Because they exploited ruthless tactics to destroy competition, create monopolies, and corrupt the free enterprise system, the industrial leaders of the late 19th century were called robber barons. Men such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt were the kings of American industry and American society during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Enforcing harsh rules, ordering long work hours, and placing their workers in dangerous environments, these men were the pirates of industry.
During the post-Civil War era America became the richest industrial nation in the world. The country was a treasure-house of natural resources, including raw materials such as coal, iron ore, copper, lead, timber, and oil, which were essential for the growth of industry. A growing population along with an advanced transportation system made America the largest market in the world for industrial goods (Newman and Schmalbach 333). The laying down of railroads increased everywhere, including the west. As a result of this new form of transportation, settlers began to travel more and more.
Cattle drives along the open range provided meat for these settlers out West, where food and water were scarce. Because of the greed for more land and resources, the United States tried to obtain Indian land and move the Indians to reservations in the middle of the desert, causing numerous wars among the rivals. With the new land acquired, America could expand its industry, causing a few men to become immensely wealthy. These men were known as the robber barons.
Many consider Rockefeller a robber of industry because of his forcible ways of gaining his monopolies. He was fond of buying out small and large competitors. If the competitors refused to sell, they often found Rockefeller cutting the prices of his Standard Oil or "in the worst cases, their factories mysteriously blowing up (Robber Barons)." He was obsessed with controlling the oil market and used many detrimental tactics to flush his competitors out of the market. Since his Standard Oil Company was so large, Rockefeller was able to pressure rebates from railroad companies and temporarily cut prices for Standard Oil kerosene to force rival companies to sell out. By 1881, his company controlled 90 percent of the oil refinery business through horizontal integration (Newman and Schmalbach 338), leaving him with an enormous wealth of over $900 million (Tarbell 267). A cartoon by Culver Pictures illustrates how Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company bought everything that could be used for oil, including railroad lines. By shrewdly and deviously eliminating all competitors, the Rockefeller earned himself the title "Robber Baron."
Andrew Carnegie was also known as a robber baron because he did anything to reach the top. Carnegie believed in the survival of the fittest, saying, "While the law may sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department (Carnegie)." Since he used vertical integration, controlling every aspect of a product, Carnegie was able to eliminate all competitors. James B. Weaver said that Carnegie was a "master of the situation and could dictate . . . the raw materials and . . . the finished product." He was possessed by technology and efficiency in a way no businessman before him had ever been (The Steel Business). His relentless efforts to drive down costs and undersell the competition made his steel mills the most modern in the world. For Carnegie's workers cheap steel meant lower wages, less job security, and the end of creative labor. His drive for efficiency cost steel workers their unions and control over their own labor. Flames, noise, and danger ruled the Carnegie mills. "Protective gear" consisted only of two layers of wool long-johns; horrible injuries were common (The Steel Business). One of Carnegie's workers stated in 1893,
"Sometimes a chain breaks, and a ladle tips over, and the iron explodes . . . . Sometimes the slag falls on the workmen . . . . Of course, if everything is working all smooth and a man watches out, why, all right! But you take it after they've been on duty twelve hours without sleep, and running like hell, everybody tired and loggy, and it's a different story."
Ruling over his business with the absolute dominance of a robber baron, Carnegie ordered that, efficiency, not safety, was paramount.
The third most notable robber barons, and probably the most relentless, was William Vanderbilt. He gained control of the railroad system through hard work and cutthroat competition. When being interviewed by the Chicago Daily News on October 9, 1882, Vanderbilt said, "The railroads are not run for . . . the public. The public be damned. I do not take any stock in this silly nonsense about working for anybody's good but our own." Typical of his ruthless tactics was his takeover of the New York Central Railroad in 1867. Vanderbilt's rail lines provided access for that railroad's traffic. After failing to gain concessions from New York Central's stockholder, he shut his line down which cut off Central's business. Saying, "Can't I do what I want with my own," Vanderbilt won the concessions of the stockholders and became president of the New York Central (Keesee and Sidwell 254). By what ever means possible, Vanderbilt made every effort to keep a strong hold in his business as long as possible. Through his forcible ways of obtaining monopolies, Vanderbilt smothered others' hard earned businesses with an air of absolute supremacy.
Because they utilized cold-blooded tactics to destroy competition, create monopolies, and corrupt the free enterprise system, the industrial leaders of the late 19th century were called robber barons. These pirates of industry ruled over their businesses with absolute power, cleansing their gutters of the weak no matter what it took.