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.