Andrew Carnegie was one of the wealthiest men to have ever lived. He had humble beginnings, born the son of a handloom weaver in 1835 in Dunfermline, Scotland. However, when the power loom began making handloom weavers redundant, his family moved to Pittsburgh, PA, in 1848. Carnegie had a keen eye for business, and his early investment in railway stocks proved fruitful. He made his millions as a steel magnate and became one of the richest men in America. After selling his steel company for $250 million in 1901, he retired to a life of philanthropy. Over the course of his life, Carnegie gave away over $350 million from his fortune. However, Carnegie was more than a philanthropic son of a weaver – he also got up to some dark things over the course of his life. Namely, exploiting his workers to the point of abject destitution.
The tycoon became one of the key figures during the Gilded Age, a period Mark Twain described as a rotten era with the glittering appearance of gold masking the true problems of the time. For many, Carnegie was an inspirational story. A self-made millionaire and philanthropist who gave away his fortune. For others, he was a robber baron who exploited his workers, broke their unions, and lived a storied life that he denied the people who worked on his behalf.
While the Civil War was raging, and the Union was desperate for able-bodied young men to help preserve the nation, Andrew Carnegie had different plans. The 28 year old was already well on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest men in history when the draft came calling. So, rather than go into the military and do his duty, Carnegie paid $850, or $150,000 in modern money, for a substitute, an Irish immigrant, by capitalizing on the recently passed Conscription Act, which allowed for exemptions through the payment of a "commutation" fee. Quite literally, this meant that someone with less means stood in the millionaire's place on the battlefield, risking his life for the United States while Carnegie was safe and sound far from the fighting.
Andrew Carnegie was a member of a hunting club in Pennsylvania that directly caused the deaths of 2,029 people. South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was located up river from the city of Johnston, Pennsylvania. Included on the club's property was a dam that was built to create a reservoir. The dam had been neglected for years by the club, and, in 1889, it broke after heavy rains. What followed was a 30-foot-tall wall of water that rushed toward the unsuspecting people of Johnston. The flood swept through town, and there was so much water that it took a full 10 minutes for it to pass by. When it did, there was a fire that killed an additional 80 people who were seeking shelter. Somehow, none of the super wealthy members of the club were ever brought to justice for the deaths of thousands of people due to the neglect of their organization.
In 1892, things weren't going so well at Andrew Carnegie's steel plant in Homestead, PA. The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers union had formed. Rather than tolerate the existence of the union, Henry Clay Frick, the chairman of the company, announced that he would cut the workers' wages by 22% to make the company more money at the expense of its workers. So, the union decided to go on strike. From his castle in Scotland, Carnegie thought bringing in mercenaries to bust up the strike seemed like the best idea.
Enter the Pinkerton Detective service, which was essentially a private army for the rich and powerful in America in the late 1800s. Rather than accept strikes and labor rights claims, Carnegie delegated the task of undermining the rights of his workers to Frick, who brought in the Pinkertons to break strikes, enabling them to act as a mob to impose the will of the company on its workers. The Pinkertons attacked the striking workers but were soon overwhelmed when the entire town essentially came out to fight the strikebreakers. That wasn't before the private army killed seven people.
Eventually, the state militia was called in, and scabs were brought in to break the strike. Work continued at the plant over the four months of the strike, and, eventually, the union leaders were fired, blacklisted, and forced to take pay cuts and work more hours.
In perhaps the most paternalistic line of reasoning that has ever been laid down, Carnegie once explained why he paid his workers the low wages that he did. On the one hand, there was the obvious reason – low wages helped him remain competitive, business wise. On the other hand, there was his idea that if he paid his workers something resembling a living wage, they might use it on nice things. Imagine that. He explained himself, reasoning:
"Trifling sums given to each every week or month... would be frittered away, nine times out of ten, in things which pertain to the body and not to the spirit; upon richer food and drink, better clothing, more extravagant living, which are beneficial neither to rich nor poor."
Yeah, he probably didn't eat well or wear nice things either. He had to look out for his spirit, after all.