Books Capitalism Communism Economic History Economics Free Markets Surf

How the Myth of the ‘Robber Barons’ Began––and Why It Persists

The Robber Barons

The Robber Barons

Capitalism Labored, However We Have been Advised It Didn’t

We research historical past to study from it. If we will uncover what labored and what didn’t work, we will use this data correctly to create a greater future. Learning the triumph of American business, for instance, is necessary as a result of it’s the story of how the United States turned the world’s main financial energy. Free markets labored properly; authorities intervention often failed.

The years when this occurred, from 1865 to the early 1900s, noticed the U.S. encourage entrepreneurs not directly by limiting authorities. Slavery was abolished and so was the revenue tax. Federal spending was slashed and federal budgets had surpluses virtually yearly in the late 1800s. In different phrases, the federal authorities created extra freedom and a secure market through which entrepreneurs might function.

To some extent, throughout the late 1800s—a interval historians name the “Gilded Age”—American politicians discovered from the previous. That they had dabbled in federal subsidies from steamships to transcontinental railroads, and people experiments dismally failed. Politicians then turned to free markets as a greater technique for financial improvement. The world-dominating achievements of Cornelius Vanderbilt, James J. Hill, John D. Rockefeller, and Charles Schwab validated America’s unprecedented restricted authorities. And when politicians typically veered off target later with authorities interventions for tariffs, excessive revenue taxes, anti-trust legal guidelines, and an effort to run a metal plant to make armor for struggle—the outcomes once more typically hindered American financial progress. Free markets labored properly; authorities intervention often failed.

Why is it, then, that for therefore a few years, most historians have been educating the reverse lesson? They’ve made no distinction between political entrepreneurs, who tried to succeed by means of federal assist, and market entrepreneurs, who prevented subsidies and sought to create higher merchandise at decrease costs. As an alternative, most historians have preached that many, if not all, entrepreneurs have been “robber barons.” They didn’t enrich the U.S. with their investments; as an alternative, they bilked the public and corrupted political and financial life in America. Subsequently, authorities intervention in the financial system was wanted to save lots of the nation from these grasping businessmen.

The Profound Affect Of Anti-Capitalists 

The Robber BaronsThe catalyst for this unfavourable view of American entrepreneurs was historian Matthew Josephson, who wrote a landmark ebook, The Robber Barons. Josephson, the son of a Jewish banker, grew up in New York and graduated from Columbia College, the place he was impressed in the classroom by Charles Beard, America’s foremost progressive historian—and a person sympathetic to socialism. “Beard was nothing less than a spellbinder,” Josephson recalled, and Beard’s lectures helped information him on a path to radical politics.

Throughout the 1920s, after commencement, Josephson turned a journalist, an expatriate to France, and, after his return, an element of New York’s literary elite. He and Beard reconnected in 1930, and the mentor urged his scholar to write down a ebook denouncing the males who had launched America’s industrial energy. “Oh! those respectable ones,” Beard stated of America’s capitalists, “oh! their temples of respectability—how I detest them, how I would love to pull them all down!” Fortunately for Beard, Josephson was useful to do the job for him. Josephson devoted The Robber Barons to Beard, the historian most liable for the ebook’s contents.

Josephson started analysis for his guide in 1932, the nadir of the Nice Melancholy. Businessmen have been a useful scapegoat for that disaster, and Josephson embraced a Marxist view that the Nice Melancholy was maybe the final part in the fall of capitalism and the triumph of communism. In a written interview for Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, Josephson stated he loved watching “the breakdown of our cult of business success and optimism.” He added, “The freedom of the U.S.S.R. from our cycles of insanity is the strongest argument in the world for the reconstruction of our society in a new form that is as highly centralized as Russia’s. . . .”

Excessive Sympathy For The Communist Get together

Although not a member of the Communist Celebration, Josephson co-authored an open letter of help for the Communist Get together candidates for President of the United States in 1932. “We believe,” the letter stated, “that the only effective way to protest against the chaos, the appalling wastefulness, and the indescribable misery inherent in the present economic system is to vote for the Communist candidates.”

Josephson traced the troubled capitalist system of the 1930s again to the entrepreneurs of the late 1800s. Thus, by explaining what he thought was the wasteful, grasping, and corrupt improvement of metal, oil, and different industries beneath capitalism, Josephson was explaining to readers why the Nice Melancholy was occurring. “I am not a complete Marxist,” Josephson insisted, “But what I took to heart for my own project was his theory of the process of industrial concentration, in Vol. 1 of [Marx’s] Capital, which underlay my book.”

Josephson by no means meant to write down an goal view of American financial life in the Gilded Age. He did little analysis and primarily used secondary sources that supported his Marxist viewpoint. As he had written in the New Republic, “Far from shunning propaganda, we must use it more nobly, more skillfully than our predecessors, and speak through it in the local language and slogans.” Thus he wrote The Robber Barons with dramatic tales, anecdotes, and innuendos that demeaned company America and made the case for enormous authorities intervention.

The Lies Of The Robber Barons

When propaganda is the aim, accuracy is the sufferer. The Robber Barons is riddled with factual errors. On web page fourteen alone, Josephson makes a minimum of a dozen errors in his account of Vanderbilt and the steamships. Right here is one sentence with three errors:

At the time of the “shipping subsidy” scandals, aired in the Senate in 1858, it was seen that Vanderbilt and E. Okay. Collins of the Pacific Mail Steamship Line have been the chief plunderers, typically conciliating, typically blackmailing one another.

First, E. Okay. Collins was by no means the head of the Pacific Mail Steamship Line; in reality, he had no reference to it in any respect. Second, Vanderbilt and William H. Aspinwall, the precise head of the Pacific Mail Steamship Line, have been by no means “blackmailing each other.” Third, the Pacific Mail Steamship Line, not Vanderbilt, was the “chief plunderer.” Vanderbilt had no subsidy, and the Pacific Line did. Actually, Vanderbilt, by way of his low costs, uncovered the federal subsidy as a scandal.

Maybe extra essential than all of the errors, Josephson missed the distinction between market entrepreneurs like Vanderbilt, Hill, and Rockefeller and political entrepreneurs like Collins, Villard, and Gould. He lumped all of them collectively. Nevertheless, Josephson was trustworthy sufficient to say the achievements of some market entrepreneurs. James J. Hill, Josephson conceded, was an “able administrator,” and “far more efficient” than his sponsored rivals. Andrew Carnegie had a “well-integrated, technically superior plant”; and John D. Rockefeller was “a great innovator” with excellent “marketing methods,” who displayed “unequaled efficiency and power of organization.”

Most of Josephson’s ire is directed towards political entrepreneurs. The sponsored Henry Villard of the Northern Pacific Railroad, together with his “bad grades and high interest charges” present that he “apparently knew little enough about railroad-building.” The leaders of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, Josephson notes, “carried on [their actions] with a heedless abandon . . . [which] caused a waste of between 70 and 75 percent of the expenditure as against the normal rate of construction.” Nevertheless it by no means happens to Josephson that the subsidies authorities gave these railroads created the incentives that led their house owners to overpay for supplies and to construct in unsafe areas. He quotes “one authority” on the railroads as saying, “The Federal government seems . . . to have assumed the major portion of the risk and the Associates seem to have derived the profits”—however Josephson by no means pursues the implication of that passage.

Swooning For Stalin

Josephson “enjoyed writing about my ‘scoundrels’,” and when The Robber Barons got here out in March 1934, it turned the primary bestselling ebook of non-fiction in the U.S. for six months. Much more superb, the writer was not in America to advertise his ebook. He left for Russia to discover Stalin’s communist experiment. Whereas there, Josephson was a star and was taken on rigorously guided excursions of Russian metal mills and shoe factories. He attended official dinners and even talked with choose Russian writers and artists. He was ecstatic. The Soviet Union, Josephson stated, “seemed like the hope of the world—the only large nation run by men of reason.”

Josephson, beneath cautious Russian supervision, by no means met any of the tons of of hundreds of Ukrainians who have been ravenous to demise at the time beneath Stalin’s brutal collectivization; nor did Josephson see the Soviet gulags, or prisons, the place hundreds of dissenters have been pressured into onerous labor and early deaths. Josephson additionally by no means realized that the Soviet factories he noticed have been typically immediately copied from Western capitalist factories—and have been funded by Stalin’s confiscatory taxation. As an alternative, Josephson thought he had stumbled right into a staff’ paradise, the logical end result of central planning and superior leaders.

“Before people pass judgment on Comrade Stalin,” Josephson wrote, “they ought to come here and see his Works, his Opus Major, in many volumes with their own eyes. It is very impressive; and few other statesmen in all history have so much to show.” In fact, Stalin had virtually nothing to point out. His mannequin industries—automotive factories, railroads, and hydroelectric crops, for instance—have been borrowed or constructed by People or Europeans, typically with grain confiscated from ravenous Soviet farmers.

The Falsehoods Turned The Canon

Together with his best-selling guide out, Josephson got here again to America to glowing evaluations and large gross sales. For instance, historian Allan Nevins referred to as The Robber Barons a “tour de force” and the Virginia Quarterly Assessment proclaimed it to be “required reading.” Much more necessary to Josephson, his progressive imaginative and prescient of financial historical past started infiltrating the writing of highschool and school texts. The time period “robber barons” turned the new label for America’s main entrepreneurs of the late 1800s—and past. Historian Thomas Brewer, who in 1970 edited The Robber Barons: Saints or Sinners? noticed that the majority of writers “still adhere to the ‘robber baron’ interpretation.” Historian David Shi agrees: “For well over a generation, The Robber Barons remained the standard work in its field.” For a lot of textbook writers, it nonetheless is. In the principal research information for the Superior Placement U.S. historical past examination for 2015, the writers say,

America [1877-1900] seemed to have entered a interval of prosperity with a handful of households having amassed unprecedented wealth, however the affluence of the few was constructed on the poverty of many.

Having condemned American entrepreneurs and promoted extra authorities as the answer, Josephson started work on a sequel referred to as The Politicos, which described the politics of the Gilded Age. Like his analysis for The Robber Barons, Josephson primarily did fast studying of these secondary sources in sympathy together with his concepts. His e-book was swiftly written and riddled with errors and distortions. The truth is, Josephson confessed to Charles Beard that “in spite of all my precautions there might be a good many historical inaccuracies in my book.” Beard retorted, “All works of history are inaccurate,” and he urged Josephson to publish his ebook anyway, which he did.

If Josephson’s analysis was so sloppy, and his interpretation so biased, how did his Robber Baron view come to prevail in the writing of U.S. historical past? First, Josephson revealed his e-book in 1934, in the darkish days of the Nice Melancholy. Progressive historians had begun to dominate the writing of historical past they usually have been desperate to blame a brand new era of robber barons for the collapse of the American financial system. The Robber Barons was embraced by key Marxist historians, who influenced a lot of the historic career after World Conflict II.

In doing so, these historians ignored the ruinous authorities interventions underneath Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt that helped spark the Nice Melancholy and trigger it to persist. These dangerous federal insurance policies embrace the Federal Reserve’s premature elevating of rates of interest, making it more durable to borrow cash; President Hoover’s blundering Farm Board; his signing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, the highest in U.S. historical past; and his disastrous Reconstruction Finance Company, which distributed large company bailouts to political entrepreneurs. Lastly, Hoover muzzled funding by repealing the Mellon tax cuts and selling an enormous tax hike. These numerous interventions stifled market entrepreneurs and emboldened political entrepreneurs. However historians have uncared for that half of the story.

A second cause for Josephson’s triumph is that The Robber Barons was embraced by key Marxist historians, who influenced a lot of the historic career after World Warfare II. Richard Hofstadter, for instance, was a long-time professor at Columbia College. He twice gained the Pulitzer Prize, he wrote best-selling historical past books, and he helped practice a era of outstanding historians. But Hofstadter had joined the Younger Communist League in school and later joined the Communist Get together. “My fundamental reason for joining [the Communist Party],” Hofstadter stated, “is that I don’t like capitalism and want to get rid of it.” Though Hofstadter quickly give up the Communist Social gathering, he maintained his hostility to capitalism and expressed it in Social Darwinism in American Thought, in The Age of Reform, and in a well-liked co-authored textbook, The USA: The Historical past of a Republic.

Republished with gracious permission from Mental Takeout (October 2018).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the precept of appreciation to the dialogue of tradition and politics—we strategy dialogue with magnanimity somewhat than with mere civility. Will you assist us stay a refreshing oasis in the more and more contentious area of trendy discourse? Please think about donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email