The Myth of the Robber Barons Essay

Business historian of Murray State University in Kentucky, Burton W. Folsom Jr. ‘s illustrative work, The Myth of the Robber Barons, unfolds the manufactured myth of Robber Barons and manifests the misplaced victory of industrial and economic progress of America. It tells the story of earliest entrepreneurship in America and depicts six large and inspiring entrepreneurs behind the industrial revolution.

The history fabricated by many historians illustrates that 19th century of American history is marked with the economic exploitations of “robber barons” that deprived American citizens of the potential benefits of industrialization and collected huge profits for themselves.

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But some of the great industrialist and businessmen of the 19th century America have also been equated with “robber barons” and their accomplishments have been labeled as the result of exploitation, theft and treachery against their fallow countrymen.

According to this myth of “robber barons”, great entrepreneurs like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller who helped America to establish itself on sound economic footings and constructed huge infrastructures of banks, railroads, steel mills and cities, have been displayed as incarnations of exploiters with hideous agendas.

Dr. Folsom tries to cast away these fabricated notions and manifests a clear distinction between the exploiters and those entrepreneurs who struggled in an opposite way. These leaders worked to eliminate disparities in the industrial milieu and to break the monopolies.

They further helped to create a just and progressive society by tackling social issues such as poverty, illiteracy etc. Folsom does not deny that there were no corrupt and malicious entrepreneurs. He describes that there were numerous entrepreneurs who established their influence in the political and official sectors in order to serve their own vested interest. These entrepreneurs were political in nature and worked only to establish and strengthen their business empires. Folsom explains these two distinguished types of entrepreneurs in details and his in-depth analysis of these distinct types shows apparent differences among them.

He categorizes these entrepreneurs as “market entrepreneurs” and “political entrepreneurs’ but further clarifies that no entrepreneur can be classified into a single category as their activities and objectives are overlapped. Additionally, he displays the both trends i. e. political and market intermingles with each other and most entrepreneurs possess the characteristics of the both categories. Folsom is of the view that creation of this myth has political motives as well i. e. to justify and establish government monopoly over the business and to capacitate government to intervene in the affairs of the entrepreneurs.

He says that each “abuse” committed by a “robber baron” was a justification to establish governmental control and a motive to introduce reforms. Folsom further discloses that this reformation process suits the interests if the government as it takes away power from entrepreneurs and forward it to different states institutions. Folsom further criticizes textbooks mainly for not providing correct information about these great entrepreneur and only describes political entrepreneur side of businessmen.

He also says that historians must eradicate their pre-conceived notions about these entrepreneurs i. e. entrepreneurs cut costs and made many contributions to American economic growth, but they also marred political life by bribing politicians and misusing government funds. This powerful work, Myth of the Robber Barons, blows up the misperceptions and fabricated realties about the nineteenth century entrepreneurs and reveals that all the entrepreneurs were not of “Robber Baron” category but there were market oriented businessmen like Rockefeller and Hill.

These market-oriented entrepreneurs contributed not only contributed in the industrial and business sector but their contribution to the social sector cannot be denied. This book established the truth that the myth of Robber Baron is a fabricated one that suits the interests of the government and it has not real grounds.


Folsom, Burton. 1991. The Myth of the Robber Barons. Herndon: Young America’s Foundation.

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