The Gilded Age and the dawn of the 20th century are often remembered as an era full of monopolies, trusts, and economic giants in heavy industries like oil and steel. Men like Andrew Carnegie built empires like Carnegie Steel, and financiers like J.P. Morgan merged and consolidated them. The era also made names like Astor, Cooke, and Vanderbilt instantly recognizable across the globe. Over time, the unfathomable wealth generated by the businesses made the individuals on top incredibly rich, and that in turn led to immense criticism and an infamous epithet used to rail against them: robber barons.
Dozens of men were called “robber barons”, but few of them were as notorious as Cornelius Vanderbilt, who also happened to be one of the nation’s first business titans. Vanderbilt was a railroad and shipping magnate at a time that the industry was almost brand new, but he rode his success to become one of the richest and most powerful men in American history.
When historians are asked to name the richest man in history, a name that often pops up is that of John D. Rockefeller, who co-founded Standard Oil and turned it into the first real trust in the United States. Rockefeller had been groomed ambitiously by a huckster father nicknamed “Devil Bill”, who was just as willing to cheat his son as an unsuspecting public, and John certainly chased his dreams of living long and large. Rockefeller forged his empire in the first few decades of his life and nearly worked himself to death by the time he was 50, which helped compel him to retire for the last several decades of his life. At one point, Rockefeller’s wealth was worth more than 1.5% of the entire country’s gross domestic product, and by adjusting for inflation, he is arguably the richest man in American history if not world history.
When robber barons across America took the reins of vast industries, they needed financing, and many of them turned to the most famous banker of all: John Pierpont Morgan. It was J.P. Morgan who bankrolled the consolidation of behemoth corporations across various industries, including the merging of Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston Electric Company, which subsequently became General Electric, still known simply as GE across the world today. Similarly, he financed Federal Steel Company and consolidated various other steel businesses to help form the United States Steel Corporation. While critics complained about the outsized influence that these gigantic businesses had, Morgan’s massive wealth also gave him unprecedented power in the financial sector and the ability to deal with politicians. In fact, Morgan played an important part in the Panic of 1907 and the subsequent decision to create the Federal Reserve as a monetary oversight.
Ironically, one of America’s most famous robber barons, Andrew Carnegie, epitomized the American Dream, migrating with his poor family to America in the mid-19th century and rising to the top of the business world in his adopted country. A prodigious writer in addition to his keen sense of business, Carnegie was one of the most outspoken champions of capitalism at a time when there was pushback among lower social classes who witnessed the great disparities in wealth; as he once put it, “Upon the sacredness of property civilization itself depends—the right of the laborer to his hundred dollars in the savings bank, and equally the legal right of the millionaire to his millions.” In a similar vein, he said, “Those who would administer wisely must, indeed, be wise, for one of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race is indiscriminate charity.”
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