Learn the Meaning and History of the Term Robber Baron

Political cartoon depicting 19th century robber barons.
This political cartoon depicts robber barons, including Jay Gould and Russell Sage, sitting atop workers. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Robber Baron was a term applied to a businessman in the 19th century who engaged in unethical and monopolistic practices, wielded widespread political influence, and amassed enormous wealth.

The term itself dated back centuries, and was originally applied to noblemen in the Middle Ages who functioned as feudal warlords and were literally “robber barons.”

In the 1870s the term began to be used to describe business tycoons, and the usage persisted throughout the rest of the 19th century.

The late 1800s and the first decade of the 20th century is sometimes referred to as an age of robber barons.

The Rise of Robber Barons

As the United States transformed into an industrial society with little regulation of business, it was possible for small numbers of men to dominate crucial industries. Conditions which favored vast accumulations of wealth included the extensive natural resources being discovered as the country expanded, the enormous potential work force of immigrants arriving in the country, and the general acceleration of business in the years following the Civil War.

Railroad builders in particular, needing political influence to build their railways, became adept at influencing politicians through the use of lobbyists, or in some cases, outright bribery. And in the public mind, robber barons were often associated with political corruption.

The concept of laissez faire capitalism, which dictated no government regulation of business, was promoted.

 Facing few impediments to creating monopolies, engaging in shady stock trading practices, or exploiting workers, some individuals made enormous fortunes.

Examples of Robber Barons

As the term robber baron came into common usage, it was often applied to a small group of men. Notable examples were:

The men who were called robber barons were sometimes portrayed in a positive light, as “self-made men” who had helped build the nation and in the process created many jobs for American workers. However, the public mood turned against them in the late 19th century. Criticism from newspapers and social critics began to find an audience. And American workers began to organize in great numbers as the labor movement accelerated.

Events in labor history, such as the Homestead Strike and the Pullman Strike, intensified public resentment toward the wealthy. The conditions of workers, when contrasted with the lavish lifestyles of millionaire industrialists, created widespread resentment.

Even other businessmen felt exploited by monopolistic practices. And common citizens became aware that monopolists could more easily exploit workers.

There was even a public backlash against the lavish displays of wealth often exhibited by the very wealthy of the age. Critics noted the concentration of wealth as an evil or weakness of society, and satirists, such as Mark Twain, derided the showiness of the robber barons as “the Gilded Age.”

In the 1880s journalists such as Nellie Bly performed pioneering work exposing the practices of unscrupulous businessmen. And Bly's newspaper, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, positioned itself as the newspaper of the people and often criticized wealthy businessmen.

Legislation Aimed at Robber Barons

The public’s increasingly negative view of trusts, or monopolies, transformed into legislation with the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890. The law did not end the reign of robber barons, but it signaled that the era of unregulated business would be coming to an end.

Over time, many of the practices of the robber barons would become illegal as further legislation sought to ensure fairness in American business.

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McNamara, Robert. "Learn the Meaning and History of the Term Robber Baron." ThoughtCo, Aug. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/robber-baron-definition-1773342. McNamara, Robert. (2017, August 7). Learn the Meaning and History of the Term Robber Baron. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/robber-baron-definition-1773342 McNamara, Robert. "Learn the Meaning and History of the Term Robber Baron." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/robber-baron-definition-1773342 (accessed February 18, 2018).