Industrialists of the Late 19th Century

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Industrialists of the Late 19th Century

After the Civil War, Americans converged to build a nation with optimism. This saw a new wave of industrialism steered by a few entrepreneurs who set up firms to amass wealth and create employment to Americans. The success of these industrialists led historians and other scholars to refer to them as captains of industry or robber barons. By referring to them as captains of industry, historians implied that they applied their ingenuity and inventiveness to transform the economy, and impact the lives of the people through philanthropy. They were also castigated for exploiting the American workers through poor working conditions and low wages for their own selfish gain. However, these men struggled to lay a blueprint for future entrepreneurs, transformed the economy, and made America what it is today.

A robber baron is a business leader who uses his workers’ effort to amass personal wealth with little compensation and contributing negatively to the nation. Robber barons also fail to perform their patriotic duty of paying taxes. They are in most case unscrupulous and despotic. 

The 19th century industrialists, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Ford could be termed as robber baron from the means in which they run their businesses. These men had high levels of government influence to help protect their vast empires, paid low wages to workers to keep profits high, and had a great control over the nation’s resources and business infrastructure (Perry and Smith, 308). These industrialists built empires by crushing competitors and acquiring their businesses to create monopolies and raise the prices for their own gain. They used unscrupulous schemes to trade stocks at exorbitant prices to other investors, destroying the worth of such companies, and eventually making them go bust so that they could be left in control.  

However, these industrialist could also be referred to as captains of industry as their leadership in amassing wealth contributed positively to the nation’s future. These industrialists run their businesses the way they did because, not enough legislation existed in those days to check their actions (Perry and Smith 312). There were no laws against monopolies, the stock market was not regulated, and labor laws were lax. That was the trend in all industrial economies at the time, such as cutthroat competition and monopolistic control. These men were innovators, planners, and great thinkers who helped move the nation forward in a more efficient and rational manner (Perry and Smith 308). Some historians argue that had it not for them, the two World Wars would have been lost.

Men like Vanderbilt contributed to the development of the rail system, Morgan changed the way investment banking is carried out. Rockefeller, through his invention, oil pipelines were made and continue to be used even today. Thomas Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse lit American and the world through their ingenious inventions of the direct and alternate current. Rau, notes that Industrialists such as Carnegie were innovators, who gave back to the people by building the Carnegie Hall and colleges through the country (67). In 1902, he established the Carnegie institution for research purposes, founded teachers’ pension fund at a donation of $10 million, and later built over 2,000 libraries. His foundation, Carnegie Corporation, which he pledged $125 million in donation aided schools and colleges (Rau 84). 

It is thus important to refer to these men as captains of industry from their contribution to the nation. Future business moguls, through them, would learn that it is important to get the right people for the job, the bigger the risk, the greater the reward would be, and it is crucial to come up with something the people need such as oil, steel, investment, electricity, and transportation means. This can be seen in today’s entrepreneurs such as Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Apple’s Steve Jobs, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates.


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