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Not even Historians Get It Always Right: Different Takes on Robber Barons' Impact on America

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The Myth of the Robber Barons by Burton Folsom describes the specific qualities and actions of industrial leaders during the gilded age. Previously, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt were understood as “robber barons” who caused corruption, monopoly, and price increases on their goods and services for ill purposes. The mainstream historical narrative originates from the book The Robber Barons written by Matthew Josephson in 1934, and textbooks today mostly agree with his perspective. On the other hand Burton Folsom’s book, The Myth of the Robber Barons, argues that the people named “robber barons” actually tremendously helped America and are not responsible for things attributed to them by Josephson. Folsom’s book asks the question ‘How did the robber barons conduct their business?’and answers it by showing how most so-called robber barons actually spurred innovation, lowered prices, and moved America into international trade all of which generally increased the average person’s standard of living. The Myth of the Robber Barons by Burton Folsom delineates the misunderstanding of most historians regarding the robber barons to persuade the general public of the merits of capitalism and to make the historical record more correct in his eyes.

The scope of Folsom’s book centers on the lives of the men named robber barons and their respective industries. Folsom thinks that it is necessary to describe the lives of the robber barons, from their religious beliefs to business innovations, to help better understand their personalities and how they thought and approached business. Folsom believes their innovation, competition, alleged monopolization, and the prices they set are important facts to prove his thesis. He also finds it important to construct a clear definition of the robber baron. As discussed later, Folsom provides clarifications on how entrepreneurs should be categorized. Folsom’s scope details the lives of the men that are called robber barons, their industries, and their competition.

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To prove his thesis, Folsom relies on distinctive terms as well as biographical and economical evidence . To better understand the in-depth lives of these men, Folsom cites from detailed biographies about the robber barons. He describes in detail their public and private lives. For example, he quotes Rockefeller’s saying of “God was good to me every day”(95). The biographical evidence works well with his scope because Folsom’s claims try to justify and define the actions of people, not necessarily systematic events throughout the time period. Whenever he needs evidence of an entrepreneur changing a business practice, he cites economic evidence to support it. To describe the robber barons Folsom creates a distinction between political entrepreneurs (people who fit the robber baron archetype) and market entrepreneurs. Market entrepreneurs succeed “by creating and marketing a superior product at a low cost”(1) while political entrepreneurs tried to succeed “through federal aid, pools, vote buying, or stock speculation”(1). He then goes on to prove that many of the people named robber barons should instead be called market entrepreneurs, but also states that “no entrepreneur fits perfectly into one category or the other, but most fall generally into one category of the other”(1). Using this framework, Folsom starts to closely examine so-called robber barons and determines that most of them would fall into the category of market entrepreneur. He also finds some political entrepreneurs and describes what they do, for example “Edward Collins”(15) and “Thomas Durant”(20) both received government subsidy. To prove the success of the market entrepreneurs over the political entrepreneurs, Folsom uses economical statistics about their industries. He describes most drops in prices on goods and gives a reason as to why the prices dropped for a product. For example, Folsom says that “Coopers charged $2.50 per barrel; Rockefeller cut this to $.96 when he bought his own tracts of white oak timber, his own kilns to dry the wood…”(86). To clarify his approach, Folsom uses thematically organized chapters by businessmen (Chapter one on Vanderbilt, etc).. Burton Folsom goes chapter by chapter, businessman by businessman, proving their virtue by biographical and economic analysis with a decisive distinction between robber barons and market entrepreneurs.

Folsom’s book, first published in 1987, is not a primary source, but uses plenty of detailed facts to prove his points. Folsom currently works as a professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, giving him the academic status to confront the generally accepted narrative. He cites a vigorous number of biographical and economic sources. Each chapter provides about 30-40 footnotes with notes discussing the information in greater depth.

The Myth of the Robber Barons uses the information and sources found to empirically describe the merits of capitalism to a common person with limited academic training. The writing is not in an overly systematic style and instead tries to convince the average person. It rightly receives praise for being well written and easy to understand. Folsom’s analysis of the information points towards the merits of free, unregulated capitalism. He describes the market entrepreneurs as overcoming the political entrepreneurs, innovating products, lowering prices, and investing in universities and other beneficial institutions for the general public. Folsom writes this book to describe the entrepreneurial genius of the robber barons and underlines how capitalism benefits everyone.

This book’s highest value rests in its tearing down of common empirical objections to capitalism. The historical perception of the gilded age provides a key objection to capitalism, and by refuting it Folsom can commend capitalism as the best economic system. Under the normal view of the robber barons, one can conclude that proper economic growth requires government intervention. Folsom thinks that the mainstream perspective gives a bad account and attempts to correct this issue using strong economic evidence. With this evidence, he removes academic objection to capitalism. This book corrects common myths about the gilded age and makes capitalism appear as a good system.

Folsom’s method of structuring his narrative through key people was somewhat limiting in his effort of portraying a larger historical context. For example some details about the gilded age are not in precise detail that should be (were they exploitative of the working people as a whole?). Similarly, Folsom describes Vanderbilt’s steamboat industry in-depth but gives little discussion of his railroads. Folsom didn’t provide a chronological description of the era, which would have increased it’s reliability by increasing its depth. Folsom does not have direct personal accounts that he experienced, and Matthew Josephson writes as a primary source, which weakens his claim that the robber barons were market entrepreneurs. In addition, some of the men who are considered robber barons were left out, such as Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was scarcely mentioned , and nothing is said to suggest he lived as a market entrepreneur. This weakens the thesis because the book neglected to give in-depth details for a highly influential and well-known entrepreneur. The book was written to describe the lives of the robber barons, and poorly describes some people and areas of the gilded age.

This source holds reliability, but to ensure bias does not influence Folsom’s thought too much it would be useful to read Matthew Josephson’s book on the robber barons where the term originated. In the last 2 chapters, Folsom addresses mistakes about the robber barons found in high school textbooks. This book re-emphasizes the concepts personally held about the industrial revolution: that this period brought great improvement for everyone. The Myth of the Robber Barons by Burton Folsom corrects the problems with mainstream historians’ ideas surrounding the robber barons. Words: 1237 (the essay itself)


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