The Misunderstood Robber Baron: On Cornelius Vanderbilt | The Nation


The Misunderstood Robber Baron: On Cornelius Vanderbilt

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Steve Fraser
Steve Fraser is a visiting professor at New York University, co-founder of the American Empire Project, and the author...

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Cornelius Vanderbilt died in January 1877. Six months later, the greatest social insurrection of the nineteenth century paralyzed the operations of Vanderbilt's New York Central Railroad (by then overseen by his son William) along with the other three trunk lines connecting the East Coast to Chicago and points farther west. The Great Railroad Strike, as it came to be known, was an upheaval of extraordinary violence sparked by an astonishing act of collusion and callousness: a 10 percent wage cut announced the previous year--amid the century's worst depression--and endorsed in concert by the four trunk lines. Armed confrontations between state militias and infuriated railroad workers and their legions of sympathizers broke out in cities and towns across the country. A general strike paralyzed St. Louis. On a single day 
in Pittsburgh, crowds burned thirty-nine railroad buildings and 1,300 railroad cars and engines as well as a huge grain elevator; armed with Gatling guns, the National Guard killed twenty that night and more the next day. Thomas Scott, who ran the Pennsylvania Railroad, concluded, "Nothing but the insanity of passion, played upon by designing and mischievous leaders, can explain the destruction of vast quantities of railroad equipment." Nothing, that is, except the desperate circumstances of the railroad workers--who for paltry wages risked being killed or maimed in industrial accidents--and their families.

The three weeks of mayhem ended with widespread applause for the forces of law and order. Armories were erected in major cities to quell the anxieties of the middle classes, who since the incendiary days of the Paris Commune had lived in chronic fear of a bloody class confrontation erupting in America. In this tense climate, many came to revere the new lords of industry. A few years after his death, Vanderbilt was lionized by his first biographer: without "the Commodore"--a sobriquet by which Vanderbilt was widely known at the time--there'd be "no railroads or steamships or telegraphs; no cities, no leisure class, no schools, no colleges, literature, art; in short no civilization." Millions shared in this idolatry.

A minority were irate and excoriated the titans of finance and industry as "robber barons" and worse. E.L. Godkin, founder of The Nation, launched a volley of invective at the new plutocracy: "kings of the street" like Vanderbilt displayed "unmitigated and immitigable selfishness" as appalling as their "audacity, push, unscrupulousness and brazen disregard of others' rights." Henry Adams, writing about the Credit Mobilier debacle after the Civil War, in which railroad operators connived with government officials to loot the public treasury, concluded that "the moral law has expired--like the Constitution." This less sanguine view grew more popular in the twentieth century, especially during and after the Great Depression, a catastrophe millions of Americans blamed on a second generation of "robber barons." Historical scholarship reflected that assessment. Biographies of Mellon, Carnegie and Rockefeller were often laced with moral censure, warning that "tories of industry" were a threat to democracy and that parasitism, aristocratic pretension and tyranny have always trailed in the wake of concentrated wealth, whether accumulated dynastically or more impersonally by the faceless corporation. This scholarship, and the cultural persuasion of which it was an expression, drew on a deeply rooted sensibility--partly religious, partly egalitarian and democratic--that stretched back to William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Jackson and Tom Paine.

The censure of big business continued through the 1960s and beyond, but it has gradually been eclipsed by the cultural and intellectual reclamation of Gilded Age tycoonery. During the past two decades, revisionist biographies and collective portraits of Mellon, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Harriman, J.P. Morgan and others have effectively rehabilitated the reputation of the robber baron. Even the railroad tycoon and speculator Jay Gould, known to his contemporaries as "the Mephistopheles of Wall Street," has been rescued from cultural purgatory. The quotient of negative moral and political judgment in these studies has declined or disappeared entirely. The emphasis now falls on the commercial brilliance of these men, their implacable will to succeed, their pioneering roles in strengthening the country's industrial and financial resources, and their mastery of the increasingly complex technological, financial and organizational innovations that have defined the modern economy.

Together this literature might be said to constitute a new genre: the misunderstood robber baron. The genre does not slight the harsh circumstances and nasty tactics that may have facilitated a robber baron's rise to dominance: a no-holds-barred competitive ferociousness, a casual attitude about sticking to the letter of the law, an imperiousness that distanced him from the plight of those less fortunate, a ruthless drive to bankrupt competitors, the suborning of elected officials. But instead of criticizing these traits and tactics, the genre naturalizes them. If these men did things that today might strike us as unscrupulous, so too did their contemporaries, all members of a society motivated by the single-minded individualism characteristic of a robust free-market economy. Looked at from afar, what we are persuaded to see through the examination of these lives is the incubation of the modern world of industrial and financial capitalism and its ineluctable evolutionary mechanics, not always pretty but at the end of the day a blessing that endowed the country with wealth and power. This sunny picture mirrors today's ownership society, with its free-market audaciousness and its reverence of businessmen in general, especially those committed to "lean and mean" competitiveness and financial empire-building. Arguably, the genre of the misunderstood robber baron is itself an expression of the shift in the zeitgeist, just as that earlier literature of moral condemnation shared in a more universal set of reservations about the reign of big business.

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