Were the Powerful Business Magnates Robber Barons or Industrial Statesmen?

During the second half of the 1800s, powerful American businessmen, such as John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, were often viewed as "robber barons" because of their alleged unethical accumulation of wealth through monopolistic business practices. Recent examinations of these powerful business magnates, which began in the 20th century, began to promote the "industrial statesmen" view. The new writings provided a more balanced outlook that placed a greater focus on these individuals' contributions to the American economy, their innovative business-expansion strategies and their considerable philanthropic contributions and endowments.

After the Great Depression, some historians of American business, such as Allan Nevins, began publishing reexaminations of the lives and enterprises of the corporate magnates of the late 1800s. Nevins, in his 1940 two-volume work "John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise," challenged the previous perspective by advocating the new industrial statesman view and applying it to one of the most well-known of the robber barons. Nevins argued that Rockefeller's business practices should not darken his achievements in bringing stability to the often chaotic world of post-Civil War American commerce and the role he played in helping the United States to become an economic leader.

Nevin's view is in contrast to the perspective held by Matthew Josephson, who had previously popularized the term "robber baron" in a 1934 book on American capitalists. Josephson's view was that individuals such as Rockefeller grew their fortunes unjustly, immorally and unethically. This type of critical assessment of big business was not uncommon during the time of the Great Depression.