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Edsitement Robber Barons Essay

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "All history is biography."

Whether or not the above quotation is accurate, it is true that history is about people. As as my Dear Friend and Mentor used to tell me, whenever I came running into his office at 3:04 pm wondering how I should teach Topic X the next day, his response was always, "tell them a story."

Fortunately, for those of us who teach U.S. history there are a lot of good stories. And today, as I ponder how to teach about the rise of big business in the U.S., the obvious personalities are Rockefeller and Carnegie.

One interesting way to begin a lesson on big business in the late nineteenth century might be to to ask students which list of names on the left looks more familiar. Most students will have heard of at least some of the names on the right, while they are likely to be stumped by the presidents. This can be a useful way to introduce the question, where was the center of power in the late nineteenth century? (see the last political cartoon at the end of this post)
And the follow up questions suggests their influence: how do we know these names? (Trust me, they probably don't know them because they learned about them in an earlier U.S. history class.) If they have heard about them, it is because there are still foundations and banks and universities named for them. (Keep in mind the demographics of your students here. It may be more likely for middle to upper class students to know the names on the right than lower income students.)

Whether your students have heard of these businessmen or not, you now have the opportunity to introduce them to some pretty interesting characters.  But how do we use biographical information in class? How should we tell stories? And how do we avoid the problem I like to call "The Problem of Andrew Jackson's horse"? I came up with the name after a series of conversations with a friend who never liked history. He claimed that his teacher tried to make it interesting by telling lots of irrelevant stories which meant he left high school knowing little about history but knew odd bits of random information like the name of Jackson's horse (Sam Patch).

I am likely as guilty as the history teacher in question of peppering lectures with anecdotes in hopes of a good laugh, a smile or to get students' attention by "making it interesting."  If this is all we do with biographical information--throw it into lectures--then yes, it is probably useless.  

But a recent glance through the book, Why Don't Students Like School by education psychologist Daniel T. Willingham stopped me cold at the title of chapter 3, "Why Do Students Remember Everything That's on Television and Forget Everything I Say?" (It reminds me of the all-too-many number of students who, when we get to Vietnam, ask if we can watch the movie, Forrest Gump in class.) According to Willingham, the human mind is especially adept at understanding and remembering stories. He says that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as "psychologically privileged" because our memories actually treat them differently than other types of material. 

I cannot do justice to this chapter here (but if you want to check out other of Willingham's many articles which are useful to teachers, click here. And the book is worth a read.).  But the gist of it is that telling stories helps students remember information. He really means more than just tell a few anecdotes about Carnegie and Rockefeller. The key, he explains memorably, is that we remember what we think about. Sounds so obvious, doesn't it? So if our stories can engage students' attention and get them to think about something, they will remember it.

So how to avoid the problem we've all had: your lesson is chock full of all kinds of important information about -- let's say the rise of big business in the late nineteenth century-- and you sit down to grade your students' essays, and on at least a few of them, you get not a whole lot of substance but they seem to remember the amusing little anecdote you told about how Rockefeller raised turkeys and lent some of the money he raised to a neighbor. The problem is that we have neglected to connect the story to something meaningful. We need to tie the anecdote to something meaningful about Rockefeller and business. What is important is not the turkeys, but the fact that Rockefeller had a eureka moment when he realized the possibility of making money without doing any work at all: through investing.

So yes, by all means provide your students some interesting biographical information about Rockefeller and Carnegie. They are both fascinating characters, very different from each other, and their reach is still felt today. But connect it to something more meaningful.

The classic way to teach the topic meaningfully is to pose the subject as "Robber Barons or Captains of Industry"? (Do a quick Google search and you'll see what I mean; tons of lesson ideas with these terms.) The implicit question is whether or not the big industrialists and businessmen of the late nineteenth century earned their fortunes at the cost of the poor, or did they help develop the U.S. into an economic powerhouse? The answer, of course, includes both perspectives and any good lesson must help students see that.

But another way I have done it, usually after students have also studied the perspective of labor and some of the big strikes of the period, is to pose the question, "Do the ends justify the means?" In other words, do the economic achievements and subsequent philanthropy of these men justify whatever illegal, immoral, or at-great-cost-to-the-workers methods they used to get there? Here, too, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. But there are lots of opportunities here to ask tough questions, engage students in contentious debates, and bring the topic into the present. How? Check out the two resources below.

For grappling with the question of "do the ends justify the means?" 

  • Check out this recent article in the New Yorker, "Was Carnegie Right about Philanthropy?" The article poses the question, "Does philanthropy by the most affluent among us make up for the negative consequences of inequality?" There is a list of the top 50 most generous donors of 2013. Mark Zuckerburg and his wife were #1. The article quotes Peter Buffet, son of Warren Buffet, who describes philanthropy by the super rich as "conscience laundering." Isn't that a fascinating way to put it? If I had the time, I might edit this article to use with students. But I also might simply read aloud a few passages of it as a way to begin a discussion. The article also points out that most philanthropic spending does not directly fight poverty. And check out this really cool ngram viewer from Google that shows the use of the term "new gilded age" in search engines that was linked to in the article.
  • Below is a wonderful, short video that I was introduced to by one of my student teachers last semester. (Thanks!) Ironically, it was created by Evan Klassen who had his own rags-to-riches immigrant story like Carnegie. The video visualizes the income gap in the U.S. and Americans' perceptions of that gap. It is just over 6 minutes and could be shown in class. I think it would work well for middle or high school students, though you may need to pause it and explain a few things for middle schoolers. For more info on income inequality, check out this map and info from the Washington Post about income inequality across the world and how the U.S. compares.

For more info on Carnegie:

For more info on Rockefeller:

For info on J.P. Morgan: The New Tycoons: Morgan

On the industrialists in general:

  • Here is a lesson from edsitement on Edsitement on the classic topic of Robber Baron or Captain of Industry? Even if you don't use the lesson, it has links to useful materials. You can find lots of other lesson plans and resources by entering in "robber barons" and/or "captains of industry" into a search engine. That's how I found this one.
  • Here is a useful in-class assignment that will help students understand how Rockefeller used his power to get rebates and drawbacks from the railroads. I have edited it only slightly from a handout in my files that I think probably came from some textbook company. 
  • Here is a lesson from my files (adapted from work of other teachers) that addresses the inadequacy of government efforts to regulate big business. It is a useful segue to the theme of Progressive reform, when the government actually does reform business. I would use it as an in-class activity to do as a class, or in small groups with full class follow-up. It is designed to go along with a textbook (any U.S. history textbook will do). Students also might also need help with the question about what an attorney general does. And as long as we are talking about telling stories, you can use this as a "cliffhanger" to lead into the next unit--will the government get with the program and actually pass legislation that will limit the power of the trusts? Tune in next week as we look at President Roosevelt, the Trustbuster....
  • Here's a lesson to connect gilded age entrepreneurs to contemporary ones. 
  • There are some great resources at which presents definitely presents a pro-Captain of Industry look. (The section of the site presents the topic as "The Myth of the Robber Barons.") The website claims to be non-partisan, but a look at the "about us" page does mention an anti-government regulation leaning. But there are some links to primary sources, political cartoons, videos and interesting charts and graphs.
  • For the opposite perspective, you can look at this lesson on the Homestead Strike from the Howard Zinn Education project.

And don't forget to use some of these classic political cartoons with your students:


The robber barons / captains of industry are the way that the 19th Century industrialists have been portrayed throughout the past 150 years.  Much of it depends upon the school of history that’s doing the interpretation.

The robber barons is a negative portrayal of people like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt who were ruthless and vindictive.  They took over other businesses in a cruel manner and forced thousands of workers to work in terrible conditions and for low pay like Carnegie.  They limited competition by buying other industries and ruthlessly crushing other companies.  There were crooks like Jim Fisk and Jay Gould who tried cornering the gold market in 1869.  They also printed phony RR stocks in order to defraud investors.  RR magnate Jay Cooke boasted of how awesome the land next to his Northern Pacific RR was, but when investors bowed out of his scheme, his bank collapsed, triggering the Panic of 1873.

The captains of industry is a positive portrayal of industrialists shows these men as ingenuous, industrious, and fulfilling the American Dream.  Some of these men like Carnegie and Rockefeller were lauded for their philanthropy.  They exemplified the best of capitalism.  These captains pushed America into the modern age, made products affordable, and could have exploited their monopolies by high prices but didn’t.  J.P. Morgan was so powerful that he could have trashed the American economy and part of the world’s economy along with it if he so chose to, but he didn’t.  In fact, when he died, America created the Federal Reserve Bank, its third and current attempt at a central bank.

Use the website below to research some of the major industrialists.




Your job: Analyze the discussion above and come up with your own analysis – which do you think fits the time period best?   Is it a combo?  Explain.

Due Thursday, February 6 by class.  250 words minimum.


Tags: capitalism, captains of industry, Industry, Robber barons, unions

Posted February 2, 2015 by geoffwickersham in category Blogs