This video tells the stories of some of the big business titans of the Gilded Age.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, an old and pressing set of issues—slavery, states’ rights and secession– went off the national stage. Arriving on stage were mining, manufacturing and railroads. America’s history had turned the page. The age of corporate consolidation was here. Big Business totally transformed all walks of life in America — how we all live, work, play and eat.
Fueled by immigration, which provided the human muscle, and dazzling new technologies, these corporate giants rose up to take advantage of the abundant natural resources all across the continent. A cheap and effective railroad system tied it all together under the laissez-faire philosophy of the national government that imposed few restrictions. The age of big business sprung from many sources and made America a world power in the 20th century. Within that context came innovators and business pioneers who seized ideas and opportunities to create empires, much like the Mark Zuckerbergs and Sergey Brins of our time.
But let’s not forget the industrialists themselves. Household names like John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and Richard Sears. Some were hailed and some were reviled. They were either Captains of Industry or Robber Barons, depending upon your historical perspective and what evidence you accept.
Your own personal senator
At this time that people did not vote for United States senators directly. Before 1917, US senators were selected by state legislatures. That meant that senate seats could be bought and sold by the highest corporate bidder, more or less in secret back rooms. Worse than the popular perception today of senators who are owned by big money donors. Railroad corporations could offer free lifetime passes to members of Congress, and in return the congressman would steer favorable legislation for the railroad. The famous cartoon in Puck magazine, The Bosses of the Senate, is a comment on that. It took a reform era at the turn of the century to level the playing field a little.
The questions are ours as well
In the end, we debate the meaning of our history. Did Gilded Age capitalists leave America better or worse than they found it? Did they help or harm America and its national interests?
What are the causes and consequences of economic success? Where is the line between smart business practices and stealing from others? If you saw the Trump-Clinton debate, you will know that these questions reverberate just as they did a century ago.