The Gilded Age In America: The American West
America in 1860. In 1860 the settled eastern portion of the United States reached to the region that bordered on the Mississippi River along with Texas. On the far side of the continent lay the states of California and Oregon. The vast area in between included the Great Plains, the Southwestern desert and the Rocky Mountains, soon to become the last frontier of America. Native American tribes populated the region, including the Sioux, Blackfoot, Pawnee, Apache, Navajo, Nez Perce, Cheyenne and many others. Unlike the rich, lush farmland in the eastern part of the United States, the Great Plains stretched for mile upon mile with barely a tree in sight and low annual rainfall that often left the land dry and parched. In the Rockies deposits of silver, copper, gold, lead and other minerals were waiting to be exploited. By the end of the Civil War the state of Kansas poked into the West and Nevada had been admitted in 1864, but the rest of the territory was but sparsely settled. That would soon change.
Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”: In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave an address to the World Congress of Historians in Chicago with the title, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In that important address he put forth what has become known as the “frontier thesis.” His essential idea was that through repeated exposure to the frontier experiences, dating from the time of the arrival of the first English settlers, Americans have been exposed to conditions which encouraged the development and growth of democratic ideas. This contact with what were often primitive conditions also generated certain kinds of traits in Americans—a willingness to take risks, energy, a practical rather than theoretical turn of mind, and a sense of self-reliance and rugged individualism. Having survived these frontier experiences, Americans also developed a high degree of self-confidence and a powerful belief in their own destiny as a people and a nation.
Although critics have dissected Turner’s ideas, which he elaborated in later writings, they may easily be connected with other ideas about the nature of American society. They share much in common with works such as Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and with emerging 19th century philosophies such as “manifest destiny.” By itself the frontier thesis cannot explain “Americanism” in any definitive way; taken together with other historical theories, however, it does make some sense. The vast extent of territory between the Atlantic and Pacific, the natural resources, the constant fighting with Indians and the isolation from most international struggles until the beginning of the 20th century all contributed to what can be defined as the American character. Like most generalizations, though, such terms must be used with caution.
In any case, when the Civil War had ended, Americans did go west in great numbers. They went in search of gold and silver or other mineral riches, of land, space and opportunity. While some travelers came from families who had been here for generations, others were immigrants who passed quickly through teeming eastern cities and found themselves in the Rocky Mountains or the Great Plains, often gathering within close-knit ethnic communities of Germans, Swedes or Poles.
That view of the West has a certain vitality and charm—brave pioneers facing the elements with only what they could carry in a covered wagon; but it also has an ugly side: gross and careless exploitation of resources, or the driving of Indians who had lived in western areas for centuries onto reservations often hundreds of miles from their native soil. That rugged American individualism, which so many have admired, has also led from time to time to less-than-admirable behaviors: a certain degree of lawlessness, a don’t-give-a-damn self-centeredness and a healthy contempt for even legitimate authority.
For good or ill, the pioneers came, they saw and they conquered. They plowed and farmed and built and mined and hunted. They brought millions of acres of what was once thought to be desert land into cultivation. They hammered down thousands of miles of railroad track and discovered passes through the formidable mountain ranges. They constructed villages, towns and cities in areas that had been virtually uninhabited as far back as one could trace. Those settlements provided what some have called a kind of safety valve for the often squalid conditions in the eastern factories and cities. America, it has been said, had only one revolution (unless one counts the Civil War) because a necessary ingredient of revolution is discontent, and Americans who were discontented could always go somewhere else—in most cases without even thinking about leaving their country.
All of those factors outlined above were a powerful force in the late 19th century. Yet they combined with another, perhaps even more powerful force, the second industrial revolution. The two phenomena—the frontier and the boom in industry—complemented and fed off one another. Industry helped build the railroads, tamed the Great Plains for farmers and ranchers and provided the tools they needed to survive in great numbers. The west provided space and resources—space for those who became weary of the drudgery of the factory and resources in the form of raw materials industrial production. Together these elements transformed the country from a rich, vibrant, but in many ways naïve and innocent country into the most powerful industrial force on the planet. The United States has more or less continuously maintained that position into the 21st century.
Cowboys and Farmers: Farming on the frontier was challenging to men and women accustomed to rich land, plentiful rainfall and close-knit communities such as existed in the Ohio, Hudson, Susquehanna, Tennessee, Cumberland and other eastern river valleys. The Plains by contrast were flat, dry, treeless and immense. The wind that blew across the prairies was often seen and felt as a ghostlike thing, a spirit that sometimes drove people mad. Water was as valuable for some as gold, and frequently fought over.
The fact of life about farming and ranching in the West was that while land was plentiful, water was scarce, and the competition for resources often degenerated into violence. The value of cattle depended upon the ability of the rancher to get his herd to market, which often meant driving them hundreds of miles over open plains to get to the nearest railhead. Abilene, Kansas, became one of the first towns developed as a center for the shipment of cattle. Its developer, Jesse Chisholm, introduced the enterprise to Abilene and sent scouts out to attract ranchers, thus giving rise to the famous Chisholm Trail.
Farmers seeking to protect their crops against large herds of cattle soon discovered the new invention of barbed wire, which they began stringing across the plains to protect their crops and their water. Cattlemen often found themselves in conflict with farmers as their movements over range lands became more restricted. In addition, cattleman themselves began wiring off their ranges, and the competition for space led to wire cutting, rustling and other practices that often degenerated into violence. The resulting “barbed wire wars” sometimes had to be broken up by United States cavalry.
All the same, the cowboy was an institution in Western life. Thousands of them, many of Mexican or African-American descent, raised herds of cattle on the plains. Instead of being a romantic saga as often depicted in books and films, the life of a cattleman, as well as that of a farmer, was often dull and tedious. Driving a large herd to a railhead in Abilene or Dodge City, Kansas, meant spending days in the saddle. They rode along behind herds of animals that raised dust and had to be constantly controlled, sleeping under the stars and riding through rain and storms. It is little wonder that when the cowboys arrived at their destination and received their payoff they were ready for some excitement in the dance halls and saloons.
Frontier towns like Tombstone or Virginia City were not as wild and wooly nor as romantic as they are often portrayed by Hollywood. Nonetheless, events such as the famous “gunfight at OK Corral” really did happen. In the absence of reliable law enforcement agencies, frontier settlers owned and carried guns, to be sure, and women as well as men knew how to use them. But Saturday nights on the frontier were as likely to be dominated by church socials, dances, or meetings at which political issues were discussed (along with the prospects for rain) as by drunken cowboys rampaging in the streets shooting everything in sight. As soon as they were ready, these western settlements applied for territorial status and then statehood, and by 1912 the “lower 48” were all in the Union. (Hawaii and Alaska became states in 1959.)
Admission of Western States
October 31, 1864
March 1, 1867
August 1, 1876
November 2, 1889
November 2, 1889
November 8, 1889
November 11, 1889
July 3, 1890
July 10, 1890
January 4, 1896
November 16, 1907
January 6, 1912
February 14, 1912
Admission Politics. When important decisions regarding the state of the country are made, politics always play a part. As with most such issues, the big question regarding admission of new states was the impact new additions would have on the major national parties. Among the issues were the political makeup of territorial populations, their voting tendencies and governments; the impact of silver mining in the mountain states, which would in turn affect national currency issues; the impact of new state electoral votes at a time when the two parties were essentially stalemated; competition for railroad routes; and such additional issues as the fact that western territories had taken the lead in allowing women to vote (Wyoming was the first, in 1869.) The bottom line was that the admission of any new state would likely upset the political balance of power. Looking at the chart, one can readily see that the election of Republican President Benjamin Harrison in 1888 led to the admission of four new (Republican) states in 1889. It is worth noting that although Harrison defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland in the Electoral College, he lost the popular vote by a narrow margin. Another example shows that in 1912 Republicans attempted to block the admission of Arizona because the territorial legislature was controlled by Democrats.
Western Railroad Building: Changing the Landscape
The story of the destruction of Native American cultures is intimately connected with the building of railroads across the western part of the United States. During the period of struggle between Indians and whites in the late 19th century, Indian leaders often traveled east to plead their case before sympathetic audiences. One chief was asked what could be done to help preserve the Indian cultures of the West. His answer: “Stop building the railroads.” He may as well have asked for the sun to stop shining. The building of the transcontinental railroads and all their branches was an inevitable part of the Industrial Revolution that drove America following the Civil War.
The building of the first transcontinental railroad by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad companies was a monumental feat. Whether the men were battling winds and blizzards on the open plains, or tunneling through the Sierra Mountains at the painfully slow rate of eight inches per day, the work was grueling and dangerous. Every mile of track was laid by hand; every spike was driven by strong men with hammers; every wooden tie was lifted into place by railroad workers, sometimes called “Gandy dancers.” The workers who built the railroad came from the ranks of immigrants who flooded the country following the Civil War: They were primarily Italians, Irish, and Chinese.
The Chinese especially became very adept at the skills necessary to tunnel through the California Sierra Mountains, using hammers, chisels and black powder to blast through the rock.
Plans for the first railroad had begun well before the Civil War. In fact, the Central Pacific started building east from Sacramento, California, in 1863. But the Civil War delayed progress until 1865. Then the Union Pacific started out from Omaha, Nebraska, and the two companies worked towards each other to cover almost 2000 miles. In addition to the physical challenges of the mountains, plains, cold and heat, the workers were constantly harassed by Indians who felt that the building of the railroads across reservation lands was a violation of their treaties. Indians also understood that the railroads would bring even more white settlers into their territory, which could hardly bode well for their existence, a condition which had already become tenuous in any case. Indeed, the completion of the first railroad in 1869 at Promontory, Utah, as well as the other transcontinental lines that followed in the ensuing decades, changed the lives of the Plains Indians forever.
In addition to labor and materials, the railroads obviously needed large amounts of capital. Since the federal and state governments saw the railroads as a boon to national and local economic prospects, they were willing to underwrite much of the cost by distributing to the railroads the one commodity which they held in abundance: land. Across the vast open spaces in the West were millions of acres of arable land. That resource, however, could not be converted into profitable farming land without some means for the farmers to get their produce to market. No one would pay a substantial price for land until the prospect existed that a railroad would be constructed to move cattle, grain and other products to urban areas.
Rather than giving funds directly to the railroads in the form of grants or loans, the government divided the land along the railroad rights-of-way into square sections, and alternate sections were given to the railroads. The remaining sections were sold directly to settlers. The government could command a much higher price for land that would be serviced by a railroad, and many settlers willingly paid a premium for the promising sites. Conversely, the lands granted to the railroads could be similarly sold to settlers in order to raise the necessary capital for the actual building. There is no question that this great land giveaway benefited the railroads, the settlers and, indirectly, the workers employed in building the long lines. But the land-grant legislation also provided for the right of federal agencies to use the railroads at discount prices once they were completed. Historians have estimated that the federal government recouped most of its investment during the period of the First World War, when thousands of troops and tons of supplies were moved by rail.
Any time large amounts of money change hands, the opportunity for corruption and misuse of funds is bound to exist, and the building of the railroads proved to be no exception. The owners of the railroad companies formed a construction organization called Credit Mobilier, which was owned and controlled by the same people who owned the railroads. The railroad executives then awarded lucrative contracts to Credit Mobilier, thus lining their own pockets. In order to keep the government from getting too fussy about how this shady business was being transacted, the corporation gave hundreds of shares of stock to congressmen, senators and state legislators. The pretext for such handouts was that the donations would allow government officials to exercise oversight over the roads themselves. In the end, millions of dollars were raised, often changing hands under the table; huge profits were enjoyed, to the benefit of thousands. But in the long run, many miles of railroad track often failed to produce profits and ended up being written off as losses.
What about the farmers who quickly came to depend on railroads for their livelihood? Unfortunately they soon discovered that the railroads, which had a monopoly on the only transportation medium that served their direct needs, could exploit them outrageously. Railroads charged any rate they chose, including fees for storage of farm goods such as grain in railroad-owned silos. They even manipulated railroad rates to take advantage of people in areas on short spur lines who had only one avenue to get their produce where it needed to go. Such exploitation helped to fuel the farmers’ movement which eventually became the core of the Populist movement. It also contributed to the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1877.
Like most other technological advances of that industrial era, the railroads did much good and considerable harm. They changed the lives of Americans in ways of which we are scarcely aware, such as altering our concept of time; railroad managers created the four time zones. The phenomenon of the white collar job was generated largely by railroads, who employed thousands of clerks to manage schedules, billing, and myriad other jobs that were part of the operation of any large corporation.
Even today, in the 21st century, railroads move millions of tons of materials and products far more efficiently than they can be moved by any other means. Railroads no longer occupy the romantic imagination of travelers as they once did, but they remain a vital part of the American economy.
Major points of Railroad Construction:
•The building of the railroads is naturally connected with the settlement of the West and the gradual destruction of Indian cultures.
•Three natural resources were needed to prosper in new territory: land, water, and timber. Out west two are missing, and railroads carried wood to the plains areas.
•The Homestead Act of 1862 gave settlers 160 acres of free land, under certain conditions that encouraged settlement.
•The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 set the wheels of railroad expansion moving. The Land Grant System gave millions of acres to railroad builders.
•Railroads enhanced the value of the land enormously, but made farmers dependent on railroads.
•Sale of extra land by railroad companies raised capital to finance railroad building.
•The race for the connection with the Pacific Coast led in 1869 to completion of the first transcontinental line at Promontory, Utah.
•Railroad construction led to further settlement of the West, which in turn aggravated conditions for the Indian tribes.
When the golden spike was driven at Promontory, Utah, in 1869, poet Bret Harte composed some lines in commemoration. The poem began:
What was it the engines said,
Pilots touching head to head.
Facing on the single track,
Half a world behind each back.
The first through train carrying 500 passengers arrived in Omaha within hours of completion of the link. The event was greeted with parades, fireworks, church bells, speeches, thanksgiving services and general hoopla from coast to coast.
The Industrial Revolution in America
If a farmer living in 1500 had suddenly been transported to the year 1800, he might have noticed some changes, but they would hardly have been startling. Most labor was still accomplished by human muscle and animal power; ships were propelled by wind and sails; and transportation, even over modest distances, was measured in days or weeks, not hours. But if you took a farmer or artisan from 1800 and set him on the ground in 1900, the visible changes would no doubt have overwhelmed him.
Although we cannot imagine life in the year 2100, it must be said that the 19th century was the century of the greatest change in the history of man. True, the airplane, spaceship and atomic bomb were products of the 20th century, but those inventions were not unimaginable in 1900, and they did not have the overwhelming impact of, for example, the train powered by a locomotive that forever changed man’s appreciation of the concept of time. When the first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858 and Queen Victoria exchanged a message with the President James Buchanan of the United States, people thought a miracle had been wrought.
The accelerating rate of change between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century was truly astounding. The inventions of Thomas Alva Edison, the entrepreneurial genius of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and the contributions of thousands of other imaginative men and women changed daily life in America. Often the change was for the better, but sometimes it was for the worse. In 1820 the factory had been a small, family-oriented business with perhaps a dozen employees. The textile mills of New England were larger, as were the ship yards along the Atlantic Coast, but in most businesses the owner was also the manager, and he knew the name and something of the life of everyone who worked for him.
By 1880 factories were employing hundreds, even thousands of workers. Owners and upper-level managers rarely saw their workers on a day-to-day basis and had little concept of life in their factories. But the advances were impressive: the light bulb, high-grade steel, mechanical devices of all sorts, mass production, the skyscraper, electric power, internal combustion engines, the transcontinental railroad, canned food and ready-made clothing, indoor plumbing, artificial lighting, and countless other advances transformed the lives of those who could afford to take advantage of such things.
At the lower end of the economic scale, life did not necessarily get better. As millions of immigrants poured into the country, cheap labor was the norm. While workers attempted to organize themselves for better pay and working conditions, they knew that the hordes of immigrants pouring through Ellis Island and other ports of entry were eager to displace them, even at wages scarcely enough to live on. As machines took over much of the process of manufacturing, workmanlike skills often became irrelevant, eliminating much of the need for skilled labor. A man might stand all day pulling a handle or turning a valve or doing some other mindless, repetitive task, which meant that he could be replaced in minutes should he suffer an injury or illness.
As the cities rose and bridges, rail lines, and port facilities expanded, the progress was visible everywhere, even if thousands were too tired or absorbed in their own misery to notice. Large businesses required clerks, accountants, and other white-collar workers, and the new middle class prospered as never before. The weekend, usually consisting of a free half-day on Saturday and all day Sunday, gave workers a chance to rest. As the workday shortened and leisure time increased, the abundance of cheap newspapers and magazines provided endless sources of information for the literate and curious. Schools and universities expanded dramatically. Among very poor people, however, children were often sent to the factory rather than to school, and truant officers often roamed the halls of the factories, driving students back to the classroom. In many cases, the parents would tell the children to return to their places of work as soon as possible; every family member had to produce income if the poor family was to survive and prosper.
Even in those harsh conditions, reforms were underway. The status of the working man was recognized when the first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. The paid summer vacation became an expectation for many middle-class workers. Although health insurance, unemployment insurance and accident benefits did not evolve fully until the Progressive Era, millions of Americans found life easier and more pleasant than they had during the early 19th century.
Industrialization in America, slow to start because of the Civil War, took off during the last half of the 19th century, so that by the year 1900 American steel production had far outstripped that of the rest of the world. The United States had over 200,000 miles of railroads by 1914, about as many miles as the rest of the world put together. American farm products and manufactured goods were shipped abroad in a growing American fleet of merchant marine vessels, and American travelers toured the globe in search of interesting spectacles.
The “Robber Barons”
Back in the time of Thomas Jefferson, the enemies of freedom included what he and his fellow Republicans called the “aristocracy.” By that he meant monarchists, men of the British upper class (and their American imitators) who wielded unrestrained power. In other words, unbridled government. By the latter part of the 19th century, a new aristocracy had arisen in America—the “great captains of industry.” Those industrialists, bankers, traders, merchants and their ilk were called the robber barons, and the only power sufficient to rein them in was government. So Jefferson’s enemy of freedom—big government—became the means of protecting the people from the monied aristocrats.
John D. Rockefeller arose from a position of bookkeeper to create the Standard Oil Company in 1870, becoming in the process the richest man in the world and America’s first billionaire. Ruthless in his business practices, he drove smaller oil companies out of business by accepting short-term losses in the sale of kerosene and other products, undercutting the prices of competitors. By 1904 Standard Oil controlled about 90% of the oil business in the United States and had large investments overseas. (See Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., (New York, 1998.)
Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt started working at age 11 as a deck hand on his father’s ferry boat on the Hudson River. In due course he became owner of his own boat and was soon engaged in the lucrative Hudson River traffic between New York and Albany. With the profits he made from his boat business he began to invest in railroads in the 1830s, eventually owning a number of lines that merged into the Grand Central Railroad, which operated between New York City and Chicago.
Andrew Carnegie started working in a factory at age 13 for twelve hours a day, six days a week, for about two dollars a week. Bright, industrious, and a voracious reader, Carnegie was the epitome of the self-made man. From his job as a telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania Railroad, he rose in the company and became more widely engaged in the railroad business. With the capital he accumulated, in the years after the Civil War Civil War he turned his attention to the production of iron goods. By creating profitable partnerships and investing widely and wisely, he eventually saw his Federal Steel Company become the core of the United States steel Corporation, the first billion-dollar industry in the world.
Later in life Carnegie turned to philanthropy, funding educational and cultural facilities, including over 3,000 libraries in 47 states and around the world. He funded the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and Carnegie Hall in New York City. By the time of his death Carnegie had bequeathed several hundred million dollars, the equivalent of over $4 billion in current terms. He also encouraged his fellow millionaires to meet the responsibilities that accompany the accumulation of wealth, suggesting that it was wrong for a person to die rich.
Management of the huge sums of money needed to form and operate the giant corporations of the industrial era required skillful financiers. J. Pierpont Morgan began work in his father’s London bank in 1857. He soon moved to America, where he worked at various investment banks, eventually becoming founder of J.P. Morgan & Company. He was the driving force behind the rise of the House of Morgan, an international entity that became one of the most powerful instruments of commerce and diplomacy in history.
Seen by many observers as arrogant and overbearing, J.P. Morgan orchestrated many of the biggest financial deals of the industrial era, such as the creation of United States Steel. He used his financial power to gain control of railroads and other industries. Morgan also had a huge impact on national and international financial affairs, as the Morgan Bank often served as an adjunct to the United States Treasury. He spent lavishly on works of art, eventually leaving much of his collection to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Although not as wealthy as some of the industrialists of that gage, he nevertheless controlled billions of dollars. (See Ron Chernow, The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance, New York, 1990.)
All those men and dozens of others like them exercised an extraordinary degree of control over the commercial life of the United States. Their interests interlocked; bankers and industrialists frequently shared seats on each other’s boards of directors, so that the interests of the many contributed to the wealth of the individual corporations. They exercised substantial control over governments, often coming to the rescue in times of financial crisis by pumping dollars or gold into the financial arena. Political leaders frequently used institutions like the House of Morgan to finance government operations and perform diplomatic functions, both in peace and war. In many ways the large corporations exerted more power over the state of the nation that did the government, sometimes for good, often for the benefit of none but themselves.
Thomas Alva Edison started work as a telegraph operator. His technological skills eventually led to the award of over 1000 patents for his own inventions. Best known for his incandescent light bulb, recording and motion picture machines, he was also a successful businessman who was instrumental in creating America’s first network of power companies. His famous laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, was frequently the scene of discussions between Edison and other industrialists such as Henry Ford. He is famous for his maxim, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
All those men and dozens of others like them exercised an extraordinary degree of control over the commercial life of the United States. Their interests interlocked; bankers and industrialists frequently shared seats on each other’s boards of directors, so that the interests of the many contributed to the wealth of the individual corporations. They exercised substantial control over governments, often coming to the rescue in times of financial crisis by pumping dollars or gold into the financial arena. Political leaders frequently used institutions like the House of Morgan to finance government operations and perform diplomatic functions, both in peace and war.
Monopolies, Trusts, Pools and Corporate Integration
In an age of fiercely competitive practices, businesses sought means of controlling markets in order to maximize profits. The most obvious way to influence the market was to create a monopoly. When a corporation achieves monopolistic status, it is large enough to dominate the market for the products it makes, thus being able to control prices. A monopoly does not have to control the entire market; economic theory suggests that once a corporation has about a one third share of the market, it has become monopolistic. In modern times, however, the rise of a global economy and international competition has influenced the way individual nations view monopolistic practices. (A close examination of the Microsoft Corporation revels how the issue of monopoly control plays out in more modern times.)
Monopoly control of markets was achieved by the organization of trusts. The standard oil Company offers an example. Between 1868, when the first Standard oil company was founded in Pennsylvania, and 1900, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Corporation brought other companies under its control, some of which were founded by Rockefeller himself. Standard oil companies existed in Ohio, Iowa, New Jersey, California, and elsewhere. Standard also gained control of competing companies such as Atlantic Refining, Acme Oil Company and others. By 1900 the Standard Oil Trust exercised near full control over the oil industry in the United States.
Less formal monopolistic practices included the creation of pools, which consisted of companies that were not legally organized together but nevertheless entered into agreements to control market share, pricing, distribution and so on.
Yet another means by which corporations sought to increase profits was through integration, both horizontal and vertical. Horizontal integration was similar to the formation of trusts, except for the fact that this practice involved the simple takeover of smaller competing companies rather than leaving them technically under separate management. Standard Oil would open new outlets in areas they had not yet reached, sometimes undercutting local companies until they folded or sold out to Standard.
Vertical integration involved a corporation’s expanding its operations both up and down the production chain from the procurement of raw materials to the actual retail sale of products. In the steel industry, vertical integration would involve the acquisition of sources of coal and iron ore, the basic raw materials needed for the creation of steel. A company such as Carnegie Steel also acquired fleets of ore boats to move raw materials on the Great Lakes. Oil and steel companies also built railroad spurs, sometimes to avoid the monopolistic practices of their carriers. In the oil business, vertical integration might involve creating a chain of gas stations or businesses that would sell kerosene and other petroleum products direct to the public.
Until the government was able to organize the means to control such practices, corporations in the steel, oil, tobacco, meatpacking, and other industries struggled to control their respective markets. The only restrictions on their predatory practices came from competitors, and when they were eliminated, the giant corporations were able to dictate conditions for the marketing of their products. (The Interstate Commerce Act and Sherman Antitrust Act will be discussed below.)
Certainly the wealth of men like Carnegie provided the wherewithal for philanthropy, which in turn brought great benefits to the American people in the form of universities, hospitals, libraries, museums, parks, and countless other contributions to American society and culture. Advances in science, medicine and the arts were financed through the generosity of those captains of industry and finance. John D. Rockefeller funded medical research to attack chronic disease that plagued poorer segments of society. He also gave generously to Spelman College in Atlanta, an elite college for Black women named in honor of Rockefeller’s wife, Laura Spelman. Despite their well-publicized public generosity, their callous disregard for the plight of those they exploited made the Robber Barons pariahs in the minds of the public. They built great institutions, amassed great wealth, did much good and much harm. Individually and collectively they have been studied in detail. Among the noteworthy industrialists:
•Andrew Carnegie: Railroads and Steel
•John D. Rockefeller: Oil
•Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt: Shipping and Railroads
•John Jacob Astor: Real Estate and Fur
•Henry Clay Frick: Steel
•Jay Gould and James Fisk: Railroads and Finance
•Andrew Mellon: Finance
•Leland Stanford: Railroads
•John Pierpont Morgan: Finance
•Collis P. Huntington: Railroads
•Charles Crocker: railroads
•George Mortimer Pullman: Railroads
•Thomas Alva Edison and the Business of Invention: Edison is not generally included in the category of “robber barons,” but his name should be included among the industrial giants of the Gilded Age.
(See Charles R. Morris, The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy, New York, 2005.)
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