"Robber baron" is a derogatory metaphor of social criticism originally applied to certain late 19th-century American businessmen who were accused of using unscrupulous methods to get rich, or expand their wealth.
The term was based on an analogy to the German robber barons, local feudal lords or bandits in Germany who waylaid travellers through their ostensible territory, claiming some tax or fine was owed.
The term robber baron derives from the Raubritter (robber knights), the medieval German lords who charged nominally illegal tolls (unauthorized by the Holy Roman Emperor) on the primitive roads crossing their landsor larger tolls along the Rhine river.
The metaphor appeared as early as February 9, 1859, when The New York Times used it to characterize the business practices of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Historian T.J. Stiles says the metaphor "conjures up visions of titanic monopolists who crushed competitors, rigged markets, and corrupted government. In their greed and power, legend has it, they held sway over a helpless democracy."
The first such usage was against Vanderbilt, for taking money from high-priced, government-subsidized shippers, in order to not compete on their routes. Political cronies had been granted special shipping routes by the state, but told legislators their costs were so high that they needed to charge high prices and still receive extra money from the taxpayers as funding. Vanderbilt's private shipping company began running the same routes, charging a fraction of the price, making a large profit without taxpayer subsidy. The state-funded shippers then began paying Vanderbilt money to not ship on their route. A critic of this tactic drew a political comic depicting Vanderbilt as a feudal robber baron extracting a toll.
Charles R. Geisst says, "in a Darwinist age, Vanderbilt developed a reputation as a plunderer who took no prisoners."Hal Bridges said that the term represented the idea that "business leaders in the United States from about 1865 to 1900 were, on the whole, a set of avaricious rascals who habitually cheated and robbed investors and consumers, corrupted government, fought ruthlessly among themselves, and in general carried on predatory activities comparable to those of the robber barons of medieval Europe."
The term combines the pejorative senses of criminal ("robber") and aristocrat ("barons" having no legitimate role in a republic). Hostile cartoonists might dress the offenders in royal garb to underscore the offense against democracy.
Historian Richard White argues that the builders of the transcontinental railroads have attracted a great deal of attention but the interpretations are contradictory: at first very hostile and then very favorable. At first, White says, they were depicted as:
Historian John Tipple has examined the writings of the 50 most influential analysts who used the robber baron model in the 1865–1914 period. He argues:
The originators of the Robber Baron concept were not the injured, the poor, the faddists, the jealous, or a dispossessed elite, but rather a frustrated group of observers led at last by protracted years of harsh depression to believe that the American dream of abundant prosperity for all was a hopeless myth. ... Thus the creation of the Robber Baron stereotype seems to have been the product of an impulsive popular attempt to explain the shift in the structure of American society in terms of the obvious. Rather than make the effort to understand the intricate processes of change, most critics appeared to slip into the easy vulgarizations of the "devil-view" of history which ingenuously assumes that all human misfortunes can be traced to the machinations of an easily located set of villains—in this case, the big businessmen of America. This assumption was clearly implicit in almost all of the criticism of the period.
American historian Matthew Josephson further popularized the term during the Great Depression in a 1934 book.Josephson alleged that, like the German princes, American big businessmen amassed huge fortunes immorally, unethically, and unjustly. The theme was popular during the 1930s amid public scorn for big business. Historian Steve Fraser says the mood was sharply hostile toward big business:
Biographies of Mellon, Carnegie and Rockefeller were often laced with moral censure, warning that "tories of industry" were a threat to democracy and that parasitism, aristocratic pretension and tyranny have always trailed in the wake of concentrated wealth, whether accumulated dynastically or more impersonally by the faceless corporation. This scholarship, and the cultural persuasion of which it was an expression, drew on a deeply rooted sensibility–partly religious, partly egalitarian and democratic–that stretched back to William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Jackson and Tom Paine.
However, a contrary opinions by academic historians began to appear as the Depression ended. Business historian Allan Nevins put forth the "Industrial Statesman" thesis. Nevins, in his John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise (2 vols., 1940), argued that Rockefeller engaged in unethical and illegal business practices but he also helped to bring order to the industrial chaos of the day. According to Nevins, Gilded Age capitalists, by imposing order and stability on competitive business, made the United States the foremost economy by the 20th century.
In 1958 Bridges reported that, "The most vehement and persistent controversy in business history has been that waged by the critics and defenders of the "robber baron" concept of the American businessman."Richard White, historian of the transcontinental railroads, stated in 2011 he has no use for the concept, which has been killed off by historians Robert Wiebe and Alfred Chandler. He notes that "Much of the modern history of corporations is a reaction against the Robber Barons and fictions."
In the popular culture the metaphor continues. In 1975 the student body of Stanford University voted to use "Robber Barons" as the nickname for their sports teams. However, school administrators disallowed it, saying it was disrespectful to the school's founder, Leland Stanford.
In academe, the education division of the National Endowment for the Humanities has prepared a lesson plan for schools asking whether "robber baron" or "captain of industry" is the better terminology. They state:
In this lesson, you and your students will attempt to establish a distinction between robber barons and captains of industry. Students will uncover some of the less honorable deeds as well as the shrewd business moves and highly charitable acts of the great industrialists and financiers. It has been argued that only because such people were able to amass great amounts of capital could our country become the world's greatest industrial power. Some of the actions of these men, which could only happen in a period of economic laissez faire, resulted in poor conditions for workers, but in the end, may also have enabled our present day standard of living.
This debate about the morality of certain business practices has continued in the popular culture, as in the performances in Europe in 2012 by Bruce Springsteen, who sang about bankers as "greedy thieves" and "robber barons".During the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, the term was used by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in his attacks on Wall Street. The business practices and political power of the billionaires of Silicon Valley has also led to their identification as robber barons.
The metaphor has also been used to characterize Russian businessmen allied to Vladimir Putin.
The people here are listed in Josephson, Robber Barons or in the cited source,
Standard Oil Co. Inc. was an American oil producing, transporting, refining, marketing company. Established in 1870 by John D. Rockefeller and Henry Flagler as a corporation in Ohio, it was the largest oil refiner in the world of its time. Its history as one of the world's first and largest multinational corporations ended in 1911, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a landmark case, that Standard Oil was an illegal monopoly.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was an American business magnate who built his wealth in railroads and shipping. After working with his father's business, Vanderbilt worked his way into leadership positions in the inland water trade and invested in the rapidly growing railroad industry. Nicknamed "The Commodore", he is known for owning the New York Central Railroad. His biographer T. J. Stiles says, "He vastly improved and expanded the nation's transportation infrastructure, contributing to a transformation of the very geography of the United States. He embraced new technologies and new forms of business organization, and used them to compete....He helped to create the corporate economy that would define the United States into the 21st century."
John Davison Rockefeller Sr. was an American business magnate and philanthropist. He is widely considered the wealthiest American of all time, and the richest person in modern history.
The Vanderbilt family is an American family of Dutch origin who gained prominence during the Gilded Age. Their success began with the shipping and railroad empires of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the family expanded into various other areas of industry and philanthropy. Cornelius Vanderbilt's descendants went on to build grand mansions on Fifth Avenue in New York City; luxurious "summer cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island; the palatial Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina; and various other opulent homes.
A business magnate or industrialist is an entrepreneur of great influence, importance, or standing in a particular enterprise or field of business. The term characteristically refers to a wealthy entrepreneur or investor who controls, through personal business ownership or dominant shareholding position, a firm or industry whose goods or services are widely consumed. Such individuals may also be called czars, moguls, proprietors, tycoons, taipans, barons, or oligarchs.
In United States history, the Gilded Age was an era that occurred during the late 19th century, from the 1870s to about 1900. The Gilded Age was an era of rapid economic growth, especially in the Northern United States and the Western United States. As American wages grew much higher than those in Europe, especially for skilled workers, the period saw an influx of millions of European immigrants. The rapid expansion of industrialization led to a real wage growth of 60%, between 1860 and 1890, and spread across the ever-increasing labor force. The average annual wage per industrial worker rose from $380 in 1880, to $564 in 1890, a gain of 48%. Conversely, the Gilded Age was also an era of abject poverty and inequality, as millions of immigrants—many from impoverished regions—poured into the United States, and the high concentration of wealth became more visible and contentious.
Joseph Allan Nevins was an American historian and journalist, known for his extensive work on the history of the Civil War and his biographies of such figures as Grover Cleveland, Hamilton Fish, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller, as well as his public service. He was a leading exponent of business history and oral history.
In the late 19th century a captain of industry was a business leader whose means of amassing a personal fortune contributed positively to the country in some way. This may have been through increased productivity, expansion of markets, providing more jobs, or acts of philanthropy. This characterization contrasts with that of the robber baron, a business leader using political means to achieve personal ends.
Burton W. Folsom Jr. is an American historian and author who held the Charles F. Kline chair in history and management at Hillsdale College from 2003 until his retirement in December 2016.
Amasa Stone, Jr. was an American industrialist who is best remembered for having created a regional railroad empire centered in the U.S. state of Ohio from 1860 to 1883. He gained fame in New England in the 1840s for building hundreds of bridges, most of them Howe truss bridges. After moving into railroad construction in 1848, Stone moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1850. Within four years he was a director of the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad and the Cleveland, Painesville and Ashtabula Railroad. The latter merged with the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway, of which Stone was appointed director. Stone was also a director or president of numerous railroads in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan.
Thomas Alexander Scott was an American businessman, railroad executive, and industrialist. President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 appointed him to serve as U.S. Assistant Secretary of War, and during the American Civil War railroads under his leadership played a major role in the war effort. He became the fourth president of the Pennsylvania Railroad (1874–1880), which became the largest publicly traded corporation in the world and received much criticism for his conduct in the Great Railway Strike of 1877 and as a "robber baron." Scott helped negotiate the Republican Party's Compromise of 1877 with the Democratic Party; it settled the disputed presidential election of 1876 in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the federal government pulling out its military forces from the South and ending the Reconstruction era. In his final years, Scott made large donations to the University of Pennsylvania.
The Knickerbocker Club is a gentlemen's club in New York City that was founded in 1871. It is considered to be the most exclusive club in the United States and one of the most aristocratic and selective clubs in the world.
Matthew Josephson was an American journalist and author of works on nineteenth-century French literature and American political and business history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Josephson popularized the term "robber baron".
Business history is a historiographical field which examines the history of firms, business methods, government regulation and the effects of business on society. It also includes biographies of individual firms, executives, and entrepreneurs. It is related to economic history. It is distinct from "company history" which refers to official histories, usually funded by the company itself.
The Erie War was a 19th-century conflict between American financiers for control of the Erie Railway Company, which owned and operated the Erie Railroad. Built with public funds raised by taxation and on land donated by public officials and private developers, by the middle of the 1850s the railroad was mismanaged and heavily in debt. A cattle drover turned Wall Street banker and broker Daniel Drew at first loaned $2 million to the railroad, and then acquired control over it. He amassed fortune by skilfully manipulating the Erie railroad shares on the New York Stock Exchange. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who set his mind on building a railroad empire, saw multiple business and financial opportunities in railways and decided in 1866 to corner the market on Erie by silently scooping the Erie railroad stock. After succeeding, Vanderbilt permitted Drew to stay on the board of directors in his former capacity as a treasurer.
T. J. Stiles is an American biographer who lives in Berkeley, California. His book The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt won a National Book Award and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. His book Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History.
The Men Who Built America is a six-hour, four-part miniseries docudrama which was originally broadcast on the History Channel in the Fall of 2012, and on the History Channel UK in Spring of 2013. The series focuses on the lives of Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. It tells how their industrial innovations and business empires revolutionized modern society. The series is directed by Patrick Reams and Ruán Magan and is narrated by Campbell Scott. It averaged 2.6 million total viewers across 4 nights.
|Look up robber baron in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|