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CASE STUDY Construction of the Central Pacific The term "robber baron" refers to a group of manipulative entrepreneurs who pursued controversial business careers between the Civil War and the early twentieth century. The best-known members of this semipiratical cohort include Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. These men, prominent in American history books, represent hundreds of others who together constituted a distinct element of unprincipled behavior within the business community of the time. They began their careers after the outbreak of the Civil War, when political and economic dislocations weakened the fabric of national commerce. The war opened the door to unscrupulous promoters, war profiteers, and government war contractors in league with corrupt politicians. The patterns of bribing politicians to gain favoritism learned at this time were carried over to economic activity after the end of the war. From the 1860s onward, the robber barons also availed themselves of economic opportunities in the developing western territories. Historians believe that the dislocations of the war coupled with a vast increase in the geographic scope of economic activity created a climate in which established norms of business ethics crumbled under the onslaught of ruthless competitors. 1 The robber barons were buttressed in their actions by values of the time, which extolled the virtues of ruthless competition. Particularly popular were the works of Herbert Sp encer (1820-1903) . an English philosopher who popularized the doctrine called social Darwinism , Spencer's philosophy provided a moral basis for the accumulation of large fortunes through economic operations which, in the words of historian Henry Demarest Lloyd, made "the Black Flag the emblem of success on the high seas of human interchange." Spencer argued that life was a continuing process of adaptation to a harsh external environment. Businesses were engaged in a competitive struggle for survival in which the fittest survived. The strongest competitors benefited the human race by their survival and prosperity. This idea enabled the robber barons to justify any effective business tactic, no matter how harsh or cruel, as contributing to a positive end result in the evolutionary process. The widespread acceptance of Herbert Spencer's doctrines made predatory behavior seem acceptable. Parents proudly pointed to the actions of Gould, Rockefeller, and their ilk as examples worthy of emulation by their children. In the following quotation, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., speaking in a Sunday school address, is a convincing exponent of this brand of competition: 'Chester McArthur Destler, "Entrepreneurial Leadership among the 'Robber Barons': A Trial Balance," Journal of Economic History, vol, 6, supplement, 1946.... View Full Document

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