American Ingenuity: Lessons from the Robber Barons

The story of the American people is one of resilience. We saw this when FDR made his Day of Infamy speech. The American people also embody the virtue of ingenuity. One of the finest examples was Thomas Edison. He did not only discover direct current, but he created the functioning light bulb.

Their stories serve as an inspiration for modern Americans. Their legendary tales give us the strength to face our uncertain future. We can also look up to other Americans as they dealt with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Let us learn from them.

J.P Morgan

He was not like his contemporary industrial leaders, like John D. Rockefeller, Sr, who built their empires from scratch. He was born into a well-to-do family.  But his childhood was not a happy one.

The older Morgan forced the young J.P Morgan to study accounting even at a very young age. If Junius S. Morgan ran a company that carried out jobs on behalf of a sheriff, J.P Morgan would have already been a process server at the age of three. He eventually outgrew his father’s influence.

He displayed his ruthlessness at a young age. During the civil war, JP. Morgan bought five thousand rifles for $3.50 each. He sold these to the government for $22. One can say that he has an intense entrepreneurial streak. Others think that this demonstrated his lack of patriotism.

J.P Morgan did not focus on one industry. He dipped his hands in the railroad business. In 1869, Morgan wrestled control from Jay Gould and James Frisk. He also assisted William Vanderbilt in selling his share of the New York Central holdings. His interference with the railroads made them efficient.

At the turn of the 20th century, Morgan managed to consolidate several railroads. This merger reduced the cost of operating three major railroad companies. But President Theodore Roosevelt filed a lawsuit to combat this trust.

Many see J.P Morgan as a power-hungry man who had no scruples. But his intervention helped the total collapse of the American economy in 1907. In response to this incident, the US government led by Senator Nelson Aldrich created the Federal Reserve Systems.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

His contemporaries feared or outright loathed him. These people saw him as uncouth or as a bully. But his fellow business magnates respected him.

His ancestors hailed from the Netherlands. Due to his family’s poverty, young Cornelius had to quit school when he was 11 years old to work. A few years later, he bought a sailing vessel to start his ferry service. He used this boat to transport cargo and passengers from Staten Island and Manhattan and vice versa.

He learned his cutthroat tactics from Thomas Gibbons, his boss. Vanderbilt witnessed how his mentor fought against monopoly. The older man’s first scheme was to undercut prices. His next move was to file a case against his competitor. Although he lost his case in the lower courts, the Supreme court sided with him.

Vanderbilt continued working for Gibbons even if he already had his own company. Three years after the death of his mentor, he focused on his own business. He fought his industrial wars when he clashed with the Hudson River Steamboat Association. Before the year ended, his opponent paid him a substantial amount to drop his competition.

He saw a lucrative opportunity during the California gold rush. He diversified his business to capitalize on this. From regional ferries, Cornelius Vanderbilt replaced them with ocean-going steamships. He earned the name “The Commodore” because of his vast shipping empire.

Vanderbilt made another momentous shift by again diversifying into the railroad industry. In 1864, he sold his remaining ships to focus on his railroad company.


Henry Ford

Let us now talk about the man known for his friendly treatment of his workforce. Unlike the entrepreneurs before him, Henry Ford gave high wages to his workers. Although he had questionable beliefs, his assembly line technique modernized mass production.

Ford had English and Belgian roots. When he was a teenager, his father gave him a pocket watch. At 15, Henry Ford managed to disassemble his father’s gift and put it back together. At the age of 16, he left home to work as an assistant machinist. Although he hated farming, he went back home to help his father.

He was fond of tinkering with machines. At the young age of 22, he successfully fixed an Otto engine. Two years later, he created a four-cycle clone that had a one-inch bore and a three-inch stroke. The Westinghouse company later hired him.

Ford became an engineer. When he had enough money, he began experimenting with gasoline engines. In 1896, Henry Ford created the Ford Quadricycle, which was a self-propelling vehicle. In the same year, he met Thomas Edison.

Impressed by the young man’s ingenuity, Edison encouraged Ford to continue experimenting. It led to the creation of a second vehicle. Henry Ford eventually resigned from Edison’s company and created the Detroit Automobile Company. In 1903, this company became the Ford Motor Company.

Many consider them Machiavellian operators. But these men skillfully managed their companies to become global brands. For good or for ill, they are the faces of American industry.

It does not necessarily mean that you will follow their ruthlessness. But find inspiration from their stories. Their tales are proof that nothing is impossible. With determination, you can maneuver your business from the ashes of the pandemic recession.

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