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Tycoon

The life and times of Andrew Carnegie.

When we mention the word Tycoon as synonymous with an individual amassing great wealth the likes of which included the Astor’s, the Vanderbilt’s, the Fords, the Carnegies or J.P. Morgan we come to visualize the captains of industry that propelled the United States into the 20th century. We also come away with that trademark persona that is so evident in the game of Monopoly. A stature of a man where he is dressed in white tie and tails with a top hat smoking a “White Owl” cigar. Of course there were others of that gilded age, an age that embodied what America represented during the Industrialized Revolution of the late 19th century. Today, there are captains of industry but, no longer is the term tycoon used to symbolize their contributions to the overall economy. And yet, it is these captains of industry today really are just like their counterparts of that time long ago. Maybe not on the surface but the shadows of their presence continues to dictate outcomes that for the masses only increases that ever important income disparity gap that is so prevalent today. A gaping hole of diminished incomes for far too many only continues to widen. 

The meaning of the word tycoon goes back some 160 years ago. It can be said though that in today’s global economy there are some business leaders who wield more power and control over populations than heads of state and that even includes the President of the United States. It is etymologically fitting that such leaders should still be called tycoons, and yet their not. The word tycoon came into the English language from Japan. The meaning in Japan meant “Great Prince” with the title taikun for Shogun.  In Japan around 1850 the shogun actually was the voice of the emperor. It was when Mathew C. Perry carried out negotiations with the shogun in 1854 that the term taikun was brought back to the United State but was now pronounced tycoon. It is even recorded that many of Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet members used tycoon as an affectionate nickname for the President. 

There are those who identify a tycoon as an unscrupulous individual who will use any method or means to gain more power, control and wealth in building an empire. In history there were those whose methods were anything but ethical and still managed to reshape the world around. Andrew Carnegie was such a man. To write about the Industrialized revolution one individual stands alone that epitomizes the ruthlessness amidst the ingeniousness in which industry was changed forever. Before Henry Ford revolutionized the assembly line Andrew Carnegie revolutionized the whole concept of doing business in which transformed a nation. 

But, just who was Andrew Carnegie and how did one person managed to reshape the American industrial landscape? History portrays Andrew Carnegie as the quintessential robber baron of the late 19th century. But, when we look deeper into the life and times of Andrew Carnegie we come away with the realization he was a mixture of his mothers influence, a product of the changing times, and had a deep rooted resolve to succeed. When we put all these traits together here was a man who became not only the worlds wealthiest person but a name now generations latter that comes to symbolize great philanthropic works. 

We could emphatically say history portrays Carnegie’s life was characterized by three distinct personalities. There was after all a ruthless pioneer of the Industrial Revolution. A man who single handedly altered the way business was done. Today, the techniques and concepts he introduced and  incorporated into his steel industry many are still used in industries all around the world. His success though came at a hefty price. A price paid at the expense of his workers. Labor laws back in the 1880’s, well there weren’t too many: Not like we have today. Steel mill workers literally went to work continued to put their lives on the line each and every day all for 14 cents per hour 12 hours a day 7 days a week. There was no such thing as a sick day. Vacations weren’t even considered. What labor unions there were at the time could do little to ease the horrific working conditions in the mills. In most instances when Unions rose up to demand better working conditions or pay increases was met with open hostilities that led to at times bloody confrontations. In most instances the Unions lost. If there was one instance that cemented Andrew Carnegie’s image as the ruthless Tycoon the Homestead Strike was it. Even though Carnegie thought himself as a champion of the working man in this one instance in Homestead where wage cuts in an attempt to maximize profits [much like today] it was the union members who protested but when over 300 armed Pinkerton guards moved in to protect the steel mill blood was shed. The striking workers failed in their attempt to stop the wage cuts. It was only after the state militia was brought in to quell the violence that the union leaders were arrested and replacement workers were sent in to operate the steel mill. It can be pointed out that the labor movement in the Pittsburgh area steel mills was crippled for over the next four decades. 

The business personality aside Andrew Carnegie was also a man whose literary talents showcased a resolve to put into practice his third personality, his philanthropy. His many writings and articles all display how the wealthy have an obligation to offset their wealth by contributing and distributing it for the greater good of societies. Here again we can say there lies a bit of hypocrisy where the business personality displayed no such tendency toward his workers that made and contributed to his wealth. Many historians believe that his generosity in his philanthropy was a way to atone for the inability to generate compassion for his workers. In 1889, he wrote “The Gospel of Wealth” in which he boldly articulated his view that the rich are merely “trustees” of their wealth and are under a moral obligation to distribute it in ways that promote the welfare and happiness of the common man. Carnegie was a prolific writer, but the quotation for which he is most famous comes from “The Gospel of Wealth”: “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” I Think Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have now taken up this philosophy. 

It was too bad even though all through-out his life he bestowed millions of dollars in the pursuit of education when he contributed so much in building libraries in Europe and all over the United States that he didn’t share that same amount of benevolence to his rank and file workers. It is ironic, yes, but that personality of the times with his unrelenting pursuit for profits only diminished the other characteristic of his great need to bestow his fortune for the education and enrichment of society in general. 

In 1901, banker John Pierpont Morgan purchased Carnegie Steel for some $480 million, making Andrew Carnegie the world’s richest man. It was that same year, that Morgan merged Carnegie Steel with a group of other steel businesses to form U.S. Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar corporation. For the next 18 years Andrew Carnegie followed through with his third personal characteristic; that being distributing the remainder of his wealth to enriching lives through educational pursuits and establishing lasting charitable organizations that to this day continue to show case the great lasting legacy he continues to leave. He really epitomizes what he wrote “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” Let history be the judge though of this one of a kind giant of the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century.

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