Robber Barons or Captains of Industry

The Myth of the Robber Barons, by Burton W. Folsom, describes the different “robber barons” and their qualities during the gilded age. The phrase “robber baron” refers to individuals like Vanderbilt, Hill, Schwab, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Mellon; these being individuals that used their economic and well-informed power to help America as a whole. Folsom’s book depicts the misunderstanding that historians often made by depicting some of the best businessmen as “robber barons” along with introducing different types of entrepreneurs. A political entrepreneur being one that does business in an essentially corrupt way, while a market entrepreneur is a risk taker that should not fall under the “robber baron” nickname. The market entrepreneurs developed their products with little to no help from the government and in some cases used their earnings to benefit their communities.

Burton W. Folsom is an author as well as a professor of history and management at a college in Michigan, holding the Charles Kline chair. In his lifetime he has taught at various universities and has written multiple books and articles. Folsom appears very well educated on the topic of the robber barons and illustrates his contrasting viewpoint with detail. In Folsom’s historical narrative, The Myth of the Robber Barons, he proposes a new argument that many historians have made a huge misconception on the “robber barons.” The individuals depicted in his book, although “robber barons,” caused a huge economic growth in not only themselves but in the nation. Folsom seems to be reaching out to an audience of not only historians, but students studying the topic in order to enlighten them on the misconceptions that have been previously made.

Folsom uses a large variety of sources in his book all of which are depicted in the endnotes in an almost bibliographic style. His sources displayed are annotated with some brief descriptions and made up of many different historical, economic, and other genres of books, articles, as well as other works written by various authors to make sure his book was well informed. Folsom also included aspects like images, tables, and maps to depict different points displayed in the book. Just before his bibliographic essay is a very useful index displaying various names of people, companies, and much more with the pages they appear on alongside their name.

In The Myth of the Robber Barons, Folsom talks about a variety of topics that coincide with the idea that historians often have led a misunderstanding about robber barons. While describing his view of these so-called robber barons he also includes whether they are a market or political entrepreneur. Folsom describes Vanderbilt as a market entrepreneur, one of which who built a steamship industry without government aide and outperformed his competitors. Collins was also in the steamboat industry, but with a different motive than Vanderbilt. Collins received government aid and didn’t really care for cheap passenger traffic eventually resulting in almost 500 deaths. Vanderbilt validates Folsom’s proposal that not all the businessmen or industrialists were robber barons, for Vanderbilt wasn’t even using government aide and cared about the people that would be traveling in his steamships. James J. Hill was part of the transcontinental railroad; he went for the cheaper and more efficient route trying to use the fewest rails while his competitors took the more expensive scenic route. By not using government funding Hill also proves Folsom’s claim that not all businessmen or industrialists were robber barons, as he was not trying to become rich, but trying to benefit the United States in the most efficient way possible.

Joseph Scranton, another businessman, worked to produce rails to avoid the large tax America was spending importing them. Eventually, the Scranton firm was mass producing rails at the most affordable price. Scranton was helping America save money on building railroads. Charles Schwab, the market entrepreneur, eventually partnered with Carnegie in the steel industry. Carnegie and Schwab working together, eventually came up with price cutting techniques and became the worlds greatest steel producer. John D. Rockefeller and his standard oil company have been constantly patronized. Folsom’s claim is best proved accurate in my opinion by Rockefeller. His steel industry competed with Russia’s; with “the best at the lowest price” (83) Rockefeller was able to provide America with a lot of jobs. A businessman with quite the controversy in todays society turns out to be a generous man who donated over half of his fortune.

Treasurer Andrew Mellon in modern textbooks is said to have only targeted the rich on tax cuts which is inaccurate. Folsom describes how Mellon cut taxes on both rich and poor, he lifted a burden on the lower class and revenue eventually soared. Folsom seems to have chosen these specific men because they best prove his claim that not all businessmen or industrialist deserve the robber baron nickname they’re given. Folsom takes an economic but intellectual approach to the subject of robber barons. He informs the reader on the economic aspects occurring during this time but also wanted to inform the reader on the misunderstanding that has been displayed. He touches on the many inaccurate aspects that modern textbooks and other writers have displayed in order to help prove evidence on his claim.

Does the authors perspective or the books context affect its approach to the topic or its conclusion? I don’t think so; Folsom touched on the various viewpoints that are argued while making sure to prove his own claim. I also don’t believe he uses “too much” bias. He uses a lot of historical evidence to prove his claim. From his book I got that many of the most successful entrepreneurs steered away from government aide and many that did use government aide, ultimately failed. This idea brings about the idea that the best businesses and industries were built off of lower cost and improved products among other aspects.