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“Captain of Industry” or “Robber Barons”?

By johnson53005 Apr 17, 2010 1242 Words
“Captain of Industry” or “Robber Barons”?
American Industrial leaders of the late 19th and 20th centuries have earned the right to be called “Captains of Industry”, although along the way they may have acted as “Robber Barons.”It is a difficult to put any of these people into only one category, because without one there would not be the other. Acting as a “Robber Barron” was merely a stepping stone or a means of moving themselves in a leadership position in order to achieve their goal. These people and events had such an impact on the American society that it would be unjust to call them “Robber Barons” and only recognize them for the bad. The Industrial Revolution created many needed opportunities for Americans to prosper and to put the country on the right path, by creating jobs, expanding markets and changing the workforce. The leaders of this revolution made extraordinary advancements that greatly helped society. By calling these individuals “Captains of Industry”, we emphasize the good in what they have accomplished in changing the American economy and honor their charitable contributions, rather than the means by which they did so. Some of these men had cruel and unusual ways of achieving their goals and were often looked at as being selfish and immoral. There were factories where the working conditions were harsh and inhumane, the pay was low, and there was also little or no regard for safety on the job because it interfered with productivity. There were alsotragedieslike the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire where a total of 154 men, women and children worker were killed. The workers were locked in, in order to prevent them from taking breaks and losing production time. The building caught on fire and they did not have any means of safetyescaping the blaze, they resorted to jumping out of windows or were burned to death (48). It is hard to imagine how any good can come from such a tragedy but it did. We learned from our mistakes and groups that regulated safety, pushed for better pay along with workers’ rights and benefits came to be in order to prevent these things from occurring in the future, OSHA which regulated workplace safety is one for example. The Wagner Act is another example. It was written to help companies form alliances in exchange for guaranteeing certain rights for workers (78). This was the beginning of the Workers Union; they negotiated rights for the workers and implemented a set of “rules” in order to ensure proper treatment of the workers for the employers to follow. In addition to the events that happened that had a hand in transforming America’s economy and working environment there were also many people who also influenced it. Andrew Carnegie was a man of charity and strongly believed that “the man who dies rich dies disgraced.” He sought out and pushed for a way for wealth to be administered in society that would do the greatest good. Carnegie felt that there were three modes to dispose of a person’s wealth. The first being thatafter a person's death “it can be left to families of their descendants”, which he felt did not achieve his goal. The second mode said after death “it can be donated for public use”, the third “it can be administered during their lives by its possessors.” He felt the third mode held the only real solution to the problem, and by disposing of the excess wealth this way “the surplus wealth of the few, will become in the best sense the property of many and be used for the common good” (10). One of the most successful industrialists was John D. Rockefeller he monopolized the refining industry with the Standard Oil Company. He expanded the oil market and created many need jobs. Although his ways were sometimes not morally sound, he strived to the best company and make the most profit. He describes his company as having the best superintendent and his workers being paid the best wages. Rockefeller paved the way for markets to be supplied at the least expense, and also cheapened the storage and delivery of oil. By doing all this he took an industry that was on the verge of failing and saved it, and secured jobs and paycheck for people who would have otherwise been without. Oil was now able to be refined cheaply, and sold cheaply, and yet still be profitable,the economy was greatly stimulated by the expansion of this industry (17). There were other men who had different ways of contributing to the revolution. Russell Cronwell was a Baptist preacher who believed and preached about being an honorable business man. He preached a sermon that stated “No man has a moral right to transact business unless he makes something out of it. He also had no right to transact business unless the man he deals with has an opportunity also to make something.” He continues on to preach that “Unless he lives and let’s live, he is not an honest man in business. There are no exceptions to this great rule (16).” William Jennings Bryan gave a speech called “Cross of Gold”, in which he spoke against the Gold Standard and pushed for the U.S. to be able to legislate for itself on every question (23). These two people contributed their words and influence on Americans during this Era. They too should be thought of as “Captains in Industry.”

These people may have acted the part of “Robber Barons” on their path to being considered “Captains of Industry”, but in reality there cannot be one without the other. Over the course of many years they have done more good than harm to society. They should be considered “Captains of Industry” because they used their skills; business or otherwise; to in some way impact or strengthen the economy, and they knew how to use their power and money for good. Without these men and their determination we would not be where we are today and would be without many of today’s luxuries. If they had not gained the power they did they would have never been able to move the economy in the right direction. At times they may have acted immorally or their actions considered controversial, by acting in this manner they were able to put themselves in a position that would positively impact the country and make many needed changes as well as charitable contributions. In doing all these things and more they have earned the right to be known and honored as “Captains of Industry.”

Works Cited
Blakley, Derek. "U.S. History Workbook." Doc.3: Andrew Carnegie, Gospel of Wealth (1889). Lake Charles: McNeese State University History Department, 2007.

Blakley, Derek. "U.S. History Workbook." Doc.6: Russell Cornwell, Acres of Diamonds (1901). Lake Charles: McNeese State University History Department, 2007.

Blakley, Derek. "U.S. History Workbook." Doc.7: John D. Rockefeller, On the Virtues of Intergration (1909). Lake Charles: McNeese State University History Department, 2007.

Blakley, Derek. "U.S. History Workbook." Doc.11: William Jennings Bryan, Cross of Gold Speech (1896). Lake Charles: McNeese State University History Department, 2007.

Blakley, Derek. "U.S. History Workbook." Doc.25: New York World, The Triangle Shirtwasit Fire (1911). Lake Charles: McNeese State University History Department, 2007.

Blakley, Derek. "U.S. History Workbook." Doc.42: Wagne Act (1935). Lake Charles: McNeese State University History Department, 2007.

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