Could American industrial growth have occurred without the industrial giants of the period?
Some historians believe in the “great man” approach to history. In this approach, history is caused by the actions of “great men.” In this view, for example, World War II would not have happened without Hitler. Historians who hold to this view would also say that the US economy would not have industrialized without the captains of industry because those people drove the changes that allowed industrialization.
The other school of historians believe that great trends, and not great men, cause historical events to happen. In this view, the actual captains of industry are not particularly important. America industrialized because it had all the resources needed for industrialization and because industrialization is a natural step in the progress of an economy. If people like Carnegie and Rockefeller had not existed, other people would have stepped in and become captains of industry in their place. The names in the history books would be different, but the overall trend in history would be the same.
Personally, I adhere to this second point of view, but there is no way to prove that I am right. Which point of view do you agree with?
Although counterfactual questions about history are interesting as imaginative exercises, we should note that they ultimately cannot be answered in any rigorous fashion. It is not possible to turn back the clock a few hundred years and, for example, assassinate Andrew Carnegie or his parents to see what would have happened in the steel industry had he not lived. Although we can construct thought experiments, they resemble science fiction more than the sort of controlled experiments that form the bedrock of the sciences.
In the nineteenth century, one of the dominant ways of thinking about history was exemplified by Thomas Carlyle's dictum: "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." This "great man" theory is no longer held by most historians. Instead, modern historians argue that larger social and economic and cultural factors set the preconditions for certain developments in ideas, industries, or businesses and that many individuals are in a position to take advantage of these trends. As to which individual becomes most successful or famous, that is really a matter of accident.
While there is some evidence that industrial development was fostered by monopolies or oligopolies with efficiencies of scale, had Ford, Carnegie, or Rockefeller, for example, not existed, other similar figures would have filled their roles.
I concur that industrial growth would still have occurred. However, it is important to note the role of the individuals behind the process. Although industrial growth would have occurred with different individuals in charge, it might have occurred differently due to the unique visionary ideas inherent in different entrepreneurs. In this regard, the process might have been faster or slower, or it might have taken a different direction altogether.
For instance, Andrew Carnegie had an idea of what he hoped to achieve for the steel industry. However, he had to work and invest in other ventures in order to raise the capital to invest in modernizing the steel industry. It is important to note that there were individuals and companies in a position to pursue what Carnegie hoped to achieve, but they did not do it, which paved the way for the birth of Carnegie Steel Company. A similar background is shared with John D. Rockefeller, another captain of industry.