The Robber Barons

A version of this blogpost appeared in the November 2016 edition of BBC History Magazine. It accompanies my BBC Radio 4 series, The Robber Barons.

Railroad bosses were not supposed to order their own freight cars to be burned. In 1859, however, the superintendent of the western division of the Pennsylvania Railroad – a 24-year old, diminutive, barrel-chested Scotsman called Andrew Carnegie — did exactly that. From a business point of view, Carnegie’s logic was impeccable if unconventional: a derailed train was blocking the line and it was quicker and cheaper to destroy it than to haul it to the nearest depot. Keeping the network moving, Carnegie realized, was the highest priority.



The metaphor is irresistible: Andrew Carnegie, on his way to becoming one of the richest men the world has ever known, ruthlessly destroying anything that stood in his way.

In February of the same year, the New York Times used a sinister simile to attack Cornelius Vanderbilt – a man born in the eighteenth century when travel times were limited to the speed of the fastest horse who lived to dominate the early development of both steam ships and railroads. To Carnegie’s ambitious generation, the venerable Vanderbilt – or ‘the Commodore’ as he was known — was the man who showed what could be done if you disregarded old rules and made your own. In the 1850s, Vanderbilt was engaged in fierce competition to control the lucrative sea route to California via Central America. At one stage, his rivals paid him a subsidy in exchange for him suspending his line. To the Times, Vanderbilt’s behaviour was literally robbery. He resembled ‘those old German barons who, from their eyries along the Rhine, swooped down upon the commerce of the noble river and wrung tribute from every passenger that floated by’. The Robber Baron label was born in that angry editorial; twenty years later it was in wide circulation as withering short-hand for the handful of men who dominated business in what Mark Twain called ‘the Gilded Age’.

In the wake of the Civil War, with the nation reunited on the back of the destruction of slavery, the Robber Barons profited from one of the most profound revolutions in the human experience – the transition from a society in which most people were either self-employed or in some form of unfree labour, to one in which most worked for wages. One thing they all had in common was that they made their money from the relentless logic of the economies of scale. By driving out competition, controlling the supply and distribution chain, and keeping wages as low as possible, the Robber Barons ruthlessly cut costs. They forged their path in the business world at a time when new technologies – steel, oil refining, railroads, steam-powered factory technology – were re-making the material basis of the western world. The Robber Barons were the exploiters not the inventors, the men who took small-scale operations and scaled them up, and then up again.



Size was everything. As John D. Rockefeller realised, one big oil refinery was vastly more efficient than twenty small ones, and as Jay Gould and Leland Stanford were to demonstrate, big railroads with no competition could move more freight and charge higher rates than a bunch of small railroads competing for the same traffic. The Robber Barons created the world’s first large-scale corporations—impersonal organisations that, with the aid of bankers like J. P. Morgan, could raise undreamed of capital from financial markets. When Morgan bought Carnegie’s steel business in 1901 he paid the equivalent of US$370 Billion in today’s money. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil totally dominated the world’s production, refinement and distribution of oil. By 1890, railroads employed around three per cent of the entire national workforce, or 800,000 men, many times more than worked for the government or served in the armed forces.

The personification of these otherwise impersonal organisations, the Robber Barons were, among other things, literally cartoon characters. Their names and faces became familiar to millions through the pages of satirical illustrated magazines like Puck in which the titans of industry were drawn as crooked hucksters carving up the country or as obscene octopuses strangling the populace. The cartoons fed into a mass movement to defend the principle of government of, for and by the people against the monopolists who had stolen the American dream. A feisty journalist, Ida Tarbell, whose father’s oil producing business in western Pennsylvania had been ruined by Rockefeller, was the most acerbic of the critics. Tarbell and her millions of sympathetic readers were fighting, they thought, to defend the dying ideal of an egalitarian republic of small-scale farmers and artisans.

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-16-18-23For others, however, the likes of Carnegie and Rockefeller were heroic entrepreneurs who were making America a steam-powered superpower. They were the real-life proof of the moral wisdom of those immensely popular Horatio Alger stories for young boys in which, in America, hard work always paid off and the poor could rise up.

Critics and fans alike saw the Robber Barons, for good or ill, as the masters of this new world. But the Robber Barons did not always see it that way at all. They were, by their own accounts, driven as much by anxiety as optimism. Neither Horatio Alger-like heroes nor Ida Tarbell-like villains, they saw themselves as the necessary instruments by which the economy could be managed.

Rockefeller and Carnegie claimed they were motivated not by personal ambition but by public-spiritedness. The two were hardly soul-mates (Carnegie got a kick out of giving an annual Christmas present of fine Scotch whisky to the tee-total Rockefeller) but they each developed a theory of capitalism according to which the vast organisations they built were the necessary means of managing the hellishly disruptive forces unleashed by industrialisation. Their companies, they argued, reduced inefficiency and wasteful over-production. Where there was chaos, they brought order; where there was strife, they brought harmony. This was a breath-taking inversion of how many saw them, but it was repeated with conviction, and it drew on a coherent, and, to them, self-evidently true narrative of their careers.

A prime example concerns how Rockefeller understood the crucial turning point in his business career, in the early 1870s, at a time of falling prices in the nascent oil refining business, when he leveraged a freight deal with a railroad to compel his competitors in Cleveland to sell out to him. Charged with behaving aggressively and dishonestly Rockefeller responded that his company was an ‘angel of mercy.’ Standard Oil, he later claimed, was ‘the Moses who delivered [his benighted competitors] from their folly which had wrought such havoc in their fortunes.’ Carnegie adopted a similar business strategy and, in essence, a similar rationale, when he moved from railroads into steel, combining investment in new technologies with using every trick in the book to eliminate rivals.

The sheer scale of the Robber Barons’ enterprises was at the heart of the problem as their critics saw it. It was ‘the curse of bigness’ that gave these men the giddying power they had. But the Robber Barons’ riposte was that the new economy required central planning. ‘The day of combination is here to stay,’ Rockefeller assured an interviewer in the 1920s, as Europe experimented with different types of state planning. ‘Individualism is gone, never to return.’ It was a sentiment echoed by New Deal planners after the Great Crash who, abandoning decades of anti-monopoly politics, sought instead ways of centrally managing a capitalist system in which no one imagined a return to nineteenth-century levels of growth.

Carnegie had a greater desire for public adulation than Rockefeller ever seemed to require, but a similar determination to present himself as acting always in the public interest. After he sold his business, Carnegie moved into a newly-built mansion in Manhattan (complete with an elevator and a prototype air conditioning system) and wrote tracts in a library with Sunday School-type mottoes painted high on the walls. Gazing up from his desk at the injunction that ‘Thine Own Reproach Alone Do Fear’, Carnegie worried about the contrast between ‘the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the labourer’. To combat the dangers of ‘rigid castes’ living in ‘mutual ignorance’ and ‘mutual distrust’ of each other, he poured millions of dollars into building public libraries – more than two and half thousand of them around the world. This munificence was possible because of the vast business he had created and was therefore, to him, evidence that great concentrations of wealth could (at least in the right hands, such as his own) bring about a great dispersion of public benefit.

Contrary to the way they are often imagined, the Robber Barons were in fact neither the champions of unfettered free markets, nor of unfettered individualism. Paternalists more than libertarians, they saw rational central planning as the antidote to the insecurity and irrationality of market competition. Hailed for their role in the onrush of modernity, they harked back to the virtues of a disappearing world and worried about the spiritual and social consequences of the gulf between rich and poor to which they had contributed so much. Their material success assured, the Robber Barons sought something more: validation that their work was of public worth.

These larger-than-life industrialists had an all-too-human capacity for self-deception and it is easy — and not entirely unfair — to charge that them with hypocrisy. But that does not mean we should not take seriously their own rationalisations. Their words reveal much about how these powerful men made the choices that helped shape our world.

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