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What is a Robber Baron?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A robber baron initially referred to a feudal lord, usually in Germany, who charged huge tolls for those shipping goods through their lands. More recently, during the American Industrial Revolution, the term was used to describe a person who made enormous amounts of money in business. It was an insulting term implying that a person used unfair business practices and showed little sensitivity to the common worker.

It is certainly the case that early workers in factories suffered inhumane treatment, and worked in horrible conditions. Little regard was given to worker safety, or to giving workers even a fair amount of time off. Many immigrants of the 19th century became factory workers, and were, because of language barriers, less able to stop abuses.

The robber baron typically opposed unionization, as this would cost more money. So his money was often made on the backs of the suffering. Further, excess amounts of money from him could usually quell controversy or media attention if needed.

Most people are familiar with the names Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Though some might more positively call these men Captains of Industry, they were often referred to as robber barons because of their business practices.

Many an industry leader called a robber baron actually gave significant money to charity. In fact, New York City owes many of its striking buildings to the contributions of these men. Buildings like Rockefeller Center, and Carnegie Hall were built through charitable contributions of the Rockefeller and Carnegie families.

However, many historians and economists deplore that such charity did not extend to most of the people who were responsible for making these men very rich. Nowhere was criticism of the robber baron lifestyle more evident than in Thorstein Veblen’s analysis, The Theory of the Leisure Class. To Veblen, these people bore resemblance to barbarians. What they could not get by reasonable means, they got by force. As well, they lived off their spoils or ill-gotten gain.

Some who would have called a robber baron a Captain of Industry, like conservative novelist Ayn Rand, saw these men as benefactors of society. Most liberal analysts would not agree with Rand’s assessment.

The amount of money made by a robber baron was often seen as fulfillment and inspiration for the American dream. However, most did not start at the lowest strata of society. They came for middle class families, where they would have had greater access to better jobs with better working conditions. They cannot in most cases be viewed as coming from “rags” to riches.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments
By anon993613 — On Nov 28, 2015

@Spasiba: According to your definition, America is a worker's paradise. In reality it is a place of lower wages and always higher prices for those who produce the wealth of the nation.

By anon329519 — On Apr 10, 2013

@post 3: How would you be any different if you were in a position of extreme power and wealth? You can't sit here and tell me you wouldn't be consumed with greed. If you honestly think that you wouldn't, you need to take a long hard look at yourself and get real!

By anon302154 — On Nov 07, 2012

@post 12: There will always be undesirable, unskilled jobs that have to be done by *someone* -- janitors, garbage men, busboys, etc. What we need is a cultural shift in values to respect all workers by giving them a living wage, and pricing goods fairly in a regulated, stable market.

Sure, they can better themselves and move up, but then some other vulnerable worker will just have to take their place. It's not about any individual, it's about respect for all stations in life.

By anon235496 — On Dec 17, 2011

There were no income taxes prior to 1913. If your boss is "screwing you over" you can always quit, or if he is violating some precious government regulation you can turn him in anonymously (thousands of government workers are standing by to take your call) and get his operation shut down. Either way you are likely out of a job.

Best advice it to better yourself through schooling or job training so you can leave the job you have for a better one or better yet work for yourself! Good luck out there!

By anon223170 — On Oct 18, 2011

Did the robber barons pay income taxes?

By anon135782 — On Dec 20, 2010

To post number 6: read post number 7.

By anon97743 — On Jul 20, 2010

The success of the business man or woman who is honest, and sensitive to the needs of his or her employees, is not being criticized here. What is being "called names" is the manipulative, unfair practices of some historical figures such as John D. Rockefeller. Not spending years building a business but exerting force over others to get what the business man wants. My father is a robber baron. He's not even rich, but he is a robber baron. A horrid man.

By bestcity — On Apr 10, 2010

To post number 3: It is so easy to call somebody names, some unknown, general, bad force out there. You really do not need to put out any effort for that, you do not need any ability.

Instead, a more productive way for you would be to start your own business. Work hard, as much as sixteen hours every day. For years, have no assurance that you will succed. For years, live with the bare minimum, because you are an enterpreneur, or a business person, and you like to work hard and create something.

Than when you are successful, and are able to employ tens or hundreds of people, than share with the rest of us, all of your experiences about the business people, and your dedicated, selfless, hardworking workers.

I am suspecting we would hear a somewhat different story, because you would actually understand what it takes to run a business.

By anon75748 — On Apr 07, 2010

i agree with spasiba!

By anon68196 — On Mar 01, 2010

Most are scumbags who screw over their workers.

By spasiba — On Feb 24, 2010

Are we sometimes over critical of successful business people?

Usually successful business men and women work incessantly, take huge risks, provide jobs to other people and for the most part are very generous.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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