Robber baron (industrialist)

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For other uses, see Robber baron (disambiguation).
"The protectors of our industries". Cartoon showing Cyrus Field, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Russell Sage, seated on bags of "millions", on large raft, and being carried by workers of various professions.

"Robber baron" is a derogatory term of social criticism originally applied to certain wealthy and powerful 19th-century American businessmen. The term appeared as early as the August 1870 issue of The Atlantic Monthly[1] magazine. By the late 19th century, the term was typically applied to businessmen who used exploitative practices to amass their wealth.[2] These practices included exerting control over natural resources, influencing high levels of government, paying subsistence wages, squashing competition by acquiring their competitors to create monopolies and raise prices, and schemes to sell stock at inflated prices to unsuspecting investors.[2] The term combines the sense of criminal ("robber") and illegitimate aristocracy (a baron is an illegitimate role in a republic).[3]

We hear now on all sides the term "robber barons" applied to some of the great capitalists. ... The old robber barons of the Middle Ages who plundered sword in hand and lance in rest were more honest than this new aristocracy of swindling millionaires.[1]
Lida F. Baldwin, quoting the August 1870 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, writing in 1907 about how little business had changed in 35 years.


1901 US cartoon from Puck depicting John D. Rockefeller

The term robber baron derives from the medieval German lords who charged nominally illegal tolls (tolls unauthorized by the Holy Roman Emperor) on the primitive roads crossing their lands[4] or the larger tolls on ships traversing the Rhine —all such actions without adding anything of value, (see robber baron) but instead lining one's pockets to the detriment (added costs) of the common good. In modern economics, such behavior is known as rent seeking.

American historian Matthew Josephson further popularized the term during the Great Depression in a 1934 book. He attributed the phrase to an 1880 anti-monopoly pamphlet about railroad magnates.[5] Like the German antecedent princes, Josephson alleged that American big businessmen amassed huge fortunes immorally, unethically, and unjustly. The theme was popular during the 1930s amid public scorn for big business.

After the Depression, business historian, Allan Nevins, challenged this view of American big businessmen by advocating the "Industrial Statesman" thesis. Nevins, in his John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise (2 vols., 1940), took on Josephson. He argued that while Rockefeller may have engaged in some unethical and illegal business practices, this should not overshadow his bringing order to industrial chaos of the day. Gilded Age capitalists, according to Nevins, sought to impose order and stability on competitive business, and that their work made the United States the foremost economy by the 20th century.[6]

This debate about the morality of certain business practices has continued,[7] with the term being applied to modern industrialists and media moguls.

In popular culture[edit]

In the 1970s 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. No other mascot won acceptance so the teams are known as the Cardinal (the color, not the bird).[8]

List of businessmen who were labeled as robber barons[edit]

The people here are listed in Josephson, Robber Barons or in the cited source,

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Baldwin, Lida F. (1907). "Unbound Old Atlantics". The Atlantic Monthly C (November 1907): 683. Retrieved 2015-10-16. 
  2. ^ a b Dole, Charles F. (1907). "The Ethics of Speculation". The Atlantic Monthly C (December 1907): 812–818. Retrieved 2015-10-16. 
  3. ^ Worth Robert Miller, Populist cartoons: an illustrated history of the third-party movement in the 1890s (2011) p. 13
  4. ^ "A Romance of the New Era". Harper's New Monthly Magazine. LXXXIX (DXXXIV). November 1894. Retrieved 2009-07-10. 
  5. ^ Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934.
  6. ^ Allan Nevins, John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise, 2 vols., New York, C. Scribner’s sons, 1940.
  7. ^ Bruce Springsteen: Bankers Are 'Greedy Thieves'" (Huffington Post)
  8. ^ "Stanford vote favors "Robber barons" tag". Spokane Daily Chronicle. December 5, 1975. Retrieved 22 August 2014. 
  9. ^ Charles O'Brien (2013). Death of a Robber Baron. Kensington. p. 289. 
  10. ^ Theodore Dreiser; Roark Mulligan, editor. (2010). The Financier: The Critical Edition. U. of Illinois Press. p. 559. 
  11. ^ David Leon Chandler, Henry Flagler: The Astonishing Life and Times of the Visionary Robber Baron Who Founded Florida (1986)
  12. ^ George C. Kohn (2001). The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal. Infobase Publishing. p. 152. 
  13. ^ Edward Renehan, Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons (2005)
  14. ^ Keys, C. M. (January 1906). "The Overlords of Railroad Traffic: The Seven Men Who Reign Supreme". The World's Work: A History of Our Time XIII: 8437–8445. Retrieved 2009-07-10. 
  15. ^ "The Redstone Story re-lives the industrialization of the West" Redstone, Colorado website, history
  16. ^ Mary Kupiec Cayton et al. eds. (1993). Encyclopedia of American social history. Scribner. pp. 1064 vol 2. 
  17. ^ T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (2010) p 328
  18. ^ John Franch, Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes (2008)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]