Robber baron (industrialist)

"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 lands[1] or 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."[2]

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."[3] 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."[4]

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.[5]


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:

Robber Barons, standing for a Gilded Age of corruption, monopoly, and rampant individualism. Their corporations were the Octopus, devouring all in its path. In the twentieth century and the twenty-first they became entrepreneurs, necessary business revolutionaries, ruthlessly changing existing practices and demonstrating the protean nature of American capitalism. Their new corporations also transmuted and became manifestations of the "Visible Hand," a managerial rationality that eliminated waste, increased productivity, and brought bourgeois values to replace those of financial buccaneers.[6]


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.[7]


American historian Matthew Josephson further popularized the term during the Great Depression in a 1934 book.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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."[11] 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."[12]

Recent approaches

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.[13]

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.[14]

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".[15] During the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, the term was used by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in his attacks on Wall Street.[16] The business practices and political power of the billionaires of Silicon Valley has also led to their identification as robber barons.[17][18]

The metaphor has also been used to characterize Russian businessmen allied to Vladimir Putin.[19]

List of businessmen labelled as robber barons

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

See also


  1. "A Romance of the New Era". Harper's New Monthly Magazine. LXXXIX (DXXXIV). November 1894. Retrieved 2009-07-10.
  2. T. J. Stiles, "Robber Barons or Captains of Industry?" History Now
  3. Charles R. Geisst (1997). Wall Street : A History. Oxford UP. p. 77.
  4. Hal Bridges, "The robber baron concept in American history." Business History Review 32#1 (1958): 1–13, page 1.
  5. Worth Robert Miller, Populist cartoons: an illustrated history of the third-party movement in the 1890s (2011) p. 13
  6. Richard White (2011). Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. W. W. Norton. p. 230.
  7. John Tipple, "The anatomy of prejudice: Origins of the robber baron legend." Business History Review 33#4 (1959): 510–523, quoting pp 510, 521.
  8. Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934.
  9. Steve Fraser, "The Misunderstood Robber Baron: On Cornelius Vanderbilt: T.J. Stiles's The First Tycoon is a gilded portrait of the robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt," The Nation Nov. 11, 2009
  10. Allan Nevins, John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise, 2 vols., New York, C. Scribner's sons, 1940.
  11. Bridges, "The robber baron concept in American history." p 1
  12. Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2011) pp xxxi, 234, 508
  13. John R. Thelin, "California and the Colleges," California Historical Quarterly (1977) 56#2 pp 140–63 at p 149.
  14. "The Industrial Age in America: Robber Barons and Captains of Industry" EDSITEment! The Best of the humanities on the web."
  15. Erik Kirschbaum, "Bruce Springsteen: Bankers Are 'Greedy Thieves'" Reuters May 31, 2012
  16. Bernie Sanders (2015). Outsider in the White House. Verso Books. p. 278.
  17. Hanson, Victor Davis (17 August 2017). "Silicon Valley Billionaires Are the New Robber Barons". Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  18. Motley, Seton (31 July 2017). "Silicon Valley Robber Barons Are Using Government As A Weapon Against Us". Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  19. David O. Whitten, "Russian robber barons: Moscow business, American style." European Journal of Law and Economics 13#3 (2002): 193-201.
  20. Charles O'Brien (2013). Death of a Robber Baron. Kensington. p. 289.
  21. Jepson, Tim (2004-01-01). The Rough Guide to Vancouver. Rough Guides. ISBN 9781843532453.
  22. Theodore Dreiser; Roark Mulligan, editor. (2010). The Financier: The Critical Edition. U. of Illinois Press. p. 559.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  23. David Leon Chandler, Henry Flagler: The Astonishing Life and Times of the Visionary Robber Baron Who Founded Florida (1986)
  24. George C. Kohn (2001). The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal. Infobase Publishing. p. 152.
  25. Edward Renehan, Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons (2005)
  26. 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.
  27. "The Redstone Story re-lives the industrialization of the West" Redstone, Colorado website, history
  28. Mary Kupiec Cayton et al. eds. (1993). Encyclopedia of American social history. Scribner. pp. 1064 vol 2.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  29. Denning, Michael (1996). The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London, New York: Verso. p. 173. ISBN 9781844674640.
  30. Stone, Oliver (2012). The Untold History of the United States. New York: Gallery Books. ISBN 9780091949310.
  31. Martin Naparsteck; Michele Cardulla (2013). Mrs. Mark Twain: The Life of Olivia Langdon Clemens, 1845-1904. McFarland. p. 109.
  32. Dickinson, Donald C. (1998). Dictionary of American Antiquarian Bookdealers. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 183. ISBN 9780313266751.
  33. T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (2010) p 328
  34. John Franch, Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes (2008)

Further reading

  • Beatty, Jack. (2008). Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900 Vintage Books. ISBN 1400032423
  • Bridges, Hal. (1958) "The Robber Baron Concept in American History" Business History Review (1958) 32#1 pp. 1–13 in JSTOR
  • Burlingame, D.F. Ed. (2004). Philanthropy in America: A comprehensive historical encyclopaedia (3 vol. ABC Clio).
  • Cochran, Thomas C. (1949) "The Legend of the Robber Barons." Explorations in Economic History 1#5 (1949) online.
  • Folsom, Burton W. (1991) The Myth of the Robber Barons: A New Look at the Rise of Big Business in America ISBN 978-0963020307
  • Fraser, Steve. (2015). The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0316185434
  • Harvey, Charles, et al. "Andrew Carnegie and the foundations of contemporary entrepreneurial philanthropy." Business History 53.3 (2011): 425-450. online
  • Jones, Peter d'A. ed. (1968). The Robber Barons Revisited (1968) excerpts from primary and secondary sources.
  • Marinetto, M. (1999). "The historical development of business philanthropy: Social responsibility in the new corporate economy" Business History 41#4, 1-20.
  • Ostrower, F. (1995). Why the wealthy give: The culture of elite philanthropy (Princeton UP).
  • Ostrower, F. (2002). Trustees of culture: Power, wealth and status on elite arts boards (U of Chicago: Press).
  • Josephson, Matthew. (1934). The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861–1901
  • Taylor, Marilyn L.; Robert J. Strom; David O. Renz (2014). Handbook of Research on Entrepreneurs: Engagement in Philanthropy: Perspectives. Edward Elgar. pp. 1–8.
  • Wren, D.A. (1983) "American business philanthropy and higher education in the nineteenth century" Business History Review. 57#3 321-346.
  • Zinn, Howard. (2005). "Chapter 11: Robber Barons and Rebels" from A People's History of the United States Harper Perennial. ISBN 0060838655
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