In the late 1800s, “robber barons” described wealthy businessmen who engaged in unethical and monopolistic practices, used corrupt political influence, and faced little business regulation. These businessmen amassed great wealth through their unscrupulous activities.
In medieval times, robber barons were noblemen who functioned as feudal warlords. In the 1800s, this term began to describe business tycoons. These tycoons took advantage of other people and became very wealthy. This period from the late 1800s to the early 1900s is known as an age of robber barons.
The Rise of the Robber Barons
The United States has always been a country of opportunity, where anyone can make a fortune. This was especially true in the late 1800s when the country underwent a rapid transformation into an industrial society. With little business regulation at that time, a small number of men could amass great wealth. The conditions favoring such vast accumulation included the plentiful natural resources being discovered during the country’s expansion, the enormous potential workforce of immigrants arriving in the country, and the general acceleration of business activity in the years following the Civil War.
The concept of laissez-faire capitalism, which dictates no government regulation of business, was promoted. Facing few impediments to creating monopolies, engaging in shady stock trading practices, or exploiting workers, some individuals made enormous fortunes. However, this led to political corruption as these individuals used lobbyists or bribery to further their interests. In the public mind, robber barons were often associated with this corruption.
Examples of some of the most famous robber barons
In American history, there have been a small number of wealthy and powerful men who have been given the label of “robber barons.” These men used their money and influence to take advantage of others. Some notable examples include:
- Cornelius Vanderbilt, owner of steamship lines and railroads.
- Andrew Carnegie, steel manufacturer.
- J.P. Morgan, financier, and banker.
- John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil.
- Jay Gould, Wall Street trader.
- Jim Fisk, Wall Street trader.
- Russell Sage, financier.
Although they were often portrayed in a positive light, robber barons were increasingly criticized in late 19th century America. Newspapers and social critics found an audience for their complaints, while American workers began to organize in large numbers as part of the labor movement. Strikes such as Homestead and Pullman intensified public resentment toward wealthy industrialists, who were seen to be living lavish lifestyles while workers suffered in poor conditions.
The era of the robber barons was marked by great wealth and opulence, but also by exploitation and public backlash. Businessmen felt exploited by monopolistic practices, and ordinary citizens became aware that the wealthy could easily exploit them. There was growing criticism of the lavish displays of wealth by the rich, with some seeing it as a sign of evil or weakness in society. Mark Twain and other satirists derided the luxury of the age, calling it “the Gilded Age.”
Today, many journalists continue the tradition of Nellie Bly and expose the practices of unscrupulous businessmen. Pulitzer’s New York World remains a popular newspaper among the people and continues to criticize wealthy businessmen.
Coxey’s Army was a group of protesters who marched to Washington, D.C., to protest the wealthy ruling class that exploited workers. The photojournalist Jacob Riis documented their march and the conditions of the poor living in New York City’s slum neighborhoods.
Robber Barons: The Legislation Aimed at Them
As public opinion turned increasingly hostile towards trusts and monopolies, legislation was passed in 1890 in the form of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Although this law did not end robber barons, it signaled that unregulated business practices would no longer be tolerated. Over time, many of the tactics used by these businessmen became illegal as more laws were enacted to protect fairness in American commerce.