Francis Meyrick

Book Review: “The Myth of the Robber Barons ” – Burton Folsom

Posted on April 6, 2009

“The Myth of the Robber Barons ” – Burton Folsom

ISBN: 0-9630203-1-5

Making industrial history readable – even fascinating, December 26, 2008

Great book.
It flows beautifully and logically. It deals in turn with the steamship industry, the transcontinental railroads, The Scrantons and America’s first iron rails, Schwab and the steel industry, Rockefeller and the oil industry, and “cutting taxes to raise revenue “. If, like me,you did not shine in your University days reading History, then now is the chance to catch up. The strength of this book is Burton Folsom’s genial writing style. It is easy to read, yet highly informative. He excels in bringing out the various characters as real, breathing, struggling or flawed human beings. There is a warm humanity about some of these entrepreneurs, who often risked personal and business bankruptcy.
The conclusions are not thrust upon you, like some kind of political manifesto. Rather, we the readers are afforded every opportunity to sample the evidence. And make up our own minds. There is an excellent “Notes ” section, so it makes it easy to look up references that surprise you. We are encouraged… to make up our own minds. It is hard not to come away with a great deal more sympathy for America’s great pioneering entrepreneurs.
Folsom has a gentle humor, and a fashion of understatement, which is often unintentionally hilarious. This book stays in my collection.
Some random excerpts that I have highlighted:
“Folsom draws an insightful lesson. Government aid to railroads bred inefficiency; the inefficiency raised costs and rates, and angry customers demanded government regulations; the resulting regulation promoted even greater inefficiency… “
“A lot can be learned from the story of the Scrantons. The first lesson is that entrepreneurs are needed to create wealth; when they succeed, others then have the chance to build on what they started. “
On the subject of inherited wealth, anathema to many leftist politicians, he writes:
“Only nine of the forty economic leaders in 1880 had even one son, son-in-law, grandson who forty years later was an officer of even one corporation in Scranton. In short, the fathers and sons provide a stunning contrast. “
And finally “….textbooks tend to lump the predators and political adventurers with the creators and builders. ” (p.127)
This is a book I shall be referring back to a lot…


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