Whom Did the Robber Barons Rob?
To the Editor:
I enjoyed James Nuechterlein’s sympathetic and insightful reaction to the new biographies of Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon [“Gifts of the ‘Robber Barons,’” March]. Of course, Carnegie and Mellon were not the only industrial capitalists of the Gilded Age to have been given “bum raps” by early-20th-century historians.
It is worth noting that the term “robber barons” was first applied to 19th-century captains of industry by Matthew Josephson in his 1934 book of that name. Not trained as a historian, let alone as an economic historian, Josephson was a poet and literary critic who had earlier published biographies of Zola and Rousseau. A self-declared Marxist, Josephson took the stories of men like Carnegie, Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, and others and squeezed them into a classic Marxian analysis, with all its inherent distortions.
Published during a period of massive unemployment and industrial malaise, with all their attendant human suffering, The Robber Barons was welcomed warmly by Depression-era critics and pundits who were eager to praise a book that damned Wall Street magnates, bankers, and millionaires generally. In this environment, Josephson’s tome became an influential best-seller and, despite being made of flimsy clay, became the foundation upon which an entire subsequent generation of historians built their studies.
Completely absent from Josephson’s look at the post-Civil War industrial expansion was the consideration that Carnegie, Gould, and the other moguls created new economic capacities and growth—a surging tide upon which all boats were raised. In the 40 years following Appomattox, the United States amazed European investors and bankers with the speed at which it changed from a backward agricultural republic to the most powerful industrial force on the planet. During the years of the so-called robber barons, America outpaced other nations by large margins when it came to growth in per-capita income, industrial production, and rising values generally. Moreover, the Gilded Age saw economic participation at all levels of society, including numerous previously disenfranchised constituencies.
In this way, the industrial captains of the era enabled, in the long term, their very greatest gift: the rise of that most radical and democratic of things—a strong, stable, educated middle class.
Edward J. Renehan, Jr.