To get at the truth of history, there's nothing in the world like the primary source. What's a primary source, you ask? It's a piece of evidence that comes straight from the horse's mouth. A primary source could be a legal document, like a will or contract. It could be written: anything from a love letter to a declaration of war. A primary source could be a monument, statue, or building. It could be a photograph, painting, or even a song.
Primary sources have authenticity. They're there, a tangible reflection of their time and place. They allow us, denizens of the future, to bypass the secondary literature – the professors, pundits, and professional thinking persons who are all too eager to dictate conclusions to us – and get at the moment ourselves. We can draw our own conclusions about what we think happened. We can avoid the 'cut-and-paste' approach to research. This is all to the good. Bring on the primary sources.
Primary sources can also be dangerous. They can contain personal bias – in fact, they probably do. A letter beginning, 'Dearest Scarlett, Today we routed the Yankees. That horrible crew fled before our glorious warriors like the perfidious English before the brave Scots at Bannockburn...' is open to mild charges of bias. To sort it out, we'd need to compare this colourful description of the day's battle with a similar letter from the boys in blue. It would also be advisable to consult a map and a chronology of the events of the US Civil War in order to find out who did what on that particular day.
Oh, and we'd have to look up 'Bannockburn' before we could understand the reference, and then we'd wonder why a Confederate soldier would take on so about it, until we looked up the history of Tidewater Virginia and explored the cultural importance of Sir Walter Scott. You get the idea. Primary sources are vital to our understanding of the past, but they aren't to be taken at face value. Studying them is hard work. You might want to run away and do something less demanding, like filling out your tax return.
Comparing and analysing primary sources, though, can be rewarding. A look into the sources can give us a richer appreciation of what our ancestors went through on their way to the perfection that is us. Take, for example, the Homestead Strike. This violent labour dispute, which took place in western Pennsylvania in 1892, can be seen in many different ways. But what about the parties involved? What did they have to say about it? Does switching from one account to another generate a frame-of-reference shift in our own brains?
The Facts on the Ground
On 30 June, 1892, steel workers belonging to the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, a craft union, struck at the Homestead plant of the Carnegie Steel Company. The company responded by locking out the strikers and continuing operations with the non-striking workers and replacement labourers. The ensuing clash between labour and management resulted in widespread violence. Police, Pinkerton agents1, and state militia got involved. People were killed and injured. The Homestead community, at first opposed to the strikers, became sympathetic to their cause. In the end, the strike was broken, and union activity in the steel mills suffered a severe blow. Some participants in the bloody events were jailed, and some lost their jobs and were blacklisted for future employment. Top management suffered, as well: in July, Henry Clay Frick was the target of an attempted murder by the anarchist lover of Emma Goldman. Andrew Carnegie, who wasn't there – he was incommunicado in the Scottish Highlands – took a lot of the blame for what went on in his plant in his absence.
To understand why reactions to the Homestead strike were so passionate, take a look at these newspaper excerpts:
EXTRA. AT WAR
Pinkertons and Workmen Fighting at Homestead.
Five Detectives and Seven Mill Hands Reported Dead.
The Locked-Out Men Fighting with Cannon and Blazing Oil.
300 Hired Vidocqs2 Held at Bay by 5,000 Angry Toilers.
The Siuation Grave and the Governor Appealed To.
- New York World (Brooklyn Edition), 6 July, 1892, p13.
To-day the world stands aghast at the murderous attempt of a Scotch baron entrenched and fortified by Republican legislation, to perpetuate a system of social cannibalism, and force, by the aid of Pinkerton cut-throats, the American laborers to accept starvation wages... We have been told by those who deal in misrepresentations that the farmers were not in sympathy with the wants and demands of laborers in town and city. Let us hurl this falsehood back, and show to the world that the farmers of Kansas are imbued with the spirit of 1776, and in sympathy with the toilers and oppressed humanity everywhere by sending from this state such a train load of wheat and corn to our Homestead brothers as will make hungry mothers and their little ones laugh with glee.
- Mary Lease to editor, Advocate (Topeka), 27 July, 18924.
By and large, modern secondary sources condemn the actions of all concerned on the management side. After all, locking out workers and fomenting unrest that turns into violence is bad behaviour. Occasionally, somebody might point out that the strikers' use of Homestead's one cannon was probably dirty pool. But suppose you wanted to know a little bit more about who did what, and why? Suppose in particular, you wanted to know how much of this was Andrew Carnegie's fault? Did the little Scotsman suddenly abandon a lifetime of principled republicanism and pro-labour attitudes and back Frick in his assault on the working man and woman? To find the answer to that, don't look at secondary sources. If you do, you'll get something like this:
The ebullient Carnegie and the dour Mellon shared a tendency to conflate their own interests with those of society and indeed humanity at large, as well as a talent for self-deception that dissolved moral ambivalence in a warm bath of ideological certitude. In this they were no different from other captains of commerce, then or now.
- Jackson Lears, 'Money Changes Everything', a review of Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw, in The New Republic, 29 March, 2007.
People are entitled to opinions like that. But if you want to know where those opinions came from, you need to dig a bit deeper. It is always advisable to go back to the events themselves. Try to find the major players and ask them. You don't have to believe them, just listen to what they have to say.
Listen to the voices of the strikers:
Oh, Almighty Andrew Philanthropist Library Carnegie, who art in America when not in Europe spending the money of your slaves and serfs, thou art a good father to the people of Pittsburgh, Homestead and Beaver Falls. We bow before thee in humble obedience of slavery... We have no desire but to serve thee. If you sayest black was white we believe you, and are willing, with the assistance of... the Pinkerton's agency, to knock the stuffin[g] out of anyone who thinks different, or to shoot down and imprison serfs who dare say you have been unjust in reducing the wages of your slaves, who call themselves citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave...
Oh, lord and master, we love thee because you and other great masters of slaves favor combines and trusts to enslave and make paupers of us all. We love thee though our children are clothed in rags. We love thee though our wives... are so scantily dressed and look so shabby. But, oh master, thou hast given us one great enjoyment which man has never dreamed of before – a free church organ, so that we can take our shabby families to church to hear your great organ pour forth its melodious strains...
Oh, master, we thank thee for all the free gifts you have given the public at the expense of your slaves... Oh, master, we need no protection, we need no liberty so long as we are under thy care. So we command ourselves to thy mercy and forevermore sing thy praise.
- 'A Workman', National Labor Tribune, reprinted in The Coming Nation, 10 February, 1894.
Our sarcasm meter here is pegging into the red. More straightforward and pathetic is this popular song from the time:
'Twas in a Pennsylvania town not very long ago
Men struck against reduction of their pay
Their millionaire employer with philanthropic show
Had closed the works till starved they would obey
They fought for home and right to live where they had toiled so long
But ere the sun had set some were laid low
There're hearts now sadly grieving by that sad and bitter wrong
God help them for it was a cruel blow.
God help them tonight in their hour of affliction
Praying for him whom they'll ne'er see again
Hear the orphans tell their sad story
'Father was killed by the Pinkerton men.'
Obviously, the author of this song – moving, in the spirit of its time – blamed Andrew Carnegie for the acts of the Pinkerton men. As did Eugene V Debs, that tireless Socialist crusader, who was soon to be in jail for opposing that other 'captain of industry', George Pullman. Debs had this to say about Carnegie:
Many thousands of misguided people are applauding the alleged philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie and of these by far the larger number are workingmen. Manifestly they have forgotten, or they have never heard of the horrors of Homestead – or perhaps they are too ignorant to understand or too cowardly to profit by the bloody lesson. The reckless prodigality of Carnegie with the plunder of his victims brings into boldest prominence the crimes he committed...'
– Eugene V Debs, 'Crimes of Carnegie', Missouri Socialist [St. Louis], v. 1, no. 15 (13 April, 1901), pg. 2.
From Carnegie's Autobiography alone, it is clear that George Pullman was a sharp dealer. And it backfired. Pullman's actions in calling in government help during his strike led to Debs' spending months in prison, reading Karl Marx and becoming more radical in his views. But was Debs right about Carnegie? Was he really such a hypocrite? Are there other points of view we should consider?
Carnegie and Friends
You might ask Henry Phipps. Phipps had known Carnegie since they were teenagers: 'Andy' was his older brother John's best friend. They worked and played together, and made their first investments as a group. When the New York Herald asked Phipps why Carnegie hadn't been brought home immediately to deal with the crisis, he spoke candidly – though a bit after the fact:
When Mr Carnegie heard of the trouble at Homestead he immediately wired that he would take the first ship for America, but his partners urged him not to appear, as they were of the opinion that the welfare of the company required that he should not be in the country at that time. They knew his extreme disposition always to grant the demands of labor, however unreasonable.
- New York Herald, 31 January, 1904.
Hm, so the partners were afraid Carnegie wouldn't like what they'd done? Calling in the Pinkertons, etc? This might explain things. What did Carnegie have to say for himself?
I was traveling in the Highlands of Scotland when the trouble arose, and did not hear of it until two days after. Nothing I have ever had to meet in all my life, before or since, wounded me so deeply. No pangs remain of any wound received in my business career save that of Homestead. It was so unnecessary. The men were outrageously wrong. The strikers, with the new machinery, would have made from four to nine dollars a day under the new scale – thirty per cent more than they were making with the old machinery. While in Scotland I received the following cable from the officers of the union of our workmen:
'Kind master, tell us what you wish us to do and we shall do it for you.'This was most touching, but, alas, too late. The mischief was done, the works were in the hands of the Governor; it was too late.
- Andrew Carnegie, Autobiography, 1920 (posthumously published)
Carnegie insisted that the original offer they'd made was fair, and that if he'd had a chance to explain it, he could have got the workers to agree. In his account, he was careful not to blame the others – some were still alive – but it is clear he felt the matter had been grievously mishandled. But do we believe his statement that his own intentions were honourable? Can we find some corroborating evidence? Well, let us look.
Political leaders, such as British Prime Minister Gladstone, lent Carnegie their support. Carnegie's peers were encouraging – they knew him. However, we'd have to discount their evidence. They were his friends, this is true. But they were also rich people. They might be biased in favour of the industrialists. What did working people say about Carnegie? Were there those that knew him and supported his claim to fairness?
Consider this evidence: John McLuckie was the burgomaster (mayor) of Homestead. He was also a roller in the Carnegie mill at $65/month, a good salary. During the strike, McLuckie, as mayor, arrested the Pinkertons, whom he saw as unlawful interlopers. However, he ordered his fellow union members and the townspeople to obey the law and refrain from mistreating the militia. After the strike, McLuckie was arrested and jailed for one night only. Released, he couldn't find work in Pennsylvania: he was blacklisted. McLuckie lost his house. His wife died. A determined man, he moved to Mexico, found work, and started a new life, eventually remarrying there. Through a friend, Andrew Carnegie anonymously offered McLuckie money to get a new start. The offer was refused – but McLuckie, when he learned who had made the offer, is said to have remarked that this was 'damned white of Andy'5. When Carnegie heard this, he was moved.
As the story about McLuckie's remark became known, it spawned an urban legend that Carnegie had said that he wanted this tribute on his tombstone. Although untrue, the story inspired an anonymous poem that reads in part:
The gude Scot laughs at epitaphs that are but meant to flatter,
But never are was sae profane, an' that's nae laughin' matter.
Yet, gin he gies his siller all awa, mon, he's a dandy,
An' we'll admit his right to it, for 'That's damned white of Andy!'
So what are we, historians of the 21st Century, supposed to conclude from all this? Was Andrew Carnegie a rapacious robber baron who tried to assuage his guilty conscience by endowing libraries6? Or was he an honest man who struggled against the grasping spirit of his time? Each researcher will have to decide this issue individually.
One thing should be kept in mind, however: the assessment of these events should not be based on hearsay. Cut-and-paste reality is no reality at all. To weigh the evidence, a researcher should go back to the original sources. Thanks to digitisation, this is easier than ever before. Andrew Carnegie, founder of libraries, would probably have appreciated this fact. Now, people can read his Autobiography and get his side of the story. They can also read what others have said. None of these witnesses has cornered the market on truth. But they all have voices – we should listen to them. Even when it's more work than taking the first cut-and-paste secondary source that pops up on the Google Search.