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The Debate Over Big Business Previous Next
Digital History ID 3169


A great debate over big business took place during late 19th century. Among the issues that Americans debated was:
  • whether wealth came from exploitation or from patience, frugality, and virtue;
  • whether bigness was the result of conspiracy or of pressures of blind economic forces;
  • whether men of wealth and power were free to use their riches as they wish or whether they should be taxed to support the public good.

Henry Demarest Lloyd, a precursor for the muckraking journalists of the Progressive Era, considered the lords of industry monopolists and profiteers, who blocked the road to success for those who tried to compete with them. Others, like Edward Atkinson, a successful investor and businessman, asserted that the great business titans made all Americans better off through their innovations in management, finance, and production. Lloyd and Atkinson helped set the terms for a long lasting public debate: Were the business leaders of the Gilded Age robber barons or creative industrial pioneers?

There can be no doubt that the late 19th century business titans were business innovators, who, through their technical, administrative, and financial skills, achieved economies of scale, eliminated waste, and brought order and stability to large sectors of the American economy. In large part, their wealth was the product of innovations that transformed business practice. Rockefeller developed the oil tank-car; Swift the refrigerated rail car; and Montgomery Ward the mail-order catalog. As philanthropists in later life, some also served important welfare and educational functions.

But big business' critics accused the captains of industry of financial trickery, such as cornering and watering stock, and of political corruption and the bribing of legislatures. They attacked them for the inhumane treatment of labor--including the imposition of heavy hours, wage cuts, lockouts and the suppression of trade unions. They also condemned them for using cheap immigrant contract labor to undercut wage rates and defeat strikes, as well as for imposing monopoly prices. Above all, they were condemned as sinister monopolists who engaged in ruthless competition - choking off rivals by use of railroad rebates and kickbacks, control of raw material supplies, industrial espionage, and the forced purchase of competing firms.

Many people likened J.P. Morgan, Jay Gould, and other business leaders to the "robber barons" of the Middle Ages, who set up barriers across rivers and forced boats to pay a toll in order to navigate the waterways. A U.S. Senator described Morgan as a "thick-necked financial bully, drunk with wealth and power, [who] bawls his orders to stock markets, Directors, courts, Governments, and Nations."

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