Industrialization and Captains of Industry Questions and Answers

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Were the industrialists of the late 1800s captains of industry or robber barons? 

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The industrialists of the late nineteenth-century crossed the line between the two terms captains of industry and robber barons. First of all, captains of industry were leaders in business who were viewed as having made their wealth while contributing to the country in a positive manner. The term, robber baron, however, combines the negative connotation of robber, a thief, and links it to baron, aristocracy. Robber barons were believed to have amassed their wealth using unscrupulous methods.

The major industrialists during this period were J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, and John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller was the first man to amass a fortune of more than a billion dollars with his company Standard Oil. These men could be considered robber barons as they drove out competition and used questionable practices, such as establishing common law trusts, which basically made their companies monopolies.

On the other hand, these men could be considered captains of industry, as they...

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This question hinges on the precise definition of the terms. If "captain of industry" has a markedly more positive connotation than "robber baron", then a good answer is that the industrialists of the late 19th century should be considered both captains of industry and robber barons.

Even a small sampling of the business practices of late 19th century industrialists are enough to earn them the title "robber baron". Monopoly was ruthlessly pursued to the detriment of small business, farmer, and consumer alike, a paradigmatic example being the practices of John D. Rockefeller. Organized labor was consistently repressed, often with extreme violence, as in the case of the Pullman car company and the 1896 attack on the Leadville, CO miners. Jay Gould infamously quipped that he could "hire one half of the working class to kill the other if so wanted."

While there was plenty of suffering and repression carried out by the robber barons, their efforts also left in their wake broad social benefits. Carnegie turned to philanthropy, leaving behind thousands of public libraries that are still in service and a foundation that bears his name. The Rockefeller foundation continues to fund both the arts and the sciences. Even though monopolies have problematic features (prices can remain artificially high for consumers in a market without competition), and the power of big business over politics often produces a crony capitalism in which the benefits of industry go to a few, the industrial infrastructure (railroads, ports, factories) and economies of scale (standardized mass production) that were developed during that time, went on to be invaluable assets in America's 20th century industrial ascent.

Thus, one could consider them to be labelled as both, though one could certainly argue that the benefits to American industry could have been produced without the corrupt, cutthroat, inhumane, and illegal business practices that were practiced by the likes of Rockefeller, Gould, Carnegie, and Morgan.