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Were the founders of American industry "robber barons" or "captains of industry?"

The wave of industrialism that we have been studying was often driven by a few great men known as industrialists. There can be no mistaking their motives: wealth. There is some debate, however, on the how history should portray these industrialists.

Some feel that the powerful industrialists of the gilded age should be referred to as "robber barons." This view accentuates the negative. It portrays men like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller and Ford and cruel and ruthless businessmen who would stop at nothing to achieve great wealth. These "robber barons" were accused of exploiting workers and forcing horrible working conditions and unfair labor practices upon the laborer.

Another view of the industrialist is that of "captain of industry." The term captain views these men as viewed ingenious and industrious leaders who transformed the American economy with their business skills. They were praised for their skills as well as for their philanthropy (charity).

In reality the debate over robber barons and captains of industry mirrors views of industrialism itself. Just as their were both positives and negatives to industrialism there were positives and negatives to the leaders of industrialism.


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