Construction of the
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
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.
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
. 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,"
vol, 6, supplement, 1946.