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The Myth of the Robber Barons: A New Look at the Rise of Big Business in America

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  740 ratings  ·  84 reviews
The Myth of the Robber Barons describes the role of key entrepreneurs in the economic growth of the United States from 1850 to 1910. The entrepreneurs studied are Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, James J. Hill, Andrew Mellon, Charles Schwab, and the Scranton family. Most historians argue that these men, and others like them, were Robber Barons. The story, however ...more
Paperback, 170 pages
Published January 1st 1991 by Ingram
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John Jenkins There are some common perceptions that most of the successful business leaders of the nineteenth century achieved their success by exploiting employee…moreThere are some common perceptions that most of the successful business leaders of the nineteenth century achieved their success by exploiting employees and customers and by being ruthless with their competitors. In this book, Dr. Folsom provides many details to refute this perception. He divides the business leaders into two categories: political entrepreneurs and market entrepreneurs.

The political entrepreneurs such as Robert Fulton (steamboats) relied on government subsidies and other preferential treatment to develop new industries in ways that legislators thought would be beneficial, but these political entrepreneurs operated inefficiently and provided inferior quality of service at higher prices than the market entrepreneurs. I would agree that this form of crony capitalism that politicians enabled Fulton and others to exploit was disgusting.

On the other hand, the market entrepreneurs, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt (steamboats) and John D. Rockefeller (oil), achieved success by motivating employees to perform at high levels and providing customers with excellent value.

I conclude that this book is very much needed to disprove erroneous version of economic history that exist in textbooks and other media. This is a short answer to the question. I would encourage anyone who is open-minded and would like a more complete answer to read the book.

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Lena Tumasyan
Aug 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
I don't usually read history books, but this one was a Conservative viewpoint on history's "robber barrons." Granted, i'm not a conservative, but i really appreciate their different viewpoint on economics and govert's effects on the major businesses of the 1800's and early 1900's, mainly Railroad, Steel, and Ferry. The book discusses Vanderbilt, Hill, Rockefeller, and many other important men from that period and their struggle against gov't regulation. The final chapter discusses other history ...more
Patrick Peterson
14 Aug. 2017 - I remember reading this shortly after it came out in the 80s when the title was Entrepreneurs vs. the State. I believe this edition has only minor edit changes from the one I read. I have since referred to the book many times to show folks the real history of the famous businessmen who created some of the first great companies in America and provided massive benefits to consumers, often battling the government and/or competitors.

Very good start at attacking the Robber Baron myth,
May 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
I recently read The Myth of the Robber Barons by Burton C. Folsom Jr. (non-fiction).  This short book is a great overview of some of the 19th Century capitalists that built America and contributed to raising the standard of living.  Contrary to popular opinion, many of them came from humble roots and worked to build their business, without climbing over the backs of the poor, oppressed common people.

The book definitely has a free-market slant that it backs up with facts and a seemingly thorough,
Samantha Joy
Aug 24, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, economy
I'm putting this one in history and avoiding the decision as to whether to shelve it in fiction or non-fiction.

Much of what Folsom says is undeniably true, and his data do support his conclusions--but it's also undeniably true that he's cherry picking his data.

I am aware of how much he left out or misrepresented in the subjects I know something about, which made me suspicious of him on the rest.

I would love to see this work handled by an objective writer, but I doubt it will ever happen.

Jason Keisling
Jan 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, politics
The Myth of the Robber Barons distinguishes between two types of entrepreneurs:

Market Entrepreneurs-a person who organizes and operates a business, taking on financial risk to do so. In order to turn a profit, the market entrepreneur must satisfy consumer demand.

Political Entrepreneurs-A political entrepreneur uses government funds in business, which greatly reduces any financial risks to the entrepreneur, and often lobbies to pass laws that hinder competitors.

Burton C. Folsom Jr. does a great
John Jenkins
There is a perception that most of the industrialists who developed new ways of solving business problems between 1820 and 1930, enriching themselves in the process, were greedy, unethical and harmful to their customers. This perception is strongly repudiated by Burton Folsom in The Myth of the Robber Barons as he demonstrates how college textbooks and other media have irresponsibly perpetuated erroneous versions of economic history.

Dr. Folsom carefully distinguishes between political entreprene
Rebekah Morris
Feb 19, 2022 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
4.5 stars
I don’t usually read economic history books. In fact, this might be my first.
I’d heard a Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, and maybe Hill, but that’s it. I found it all very interesting and fascinating. Seeing the difference between the men who worked at something and succeeded without the “help” of the government vs. those who got the government to “help” them was eye opening. While this book delves into all sorts of economics and such, it was written in such a way that it was easy and inter
"Those who tried to succeed... primarily through federal aid, pools, vote buying, or stock speculation we will classify as *political entrepreneurs.* Those who tried to succeed... primarily by creating and marketing a superior product at a low cost we will classify as *market entrepreneurs.* No entrepreneur fits perfectly into one category or the other, but most fall generally into one category of the other. The political entrepreneurs often fit the classic Robber Baron mold; they stifled produc ...more
Sep 08, 2011 rated it liked it
An interesting look at some of the well known "robber barons" and the circumstances surrounding their success. This book was surprisingly full of shockingly familiar federal "investments" that hampered real innovation, led to significant price fixing/gauging/padding and a slew of corruption. Folsom contrasts the consistent failures of government-backed inventiveness and market solutions with the entrepreneurs that were leaders in private success and beating out the ensuing government's mess ever ...more
Apr 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
The Myth of the Robber Barons is a unique look at some of the big players in the growth of American industry and big business. Folsom points out that there were two types of people that typically fall under the label of "Robber Barons". Market entrepeneurs, who tended to use their expertise, cost-cutting, and efficiency to build up their industry, and political entrepeneurs who tended to use government subsidies, favors, and obstructionism to stall their competition. Folsom uses many examples fr ...more
David Robins
Sep 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I had heard of this book for a while and expected it to be a larger volume; but this short book delivers as promised, outlining the lives and more importantly works of six American entrepreneurs - creative and hard-working market entrepreneurs, that is, not parasitical political entrepreneurs. A perfect counter to ignorant assertions of capitalist "robber barons" in American history, and a fascinating read too. ...more
Apr 18, 2012 rated it it was ok
I found this survey of the 19th centuries tycoons to be overly-simplistic, even primitive. One interesting observation the author makes however is the distinction between "Political entrepreneurship" and "market entrepreneurship" of the period. On the whole, this is lightweight pseudo-libertarian fare lacking in compelling perspectives. ...more
Feb 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I know I have strange reading taste for a teenager, but I can pin this one down on an adult. It was lent to me by an older gentleman at our church, and I'm incredibly greatful. Amazing book. It opened my eyes to a whole world of business and history that I thoroughly enjoyed! ...more
Brian Katz
Mar 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book needed to be written in order to stand in opposition to the way liberal historians and the hire education elite have painted this time period. Any common sense business person of today can see the merits of the authors arguments and the importance of telling this story in the proper context. It is very sad that liberal historians and the hire education elite have misguided our youth on this important subject. I’ve always said, those who can do, those who can’t, teach. There is a day of ...more
Mar 11, 2009 rated it really liked it
Dr. Folsom analyzes the rise of the big-business entrepreneur in America from a pro-capitalist viewpoint. Each chapter is dedicated to a different figure, from Andrew Carnegie to Andrew Mellon, and details their rise to power and how free-market principles encouraged their innovation in order to create competitive advantage. The success of these entrepreneurs is contrasted with those who depended on government subsidy to succeed and could not compete because they had no market incentive to impro ...more
May 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, railroads
I thought this was a good, unconventional look at the big businessmen who won more bad press than they deserved. (Yes, they deserved some, I won't argue that they weren't human.)

The title is a little misleading, in that the author concedes that there were "robber barons," business men who operated without ethics, without concern for law or human life. The point is that the men named as the most successful businessmen of the era were not the same as the ones that bribed, cheated and stole their w
Jul 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: economics, history
Folsom's work does an excellent job contrasting the tactics employed by many famous businessmen of the 1800's, "the robber barons." He contrasts political and economic entrepreneurs, the former of whom used and influenced government policies to grant them exclusive rights and advantages to force out competition, and the latter whose companies grew to dominating sizes naturally, through perseverance and providing valuable services and goods to consumers. This book is a must read for anyone intere ...more
Russell George
Dec 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well researched and full of information

I read some reviews that this book was biased and cherry picked historical events; I didn't get that impression, however. I didn't check all the references, dust the ones I did supported the authors claims. Also, all the negative reviews where incredibly vague and did not give any sources for research. The impression I get is: they didn't like what they read, so they said it wasn't true. This book was insightful and a good source of information for its siz
Ron Housley
Jul 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
The Myth of the Robber Barons — A New Look at the Rise of Big Business in America, by Burton W, Folsom, Jr., Ph.D.

a short Book Report by Ron Housley

When I was a child in New Jersey, the Lehigh Valley Railroad practically ran through my back yard. Every day at suppertime a dark red passenger train, powered by one of those ALCO PA diesel locomotives, roared by and I always wondered where it came from, where it was going, and who was on it. Little did I know that Charles Schwab’s Bethlehem Steel pr
Austin D.
Mar 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great book, easy to read

What a pleasure reading the life stories of these industrial titans of the 1800s, early 1900s era. The author gives just the right balance of detail to give the personages depth and also keep the reader fully engaged in the adventure of their rise to fame and business success. It was also so refreshing to have a historical narrative from a pro-market point of view.

The author brilliantly tells the bare facts of their life stories and the economic conclusions are self evide
May 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
I give the book five stars for content and 2.5 stars for the writing. I've heard the author speak, so I know that he speaks better than he writes. However, the book has a wonderful message that is rarely contrasted in our modern world where management of monopolies by the government is considered a good thing. This book has fascinating history that's not in any standard history book. You didn't get this information in school. ...more
Nick Tredennick
Aug 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A fresh look at "robber barons" and the history of industrial development in America. We cannot learn from history if its writers are not objective. Historians present a tainted, liberal (capitalism is evil) point of view. The robber barons generally divide into market entrepreneurs and political manipulators. ...more
It was interesting to see how Folsom differentiated between what he calls "political entrepreneurs," those who compete for corporate welfare and other political favors, and "market entrepreneurs," those who compete on price and quality. Rather enlightening and well researched. ...more
Brandon Byrd
Dec 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
A fairly quick, good read. It was a little different than I expected. It was mainly mini biographies of the supposed robber barons. The last chapter was interesting when it picks apart some of the research regarding social mobility (i.e., do the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor).
Allie Hahn
Jul 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Such an enlightening and informative book - and interesting, too! I now have a new role model in John D. Rockefeller, as well as appreciating the impact of the other entrepreneurs mentioned here. I also recommend listening to the author's podcast "Books With Burt" to go along with the reading! ...more
Sep 13, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is a must read for every young American (and old) who does not understand that Capitalism and Freedom are meant to be together (and not Socialism).
Feb 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I'm not a person who typically reads economics books, but I found this book fascinating. I learned a lot. I wish this book were required reading for history teachers and members of Congress. ...more
Jan 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Excellent read, shows what unfettered entrepreneurs are capable of accomplishing and how, most times when government tries to pick the winners and losers, it has at best a poor record.
Kevin Cullis
Jun 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
If you're an entrepreneur or want to see what it took to start America down the road to prosperity, this is the book to read. Great information. ...more
Clyde Macalister
Aug 21, 2021 rated it really liked it
I have wanted to read this for over ten years -- back when I had already first accepted its fundamental arguments from different authors and books of the same mind -- but never got around to it for whatever reason until now.

An excellent antidote to the academic status quo in history. The great majority of professionals in this field are not trained in economic theory. (In many other cases, they are trained in bad economic theory, which is even worse). Although the essential distinction between "
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Burton W. Folsom, Jr. (born 1947 in Nebraska) is an American historian and author who holds the Charles F. Kline chair in history and management at Hillsdale College and is a senior fellow in economic education for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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“The second point is that, in the key industries we have studied, the state failed as an economic developer. It failed first as a subsidizer of industrial growth. Vanderbilt showed this in his triumph over the Edward Collins' fleet and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company in the 1850s. James J. Hill showed this forty years later when his privately built Great Northern outdistanced the subsidized Northern Pacific and Union Pacific. The state next failed in the role of an entrepreneur when it tried to build and operate an armor plant in competition with Charles Schwab and Bethlehem Steel. The state also seems to have failed as an active regulator of trade. The evidence in this study is far from conclusive; but we can see problems with the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Sherman Anti-trust Act, both of which were used against the efficient Hill and Rockefeller.” 1 likes
“in the 1890s, American rails were inferior to some foreign rails, so Hill bought English and German rails for the Great Northern. The subsidized transcontinentals were required in their charters to buy American-made steel, so they were stuck with the lesser product. Their charters also required them to carry government mail at a discount, and this cut into their earnings. Finally, without Congressional approval, the subsidized railroads could not build spur lines off the main line. Hill's Great Northern, in contrast, looked like an octopus, and he credited spur lines as critical to his success.” 0 likes
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