Review: “The Men Who Built America”

The Men Who Built Americaa philosophical review



Scheduled to be released 2013, this series aired October 16 to November 11, 2012.   It thus began right as the 2012 series of Presidential debates was ending, and concluded the weekend after the reelection of President Barack Obama.  Interestingly, a note on the web site notes that, “Due to unforeseen circumstances,” the season finale was moved from November 6 (the night of the election) until five days later.[1]  One wonders if the “unforeseen” circumstance was to avoid the sort of political controversy that came to surround National Geographic Channel’s airing of a movie on the killing of Osama bin Laden.[2]  Had anyone wanted to accuse The History Channel of politicking with its programming, there would have been ample support.  It is this fact that makes this series so interesting and important:  it strives hard for editorial balance, and has lessons for anyone no matter one’s political leanings.

The series covers the time period between the end of the U.S. Civil War to (briefly) the entry of the U.S. into the First World War a mere fifty years later.  In that brief time, the country rose from ashes and the near collapse of its still-novel democratic political system to become a world superpower.  The series asks, How? and answers, Through the achievements of entrepreneurs.  One resource which the United States had in abundance was opportunity.  A ferryboat operator like Cornelius Vanderbilt could work his way up to become The Commodore of merchant shipping, and then of a national, continental network of railroads as well.  While he ruthlessly (and by today’s laws, illegally) crushed his competition whenever he could, he also made deals with the likes of John D. Rockefeller, another self-made man in the oil business.  This process of deal-making and competition also allowed Andrew Carnegie to rise from impoverished immigrant to the world’s leader in steel production, and the already wealthy J.P. Morgan to become even wealthier and more powerful as the nation’s first and greatest modern financier.  The series tells the stories of their innovations, their achievements, their defeats, and their mutual rivalries in an entertaining and dramatic fashion; but this alone would not really distinguish the series from any other well-made documentary.  A large part of the series’ appeal comes from the insights offered by some of today’s entrepreneurs, including Mark Cuban, Donald Trump and T Boone Pickens.  The historian and scholar can recount historical events, but the living entrepreneurs bring insight into what goes through the mind and heart of a tycoon.  They genuinely admire and hope to emulate the men history often labels “the Robber Barons.”  They see the novel and ambitious business strategies these men invented and discuss how they play out today.  They give a livelier sense of what it is to be what is, for most of us, unimaginably rich.  Listening to them discuss the essence of entrepreneurship, together with the historical discussion of what these men overcame, of the struggle and cleverness and willpower and victory and the changes they brought to the world, it is impossible not to admire them.  I am sure that this is part of what drew so many billionaires into this project:  it represents a genuine attempt to show the beneficial side of the “robber barons” in the age of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism (not that it takes that much to lure Donald Trump out of his shell_)

I could thus understand why some Obama supporter, watching this series, could have seen it as homage to venture capitalism and, by extension, to Bain, Romney and the Republican Agenda of reduced regulations and free markets.  I am not sure anyone did so complain, but if a movie about killing bin Laden could be labeled “political” (when we all remember the event pretty clearly anyway) then an eight hour miniseries describing the strengths and accomplishments of free-range capitalists as the men who built America certainly could be seen as political.  Who better to rebuild America after the Great Recession than a President who is cut from the same cloth as those men who rebuilt it after the Civil War?

But at the same time, as the history unfolds, one begins to wonder about the advantages of this unbridled capitalism.  On the one hand, Vanderbilt connected the nation from coast to coast with a single rail network.  Rockefeller unleashed the oil boom, which provided cheap kerosene to light American homes.  When J. P. Morgan turned his fortune to providing every American home with electrical power, Rockefeller turned his attention to finding new uses for his oil, and in the process turned what had been considered a waste product of kerosene production into the gasoline that powers our economy today.  Andrew Carnegie took steel, which had been so expensive that it was only used for small items such as tableware, and began producing it on such scale that it could be used to construct skyscrapers.  But on the other hand, the workers who toiled to build those railroads or produce that steel could barely survive on the dollar-a-day they earned.  One out of eleven steel workers died on the job—-a higher mortality rate than many armies suffer in wartime.  When they struck for better wages and working conditions, factory owners could turn to private mercenaries or to local police to shoot down the strikers and protect the property rights of the tycoons.  And the wealth and power these five men commanded was astounding.  Throughout most of this time, any one of the great titans of American industry had more money than the U.S. Treasury, and could singlehandedly make or break the economy.  Millions toiled in hunger, danger and misery, without any hope of anything better for themselves or their children, while a handful of men had wealth and power to rival entire nations.  This in turn led not only to labor and social unrest, but also to domestic terrorism.  Finally, the people had had enough of the vast wealth gap (gap?  More like “chasm”), and a new breed of politician arose:  William Jennings Bryan.  Today, he is most often remembered for his anti-Darwin crusade, which ironically is now generally the province of the same Republican party that championed then and now the free market and the rights of the tycoon.  In his lifetime, though, Bryan was the leader of the Progressive movement, combining his moral crusade against atheism and secularism with an even more vigorous crusade against Big Business.

If I were a Republican, I would have been outraged if the season finale of The Men Who Built America had aired in time to influence voting.  In reaction to the rise of Bryan and Progressivism among the farmers and workers of America, the titans of industry met together and decided to literally buy the Presidency.  They used money for campaign contributions and flat-out bribes.  They planted anti-Bryan stories in the press, which ranged from distortions to lies.  They threatened to fire employees if Bryan won the election, claiming that this wasn’t an attempt to intimidate but simply because Bryan would make it so expensive to do business that they would have to cut labor costs.  In short, they did everything that the Romney backers tried in the most recent Presidential election.  The difference is that in 1896, the combination of tycoon-controlled press, the threats of layoffs and general financial support won, and McKinley became President.  In his second term, the Progressive mantle was taken up by a new politician:  Theodore Roosevelt.  The American tycoons decided to get rid of this threat by arranging for him to become Vice President.  Normally, this was a dead end job.  However, when McKinley was assassinated by an Anarchist (radicalized when he lost his job due to J. P. Morgan’s financial machinations), Roosevelt became President, and implemented a rigorous policy of monopoly busting and prosecutions for unfair business practices.

The mixed heritage of these early entrepreneurs is reflected in the career of the last one mentioned, Henry Ford.  Ford is used as the exemplar of the new generation of inventor-entrepreneurs.  Ford came up with a way to produce a car that could be afforded by most Americans; prior to that time, automobiles were terribly expensive, built almost entirely by hand and available only to the very wealthy.  However, a cartel owned the patent for the car, and refused to allow Ford to produce his Model A.  Ford went ahead and did it anyway, and in the era of trust-busting went to court to win his right to produce automobiles.  If the old guard of entrepreneurs had held onto power, we might never have developed an automobile industry.  But without those early entrepreneurs, Ford could never have invented the Model A at all.  They ran on gasoline, made from Rockefeller oil after his scientists discovered that gasoline could be used as a fuel for internal combustion engines.  They were made from Carnegie’s steel.  All of these resources traveled on Vanderbilt’s railroads, and the whole work was financed by the banking system Morgan had founded.

In the end, America was built by the entrepreneurs, but it could only progress by breaking their power.  The wealth and power of those very few men was built on the absolute poverty of millions.  There could be no middle class as we understand it until employers started paying a living wage and offering safe and healthy working conditions.  Furthermore, having risen to power in the land of opportunity, the 19th Century tycoons sought to crush any rising rivals as they appeared.  The national monopolies were as oppressive to the free market as any socialist takeover ever was.  Once the power of the monopolies was broken, it was possible for new inventors and innovators and investors to enter the market; and the renewed competition between rival companies helped hold costs down for consumers.

But having laid out this sordid history of political corruption, unethical (if not always illegal at the time) business dealings, violence, oppression, suffering and social turmoil, the series moves back again to point out the truly beneficial effects of these “robber barons.”  First, they were men of vision and daring as well as ambition.  They saw new industries where there were none, and founded them.  In the process, they strengthened the nation and changed the world.  Had Carnegie not invented the process to mass produce steel, Rockefeller mass produced refined oil fuels, Vanderbilt united the country with merchant shipping and railroads, and Morgan devised ways to finance everything from Edison’s light bulb to the Federal government itself, there would have been no “arsenal of democracy” in 1917 to bring an end to World War One.  And second, as the Twentieth Century was dawning, the Rockefeller/Carnegie competition to be the richest man in America became a competition to be the most generous.  Each gave hundreds of millions of dollars away to various charitable institutions, amounts that would be billions today when adjusted for inflation.

The overall lesson of this miniseries, then, would seem to be that the world would be poorer, in every way, without the entrepreneur.  At a time when the United States might well have drifted into oblivion, the energy of ambitious and imaginative men instead turned the United States into a world leader.  This could only have happened in the United States; every other major country of the day was too dominated by inherited aristocracies and authoritarian governments to allow an immigrant or pauper to rise to the very pinnacle of society.  In their desire for wealth, power and world significance, these individuals fostered innovation and development that reshaped the world.  But at the same time, they were hated in their own day, and not without reason: their wealth was built on the largely unrewarded toil of many others, and their power was often used for short-sighted and selfish gain regardless of the harm to others.  In generating wealth, they also generated poverty, which in turn led to frustration and violence.  And having won the competitive game themselves, the 19th Century’s titans of industry sought, as the Titans of mythology had done, to swallow up and crush all would-be gods who might challenge them.  Monopolies, business practices that today would qualify as “racketeering,” and political corruption were also the fruit of these first entrepreneurs, as much as were invention and construction.  It was necessary to limit their power, if only to make room for more entrepreneurship, invention, and the free exercise of popular sovereignty.  “Limit,” however, does not mean “eliminate.”  As today’s entrepreneurs persuasively argue, there is still much good that can be achieved only by the forces of the free market and the individual capitalist, within an overall structure preserving access to the free market for new investors and protecting the rule of law and the political sphere from corruption.  In the end, the massive wealth gap of the late 19th Century was socially unsustainable and incompatible with democracy; but the overall economic system created by the “men who built America” requires not revolution and replacement so much as ongoing maintenance and fine-tuning.




The Men Who Built America, A&E Home Video, January 2013

The Men Who Built America The History Channel website, (accessed Nov 11, 2012).




[1] “Series Finale Moved to Nov. 11,” The History Channel website, ( accessed Nov 11, 2012

[2] Leigh Ann Caldwell, “Amid Controversy, Film on bin Laden Death Airs,” CBS News, ( accessed November 11, 2012

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One Response to “Review: “The Men Who Built America””

  1. wes Says:

    Using China labor to replace living wages paid here to Americans has been a giant step backwards. It’s a shame that politicians have dismantled everything that made the American economy work for so long. The U.S. government is now supporting a massive amount of unemployed that could be working if the good purchased here were made here. Modern poor people have it good compared to those back int he late 1800’s who actually had to go to work and were still poor. Neither party wants to address a solution here. I see a bankrupt government with a worthless currency in the future. I’m curious just what this will do to U.S. labor cost. Will the Chinese let their currency sink with ours? With a government no longer able to support the masses what great change will take place here to get them back to work? Future America looks to be a very poor country. We produce nothing, innnovate very little. How far we’ve fallen from where we were in the 40’s and 50’s. We no longer have living wages and have a large part of the population on government assistance.

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