“Millionaires Who Laugh Are Rare”: The Difficulty of Giving Discourse in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:50 AM
Room 201 (Hynes Convention Center)
Benjamin J. Soskis , Columbia University
In the end of the nineteenth century, many of the justifications of American entrepreneurial capitalism, and of the colossal fortunes that system engendered, highlighted the exceptional talents of capitalists: their ingenuity, their boldness, their organizational prowess. At the same time, another powerful defense of the economic system centered on a less enviable trait: the wretchedness of the wealthy.  While tales of woe from the disaffected rich had been a staple of the penny press for decades, the popularity of such stories peaked at the century’s close. This paper will address one prominent strain within that trope, the “difficulty of giving” discourse. I focus specifically on that discourse’s articulation and public reception by the nation’s two most prominent industrialists and philanthropists, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, each of whom insisted that giving their wealth away was considerably more taxing than making it.

What explains the pervasiveness of the “difficulty of giving” discourse at a time when so many Americans lived in or near poverty? I highlight the discourse’s versatility, demonstrating the ways in which an accounting of the benefactor’s travails both bolstered and undermined apologies for industrial capitalism. I suggest that an emphasis on the burdens of wealth, and on the difficulty of giving more specifically, allowed the capitalist to gesture toward the traditional ethic of Christian self-sacrifice, showing the ways in which he suffered for the greater good, even as his bank accounts bulged. On the other hand, I also explore the ways in which these stories of suffering were understood by much of the broader public as retribution for, and not as validation of, the accumulative zeal of the wealthy.            Finally, I detail what this discourse reveals about the uneasy transition between entrepreneurial and managerial capitalism and the precarious status of the philanthropist in Gilded Age social thought.