Robber baron (industrialist)

Robber baron (industrialist)

. The term may now be used in relation to any businessman or banker who is perceived to have used questionable business practices or scams in order to become powerful or wealthy (placing them in power of everything having controlled most business affairs.)

The term derives from the medieval German lords who illegally charged exorbitant tolls against ships traversing the Rhine river (see robber baron). There has been some dispute over the term's origin and use. It was popularized by U.S. political and economic commentator Matthew Josephson during The Great Depression in a 1934 book. He attributed its first use to an 1880 anti-monopoly pamphlet in which Kansas farmers applied the term to railroad magnates. The informal term captains of industry may sometimes be used to avoid the negative connotations of "robber baron".


Appearing in literature during the late 19th century, [cite book
title=Atalanta in the South
location=Boston|publisher=Roberts Brothers|year=1886
quote=New York, that den of robber-barons, keeps the bulk of the wealth of the country as a species of giant playthings...
] the Robber Baron thesis was popular until the 1940s. Matthew Josephson's "The Robber Barons" gave the term its most enduring expression. [Matthew Josephson, "The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901", New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934.] The theme had much popularity during the Great Depression as there was widespread public scorn against big business.

But by the end of the Great Depression, other historians, notably Allan Nevins, began advocating the "Industrial Statesman" thesis. Nevins, in his "John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise (2 vols., 1940)", took on Josephson directly. He argued that while Rockefeller may have engaged in unethical and illegal business practices, this should not overshadow his greater contribution of bringing order to the industrial chaos of the day. Gilded Age capitalists, according to Nevins, sought to impose their will for order and stability on the competitive business environment. Their work ultimately made the United States the foremost economy by the twentieth century. [Allan Nevins, "John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise", 2 vols., New York, C. Scribner’s sons, 1940.]

The whole Robber-Baron-or-Industrial-Statesman debate was sidestepped by Alfred D. Chandler in "The Visible Hand" (1977). There Chandler contended that the business of industrializing America was a historical process and not a morality play of good versus evil. As he later expressed, "What could be less likely to produce useful generalizations than a debate over vaguely defined moral issues based on unexamined ideological assumptions and presuppositions?" [Alfred D. Chandler, "Comparative Business History," in D. C. Coleman and Peter Mathias, eds., "Enterprise and History" (Cambridge, 1984), 7; On Chandler's other accomplishments in this book, see Richard R. John, "Elaborations, Revisions, Dissents: Alfred D. Chandler, Jr.'s, "The Visible Hand" after Twenty Years," "Business History Review", 71, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 151-200.]

ee also

* Industrialist
* Business magnate


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