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Robber Barons Advance Railroad Policy

A passage from Matthew Josephson's The Robber Barons outlines the often unsavory history of the railroad industry in America. As Josephson tells it, the history of the railroads traced a trajectory of corruption, scandal, popular outrage, largely failed attempts at legislation and regulation, and finally accommodation as the railroad barons became increasingly influential in positions as congressmen, church leaders, university trustees, and newspaper owners.

…Universally the evils of powerful combinations in industry and trade were traced to the conspiratorial action of the railroad masters. Moreover the scandals of stockjobbing and railroad-wrecking multiplied in the early ’80s. Tales of the quick fortunes seized by the men who possessed themselves of the common carriers, and of the purses they maintained for political corruption, aroused hot resentment in the breasts of honest middle-class Americans of almost every section…[it did not] escape the eye of politicians that farmers and tradespeople throughout the Southwest, where a great strike raged along Gould’s Missouri Pacific, aided the workers heartily in their struggle. In these years, whenever business flagged in the state legislatures or in the halls of Congress the statesmen rose from their seats and denounced the railway “robbers” in furious rodomontades. That railroads like the Union and Southern Pacific, which owed their inception to federal subsidies of cash as well as land, refused to repay the government mortgage added fuel to the flame of the statesmen’s rhetoric. Their proposals varied from divers plans of regulation to the construction of a People’s Railroad by the government, upon a narrow gauge, for the cheap transport of freight ; from a nation-wide People’s Canal System to legislative acts compelling the humane treatment of immigrant and native passengers—propositions which were always speedily voted down, thanks to the watchful lobbies maintained by the Collis Huntingtons, Goulds and Vanderbilts.

In short order the railroad presidents, the copper barons, the big dry-goods merchants and the steel masters became Senators, ruling in the highest councils of the national government, and sometimes scattered twenty-dollar gold pieces to newsboys of Washington. But they also became in even greater number lay leaders of churches, trustees of universities, partners or owners of newspapers or press services and figures of fashionable, cultured society. And through all these channels they labored to advance their policies and principles, sometimes directly, more often with skillful indirection.

Source | Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934).
Creator | Matthew Josephson
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Matthew Josephson, “Robber Barons Advance Railroad Policy,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 29, 2023,

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