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The Men Who Built America: Review of the History Channel Series

Updated on November 11, 2012

The Men Who Built America is a new 4-part miniseries that is currently airing on Tuesday nights on the History Channel. While much of what is now on the History Channel, such as Ice Road Truckers and Ancient Aliens, does not actually qualify as history, this miniseries definitely qualifies as history. It covers the period of time generally referred to as the Gilded Age, and modern-day Americans would do well to watch the series.

John D. Rockefeller in 1885
John D. Rockefeller in 1885 | Source

Episode 1: Vanderbilt and Rockefeller

The first episode in The Men Who Built America focuses upon two men and two industries that provided the much of the economic power to kick start the Gilded Age. It begins at the end of the Civil War, when it looked as though the American experiment with republican democracy had failed miserably. Out of the ashes of the War Between the States came a massive increase in industrial strength.

The first individual that episode 1 focuses upon is the "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt. This first captain of industry (or robber baron, depending upon perspective) sold a lucrative water-borne shipping business to get involved in the railroad industry, which he rightly saw as the next big thing. Vanderbilt became the richest man in America by buying up railroads. At times, he used ruthless means. One notable example involved shutting down the only bridge into New York City when he did not get his way.

Vanderbilt contributed to the rise of the next great industrialist by offering John D. Rockefeller a contract to transport kerosene on his railroads. Rockefeller took over 90 percent of the oil refining business in America and two-timed Vanderbilt by coming to an agreement with the Commodore's rival Tom Scott, the mentor of a young Andrew Carnegie.

After Rockefeller decided to build a pipeline to cut out the railroads, the massive corporations turned and attempted to build one of their own. Rockefeller then removed his freight and caused railroad companies to go broke, leading to one of the worst economic depressions in American history.

McCullough's Johnstown Flood

Episode 2: Andrew Carnegie

The second episode of The Men Who Built America focused upon the contributions of Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate. The series indicates that much of Carnegie's motivation was vengeance for the death of his mentor, Tom Scott, after the collapse of the railroad industry. Carnegie held Rockefeller largely responsible and wanted to supplant him as the wealthiest man in America.

Carnegie saw that steel would be the next major industry to take off after using it in the construction of a massive bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Carnegie Steel literally built the cities of America as places like New York and Chicago used steel to erect numerous skyscrapers.

Both Carnegie and Rockefeller bought out competitors, and frequently shut them down. The drive for higher profits led Henry Frick, Carnegie's surrogate, to cut wages and increase working hours at the Homestead Steelworks. This move, strategically taken while Carnegie was away in his homeland of Scotland, led to the infamous Homestead Strike in which armed Pinkerton Guards killed generally unarmed steelworkers. The Pennsylvania militia finally squashed the strike, but the reputation of Carnegie took its second large blow in just a few years. The first blow was the result of the Johnstown Flood, which is eloquently covered in David McCullough's book named for the event: The Johnstown Flood.

Have You Watched The Men Who Built America?

Have You Watched The Men Who Built America?

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Episode 3: Morgan and Edison

In the third episode of "The Men Who Built America," the emphasis shifted from Carnegie and Rockefeller to the importance of Thomas Edison and his major backer J. Pierpont Morgan. Where Rockefeller saw the future in kerosene and Carnegie saw it in steel, Morgan saw his opportunity in electric light.

J. P. Morgan, now known as an investment bank, was in the Gilded Age a powerful investment banker. Against the wishes of his overbearing father, Morgan invested heavily in the Edison Electric Light Company and lit up Manhattan. Edison's ignoring of a young protégé, Nikola Tesla, and his design to use alternating current cause quite a bit of uncertainty in the early days of electric production. George Westinghouse invested in Tesla's patent and won two important contracts by undercutting Morgan, who then threatened to sue on spurious grounds for patent infringement.

Morgan then went on to force Westinghouse out of the game and dominated the field of electricity by using Tesla's alternating current. He also took a controlling interest in Edison's light company and renamed it General Electric. J. Pierpont Morgan became the most powerful financial personality in the nation and even provided a loan to the United States government to keep it from going bankrupt in the days without a central bank.

Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, pointed out Morgan's nationalism, but then also noted that the nationalism was also grounded in self-interest. At times, Morgan, like the other captains of industry could be quite ruthless.

The side story of episode three was related to John D. Rockefeller's concern that the use of electricity would do away for the need for kerosene lighting, which it did. Rockefeller undertook a publicity campaign to discredit the new innovation, calling it dangerous and linking it to fires. The changing conditions led to his company to find some uses for gasoline, the most important of which was the internal combustion engine, still widely in use today.

The episode ends with a threat outside the world of business. The fiery Populist orator William Jennings Bryan and his calls for busting the trusts brought fear to the great industrialists, all of whom began "Morganizing" by cutting the workforce and then increasing workloads while cutting wages to earn greater profits. Needless to say, the masses began to increasingly look at the robber barons as one of the worst parts of American society.

Episode 4: Ford

Episode 4 of The Men Who Built America shifts focus. Much of the change that occurred during the early twentieth century was basically an accident. The populist reformer William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination for president in 1896 and promised to break up the trusts (as well as expand the money supply, a fact that was not mentioned on this episode). The captains of industry banded together to finance William McKinley, who won. It seemed as all was going according to plan, and the wealthiest Americans talked McKinley into adding Theodore Roosevelt as his vice president in 1900. Roosevelt was against trusts and as governor of New York had advocated regulation. Since VP was considered inconsequential, it seemed the perfect way to cut down on Roosevelt's popularity.

This worked well until a disgruntled laborer who had lost his job in the process of monopolization, Leon Czolgosz, shot McKinley. The president died eight days later, and the worst fears of men like Morgan and Rockefeller was realized as Roosevelt became a trust-busting president. Andrew Carnegie had already sold out to Morgan, but the oil and finance barons saw their empires broken up during the Progressive Era.

At the same time, Henry Ford pioneered a new form of manufacturing that made automobiles affordable for most Americans. Ford had to fight the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers to get permission to sell his cars. Successful in court, he then brought the assembly line to automobile manufacturing and the $5 and 8-hour day to the industry. A livable wage allowed his workers to buy the car, and they produced. Ford and others like him led to the rise of the working middle class, something unknown in history to that point.

After amassing more wealth that even Bill Gates today, Rockefeller and Carnegie began giving away large sums of their wealth. Both focused their gifts on education. Also, Rockefeller focused upon public health and religious organizations. Carnegie built over 2,500 public libraries. The contest thus became who could give the most away. This was a striking change from the early days of these captains of industry.

Analysis

Americans need to watch this series, as it goes back to a time with conditions that are largely championed by many politicians today. Unions were rare. Labor regulations were nonexistent. There were basically no regulations on business. Business leaders thought little of calling in private armies to rough up or even at times kill a few striking laborers to show who was boss. This led to economic growth, but the wealth did not trickle down to the masses. A few men could move and cause widespread economic panic. Poor work conditions led to widespread violence that scared the masses of America.

The story is well-done and is generally accurate according to some of the leading histories written of the area. Leading historians and biographers lent their assistance to the work, giving it a professional vibe. The stories are compelling. The Gilded Age definitely led to an improved America, but the human cost was high. The conditions seem reminiscent of the recent controversy over Foxconn and Apple. The Chinese are largely where the Americans were in the nineteenth century in terms of industrialization, and workers are now questioning the established order. Americans should learn from the past (and the present) to avoid repeating it.

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    • cprice75 profile image
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      cprice75 4 years ago from USA

      I thought it was a good series too. Would not liked to have lived then, to say the least. Interestingly, railroads did get government subsidies in terms of free land grants (all western land belonged to the government until sold or given to individuals) and tax breaks. Also, much of the early work on improving computers was either the direct work of a governmental agency or had government subsidies. Carnegie Steel was a government contractor at times. ENIAC, usually considered the first computer, was a financed by the Army through the University of Pennsylvania. The internet itself was a creation of the Department of Defense. NASA needed bigger and better computers to launch their spacecraft, as well. So the lack of any governmental help or influence in American industry is a misunderstanding of history. Of course, governmental influence can be detrimental in some things, but it is not always the case.

    • FSlovenec profile image

      Frank Slovenec 4 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      According to Obama they did not build it the Government did...I thought it was a great series..it would be interesting to have an update to the present time,with Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Lotus, Dell we live in a great time of opportunity!!