Industrialization and Captains of Industry Questions and Answers

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Do you think that the tycoons of the 19th century are best described as ruthless robber barons or as effective captains of industry?

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Michael Koren eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Describing the business tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt as robber barons or as effective industry captains depends on one’s perspective. For people who were harmed by these business tycoons, they would likely describe them as robber barons. Farmers were very upset with the owners of the railroads. The railroad owners refused to give farmers rebates for shipping their crops by train. However, other business owners were given rebates for shipping their products by train. Farmers did not view the railroad tycoons positively. Small businesses that were forced to sell to larger businesses also would likely not describe the large business owner positively. To the small business owner, these business tycoons were robber barons that forced them to sell their business or go out of business. Many people who worked for some of these business tycoons felt that they were paying the workers unfair wages. These workers believed that they helped these companies become successful and that they should have been rewarded more for their labor.

Those who believed in a survival of the fittest concept would view the business tycoons as effective captains of industry. They would look at these people as individuals who ran their businesses very efficiently and were then able to cut costs and offer products at lower prices. Many of these business tycoons saw new ways of using resources to give their business a competitive advantage. For example, John D. Rockefeller found ways to use the by-products that were created when crude oil was converted to kerosene. These tycoons were willing to take risks to help the American economy grow. As they grew older, many of these business leaders became very philanthropic. They provided money to build libraries, further educational opportunities, and enhance cultural pursuits.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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For me, personally, the answer to this would be “yes.”  I think that these men are best described in both of these ways.  I will give reasons for each viewpoint and you can decide what your answer would be.

It is clearly possible to see these men as captains of industry.  These tycoons were instrumental in making the American economy boom in the late 1800s.  The tycoons tried hard to make as much money as they could.  Part of how they did this was by driving their costs down as much as possible.  They made their industries more efficient and they were able to reduce the prices that consumers had to pay for goods.  Without these men, it is possible that the US economy would not have boomed.  Because they helped our economy grow, we should think of them as captains of industry.

On the other hand, we can also clearly argue that these men were robber barons.  They were ruthless when they competed with one another.  They did everything they could to defeat their rivals.  As their companies grew, they destroyed many smaller companies by outcompeting them.  They were also generally ruthless with their workers.  They made them work as hard as possible for the lowest wages that they could get away with paying.  In other words, they got rich in part by exploiting workers and by destroying competitors.  This makes them ruthless robber barons.

Which of these arguments makes more sense to you?

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