Reminiscing on a recent travel to a factory, W.H. Auden remarked, “One cannot walk through an assembly factory and not feel that one is in Hell.” This was the unfortunate truth for many hard-working Americans across the nation during the latter part of the 19th century. The only light present in these factories was the sunlight that came through the windows. Machines spit out toxic smoke and by the end of the day, soot-covered workers emerged from the factories. These terrible conditions were usually accompanied by meager wages, long hours, and machines without safety precautions. These horrifying and inhumane conditions often resulted in many accidents, some of which were fatal. The poor remained in decadent poverty and the wealthy gained more wealth. This inevitable truth led working class people to criticize industrial greats such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan for their business tactics and brand them with the title “robber baron”. When people are in desperation, they seek to blame their problems on exterior forces and not their own situation. A similar case occurred in Nazi Germany when the people, weakened by economic instability and poverty decided to make Jews their scapegoat. In America, however, the working class made these ingenious leaders scapegoats, blaming them for their misery and despair. It is in human nature to blame someone for one’s misfortunes. However, the working class failed to acknowledge the great feats that these industrial leaders achieved. These men were not the villainous “robber barons” that people depicted them as. Through intelligent business tactics and acts of philanthropy, “captains of industry” like Carnegie and Rockefeller shaped American society in ways that still influence our contemporary society. Although some of their business operations may have affected many workers negatively, in the long run the beneficial effects that their businesses had on the fledgling American economy outweighed any harm that they may have done. These industrial leaders were intelligent and generous, willing to share the blessings of wealth and prosperity with the nation. “With malice toward none [and] with charity for all”, industrial leaders of the day preached a message of philanthropy and established the purpose of wealth, which was not something to be accumulated, but shared with the people.
Andrew Carnegie once said, “Wealth is not to feed our egos but to feed the hungry and to help people help themselves”. This beautiful message of self-reliance and philanthropy preached by a Scottish-American immigrant who went from being the humble son of weavers to the wealthiest man in the world serves as a true inspiration to members of the working class. Education is a very important way of spurring self-reliance in people. A person without education is like a bird without wings. Entrepreneurs such as Carnegie and Rockefeller knew this and wanted to provide people with the “wings” to have a chance of becoming the next generation of entrepreneurs in society. These captains of industry founded world-renowned universities such as Carnegie-Mellon, Cornell, Duke, Rockefeller, Stanford, and Vanderbilt. In their vision of philanthropy, these industrial leaders also desired to create spaces dedicated to the veneration of culture, specifically the arts. Museums such as the Frick Collection, the J.P. Morgan Library, and the Vanderbilt Museum were created for this sole purpose. Even Mr. Zinn, a noted historian who disagrees with the depiction of these industrial leaders as captains of industry, is forced to recognize the philanthropy that these men displayed. “Rockefeller was a donor to colleges all over the country and helped to found the University of Chicago, Carnegie gave money to colleges and libraries and millionaires Cornelius Vanderbilt, Ezra Cornell, James Duke, and Leland Stanford created prominent universities in their own names.” The true meaning of wealth according to these great leaders was not to accumulate it, but to give back to the people. It is evident that the intentions of these men was to help spread a higher standard of living.
Economic instability led to intense fear in the United States during this time period. The volatility of prices caused uneasiness among the masses as prices rapidly rose and fell. What would happen to the American people if the market fell? Would the already terrible conditions of living get worse? These are questions that troubled the average American working class family. However, this troublesome instability would soon end under J.P. Morgan. He began to consolidate companies of different areas such as banks and railroads into large monopolies. In “Robber Barons and Rebels”, Mr. Howard Zinn notes how Mr. Morgan, “brought rationality and organization to the national economy and kept the system stable”. This stability is one that would allow the United States to thrive and develop into the nation that it is today. Morgan aided in giving the average American peace of mind and an opportunity to go to work without the fear that they could lose their jobs at any given moment. However, this economic stability was not the only feat that we can accredit to these captains of industry. The introduction of technology into the United States helped create new industry and foster a renewed American dream. One of the pioneers in bringing this technology to the United States was Andrew Carnegie. He helped revolutionize the steel industry through the introduction of the Bessemer method, which was a method for producing steel invented in England by Henry Bessemer. Inspired by the prospect of engaging in a new industry, Historian Mr. Zinn points out that Mr. Carnegie “went to London in 1872, saw the new Bessemer method of producing steel, and returned to the United States to build a million dollar steel plant.” Historian Mr. Gordon remarks the monumental effect that the new industry Mr. Carnegie introduced had on the economy. His plant brought increased money into America and provided for jobs previously unimagined. The growth of the economy and the philanthropy of these captains of industry “nowhere was this more noticeable than in iron and steel products. Before the Civil War, the United States exported only $6 million worth of iron and steel manufactures a year. In 1900 it exported $121,914,000 worth of locomotives, engines, rails, electrical machinery, were being exported… ” This is indeed an excellent example of how captains of industry desired to help the nation achieve industrial greatness and prosperity.
Although these great industrial leaders innovated and left legacies that reshaped American society for the good, there are some historical interpretations that depict these entrepreneurs as “robber barons”, vicious men who were willing to do anything as long as they made a profit. These interpretations depicted the inhumane conditions under which workers suffered, the meager wages, and the long hours of work. Industrial leaders are accused of causing the nation’s poverty, since instead of paying their workers a fair wage, they would keep the profits and cheat their employees of what was considered a right and just wage. Historian Mr. Zinn gives us some statistics from the records of the Interstate Commerce Commission, saying that in 1889, “22,000 railroad workers were killed or injured”. He also mentions a deal that Mr. Morgan made while still achieving wealth. Mr. Morgan purchased five thousand rifles for “3.50 dollars and resold the, for 22 dollars each, knowing… that they were defective and would blow the thumbs off the men who used them”. Logically, upon a first glance we would be convinced that only cruel, inhumane workers would allow such atrocities to occur in the name of profit. However, we must recognize that these incidents are but a trifle compared to the enormous legacy and acts of benevolence that these captains of industry gave the nation.
In conclusion, the actions that these great men made demonstrate that they were not the villainous “robber barons” that people depicted them as. We must remember that none of the activities that these men committed were illegal or unlawful. Mr. John Gordon remarks that “None of this, of course, was illegal.” If someone sees a loophole in law that they can profit from, one will take advantage These self-made men displayed the bravery and insight to make decisions that, even if not evident at the given moment, would have innumerable effects on the development of the American economy. In our modern society, what remains of these captains of industry are not the social injustices that occurred behind factory walls, it is the benevolence that these men had and their efforts to make this world a little better. Through intelligent business tactics and acts of philanthropy, “captains of industry” like Carnegie and Rockefeller shaped American society in ways that still influence our contemporary society. These industrial leaders were intelligent and generous, willing to share the blessings of wealth and prosperity with the nation. As Leon Levy once said, “Money is only unused power. The real purpose of wealth, after food, clothing and shelter, is philanthropy.” This message of caring for the less fortunate is one that is still well alive in our contemporary society. Mark Zuckerberg promised to donate 99% of his Facebook shares, currently valued at $45 million dollars, for the sole purpose of “improving the world for the next generation”. He has also launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative which will be dedicated to “personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.” Another philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey, the founder of O! Magazine and the OWN channel, has dedicated her life to the spirit of philanthropy. She has donated millions of dollars to educational causes, including the founding of charter schools, programs for the benefit of African-American students, and the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy she founded in South Africa. It is almost a predetermined duty nowadays that along with wealth comes the immense responsibility of helping the community and representing causes worldwide. This innate duty that comes with wealth finds its roots in the original generation of “captains of industry”, men with the likes of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. These great men left a legacy that have reinforced traditional American values and created new ones. The United States is forever in debt with these captains of industry for leading the nation in a direction previously unimagined under an economy of the people, by the people, for the people which shall not perish from the earth.
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