Andrew Carnegie on Prosperity, Income Tax, and the Blessings of Poverty
by Marguerite Martyn
Andrew Carnegie — the Scottish-born steel millionaire and philanthropist, donor of countless public libraries throughout the nation, peace activist — agreed to speak at the third annual American Peace Congress in St. Louis in May 1913.
To get an interview with this reclusive do-gooder, Marguerite Martyn was clever. Starting out early in the morning, she traveled a hundred miles eastward by train to catch him. She got off at the Effingham station in Illinois, waited a while, then boarded the southwest-bound train he was on from New York City. I imagine the Post-Dispatch had reserved an entire compartment so she could have this wealthy man to herself.She handed in her card to his private compartment. He said he could not see her. She insisted. He came out and sat down to be interviewed and sketched.
She had won.
ANDREW CARNEGIE ON PROSPERITY, INCOME TAX, AND THE BLESSINGS OF POVERTY
By Marguerite Martyn
Thursday, May 1, 1913. “If I were not already as thoroughgoing an American as I could possibly be, this trip beyond the Alleghenies would have made me happier and prouder and stronger in my convictions.”
That was by way of introduction from Andrew Carnegie, Scotsman, on his first trip to the Mississippi Valley in nearly 40 years.
“Ever since we went into the dining car for breakfast this morning,” he continued, “Mrs. Carnegie and I have enjoyed every moment of the journey, watching from our windows the ceaseless panorama of peace-and-plenty spread out in pleasant farm lands.
“These farms are all operated and occupied by their owners, I presume. Think of the splendid demonstration of democracy! How much more beautiful this picture than any of the great European nations with their manor houses and their rich absentee landlords.
“These farmers — they are the salt of the earth. Their prosperity is the keystone of the American nation. And I think I never saw the country look so fresh and bursting with promise as it does now.”
(This happy little Scots entrepreneur apparently did not know much about the American practice of sharecropping and tenant farming.)
It was an Illinois landscape that the Laird of Skibo (his Scottish castle) was complimenting. The train had just left Effingham, where I had boarded it, and we were flying westward through flowering, sweet-scented orchards and over meadows carpeted with vivid, satiny green.
Words were not needed to express either the millionaire’s satisfaction with conditions or his profession of democracy. He had beamed as he emerged from his stateroom and advanced down the aisle to greet me.
I had expected to find him entrenched within a private car, strongly guarded against the requests of supplicant strangers. Instead, he was traveling in a regular Pullman, with only a pretty maid and an affable Scots valet stationed in the section adjoining the drawing room at the end of the car. To be sure, my card had brought the response that Mr. Carnegie had nothing to say and begged to be excused. But a note the least bit insistent and mentioning the Post-Dispatch brought him out.
“I have not been in St. Louis since we built the bridge,” he said. “But my friendship for Joseph Pulitzer continued from that time.”
The James B. Eads bridge, completed in 1874, was built with Carnegie steel and was the longest arch bridge in the world, more than a mile long at 6,442 feet. It is still in daily use. Joseph Pulitzer, of course, was the owner of the Post-Dispatch.
My previous conception of the manufacturer of steel rails and girders and men-o’-war went through a hasty reconstruction. Surely he must have shrunk with advancing age. His loose plaid cap, as he stood upright, was not much above the level of the seat back.
They say that Carnegie was five-foot-three, but Martyn’s observation is certainly first-hand testimony that he may have been shorter.
It was a massive head, though, that surmounts narrow shoulders, slender girth, and emaciated limbs. Large, bland eyes look out above a thin, grizzled beard, and the fringe below the golf cap is silver white. I had arisen involuntarily in deference to his age (77), but he insisted somewhat imperiously that I be seated, riding forward, while he leaned toward me from the opposite seat.
Suddenly he espied and seized upon the California dispatch in yesterday’s Post-Dispatch, lying open before us.
“Bryan’s trip a failure? Impossible!” he exclaimed. He scanned the article through before he spoke again.
“Just as I thought,” he said. “Bryan agreed with the Californians. Then his trip was not a failure at all. What do these editors mean by alarming us in this way?”
The headline actually read “ANTI-JAP BILL ADOPTED; BRYAN’S MISSION FAILURE,” over a story that told how the California Legislature had adopted a law limiting the right of Japanese immigrants to buy land in that state. President Woodrow Wilson had sent Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to argue against it.
Martyn ignored his scornful remark about editors (actually, headline writers) and moved on to ask about the purpose of his journey to St. Louis.
“I cannot discuss the peace movement,” he remarked, when I tried to draw him out. “I am to speak about it tomorrow at the conference. It wouldn’t be fair to give it out now.”
“But you will give your words such grace and contribute such an attraction in your personality, as anything I might write beforehand would not,” I said.
“I see you are a sly interviewer,” responded the canny one.
“What do you think of the high cost of living? Where is it going to end?” I asked, hastening to another opening.
“Only that it is an evidence of prosperity,” he replied.
“Prosperity for the few, not for the many,” I reminded him.
“This income tax is going to regulate all that. Write that down,” he directed, accenting his command by tapping with a vigorous forefinger on my notebook.
The first federal income tax was levied in 1913. At first it applied to only wealthy people, but you all know what happened as time went by.
“You approve of the income tax?”
“I was one of the first advocates of it. Write that down. Get my ‘Gospel of Wealth’ and read there what I say of it. Read how I agree with Adam Smith, who showed how it is right that large fortunes should be converted to the support of the nation.” (Fellow Scotsman Smith had written “Wealth of Nations” back in 1776.)
“What rate of taxation do you recommend?” I inquired.
“I think they have done quite right to start the way they have done.
(With a tax rate ranging between 3 and 5 percent on high incomes.)
“Now, what do I think of President Wilson? Ask me that,” he commanded, before I had time to obediently finish the last notation.
“President Wilson, so far, has been a splendid President,” he went on. “Although I didn’t vote for him, I support him in what he has done.”
“But the tariff,” said I. “They are going to cut the tariff on imported steel.” (which would compete with Carnegie’s source of income, Martyn did not have to add).
“I highly approve of it. Although I am a manufacturer, I believe low tariffs will benefit the whole country.”
“Without temporary financial depression?” I queried. (Good question.)
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Andrew Carnegie. “Why, in a few months we will all be laughing at our fears.
“The solution of the whole problem,” he added, and he seemed very earnest about this, “is the enormous home market America has. Home manufacturers have nothing to fear from foreign competition.
“Home manufacturers should remember that foreigners must send their goods across the water. The expenses of transportation amounts to a tariff in itself.
“Let American manufacturers boldly produce more goods. Let them build more railroads. They have as great a market here as they can supply, and they may easily acquire the increase of transportation. And these advantages are growing all the time.
I then asked: “Perhaps you think the extravagant standards of living among people who can’t afford it might be one cause of the high-cost-of-living problem?”
“Well, write that down,” he directed. “Things that were considered luxuries when I was young would seem to be necessities now. Perhaps that is but natural and right. With greater prosperity, people have the right to demand better living. It is right they should seek always to better themselves.
“I would not admonish the present generation to such strict economy as I have practiced. That would not be good for the nation as a whole. I cannot advise young people on the subject of economy: They cannot all have the advantages I had in being poor and being reared in poverty.”
The Carnegie family had moved from Scotland on borrowed money, and 13-year-old Andrew’s first job was in a Pennsylvania cotton mill 12 hours a day, six days a week.
“Yes, that was my great blessing— to have felt the pinch of poverty, the spur of need, the longing for books and education.
“Was it the longing for books in your youth that inspired you to build libraries?” I asked.
He grew as rosy as a girl at the mention of his benefactions, then he rose suddenly — bounced, rather, from his seat.
“If you can’t make a long story out of what I’ve already said to you, then I’ve missed my estimate of reporters!”
And with that, he retreated politely but firmly toward his stateroom door.
Martyn must have been a bit flummoxed at that, but I can envision her calmly finishing up her sketch of Carnegie (being sure to emphasize his commanding fingertip), writing out in longhand what he had told her and gazing for a time out the window as the train jostled its way toward St. Louis. Then she got up and moved down the train corridor.
The door being open to the Carnegie compartment as I passed, I was bidden to enter and be presented to Mrs. Carnegie.
She is a youngish woman, or seems so, with her ruddy cheeks, and her pleasant, smiling — but rather shrinking — manner.
At that time, Louise Whitfield Carnegie was 56 years old. She and Andrew Carnegie had been married for 26 years.
She professed to have enjoyed the journey, particularly the landscape, “the wide stretches of country with everything in bloom,” and she was looking forward eagerly to her first visit to St. Louis.
Louise Whitfield Carnegie and Andrew Carnegie
Once arrived in St. Louis, Martyn would have caught a taxi or a streetcar the dozen blocks between Union Station and the P-D building at 210 North Broadway. She would have taken off her hat, sat at her easel and inked in her sketch. Perhaps a copyboy would have rushed it to the back shop to be mounted before a camera and photographed, the first step in transferring the image to a thin metal plate called a line cut.
Then she would have typed out her story, gone over it with a black graphite pencil and handed the pages over to the city editor for his first read. Only then would she have pinned up her hat, put on her coat, and taken the streetcar home the dozen miles to the family home in Webster Groves.
That article kicked up a fuss from California to Great Britain.
On May 7, 1913, Mae Scott-Troy, a San Francisco labor and suffrage activist living in England, sent a cable to Carnegie and released its text:
“What right have you to pose as an American citizen when you are registered as a voter in the Parish of Dornoch in the County of Sutherland, Scotland? You are voter No. 11 on the official list received by me today from the Sheriff of the county. Why did King Edward offer you a dukedom?”
That got publicity all over the U.S. and quickly brought an announcement from James Bertram, Carnegie’s secretary in New York.
“Mr. Carnegie is an American citizen. He became so without naturalization because he came here as a minor, when he was 11 years old, and his father was naturalized before he [young Andrew] became of age.
“If he is registered as a voter in Scotland, he had nothing to do with it personally. He is a property owner there, and his name probably appears on the registry list in connection with that fact. He could not vote in that country because he is an alien there.”