Robber baron (industrialist)

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In social criticism and economic literature, robber baron became a derogatory term applied to wealthy and powerful 19th-century American businessmen that appeared in North American periodical literature as early as the August 1870 issue of The Atlantic Monthly[1] magazine. By the late 1800s, the term was typically applied to businessmen who used what were considered to be exploitative practices to amass their wealth.[2] These practices included exerting control over national resources, accruing high levels of government influence, paying extremely low wages, squashing competition by acquiring competitors in order to create monopolies and eventually raise prices, and schemes to sell stock at inflated prices[2] to unsuspecting investors in a manner which would eventually destroy the company for which the stock was issued and impoverish 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.


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[4]—all such actions without adding anything of value,[4] (see robber baron) but instead lining one's pockets to the detriment (added costs) of the common good.

U.S. political and economic commentator Matthew Josephson further popularized the term during the Great Depression in a 1934 book by the same title. 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 Great Depression amid public scorn for big business.

After the Depression, business historians, led by Allan Nevins, began challenging 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] and many modern industrialists and media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch,[8] Donald Trump[9] and powerful rich individuals who hold political office and control media entities, such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy are referred to as robber barons by their critics.

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).[10]

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. (November 1907). "Google books online, pp-683 article reprint: 'Unbound Old Atlantics'". The Atlantic Monthly C (Google books online reprints, pp 683). Retrieved 2013-08-13. 
  2. ^ a b c Dole, Charles F. "Google books online, (Atlantic Magazine bound reprints): 'THE ETHICS OF SPECULATION'". The Atlantic Monthly C (Google books online reprints, pp 812). Retrieved 2013-08-13. 
  3. ^ Worth Robert Miller, Populist cartoons: an illustrated history of the third-party movement in the 1890s (2011) p. 13
  4. ^ a b c "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. ^ "Yet Another Media Robber Baron Not Getting It" (Ackerman)
  9. ^ "How is Donald Trump a Robber Barron?" (Chacha Q&A)
  10. ^ "Stanford vote favors "Robber barons" tag". Spokane Daily Chronicle. December 5, 1975. Retrieved 22 August 2014. 
  11. ^ Charles O'Brien (2013). Death of a Robber Baron. Kensington. p. 289. 
  12. ^ Theodore Dreiser; Roark Mulligan, editor. (2010). The Financier: The Critical Edition. U. of Illinois Press. p. 559. 
  13. ^ David Leon Chandler, Henry Flagler: The Astonishing Life and Times of the Visionary Robber Baron Who Founded Florida (1986)
  14. ^ George C. Kohn (2001). The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal. Infobase Publishing. p. 152. 
  15. ^ Edward Renehan, Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons (2005)
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ "The Redstone Story re-lives the industrialization of the West" Redstone, Colorado website, history
  18. ^ Mary Kupiec Cayton et al. eds. (1993). Encyclopedia of American social history. Scribner. pp. 1064 vol 2. 
  19. ^ T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (2010) p 328
  20. ^ John Franch, Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes (2008)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]