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Crony-Capitalist & Peace-Monger

David Nasaw

     ... historian and biographer. A best-selling author of biographies, Professor Nasaw is also Distinguished Professor of History and Director for the Humanities at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His Andrew Carnegie joins The Chief, Professor Nasaw's best-selling biography of William Randolph Hearst, winner of the Bancroft Prize for History and more. Professor Nasaw writes for The New Yorker, The Nation, Condé Nast Traveler, the London Review of Books, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others.


Love him or hate him, Andrew Carnegie is a thoroughly fascinating character who offers a wonderful lens through which to look at his own time and present-day America, according to Carnegie biographer, David Nasaw.

Brush away the cobwebs and look at 19th century history and the railroads, this esteemed historian assures us we'll see that waste and corruption were not invented in Texas with Enron. Corruption and waste are part and parcel of the American capitalist system. For starters, there was no heroic age of capitalism where the country and railroads were efficiently and effectively built, he assures us. And there was no laissez-faire in 19th century so-called laissez-faire capitalism -- government interventions in the form of tariffs and crony capitalism were at the root of the era's fabulous fortunes.

Why the focus on the railroads? There's no way to understand the expansion of Germany, England or America's economy during this pivotal industrializing period (beginning in the United States during and immediately after its Civil War) without understanding railroads' centrality, Professor Nasaw says. Railroads were not only the largest employer, they were the largest consumer of iron and steal and coal and the engine that made the economy run.

Enter Andrew Carnegie.

Professor Nasaw found Carnegie one of the best natured, valuable human beings the Professor has ever encountered. Carnegie loved life. He was happy before he had money and very happy when he had it.  He was a terrific businessman. He was an ardent anti-imperialist and staunch opponent of American annexations and British imperialism. He understood entirely that armaments lead to war and said so, over and over and over again, despite the fact that his companies were making millions building them. And he always understood clearly, from the very beginning, that he had not earned his fortune. It came from the community and the workers he both embraced and exploited.

Carnegie's peace activism the last 20 years of his life did much to redeem the real crimes Professor Nasaw believes Carnegie committed exploiting labor in the first part of his life. And then there is the colossal philanthropy that continues to touch us to this day.

Looking back over the sweep of Carnegie's lifetime, when his total disillusionment leaves him mute the last 4 years of his life, Professor Nasaw shows capitalism at its most runaway aggressive. He describes a cunning Republican Party and a duplicitous Teddy Roosevelt acting dishonorably toward Carnegie. Greedy industrialists intent on the outsized profits of war, exploited T.R. while he ignored Carnegie's arguments for "reason."

What's to be learned? If Carnegie had been the democrat he thought himself to be, Professor Nasaw says the brutal Homestead strike could have been averted. (He also documents that Carnegie was in fact an active player, despite adamant protests to the contrary.) Perhaps World War One was also preventable, the Professor muses, had Carnegie started with the people and created a bottom up groundswell for peace, instead of starting at the top relying on Herbert Spencer's "social darwinist" delusions. There has to be a popular, social movement for peace, Professor Nasaw insists, because one cannot count on reason at the top as Andrew Carnegie did.

But then, Carnegie also graced us with his libraries from which we can learn the lessons of history. And the Carnegie Foundation that continues to work for peace.  Fascinating.


[This Program was recorded November 7, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Professor David Nasaw gives Paula Gordon and Bill Russell many reasons for being fascinated by Andrew Carnegie.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:28

Conversation 2

There's no laissez-faire in 19th century laissez-faire capitalism, Professor Nasaw says, and no "golden age." He elaborates on the role of tariffs, huge government handouts creating vast fortunes, and egregious crony capitalism. Dr. Nasaw contrasts the American experience of industrialization with Europe's. He expands on staggering profits made at the expense of rampant exploitation of working people and other nations' technology. Carnegie was always clear he had not earned his fortune, Professor Nasaw says, disputing the assertion that Carnegie was the one robber baron with a conscience.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:05

Conversation 3

Starting with Carnegie's Scots-Irish family of origin, Professor Nasaw describes Carnegie's personal traits, then examines the second part of Carnegie’s life -- dedicated to bringing about world peace. Capitalism in its runaway aggressive form was being attacked on every side, Professor Nasaw says, describing how Teddy Roosevelt and the Republicans both used Carnegie, and T.R.'s response to the colossal self-dealing among industrialists and politicians.  Professor Nasaw summarizes the central role of railroads in the expansion of all 19th century industrializing nations, with spectacular examples of America's widespread political corruption.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:10

Conversation 4

Carnegie was a terrific businessman, Professor Nasaw shows with a series of examples.  He enumerates industrial horrors that culminated in Homestead, one of America's bloodiest, most violent labor conflicts.  Acknowledging the late Herbert Gutman’s important insights, Professor Nasaw describes what really went on in Pittsburgh -- Carnegie going from exemplary employer in his iron mills, to the brutality that led to Homestead in which Carnegie -- despite widespread denials -- clearly played an active role, Professor Nasaw discovered.  He expands on Homestead.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:38

 Conversation 5

Professor Nasaw explores the centrality of Herbert Spencer to American and English 19th century capitalism's belief in "social Darwinism" (never to be confused with Darwin's articulation of natural selection.) The brutal results of Spencer's ideas are contrasted with Carnegie's legendary philanthropy, and his significant peace efforts, which Professor Nasaw says are too often overlooked.  He expands, describing Carnegie's profound and total disillusionment at the end of his life as Teddy Roosevelt, a consummate macho masculinist, plunges into World War One.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:10

Conversation 6

Not knowing whether to hate or love Carnegie, Professor Nasaw applauds Carnegie's anti-imperialism and peace activism.  They do much to redeem real crimes Professor Nasaw says Carnegie committed exploiting labor earlier. Professor Nasaw concludes that Carnegie's mistake was counting on reason at the top to stop war, when industrialists were eager to profit from war and achieving peace requires bottom-up, broad-based social movements.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:03


Professor Nasaw's warm embrace of regular people combined with the highest possible standards of scholarship shine through his extraordinary work as well as in person.

Professor Nasaw credits the late, great Herbert Gutman, a founder of "the new social history," for providing the two-part key to the insights and depth we both relished as readers of Andrew Carnegie: If you want to figure out what was really happening, read the local newspapers in the places a history was unfolding. And disregard what was being said in The New York Times.

Additional Links:

Andrew Carnegie is published by Penguin Press.

David Cannidine's biography of Andrew Mellow adds another dimension to era in which these men lived.  Ron Chernow's biography of John D. Rockefeller, Titan, is a good complement to Mr. Cannadine's Mellon biography.

Corpocracy: How CEOs and the Business Roundtable Hijacked the World's Greatest Wealth Machine -- And How to Get It Back, written by Robert A.G. Monks, demonstrates in detail the modern day consequences of the kind of unbridled political power exercised by men like Andrew Carnegie.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln (Team of Rivals) and David Reynolds' biography of John Brown (John Brown, Abolitionist) show the development of the Republican Party into the "party of Lincoln" before it transmuted into the "party of big business" after Lincoln's death. Thom Hartmann tells the strange history of the Supreme Court's decision in Santa Clara v Southern Pacific Railroad Company (which is generally believed to have established the "personhood" of corporations) in Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights. In American Dynasty, Kevin Phillips recounts the dynastic aspirations and achievements of war profiteers, robber barons and crony capitalists.


Many of E.L. Doctorow's novels parallel the growth and development of crony capitalism in America from the Civil War to the mid-20th Century, showing the consequences to everyday people.

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