robber barons myth

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During the 1880s, the American industry grew as a result of a number of causes, one of which was the rise of a young and sometimes ruthless group of entrepreneurs (Brinkley 396). People who support these entrepreneurs claim that they worked hard, innovated technologies, and strategized competitively to change the American economy. These philanthropists, such as Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J Pierpoint Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller, used their money to support their societies and should be recognized. John S. Gordon is a supporter of these entrepreneurs. As an expert on business and financial history, Gordon claims these Captains of Industry improved the American lifestyle in his book An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power. Believing in a laissez-faire government, Gordon remained skeptical of government restrictions on any competition (John S. Gordon). To the contrary, those against these entrepreneurs thought that these men were cruel and self-centered _x0093_Robber Barons_x0094_ who took advantage of their workers (Captains of Industry). As a Socialist advocate for the underclass and a Marxist, Howard Zinn condemned capitalism; he believed that the corporate ruling class only benefited the wealthy. Both Zinn and Gordon categorized these big businessmen differently based on their beliefs. Although two people can look at the same pieces of information, those two people may have different perspectives, and therefore, see the same argument from two different sides.

According to Howard Zinn, the year 1877 became the turn of the century: a line between the masses and the corporate elite was drawn with backing from the government. New technology had revolutionized the industry, the demand for labor had increased along with an increase in the supply of workers, and new corporations had been created with prominent people in business heading them. With prominent businessmen, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, working with financers, such as J. Pierpoint Morgan, they improved the economy at the cost of the masses; to keep the government from interfering with their business, these men sold shares of their company to the Congressmen. According to Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames, _x0093_There is no difficulty in getting men to look after their property_x0094_ (Folsom, 1991). Congress passed high tariffs to ensure products made by the corporations they owned were used and bought by the masses and competition was eliminated. For example, prominent businessmen like Rockefeller used monopolies to eliminate his competition as well; not only did he control the oil industry with vertical and horizontal integration, but he also, secretly, partnered with the railroad industry to gain rebates for transporting his oil. By doing so, Rockefeller either bought his competition out or destroyed them.

In addition to crushing out their competition, these big businessmen and bankers partnered to create _x0093_interlocking networks of powerful corporation directors, each of whom sat on many boards of other organizations_x0094_ (Folsom, 1991). Combining their efforts made these men wealthier and more powerful. Although the national government implemented regulations that seemed neutral between the masses and big business, Zinn believed that these provisions were never enforced and ignored for the sake of the elite. While Zinn acknowledges the philanthropy of some prominent businessmen, he also claims that these men invested their money back into their communities merely to train the masses to continue corporate traditions. Joel Spring claims, _x0093_The development of the factory-like system in the nineteenth-century classroom was not accidental_x0094_ (Folsom, 1991). Zinn wants his audience to believe that corporations, as well as the government, conspires against the masses to continue a capitalist American that only benefits the wealthy and takes advantage of the people. To end the control of the citizens through corporations, America must transform into a Socialist society.

To the contrary, John S. Gordon challenges Howard Zinn_x0092_s view of prominent people in the business. The business of big business did not exist because the federal government acted as _x0093_an active referee_x0094_ (Folsom, 1991). Corporations benefited not only their stockholders, but also society as a whole; monopolies, such as Standard Oil, were broken up into smaller, separate companies because it restricted trade, and hurt society. However, many corporations benefited society. The new processes, such as the Bessemer process, revolutionized the industry. These innovations gave American a competitive edge that helped win wars and earn global leadership. While Zinn believed that corporations formed mergers and monopolies to maximize its profits at the cost of the masses, Gordon felt that these mergers and monopolies helped businesses offer the best, competitive prices for the people. Gordon states, _x0093_It is simply a myth that patents will raise prices once they have the power to do so_x0085_ Lower prices, which increase demand, and greater efficiency, which cuts costs, is usually the best way to achieve the highest possible profits_x0094_ (Folsom, 1991). Monopolies did not merely work in the best interest of themselves; they worked to find the best for their consumers.

However, Gordon acknowledges that these big businessmen did act like robber barons when their competition was involved. Not only did they acquire the largest abatements from railroads, but they also encouraged railroads to deny rebates to companies that they wished to control; in addition to reimbursement denials, the robber barons either drove their competition to bankruptcy or bought them out, but at a _x0093_fair_x0094_ price (Folsom, 1991). Overall, these businessmen created a new economy that moved too fast for the laws that governed it to keep up. Gordon paints a positive picture of the captains of industry. But he, however, neglects the history of the workers and their misfortunes within these corporations. He insists that America remain a capitalist nation because it sets the country apart from others and gives it a leadership role in the global economy.

Overall, Howard Zinn and John S. Gordon interpret the events of the 1800_x0092_s entirely different. Both present strong arguments using facts; However, Zinn_x0092_s use of statistics makes his case slightly stronger. To the contrary, both manipulate the facts to support their agendas, which imposes a weakness in their writing styles. A balanced discussion offers both perspectives on one topic so that the reader can make his or her inferences. Zinn_x0092_s argument screams socialism; while he bashes big business for the sake of the people, he barely refers to the cruel endeavors of the workers. Zinn could have made his argument stronger by referring less to government-corporate relationships and more to worker-corporate relationships. He, also, refuses to see any good in the robber barons_x0092_ philanthropy. Similarly, Gordon refuses to acknowledge the effect of large firms on the workers in its entirety. However, he does show the opposition_x0092_s perspective in his article when he refers to the corporate-competition relationship. With that being said, one can infer that not one author is correct in his opinion of the prominent businessmen; big business was cruel and kind through their philanthropist efforts.


Folsom, B. W. (1991). The Myth of the Robber Barons: A New Look at the Rise of Big Business in America. Young Americas Foundation.

May 04, 2022




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Cornelius Vanderbilt

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