It sounds like such an ugly term, “Robber Baron.” The phrase brings to mind thoughts of abuse and theft. But who and what exactly did these so called Robber Barons rob?
The most famous Robber Barons were John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Each of these men built up remarkable wealth – each would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in today’s currency. Remarkable feats, so they must have stolen from somebody to get there, right?
Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company who also built up hundreds of billions of dollars (in today’s currency) in wealth, has a famous quote that goes something like, “The man who will use his skill and constructive imagination to see how much he can give for a dollar, instead of how little he can give for a dollar, is bound to succeed.” This is a creed that every robber baron has followed, including Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt. In a capitalistic free market, as was seen in the time of the Robber Barons, the only way to build true, long-lasting wealth is to offer a product of greater quality and/or lower price than one’s competitors to as many people as possible. As such, a capitalist is only able to amass wealth by providing his fellow man with something that he would otherwise not be able to enjoy or afford. Rockefeller did it primarily with oil. He was able to drill and extract oil and sell it to his customers at lower prices than his competitors could. This allowed people to operate machinery, grow industry, heat their homes, cook their food, and perform a number of tasks that would have otherwise been too expensive. By offering people cheaper, more accessible energy products, Mr. Rockefeller was able to amass huge amounts of wealth. Carnegie did the same thing with Steel and Vanderbilt provided the nation’s people with cheaper, more effective shipping and railroads. It is impossible, in a free market, to amass the huge amounts of wealth these men did without dramatically improving the lives of a vast number of people – and that is exactly what each man did.
Not only did these Robber Barons improve the lives of their customers, but they provided countless jobs and created growth in the economy. Carnegie not only provided jobs to his steel workers and administrators, but he also made it possible for men to have jobs laying his steel along Vanderbilt’s railways, building Rockefeller’s oil derricks, manufacturing Ford’s automobiles, or building skyscrapers in Manhattan. Furthermore, each of the men created huge amounts of wealth for other people that either invested in their respective concerns or purchased their goods and used them to build up companies of their own. Each Robber Baron created many times the wealth and income that he, himself, took home.
So, it seems that Robber Barons did not really rob anybody – in fact they seemed to have improved the lives of most of the people in this nation. So why the nasty name? It must be their unrelenting selfish greed that brought on this negative perception of these magnates. After all, a man such as John D. Rockefeller cannot build up $320 billion in wealth without greedily hoarding everything he can get his hands on like Ebenezer Scrooge, right? Wrong. The Robber Barons, despite their name, were notorious for actually giving away their money. Never has there been a series of philanthropists such as these. Each man puts Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Bono of U2 to shame.
John D. Rockefeller
• Throughout his life, he gave a minimum of ten percent of his earnings to education and public health services.
• Rockefeller funded the University of Chicago with an $80 million grant (1900 money), making it one of the preeminent American universities today.
• He provided much of the funding for Spelman College (named after his in-laws, who were ardent abolitionists before the Civil War), which was a college in Atlanta for black women.
• He established what he called his General Education Board, which promoted education at all levels everywhere in the U.S. and was especially active in promoting the education of black children in the South.
• His donations led to a revolution in medicine with the Flexner Report, which essentially established the medical profession as we know it today.
• He gave extensively to Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Vassar and other universities.
• He became one of the greatest benefactors of medical science, founding the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, which later became Rockefeller University.
• He founded the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, which eradicated the hookworm disease, which had plagued the Southern United States.
• He gave $250 million to his own Rockefeller Foundation, which in turn endowed the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, founded the Peking Union Medical College, helped in the World War I war relief, and other great feats.
• He founded the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial foundation, which supported work in social studies.
• Later in his life, he was known for walking around town with pockets full of money and would hand it out to children and adults as he went from place to place.
• He established public libraries throughout the United States, United Kingdom, and other English-speaking countries. In all, he funded approximately 3,000 libraries in 47 U.S. States, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies, and Fiji.
• He helped fund the University of Birmingham.
• He founded the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, which became part of Carnegie Mellon University.
• He founded the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC, which was setup to support scientific research and is still advancing science today.
• He served on the board of Cornell University.
• He funded the construction of the Hooker telescope, which was the largest telescope in the world for three decades.
• He founded the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland to assist education at Scottish universities.
• He notoriously established large pension funds for his former employees and later established TIAA-CREF, a pension fund for college professors.
• He built Carnegie Hall in New York City.
• He was a large benefactor of the Tuskegee Institute for African-American education and he helped Booker T. Washington create the National Negro Business League.
• He founded the Carnegie Hero Fund in many nations for the recognition of deeds of heroism.
To go on listing each of the Robber Barons’ philanthropy would be a waste; let us just say there was a lot of it.
Not only did these men provide cheap goods and services, countless jobs, and unprecedented wealth, but they also gave more to charity than anyone before or since. The free market set the sky as the limit for these men and they capitalized on it. By doing so, they improved this nation and the lives of its citizens. It is time we stop referring to these men as “Robber Barons” and call them what they are: Capitalists.