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Robber Baron

June 2024
1min read


Two problems arise. The term robber baron is itself the most overrated and misleading phrase in the historian’s lexicon. It is also so vague that the list of candidates is shadowy. That said, I offer two prospects whose achievements still have not received the recognition they deserve despite sympathetic biographies. The first is Jay Gould, one of the archfiends of robber baron mythology; the other is Samuel lnsull, the genius of the electric power industry. Both men did much to define their industries, not only in what they accomplished but also in what they forced others to do. Both also had their reputations tarnished by scandals.

As others besides myself, notably Julius Grodinsky and Alfred Chandler, have shown, Gould early in his career forced the major Eastern railroads into a strategy that spurred their expansion into systems. Later, he salvaged the financially moribund Union Pacific, forged a giant system of his own (the Missouri Pacific), and did more to develop the territory west of the Mississippi than anyone except perhaps James J. Hill. He also rationalized the telegraph industry through his control of Western Union and did the same for the Manhattan Elevated railway system in New York City. In other words, he played a key role in the evolution of two critical sectors in the industrial age, transportation and communication. At bottom, genius consists of a vision coupled with the talent and the drive or obsession to fulfill it. By this measure, Gould was a genius.

So was Samuel Insull. As Forrest McDonald shows in his 1962 biography, lnsull did far more than erect a huge empire in electric utilities. He made electricity a consumer product by working out the economics of pricing, pioneering in mass production, organizing a vast and efficient power network, and introducing new methods of financing to build it. He was, in short, godfather to the development and extension of the most important technology of the twentieth century.


Selecting the most overrated robber baron is much more difficult. Even their steadily hostile chronicler Matthew Josephson conceded the accomplishments of the men on whom he pinned the label, and few critics have denied them their due as businessmen. If anyone deserves to be called overrated—or indeed to be called robber barons—it is the second-rank figures who looked solely for profit and were often genuine scoundrels. The epitome is Daniel Drew, who left little, if anything, in the way of a positive contribution beyond the amusement provided by his rascality and the credit for inspiring the term watered stock .

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