The Robber Barons was written during that Great Slump which, beginning in 1929, reached its lowest depths in 1929-1933. The New Era of Prosperity had ended; the captains and the kings of industry were, some of them, departing; and we were asking ourselves insistently how we, as a nation, had got into such a pass? In the twenties I had worked for a few years in Wall Street and learned a few things about the "Men Who Rule America," according to James W. Gerard. Some time later, after 1929, I did a number of biographical studies of them for a well-known satirical magazine. Yet, what I gathered from these experts and from readings in our financial history led me to consider the money men of the twenties as mere epigones compared with their mighty forebears, the economic dinosaurians who flourished during the latter part of the nineteenth century and gave a special character to their period, so aptly named by Mark Twain the Gilded Age. Thus the idea was conceived of writing a history of the earlier generation of capitalists who had put their stamp so deeply upon our business society. It was my purpose to give an account not only of their lives and their manners and morals, but also of how they got the money.
At that season in 1933 when money itself was disappearing (all the banks having been closed for a while) it seemed as if this whole breed might disappear, or perhaps be reformed beyond recognition. Would such fearsome bulls and bears ever again range over the market place as anarchs of all they surveyed? Then, the old barons had such great panache! -- with their private "palace cars" on rails, their imitation-Renaissance castles, and their pleasure yachts, one of which J. P. Morgan defiantly christened The Corsair. Those "kings" of railways, those monopolists of iron or pork, moreover, founded dynastic families which Charles A. Beard once likened to the old ducal families of feudal England.
The expanding America of the post-Civil War era was the paradise of freebooting capitalists, untrammeled and untaxed. They demanded always a free hand in the market, promising that in enriching themselves they would "build up the country" for the benefit of all the people. The Americans of those days had no time for the arts of civilization, as Henry Adams observed, but turned as with a single impulse to the huge tasks of developing their half-empty continent, spanning it with a railway net, and constructing the heavy industrial plant requisite for the new scale of power. All of this was achieved in a climactic quarter-century of our industrial revolution, with much haste, much public scandal, and without plan -- under the leadership of a small class of parvenus. These were the aggressive and acquisitive types (much censured by our classic writers and historians) who believed they constituted "the survival of the fittest."
Theirs is the story of a well-nigh irresistible drive toward monopoly, which the plain citizens, Congresses, and Presidents opposed -- seemingly in vain. The captains or barons of industry were, nevertheless, agents of progress -- in the words of their contemporary Marx; under their com-