By Kristian Fausz
By Kristian Fausz
Wealthy people of the world have always carried a target on their backs. Businessmen of the 19th century were often portrayed as devious monsters for their success. Robber barons, they have been called, because of their comparison to feudal barons, and the belief that their wealth was achieved using dirty tactics. However, the title robber baron may not be as fitting as it seems.
One reason they gained this title are the arguments of their unfair advantage in industry. Competition gossiped to the press their ideas that though they believed these men "bought...almost as cheaply...[and] made as good [a product]" as themselves, they "must be getting better rates from the railroads", according to Tarbell. They may have received better rates, but there was no evil behind them. It is not uncommon for a company and a transportation system that interact regularly to make price deals to better their own business. Rockefeller divulged another reason for lower rates when he revealed that railroads were "exempted...from liability for fire" because they had their own insurance.
An alternate reasoning for their wealth was that they acquired more money than they had earned because of their high status and power in industry. According to Gustavus Myers, "[James J.] Hill and his associates secured more franchises and special laws, built extensions, and formed the Great Northern Railroad...The Legislatures of the Northwest were deluged with bribe money," but he continued with "although it was never specifically proved that Hill was the distributor", deteriorating the credibility of his statement. Contrary to Myers' allegation, Joseph G. Pyle conveyed that "In a time when railroad presidents received [immense salaries]...he refused to take a dollar...No honest inquirer has ever been able to find a 'tainted dollar' in the fortune of James J. Hill". The fact that Myers' integrity was shattered by his poor support, and Pyle says that not a single "honest inquirer" was able to find corruption causes a leaning in Pyle's favor.
Another claim is that their tactics were ruthless and cruel. Matthew Johnson said that they "were aggressive...lawless...[and] in crisis...tended to act without...[the] moral principles...of the common people of the community...." George Rice, a competitor with Rockefeller, said that "Standard Oil drove him out of business". Contrarily, he also said that "[their] prices generally were so high that [he] could sell [his] goods 2 to 3 cents a gallon bellow their prices and make a nice profit, but these savage attacks...plainly showed their power for evil, and the uselessness to contend against such odds". It was possible to make a profit, yet he just gave up, which was his own fault. Like Sumner believed, "Capital...is dependent on the skill of the captain of industry for the certainty and magnitude of its profits" and "their wealth would not be but for themselves". It takes hard work and determination to be successful, and the "robber barons" were because when those such as Rice were willing to roll over, they kept on pushing.
The robber barons of the 19th century caused great economical and industrial growth. Making intelligent decisions and having extraordinary business skills gained them rumors. Because they held power, they were also feared. Those who couldn't handle the heat of competition dubbed them barbarous cutthroats and whined about their lost opportunity, using the successful as scapegoats for their failure. These men weren't devils from Hell. They were business men, who looked out for their companies, and brought enhancement to the world around them.