- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006

Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was once described by his secretary as “the most consistently happy man I have ever known,” and he had much to be happy about.

As distinguished historian David Nasaw describes at great length in Andrew Carnegie (Penguin, $35, 877 pages, illus.), Carnegie lived in an age when wealth was being produced “as if by magic.” Being in the right place at the right time meant settling in Pittsburgh just as an abundant supply of a coking coal suitable for smelting ore had been discovered, thereby enabling the cheap production of steel. Luck played a role in the making of the successful entrepreneur, but Andrew Carnegie made a good deal of his own luck.

The son of an impoverished handloom weaver of linen in Dunfermline, Scotland, Carnegie emigrated to Allegheny, Pa., in 1848, at age 13, and soon became the main support of his family. He started at the bottom in a cotton factory, but quickly moved up to messenger and then operator for a telegraph company.

After petitioning for free access to a private library to remedy his lack of education, he read widely and deeply, memorizing as he went, thereby providing himself with apt quotations for every occasion. With a good head for numbers he applied himself to accounting and became secretary to the superintendent of the Pittsburgh division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. When his boss was promoted, Carnegie, then 24, got his job. Aware that he lacked polish, he hired someone to teach him the social graces.

A few investments in various companies, starting with borrowed money — followed by speculation and reinvestment in the steel industry, iron bridge building and railroads just as the rail network was expanding westward — put him on the path to his fortune.

Before he was 30, dividends had given him the freedom to disappear from work for a year at a time, and he traveled to Europe with friends, soaked up European culture and reassessed his priorities. A few years later he decided to move to New York City and oversee his Pittsburgh business interests from a distance while he amassed more money and made plans to give it all away during his lifetime. (He was doing just that by age 40.)

Self-absorbed and often living abroad, Carnegie was so removed from his workers that he truly could not understand why the “worthy” ones could not follow his path to riches while working 12-hour days, seven days a week, for less than $1.50 a day. When the strike over a labor contract at Homestead turned bloody, he maintained that he no longer controlled the company, although he remained in constant touch by cable from Scotland. The author notes that Carnegie even went to the extent of fabricating, for his autobiography, a cable from workers expressing support for him.

Mr. Nasaw skillfully interweaves a fascinating personal story with the business one: For example, Carnegie so adored his mother that he postponed marriage until her death, when he was 51. (The bride-to-be, half his age, endured a seven-year secret courtship, staying at home while he took those hordes of friends on luxurious expeditions.) And Carnegie, who cultivated the rich, the powerful and the learned in Europe as well as in the United States, received U.S. citizenship only after he had decided he wouldn’t stand for Parliament, just before he turned 50.

In later life he became obsessed with pressing his solutions to the world’s problems (e.g., naval disarmament, bilateral arbitration treaties) on successive presidents, prime ministers and the Kaiser. Carnegie died not long after seeing his dreams of peace destroyed by World War I, but he left behind, among other philanthropies, some 2,500 libraries which he had financed wherever a community would agree to fill and maintain the building he provided.

The American Revolution is sufficiently distant in time that it is easy to forget the sharp divisions in the 13 colonies. Sentiment in favor of independence was widespread in New England but slow to develop in much of the South.

The propagandist who “sold” the concept of independence from the Crown was Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, now the subject of a thoughtful biography by journalist Mark Puls — Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95, 200 pages, illus.).

In contrast to most of those stout lawyers and clergymen who signed the Declaration of Independence, Samuel Adams was a political radical practically from birth. Born into a prosperous Boston family, he attended Harvard, where he wrote a thesis on the right of revolution. He dabbled in the law and helped run his father’s brewery, but his great love was politics, and he became active in the political clubs of his day.

Joseph Galloway, a prominent Tory, would write of Adams, “He eats little, drinks little, sleeps little, thinks much, and is most indefatigable in the pursuit of his objects.”

The family brewery fell to Adams when his father died and promptly failed under Sam’s management. But Adams was so popular, and so indifferent to his own welfare, that Boston friends repaired his house, bought him clothing and donated money.

“Over time,” Mr. Puls writes, “Adams began to realize that he could play a critical role in preventing royal authority from trampling on the rights of colonists.” In 1765 he composed Boston’s strongly worded denunciation of the Stamp Act. To build up sentiment against Britain, Adams organized committees of correspondence throughout Massachusetts. The idea caught on, and soon such committees were active in all 13 colonies. Adams’s wife would recall “quiet hours late at night when the only sound to be heard was her husband’s quill scratching across the pages of his essays.”

Adams, like many of his contemporaries, was steeped in political theory. He believed that all power should be exercised for the good of the people, and that the people should judge whether it was being exercised wisely. As one of the leaders of the local Sons of Liberty, he was calling for independence when his more conservative colleagues merely sought reforms in the colonial administration.

The controversy over the Stamp Act was Adams’s finest hour. In 1773, when Governor Hutchinson insisted on landing tea that had been brought to Boston by two British vessels and that was subject to tax, Adams chaired a meeting of some 8,000 citizens and provided some rousing oratory. Then, at a signal from Adams, a group of men disguised as Mohawk Indians rushed to the wharf, boarded the tea ships and dumped more than 300 chests of tea into the harbor.

After war broke out in 1775, Adams’s role was less prominent. However, he served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence, doubtless with great satisfaction. He was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1789 and succeeded John Hancock as governor in 1794. He died in Boston in 1803, at age 81.

Mr. Puls contends that Adams was not the rabble-rouser that he has been made out to be, but a thoughtful advocate of American independence. He concludes that “Adams not only convinced colonists of their inherent freedom; he gave them the political tools to defend it.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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