Media Resource

Backstory: Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The History of America’s Wealthy Elite

Vignette Cartoon of the American millionaire at home and abroad. He is welcomed at home, but ridiculed abroad.
Photo caption

This 1897 vignette cartoon shows a dignified and respected millionaire in familiar surroundings at home, which contrasts his poor treatment in European cities, where he is ignored and ridiculed. Another title of this print is: why a great many of our rich men ought to refrain from "crossing the pond."

How did millionaires become lionized figures in American society? In this Backstory episode, listeners will learn about the extraordinary story of one of the first African American millionaires, who broke stereotypes and changed how we view African American history. You'll also hear about Andrew Carnegie's call for millionaires to transform themselves into philanthropists and give their fortunes away, but its limits for improving the lot of his workers. How the original inventor of Monopoly created the game as a teaching tool to protest against monopolies and monopolists and how Americans' perception of wealth has changed over time are also explored.  

A full transcript of the episode is available at the Backstory website

Audio file

Prince of Darkness (0:38-6:05)

Comprehension Questions

  • Why was Jeremiah Hamilton known as the “Prince of Darkness”? 

  • In context of New York City’s unregulated capitalism in the 19th century, was Jeremiah Hamilton’s path to becoming a millionaire justified?  

Star Spangled Scotsman Gives It All Away (6:35-19:10)

Comprehension Questions

  • What did Andrew Carnegie argue in the “Gospel of Wealth?” 

  • Do you agree with how Carnegie lived out his "philanthropic values"?  

  • To what extent did Carnegie’s gospel of philanthropy influence other millionaires, the American government, and society? 

EDSITEment Resources

Learn more about the debate surrounding the great industrialists and financiers in the second half of the 19th c.—if they were "captains of industry" or "robber barons"—in the lesson plan The Industrial Age in America: Robber Barons and Captains of Industry (grades 6-8). Students can compare Andrew Carnegie to other industrialists/financiers in Activity 2 to better understand his values. Students can also think about how these industrialists would respond to workers' pieces in Activity 3.

You Must Be the Monopoly Gal (19:20-25:40)

Comprehension Questions

  • Why did Elizabeth McGee invent the original Monopoly board game, "Landlords"? 

  • How did McGee design the Landlords game to promote her beliefs about monopolists? 

  • In what ways did Monopoly embody the "American Dream" during the second half of the 20th century? 

  • What is today’s "American Dream"? 

EDSITEment Resources

The lesson plan, A Raisin in the Sun: Whose "American Dream"?, offers students many opportunities to evaluate the shifting meaning of and access to what has been constructed as "The American Dream" in U.S. history and culture.

The Extraordinary Life of Jeremiah Hamilton (25:50-35:35)

Comprehension Questions

  • Why is there a “cultural convulsion” in New York state after July 4th, 1827? 

  • How did Jeremiah Hamilton demonstrate the “cultural convulsion” New York City underwent in the 19th c.?  

  • What does Jeremiah Hamilton’s story teach us about how African-American history has been recorded? 

Additional Resources

Learn more about Jeremiah Hamilton's life from this short biography.

For the Love of Money (35:45-45:00)

Comprehension Questions

  • Where does the idea of the “self-made man” come from? 

  • How do the connotations behind the word “millionaire” in the 1860s compare to now? 

  • To what extent do those with wealth have responsibility for how it is used?