The Gospel of Wealth Goes South:
John Henry Kirby and Labor's Struggle for
GEORGE T. MORGAN, JR.*
IN HIS American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise, 1865-i9ro,
Robert G. McCloskey contends that society's acceptance of the doc-
trines of Social Darwinism and laissez faire economics ultimately and
inevitably turned the democratic faith upside down. That is, prop-
erty rights supplanted human rights as the primary tenet of demo-
cracy; in the process capitalism and democracy became synonomous
terms and the excesses committed by the business community aroused
negligible criticism in a society consumed by materialism.
Some members of the business elite, however, sought a more self-
satisfying rationale for their actions than could be found in the bleak
atmosphere of William Graham Sumner's survival of the fittest pos-
tulates. Out of the tortured conscience of Andrew Carnegie came
the Gospel of Wealth which glorified youthful poverty, hard work,
thrift, success, and organized philanthropy indulged in during the
wealthy man's lifetime. Thus possessors of wealth became stewards of
the people, whose superior abilities obligated them to use their for-
tunes to uplift their fellow men.'
Imitators of Andrew Carnegie, conscious and otherwise, included
John Henry Kirby, the East Texas lumberman, whose life and career
in many ways paralleled that of the Pennsylvania ironmaker. Like
Carnegie, Kirby grew up in modest surroundings, worked hard, and
reaped his first financial successes through fortunate connections with
already established men of wealth. Like Carnegie, too, John Henry
Kirby sincerely believed he was a just, compassionate employer and
a charitable, patriotic citizen. "I try," he wrote to an intimate in 191o,
*George T. Morgan, Jr., is associate professor of history at the University of Houston.
He is currently doing research for a biography of John Henry Kirby.
"to do my duty as a citizen, build up the country, create opportunities
:Robert G. McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise, 1865-9gro:
A Study of William Graham Sumner, Stephen J. Field and Andrew Carnegie (Cambridge,
1951), 1-2o, 168-174.
2Andrew Carnegie, "The Gospel of Wealth," The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely
Essays by Andrew Carnegie (Garden City, 1933), 1-39.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 75, July 1971 - April, 1972. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101201/. Accessed April 29, 2016.