Robber Baron

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Theodore Roosevelt teaches the childish coal barons a lesson; 1902 editorial cartoon

The Robber Baron image of leading American businessmen was a hostile stereotype created by anti-capitalist writers in the Progressive Era (1890-1920s) who denounced American big business as bad because it supposedly hurt workers, consumers and democracy. The concept was widely popularized by Matthew Josephson's book The Robber Barons.[1]


The "robber" theme meant the businessmen seized the wealth created by the workers—the assumption was that capital did not create wealth, only manual labor and farming did that.

The "baron" theme suggested they were anti-democratic aristocrats who rejected the core values of American republicanism.

The favorite target was oilman John D. Rockefeller. By contrast Henry Ford, a popular hero, was rarely attacked.

One theme that was added in the 1940s was the false allegation that most businessmen believed in Social Darwinism whereby their success was "natural" and charity was unwise. In fact no businessmen supported the theory. Andrew Carnegie, for example, propounded the Gospel of Wealth to the effect that the rich had a duty to share their wealth through philanthropy. Once the richest men in the world, Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford gave away over 90% of their money to philanthropy.

Business history scholars beginning in the 1920s and led by Professor Alan Nevins at Columbia University and later Alfred D. Chandler at Harvard, refuted the false "Robber Baron" image. The image occasionally appears in textbooks and, more often, in history lectures or editorials written from a leftist perspective. The image is distinctly American—European and Asians rarely displayed it.

See also

Further reading

  • Bridges, Hal. "The Robber Baron Concept in American History," Business History Review, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 1958), pp. 1–13 in JSTOR
  • Folsom, Burton W. The Myth of the Robber Barons (1987), refutation by leading conservative historian
  • Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861- 1901 (1933), the classic statement by a Socialist historian
  • Latham, Earl, ed. John D. Rockefeller: Robber Baron or Industrial Statesman? (1949), reprints debates among historians. online edition
  • Miller, William. "American Historians and the Business Elite," Journal of Economic History, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Nov., 1949), pp. 184–208 in JSTOR