The Industrial Age in America: Robber Barons and Captains of Industry

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; … and, after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer… to produce the most beneficial results for the community—the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves."
—From "Wealth," by Andrew Carnegie, North American Review (1889)

"Law? Who cares about the law. Hain't I got the power?"
—Comment alleged to have been made by Cornelius Vanderbilt, when warned that he might be violating the law

Though a century has passed since the heyday of the great industrialists and financiers, debate continues: were these men captains of industry, without whom this country could not have taken its place as a great industrial power, or were they robber barons, limiting healthy competition and robbing from the poor to benefit the rich? Where do we draw the line between unfair business practices and competition that leads to innovation, investment, and improvement in the standard of living for everyone? Would the industrial economy have succeeded without entrepreneurs willing to take competition to its extremes?

It has been argued that we are now in a comparable economic period, the formative years of the Information Age. Certainly we continue to struggle with similar kinds of questions about fair and unfair business practices and the benefits and costs of competition. Does the industrialization of America at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century hold any lessons for us today? Can market forces exert sufficient influence to rein in potentially harmful practices or does government have to intervene?

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a complement to another EDSITEment lesson The Industrial Age in America: Sweatshops, Steel Mills, and Factories.

Guiding Questions

What various practices of industrialists/financiers led to their being labeled "robber barons"? "Captains of industry"?


In what ways did such industrialists/financiers harm and/or benefit the U.S. economy and the quality of life of its citizens?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

State definitions of the terms "robber baron" and "captain of industry"

List some of the actions, both positive and negative, of one or more captains of industry/robber barons


Take a stand as to whether a particular financier/industrialist is or is not a robber baron and support that stand with evidence