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You Didn’t Build America

Illustration by Randall Enos.

It’s not clear that the History Channel “does” history any longer. Its recent, widely watched dramatization of the Bible proved yet again that the search for ratings has driven the channel to diversify far beyond its initial brand. Anxious to shed the “Hitler Channel” moniker it earned back when it could count members of the Greatest Generation among its viewers, producers have also been courting younger audiences for some time. They’ve even nixed “The” and “Channel” in favor of a sleeker brand; it’s just “History” now. One demographic considered especially ripe for the picking is the generation weaned on “enterprise culture.” With Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in one pocket and Kerouac’s On the Road in the other, and with the derring-do of Silicon Valley wealth-creators to marvel at, this market segment began to slide into middle age just as the Tea Party launched. What vision of America’s capitalist history would play best in their minds? The simplest answer: one shaped and dominated by the antecedents of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Enter The Men Who Built America, a big-budget documentary masquerading as a miniseries, which History aired in Fall 2012. (If you missed the original broadcasts, fret not—you can get the DVD boxed set of the series for a mere $29.95 at the channel’s website.) The featured heroes are John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and J. P. Morgan, each of whom “rose from obscurity,” in the words of the über-confident narrator, “and in the process built modern America.” Unfortunately, History’s producers are not able to nail down this sweeping claim with help from the masters of our own digital-age economic universe. With Steve Jobs dead and Bill Gates seemingly lost to the siren songs of philanthropy, the visionaries behind The Men Who Built America are forced to rely on sound bites from a clutch of CNBC B-listers like Donny Deutsch, Mark Cuban, Steve Wynn, Jack Welch, Carly Fiorina, T. Boone Pickens, and Russell Simmons. Donald Trump is moved to confess that he and his peers are peanuts in comparison with the business titans of the Gilded Age. Matters aren’t helped much by the handful of business historians who are trotted out to explain and embellish the feats of these “men of insight, innovation, and ingenuity, the likes of which the world has never seen.”

Ordinarily, I would hesitate to suggest that a popular media version of history be matched up with a scholarly corrective. But in this case, there is one tailor-made for the job. The series’ title, and its main drift, begs for a comparison with Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History, an award-winning two-volume survey from the American Social History Project. First published in 1989 and used to introduce U.S. history to two generations of college students, Who Built America? dwells on the lives of the ordinary people—artisans; slaves; small proprietors; tenant farmers; women working in the home; and factory, white-collar, and service workers—whose labor in fact “made” the industrial world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

With Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in one pocket and Kerouac’s On the Road in the other, they began to slide into middle age just as the Tea Party launched.

Who Built America? is an example of the kind of history-from-below that, starting fifty years ago, supplanted the “great men” school of historiography—a development entirely lost on the History series. The Men Who Built America doesn’t revise the ordinary-people approach so much as simply ignore it. After all, revisionism usually requires actually engaging the view to be revised. In the interest of providing a more genuinely usable version of our past, the series might have boasted a less lopsided title—something like Robber Barons or Job Creators? Were these men unfairly labeled? the producers might have asked. The results of grappling with this question might have proved enlightening at a time when the wealth gap is almost as wide as it was at the peak of the Gilded Age. Instead, The Men Who Built America is a lush piece of capitalist porn: soft-core in its editing techniques (including computer-generated imagery that incorporates historical negatives), but triple-X-rated for its hard-core messaging about the abiding virtues of these monopolist tycoons.


The original robber barons were feudal German lords (Raubritter) who collected tolls from ships sailing on the Rhine. They operated illegally (without the permission of the arch-monopolist Holy Roman Emperor), and they were parasites, because they accumulated wealth without producing anything of value. The modern usage of “robber baron” dates from an 1880 Kansas farmers’ pamphlet, which took aim at the railroad magnates of the day, but the term was popularized by the title of Matthew Josephson’s famous 1934 book—a takedown of the same tycoons who get hagiographic treatment from today’s History channel. According to Josephson and his fellow muckrakers, the only things that America’s robber barons ever built were companies or trusts that extracted surplus value solely for themselves.

The original robber barons were feudal German lords (Raubritter) who collected tolls from ships sailing on the Rhine.

Of the five barons featured in the History series, Carnegie probably gets the glossiest treatment. His profile is the easiest to sentimentalize as rags-to-riches, and his dramatic turn to philanthropy later in life lends itself to the narrative of personal redemption through good works—in this case, arising from the remorse he might have felt over relentlessly squeezing his labor force and brutally suppressing the 1892 Homestead Steel strike. One of the centerpieces of the series is Carnegie’s role in the construction of a mile-long bridge in St. Louis across the Mississippi, the longest arch bridge in the world when it was completed in 1874. As part of the opening ceremony, St. Louis civic boosters sent an elephant across the span in order to dramatize its solidity—according to a popular superstition, no elephant would cross an unstable structure. Because it was opening “less than a decade after the end of the Civil War,” the narrator of The Men Who Built America informs us, “the bridge was important both practically and symbolically. The success of such projects could show that the United States was back, and open for business.” We’re further led to understand that for Carnegie, who supplied the steel, the bridge was a make-or-break venture—its success demonstrated how vital his commodity would be in erecting the bridge-and-railway infrastructure that would link every corner of the nation.

Yet if any one person deserved credit for the Saint Louis bridge, it was the self-taught engineer James Eads, who introduced many technical innovations in the course of its construction and who demanded steel of the highest quality, much to Carnegie’s annoyance. Indeed, Eads long suspected that Carnegie’s primary interest in the bridge was financial speculation. Selling the bonds that paid for the construction was a lucrative move, and it cemented the Scot’s charmed relationship with the buyer J. P. Morgan, who went on to make Carnegie “the richest man in the world” when he acquired his steel company for $480 million in 1900. But Eads’s irksome demand for strengthened steel inadvertently put Carnegie, an adopter of the Bessemer process, in pole position as the preferred supplier for railroad expansion. His connections, from his prior career as a crack telegraph operator in the Pennsylvania Railroad, did not hurt. In fact, those connections offer an informative postscript to the story about the bridge.

Three years after the elephant lumbered over the bridge, a group led by the St. Louis Workingmen’s Party marched across the structure in solidarity with one thousand railroad workers on strike in East St. Louis. When the action spread to all other industry sectors, the city was faced with the first general strike in the United States. Moreover, Saint Louis was a key node in what came to be known as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877—the first truly intercontinental workers action, linked from coast to coast. As part of the uprising, workers destroyed rail stock made with Carnegie steel, and they communicated with each other using the telegraph technology whose mastery had won Carnegie so much favor with his superiors.

How skewed is this version of the Homestead strike? Let us count the ways.

None of these facts or events figures in the History series, though the iconic Homestead strike does. Indeed, that crucial battle over control of Carnegie’s flagship factory in Western Pennsylvania is the only major industrial conflict depicted, even though the long civil war waged between capital and labor embroiled all of the robber barons for the best part of a quarter century. In the History channel’s account, Carnegie, intent on cutting costs to boost profits, reluctantly hired the ruthless Henry Frick as his taskmaster. Frick, known for “squeezing all that he can get out of the workers,” instituted twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. “A small group of men bands together to raise their concerns,” intones the narrator, implying some dark, conspiratorial cabal. “Unions are relatively new in America,” we are told, “and Frick isn’t about to let them take root on his watch.” Strife breaks out, and the Pinkertons are called in, facing down two thousand steel workers “barricading” the front of the plant. Blood is shed, and Carnegie’s reputation as an enlightened, progressive industrialist is stained. The great man is pictured, a study in anguish, reading about the outcome in a newspaper while on holiday, conveniently, for three months in a remote Scottish castle.

How skewed is this version of the Homestead strike? Let us count the ways. First of all, there was no conspiratorial “small group” of workers plotting to form a union. The Homestead workers had been well organized for more than a decade, and a series of successful strikes had already put the union in a very strong position, with a raft of work rules on their side. Carnegie hired Frick expressly to break the union, and in the long term he succeeded, severely weakening union influence in the industry until the successful CIO organizing drives of the 1930s. Nor does the TV show’s depiction of the armed conflict at Homestead bear any resemblance to its actual circumstances—far from a skirmish on the ground, the confrontation was a “naval battle” waged against barges carrying the Pinkertons up the river. As for Carnegie’s anguish at Frick’s “miscalculation,” there is no evidence that he was unaware of Frick’s tactics. Instead, the record shows that he approved them at every turn, cynically using his remote location as a public relations cover.

Were the philanthropic feats that followed—Carnegie “gave away” $350 million—a result of his remorse over the Homestead casualties, and the much greater toll taken by the earlier Johnstown flood, in which he and Frick were also implicated? The constraints of the Great Man theory of history—with its overriding focus on the individual’s psychological profile—demand such an explanation. But again, there is no evidence that Carnegie was motivated by personal guilt. In the high bourgeois milieu of the Victorian era, charity was seen as the appropriate form of noblesse oblige. None of the robber barons would have considered philanthropic contributions as expiation for some personal failing, any more than they would have regarded their business practices as sinful. In Carnegie’s own “Gospel of Wealth” (1889), published several years before Homestead, he explained that direct giving to the poor only resulted in frivolous spending on their part (the tavern, as always, beckoned) and that the wise philanthropist should act for the greater good, providing for worthy institutions, such as libraries, through which the members of the working class could become self-made men.

There is a straight line from the “Gospel of Wealth” to today’s Giving Pledge, launched in 2010 by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in order to encourage billionaires to donate most of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Unlike the social contract that kept the fragile peace between capital and labor in the postwar decades, Gates and Buffett are today offering the same kind of deal their Gilded Age counterparts did. They are saying, in essence: We will endow institutions and foundations (which will safeguard the long-term interest of our class by aiding those who seek to rise into it) as long as you do not alter the system by which we lay our hands on wealth in the first place.

In the high bourgeois milieu of the Victorian era, charity was seen as the appropriate form of noblesse oblige.

By the end of their century, the “Men Who Built America” were facing a serious challenge to this system of accumulation. The History series does not shirk it, covering the 1896 election—when William Jennings Bryan ran against the electoral treasure chest of Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller (who were “worth the modern equivalent of over $1 trillion combined”)—and the succession, eventually, of Theodore Roosevelt, who disbanded many of the trusts that were part of their system. Somehow, even these blows are folded into a cheery account of the monopolists’ largesse, massaged by this blithe claim (in view of the catastrophic Great Depression that lay ahead) about the aftermath of the trust-busting: “As the nation heads deeper into the twentieth century . . . the country is united, with a robust economy that benefits not just the rich, but everyone. It’s the beginning of one of the longest periods of prosperity America will ever see.”

Then as now, the lion’s share of that prosperity flowed to financiers like J. P. Morgan, whose backing was critical to many of the robber barons’ fortunes. One of the most revealing episodes in the History series is the U.S. Treasury crisis of 1895. With its gold inventory dwindling and default looming, Morgan offered a line of credit to the government that saved the day. Yet he was publicly criticized for doing so. It was “one of the many incidences in Morgan’s life,” we are told, “when he did what he thought was the patriotic thing to do, while everyone else thought it was the profitable thing to do.”

It was, indeed, an extremely profitable thing for Morgan to do, since it afforded him a near monopoly on the bond and gold markets—a consequence that would not have gone unexplored in any serious historical reckoning of how the crisis played out. In an awkward turn as a talking head, Alan Greenspan slyly concedes that Morgan’s act was both things at once, self-interest posing as nationalism. Under Greenspan’s watch, of course, the shoe was on the other foot: the U.S. Treasury was used to save the banks.

One day, the History channel might try to tell that story, and it will be worth watching—though only if you suspend a whole lot of your disbelief.