The Captain of Industry, Rockefeller and Other Robber Barons

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A Captain of Industry is a business leader whose means of amassing a personal fortune contributes positively to the country in some way. Whereas Robber Baron is a derogatory metaphor of social criticism originally applied to certain late-nineteenth-century American businessmen who used unscrupulous methods to get rich. (lumen learning) In this essay referring to Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie I will be making the argument that they should be referred to as Robber Barons.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was often referred to as “The Commodore” and at the time ultimately had control over most of the transportation industry in the United States. He actually started off operating steamboats and from there transitioned into owning and operating railroads. By the time he died in 1877, he was considered the richest man who had ever lived in the US (McNamara). However, he was also an incredibly greedy and arrogant businessman. He was also well known for making his employees work for long hours with very low pay. After nearly ruining his competition through the transit company his competitors had had enough and offered $40,000 a month to abandon his operations (

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Rockefeller controlled and monopolized the oil industry during the late 19th industry. The standard oil company was notorious for buying rival refineries and developing companies for distributing and marketing its products around the world. In fact, the Standard Oil company owned around 90 percent of oil refineries and oil pipelines by the end of 1880 ( New York Times reported in 1937: “He was accused of crushing out competition, getting rich on rebates from railroads, bribing men to spy on competing companies, of making secret agreements, of coercing rivals to join the Standard Oil Company under threat of being forced out of business, building up enormous fortunes on the ruins of other men, and so on.” (

Similar to Rockefeller’s hold on the oil industry Carnegy had a stronghold on the steel industry. He was the first manufacturer to control every aspect of his product's development, from the raw materials to the technology used to refine it. Due to this, he was able to build a large number of factories and offer jobs to the people that needed it. That being said however Carnegie is often characterized as one of the most notorious Robber Barons of them all. This is due to the fact that he was infamous for the way he treated his employees. Those that worked for Carnegie were forced to work in deplorably dangerous factory conditions were injuries were common. The working conditions in Carnegie's mills were so dangerous that 20 percent of deaths among men in Pittsburgh during the 1880s was due to steelwork accidents. These people were also paid very low wages for incredibly long hours and reportedly had a hard time keeping a decent standard of living ( Despite these tough working conditions and often working seven days a week and twelve hours a day, his employees actually ended up facing a 30 percent pay reduction in 1892. Sometimes Carnegie would try and push his employees to work even longer than this and those that were unable to meet the physical demands he had set for the job found themselves terminated from the job ( Ultimately it’s these conditions that led to the Homeland Strike during which many of the strikers expressed their opposition to the working conditions and low pay in Carnegie's steel mills. Which by the way Carnegie was very Anti-Union. Carnegie chose to fight unions because he earned more money by maintaining control over the wages and long hours his employees were forced to work. Ultimately you could say the worker’s rights movement suffered greatly because of Carnegie and his work to combat unions.

Among all of these men, there are quite a few common themes between them and how they treated the work industry. They all profited off of the exploitation of their workers by making them work long hours for very little pay. Some of these industrial jobs were forcing people to work almost sixty hours a week seven days a week (Foner 602). Not to mention more often than not these were the kind of jobs that had poor or even dangerous working conditions. Between 1880 and 1900 an average of 35000 workers died each year in factory or mining accidents. The highest rate in the industrial world (Foner 600). It’s these reasons that I categorize these men as Rober BArons. They had very little regard for human life so long as it meant they could profit off of it. Really, in the end, they were more concerned with how much wealth they could accumulate and how big they could build their little monopolized empires.  

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