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.