Thursday, April 16, 2009

Return of "The Robber Barons"

The Robber Barons, a colorful and classic recounting of the business wars of the Gilded Age, could take on new relevance today.

In a foreword to the 1962 edition of The Robber Barons, author and historian Matthew Josephson takes note of the circumstances surrounding initial publication of the book in 1934.

“The New Era of Prosperity had ended,” Josephson recalled. The Great Depression had killed off the phony opulence of the 1920s. Captains of industry were dying off or going bankrupt, “and we were asking ourselves insistently how we, as a nation, had got into such a pass.”

Americans are asking themselves similar questions these days, which leads one to wonder if they’ll turn to Josephson once more for answers.

The Robber Barons is a wonderfully colorful and evocative history of the Gilded Age and the personalities who transformed America’s economy into an industrial powerhouse. It remains, more than seventy years after its initial publication, a relevant and readable text.

Josephson tells the stories of Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Cooke and Jim Fisk, among others. He recounts the building of America’s railroads – and the chicanery and corruption that accompanied their construction. Cyrus McCormick, Philip Armour, Leland Stanford and J.P. Morgan come alive in his pages.

Josephson details how the great infrastructure project of the era – railroad construction – was facilitated and supported directly by government aid in the form of land grants and subsidies. He describes how the titans of America’s emerging industrial economy bought favor in Congress and state capitols.

And he does it with considerable panache. Consider this passage from his chapter “The National Scene,” describing the early days of Wall Street.

“And as it is now so Wall Street was then a huge whispering gallery, vibrant with a thousand rumors, fears and passions, emotional and mercurial, or now impassive and inscrutable; a place of restless tides and bewitching calms, or howling hurricanes, a place as unfathomable as the seas, as impenetrable as the jungle.”

The compelling prose of The Robber Barons is one of its greatest strengths.

Although Josephson’s title has become shorthand for the buccaneering personalities that dominated the American economy in the last half of the nineteenth century, intervening years have not been terribly kind to the book or its author.

The 1980s – in retrospect, another American Gilded Age – represented a period of particular disfavor. David Shi’s biography, Matthew Josephson: Bourgeois Bohemian, disclosed that Josephson remained an ardent supporter of Stalin long after other American leftists jettisoned their support for the Soviet dictator.

“Hatred of American life drove Josephson on, as it still drives those who see in Russia or Cuba or China or some other totalitarian state a welcome alternative to democracy,” William L. O’Neill wrote in Reviews in American History in 1981.

Actually, it is difficult to see “hatred of American life” in the pages of The Robber Barons. To be sure, a na├»ve nostalgia for the pre-industrial economic order animates its pages. Slavery is rarely mentioned. Josephson occasionally betrays the indifference of early twentieth-century progressives to the cause of the Union. He makes slighting references to Grant and dismisses the war as an “epoch of martial glory and martial stupidity” fought only to usher in a new economic order.

But none of those failings point to "hatred" of the United States. As the events of the past eighteen months suggest, love for one's country and outrage at the shenanigans of those who corruptly ascend to the commanding heights of the economy are not mutually exclusive.

Josephson himself, in his 1962 foreword, saw the impact of revisionist history on his view of Gilded Age industrialists, but clung stubbornly to his interpretive framework. The great capitalists of the late nineteenth century “were often men of heroic stature, and their days were charged with drama; but though they were often envied they were not loved by the American people.”

Josephson, understandably but incorrectly, dismissed the work of the historians who followed him. History is a not a static endeavor. New discoveries, interpretations and insights unfold as historians investigate, write and analyze events in the context of their times. Like any historical work, The Robber Barons should be checked against newer and often more reliable scholarship.

But it remains a useful and readable introduction to the personalities and issues of the Gilded Age.


Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

O'Neill, William L. "Popular History and Radical Chic." Reviews in American History, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), pp. 451-453.

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