live in a time that seems reluctant to engage a frame of reference once more or less taken for granted: one that probed the relationship between personality and social class, and that questioned how American political democracy evolved alongside enormous concentrations of power and wealth.

One senses the presence of Matthew Josephson’s 1934 classic The Robber Barons hovering somewhere offstage. Historians have exorcised his ghost more than once. He wrote when the struggle of “the classes against the masses” seemed a self-evident fact of political and social life, when the viability of capitalism was in serious question and its moral status had hit rock bottom. We live in a new age often embarrassed by such antiquated notions of class struggle, one that may be critical of capitalism but stops short of seriously imagining an alternative. In such an atmosphere Josephson’s analysis of Gilded Age robber barons (and the work of others who wrote during the first half of the twentieth century) seems simplistic, which it sometimes was, unsubtle in its analysis, insensitive to the complexities of democratic politics and the nuances of personality. Over the last decade and more a series of biographies and histories of this formative period in American capitalism have provided more balanced accounts of their subjects, exhaustively detailed but conceived within a more circumscribed horizon, constrained, if only implicitly, by the triumph of democratic capitalism. These two biographies of Carnegie and Mellon are the latest and the most accomplished of such work, wonderfully executed and deeply informed, yet intellectually inhibited.

When Carnegie and Mellon were coming of age, American society was still in the throes of creating a new structure of authority. Market society and capitalist industrialization carried with them a different foundation for the exercise of authority, one that no longer inhered in individuals (a feudal lord, for example) but rather in the alleged lawfulness of the system of exchange itself. It was the system that seemed natural, hence legitimate, and so commanded allegiance. No person, no matter his or her ostensible influence over daily life, could be held accountable for whatever relations of domination and inequality might result from the inexorable operations of the system. Carnegie and Mellon, whatever their vast differences in upbringing and personality (which these biographies make so vivid), were nonetheless, in their instinctive adherence to this way of looking at and behaving in the world, fundamentally alike.

Both men were creatures of “the system.” As one can glean from Sumner’s social Darwinian summa, this system was not merely a form of political economy; it aspired to be a cosmology. Its influence extended over the whole social order, infusing not only the political culture but higher education, the press, mainstream religion, even the manners and mores of “society.” Although Carnegie and Mellon were human, the system was not. It was inhuman, or perhaps more to the point, it was nonhuman, faceless. “Inhuman” suggests a normative indictment. And laissez-faire capitalism during the Gilded Age came in for plenty of that, condemned for its immorality and cruelty by victimized farmers and workers and smaller businessmen, by outraged journalists, novelists, preachers and even, now and then, a President or two. More inscrutable than the system’s moral obtuseness, however, was its matter-of-fact implacability. Eerily impersonal, the economy was presumed to operate like some gigantic clockwork, according to its own ingenious mechanics, its designer unknown but beneficent. For “captains of industry,” not to mention their legions of admirers, this amounted to a faith in immaculate social evolution, free of human agency, absolved of all personal responsibility–a theology of economic deism. One either acted in conformity with the revealed laws of economic progress or else.

Mellon and Carnegie did more than conform. They were architects of the new order; pathfinders when it came to fashioning gigantic forms of industrial production and organization; innovators when it came to financing these undertakings; and resolute defenders, in the realm of politics and ideas, of this new American dispensation of power and wealth. All this they shared, yet they went about their work in quite different ways because as human beings they couldn’t have been more unalike. This is where Nasaw’s and Cannadine’s biographies are at their best, depicting these two primeval capitalists in all their contradictory complexity.

A first-generation, desperately poor Scottish immigrant, Carnegie was utterly devoted to his mother, who held the family together when they moved to America. Out of deference to her implied wishes, he stayed single until she died, when he was well into middle age. But he maintained an uncharacteristic reticence about his father, a dispossessed hand-loom weaver with Chartist sympathies and radical relatives and associates, whose failure to find regular work in the New World and apparent mental depression over his fate were matters about which his son may have been embarrassed, disappointed, guilty, all or none of the above; Nasaw does not exactly say.

If railroads were the signature enterprise of the early Industrial Revolution, steel assumed that role by the turn of the twentieth century. No man was more singularly associated with its rise than Andrew Carnegie, the creator of the largest, most technologically advanced and most productive and profitable steel manufacturing business in the world, the Carnegie Steel Corporation, headquartered in Pittsburgh, with its great mills fanning out across Pennsylvania’s Monongahela River Valley. When he sold the company to J.P. Morgan in 1901, Carnegie Steel was the core of the world’s first billion-dollar corporation–United States Steel.

Ironmonger and steel-master he might have been, but he was hardly a glum, nose-to-the-grindstone one. Nasaw’s Carnegie is a man of enthusiasms, and the author captures his ebullience in limpid prose, making his biography a delight to read. Carnegie was gregarious, effervescent and a social mingler who loved to entertain. Since much of his early business career was spent selling bonds (for railroads particularly, but for other businesses as well), these were traits worth cultivating. Indeed, he was a natural salesman, quick-witted, a fast learner, someone who mastered enough of the intricacies of iron and steel production, bridge-building and railroad construction to persuade skeptical investment bankers at home and abroad to take the plunge. In a sense, Carnegie remained a salesman for the rest of his life; but as time went on and his fortune grew, he went mainly into the business of selling himself.

Carnegie’s energy was seemingly inexhaustible, powering his capital accumulation as well as his philanthropy. His ambitions were outsized and multivarious. Carnegie was intellectually curious, even omnivorous, in the way dilettantes often are. Not content to be the era’s foremost industrialist and among its richest men, he harbored serious desires to become a man of letters, a writer or what we might today call a public intellectual. With that purpose in mind he sought out the company of notable intellectuals and became close friends with some: Matthew Arnold, Herbert Spencer and Mark Twain, in particular. Thanks to his family background and social Darwinist convictions, he had no use for religion; nor, stereotypical expectations notwithstanding, did he take much stock in the work ethic–he didn’t think it applied to him or pretend that it did. He was a cosmopolitan who left the provinces of Pittsburgh, where his wealth originated, as quickly as he could to take up residence in New York, and traveled the world widely while maintaining a second home in a castle in Scotland. He immensely enjoyed being a public figure, was a prolific author of books, essays and editorial commentary, and leapt at every chance to speak in public to burnish his reputation as a seer.

All of this fed and was fed by an abiding sense of self-importance, sometimes veering close to self-promotion. Carnegie aspired to public influence and was always putting himself forward as a statesman as well as a man of ideas. But in neither case was he taken with full seriousness. He was too rich and powerful to be ignored–far from it, he was a force to be reckoned with in the Republican Party; and when it came to practical matters like maintaining a high tariff on imported steel, Carnegie got his way. But while political potentates like William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt tolerated his pronouncements against American imperial designs in the Philippines (he was a founding member of the Anti-Imperialist League and considered the American expedition a waste of resources and lives and a serious breach of the nation’s democratic credo) and his quixotic crusades on behalf of the arbitration of international conflicts, they made no real impression on the course of public affairs. So, too, the ideas that appeared in books like Triumphant Democracy and in the steel magnate’s autobiography, while popular, consisted for the most part of patriotic platitudes and immigrant gratitude for America as the land of limitless opportunity, gussied up in bloated, pretentious prose. When he varied from this script, notably in his heterodox views that seemed to favor trade unions, it turned out he didn’t mean it.

Most of all, though, Carnegie’s double life as a capitalist accumulator and public benefactor–he was certainly the nineteenth century’s best-known philanthropist–was marked by a titanic hypocrisy, fatuous self-congratulation and a superhuman capacity for evasion and scapegoating. The best-known instance of this was the great man’s claim that he had known nothing about the plans to confront the workers at his Homestead plant with armed Pinkertons in 1892; that had he known, the horrors of Homestead would never have happened; that his frequently published professions of sympathy for the workingman, not to mention his own similar humble beginnings, proved that to be the case; that it was all the doing of the willful Henry Clay Frick, the CEO of the Carnegie operations, who kept the steel-master in the dark about his belligerent intentions. Nasaw, whose view of Carnegie as a writer, thinker and public figure is probably more favorable than my own, nonetheless has no patience for this self-justifying, contemptible eyewash. A meticulous researcher, Nasaw demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt that Carnegie, his public professions to the contrary, had been working for years to crush the unions at his steel mills, and that he knew what was in store for the workers at Homestead. Long before the final bloody confrontation, Carnegie and Frick had prepared for it by constructing “Fort Frick,” a barricade eleven feet high around the Homestead works, equipped with portholes for guns, giant searchlights and fireplugs to supply pressurized water, topped off by eighteen inches of barbed wire. With the battle raging, Carnegie cabled Frick: “All anxiety gone since you stand firm. Never employ one of these rioters. Let grass grow over works. Must not fail now.” He and Frick were on the same page, a page inscribed with the iron laws of the marketplace, which insisted, on penalty of commercial extinction, that the costs of labor be relentlessly reduced.

Andrew Mellon was also on this same page; one might imagine them as co-headmasters of a parallel Carnegie-Mellon Institute, this one for the advanced study of the accumulation of capital. But in every other respect Mellon presents a very different face. He was a taciturn loner so painfully shy he was almost inaudible when forced to speak in public. He hated publicity (and suffered wretchedly from it during a protracted and lurid divorce). If not quite a recluse, he jealously guarded his privacy and kept to himself and a small circle of intimates. “Intimates” is itself a gross exaggeration, as he was apparently intimate with nobody. He was as cold as he was silent, like some Weberian caricature of a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian, self-abnegating, capital-accumulating homunculus.

Scotch-Irish he was, but unlike Carnegie, he was of the second generation and of higher social station. His father, Thomas, had already built up a formidable family business, dabbling in real estate (timber and coke properties especially) and other speculations, eventually founding a bank, the institution bequeathed to Andrew and his brother Richard, which would constitute the core of the Mellon empire for many years to come. If Carnegie’s extroversion matched up well with his life as a bond salesman, so too did Mellon’s reserve bespeak the banker. And just as Carnegie’s mother was the omnipresence in the steelmaker’s life, so Mellon’s father, but even more decisively, loomed over his son’s shoulder while he was alive (Thomas lasted into his 90s) and forever after, so much so that David Cannadine begins every chapter of his perceptive and absorbing biography of Andrew with an epigram from Thomas’s autobiography.

To say this is also to suggest that Mellon, for all his solitude, was a family man of a peculiarly dynastic sort and a provincial to the bone. So much of entrepreneurial capitalism in the nineteenth century tended to be dynastic when it succeeded, and Thomas set out deliberately to create just that: a Mellon dynasty. For Andrew, as for any Mellon patriarch, the family was synonymous with the family business; it always came first and also second, third and fourth, proscribing other interests. As a rich man Mellon traveled the world, and he lived well. But he felt most at home amid the Victorian grime and gloom of his Pittsburgh mansion; nothing like the baronial splendor of Carnegie’s castle. He was fundamentally incurious about the wider world. Unlike his fellow Pittsburgher Andrew Carnegie, Mellon stayed close in body and spirit to his native city, a kind of overgrown burgomaster, one with a global reach but still rooted in his Pittsburgh demesne. Nor, in contrast to the other Andrew, was he much interested in books or ideas. He was a man of superficial education who had no reason or desire to remedy the deficit; his ideas were wholly conventional, the comfortable dogmas of the entitled class from which he hailed.

Late in life Mellon became a philanthropist (many have noted that in America the transition from robber baron to philanthropist was accomplished in a single generation; in this case it took two). The reasons he became one and the way he went about it also set him apart from Carnegie. Most visibly the latter plastered his name over every library, museum, concert hall and institution of higher learning he funded, while Mellon, in keeping with the self-conscious modesty of his Scotch-Irish upbringing, kept the family name out of it. People may not know, for example, that the National Gallery in Washington was financed by and stocked with paintings from Mellon’s vast private collection. On the other hand, most of his fortune was dutifully handed down to his two children and assorted relatives in keeping with the family’s dynastic mission. In that he was utterly conventional.

Carnegie, on the contrary, explicitly repudiated this customary practice and distributed most of his wealth, while still alive, to causes he considered worthy. In doing this he purported to open up a new road to social peace in a nation so fractious, so plagued by fatal standoffs between “the classes and the masses,” it threatened to divide in two. The steel-master defended his deviant act in the only truly original work he ever wrote, The Gospel of Wealth. Here he condemns the common practice of amassing dynastic wealth (indeed, he went so far as to draw up a prenuptial agreement in which his wife-to-be acknowledged she wasn’t going to inherit most of his money). Instead he makes a renegade argument–at first glance it comes across as a new social philosophy of democratic capitalism–that such wealth originates in the community, not in the herculean work ethic of lone individuals, and that it should therefore be returned from whence it came… albeit under special conditions: namely, that those like himself, blessed or burdened with these fortunes and the talent to manage them, should act as stewards or trustees for the whole society, deciding based on their evident wisdom where and how such wealth would be most beneficially deployed. But this smells more like a form of noblesse oblige, a kind of updated feudalism, than it does democratic capitalism. While aware of the contradiction, Nasaw might have more fully interrogated this notion of stewardship. He might have asked, as many did at the time: If wealth originated communally and was to be steered back in that direction, as Carnegie maintained, then shouldn’t it be administered by public institutions expressing a more general consensus on how it should be used? Carnegie, at any rate, had formulated a kind of answer: “There are higher uses for surplus wealth than adding petty sums to the earnings of the masses,” wealth likely to be “frittered away…in things which pertain to the body and not the spirit…. These are things external and of the flesh; they do not minister to the higher, the divine part of man.”

Clearly Carnegie did not trust ordinary people to make the right decisions. His Gospel of Wealth takes for granted that he was equipped to articulate the general interest, a telltale feature of elite empowerment and the inbred sense of its right to rule. Moreover, Carnegie’s idiosyncratic form of industrial feudalism comported well with his appetite for all the trappings of the Scottish laird, a life he lived with enthusiasm in medieval grandeur on his 40,000-acre estate in Skibo. All of this amounted to a tacit erasure of his father’s radical and woebegone past, an effacement Nasaw never quite faces. Because of his unorthodox approach to philanthropy, his anti-imperialism and his unorthodox views on other subjects, Nasaw’s Carnegie comes across as a maverick. But then the knotty question becomes, just what sort of maverick was Carnegie? This in turn raises the fundamental conundrum of authority and legitimacy in a capitalist democracy.

Cannadine, more than Nasaw, addresses this issue, but his argument is confusing. Andrew Mellon had no desire to lead a public life, content to be a banker’s banker. Like Carnegie he took care of business, of course, and when this meant mucking about in Pittsburgh or national politics he knew how to make his weight felt; he was particularly partial to a high aluminum tariff to protect Alcoa’s effective monopoly of the industry, and he got his way on this and many other practical matters. But he apparently harbored none of Carnegie’s higher aspirations to statesmanship. Carnegie, for all his strenuous efforts, got nowhere. So it is especially surprising that Mellon, without a wannabe bone in his body, ended up serving as Treasury Secretary from 1921 to 1932, longer than anyone in the history of the country (or as Nebraska Senator George Norris once acidly put it, “three presidents served under Mellon”). He was still presiding when the Great Depression hit, and he ended his public career drowning in a tsunami of ignominy.

In the case of Mellon’s political elevation, one can at least say he was the perfect man for the job. His silence, like “Silent” Cal Coolidge’s, lent a sacerdotal air and sense of assurance to a Jazz Age economy that soon enough lost its moorings in a long bout of inebriated speculation. The quintessential banker, he exuded normality and bürgerlich good sense, qualities presumably yearned for after the Great War and for which Mellon was lionized… and after all, who can resist being praised as the greatest Treasury Secretary since Alexander Hamilton? In the end, however, he paid a heavy price and should have stuck to the family plan. Summing up Mellon’s public life, Cannadine is anxious to transcend the old polarities of progressive historiography–the robber barons versus the people. On the one hand, he tells us that Mellon’s is a bygone era. The Secretary’s unquestioning faith in the shibboleths of that time–the irrepressible nature of the business cycle; minimalist government; low taxes, especially for the wealthy; budget balancing; the unregulated free market; dogmatic hostility to organized labor; Olympian indifference to human suffering, or what we might call today the collateral damage accompanying industrial progress; and a presumptive preference for and trust in the rule of the business class–made up the credo of the ancien régime. This faith was shared by millions not so privileged, and nothing short of a national trauma could shake it.

Not only is this all behind us, but in the interests of transcendence, Cannadine credits Mellon’s reign with great accomplishments, in particular with a fiscal policy that seemingly favored corporations and the well-off but actually insured national prosperity by encouraging productive investment. This is a charitable interpretation at best, a kind of bending over backward to be “balanced.” (Cannadine does report Mellon’s systematic use of his public office to benefit corporations he and his family controlled and to brazenly and repeatedly lie about that sleazy fact, but in the end he still seems to think of Mellon as a man of integrity.) Mellon’s tax policy deliberately redirected capital away from tax-exempt securities, but Cannadine never tells us what public projects they might have funded. By the mid-’20s much of that liberated money in the hands of rich individuals and corporations was finding its way into the call market, fueling a stock market bubble that had nothing to do with productive investment, which is to understate the case. According to Cannadine, Mellon “rightly understood that what was good for business was ultimately good for America,” an assertion Cannadine may believe is self-evident but to which coal and iron workers gunned down by Mellon’s (or Carnegie’s) private police would have taken exception. So, too, the Secretary’s fatuous assurance that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the economy long past the time when signs to the contrary were everywhere was damning: not only because it seemed to prove that on some level Mellon was a fantasist (and in a political sense he was acting like one) but also because it registered his dogged faith in the self-correcting nature of “the system,” absolving him of any obligation to act even in the face of its breakdown.

In any event, as Cannadine notes, this is all over and done with, swept away by the New Deal; Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, for more than a half-century one-party provinces run by Republican factotums of the region’s industrial elite, including the Mellons, became New Deal Democratic strongholds practically overnight. The Darwinian calculus of the old order, now made defunct by the Depression, was supplanted by a new one that weighed in on the side of social security, the rights of labor, regulation of business and economic redistribution. Just a few pages later, however, in what Cannadine calls a “Balance Sheet” of Mellon’s life, he seems to revoke his earlier verdict that we can leave the divisiveness of the past behind us by treating Mellon’s era as a bygone one. It turns out rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated and that most if not all of what old Andrew stood for and practiced is back with a vengeance and has been since Ronald Reagan assumed office. (The “Great Communicator” hung a portrait of Calvin Coolidge in the White House not long after moving in.)

Does this make sense? A “balance sheet” in which what’s being weighed is there one moment and gone the next is hard to pin down. Cannadine is an accomplished historian. The spectral return of Andrew Mellon to our public life, which Cannadine duly observes both in the realm of ideology and of policy, appears to be just that, the return of the repressed. But because the New Deal came in between, things are more complicated. Mellon, Carnegie and their whole generation of primordial industrialists were propagating, and when necessary defending, an established political economy and way of life. Those who launched the conservative revolution that first achieved power under Reagan are, on the other hand, precisely that: revolutionaries, or rather counterrevolutionaries, who saw and still do see themselves as rebels intent on dismantling the whole institutional, political and moral infrastructure of the New Deal, which was after all the ancien régime of mid-twentieth-century America. When the captains of industry and finance lorded it over the nineteenth century, no one would have dreamed of calling them rebels, either against some overweening government bureaucracy or some entrenched set of “interests.” There was no government bureaucracy to rebel against, and these men were themselves the “interests.” People like Mellon, and yes, even Carnegie, worried about being overthrown, not about overthrowing someone else.

Mellon’s devotion to the system he’d been born into never wavered. He offered his own chilling formulation of that ghastly faith as a way out of the Great Depression then settling over the country: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate,” he is reported to have advised Herbert Hoover, without rancor or regret, as if he were delivering a weather report. Likewise, Nasaw tells us that Carnegie was “not a cruel or uncaring man,” that when he relentlessly drove down the cost of labor past all endurance, inciting the bloody confrontation at Homestead, he acted, as he saw it, only in obedience to the impersonal laws of the free market; to do otherwise would have been to jeopardize his firm’s viability. One is tempted to adjudge Mellon a sociopath, Carnegie a sophist. Their biographers make a convincing case that their convictions were, for all that, genuine.

Genuine or not, as figures of authority in a democratic society, they aroused opposition that questioned the legitimacy of their power. Carnegie, along with George Pullman and others, sought to solve that crisis of legitimacy through forms of utopian paternalism of which The Gospel of Wealth and the model town of Pullman were the best-known examples. Carnegie sustained a Panglossian optimism under the most dismal circumstances. He told his fellow tycoons not to panic during the labor uprisings of 1886, convinced Americans enjoyed a long-term immunity from truly serious class antagonisms, and that in the end wiser heads like his own would prevail and guide a sometimes disorderly society to safety. Andrew Mellon never went down this road, nor did most other “captains of industry,” but in any event utopian paternalism turned out to be a dead end. At the end of that road waited the coal and iron police, also a form of paternalism insofar as it assumed the prerogatives of the propertied, but one prepared to deal more harshly with disobedience to its precepts. For all his sunny-side-up philosophizing, Carnegie still found it in him to congratulate the city of Chicago for hanging the Haymarket anarchists, grimly proclaiming, “If you want to live in this country you must be quiet citizens or quiet corpses.”

During a great coal strike at the turn of the century, George Baer, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, summed up the worldview of America’s new industrial autocracy. “The rights and interests of the laboring men will be protected and cared for by the Christian men to whom God has given the control of the property rights of the country,” Baer pronounced. For all their differences, the two Andrews could live with that.