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The Men Who Built America: In Review

A blog series can only go on for so long. And yet, in this time of exploring the men who built America we have learned so much. Even still, there are many more stores to explore. Just consider the contributions of tech giants like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. I’d like to take this opportunity to review what we have learned and think through the implications of these stories on how the market system functions.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was an entrepreneur who got his start in the steamboat industry. He was able to fight against the New York state government monopoly on steamboats by offering the same transportation for cheaper costs. He illustrated for us that the free market is better for bringing costs down, not only for stateside travels, but transatlantic and continental trips from the East Coast to the West Coast. Though some see Vanderbilt as a monopolist, the New York Evening Post referred to him as “the greatest practical anti-monopolist in the country.” John D. Rockefeller taught us the values of good stewardship—not leaving anything to waste. Not only did he provide kerosene oil to the homes of Americans, but he used the supposedly wasteful byproducts of gasoline for fuel, and tar for paving. He saw the potential in odiferous oil products and iron ore and harnessed their usefulness. Moreover, Rockefeller serves as a great example of how the wealthy can be great philanthropists. J. P. Morgan became the exemplar of investment banking and shaped the face of modern financing. His investment in electricity brought consumers light in the darkness, and his money brought financial stability during dark economic periods.
So how ought we consider the actions and wealth status of these individuals? Sure, they made great contributions to society, but maybe they didn’t deserve the quantity of money that they had. I think this thought process misses the heart behind economic innovation. These men used their money to build businesses that helped other Americans live better. Had they not had the money, they may not have been able to improve standards of living we enjoy today. So maybe this is why the government should give money to everday Americans so they can innovate? Not so. We’ve seen, through these men, how governments can often be more responsible for economic problems than successes. Rather, we should let investors fund good ideas, and we should allow entrepreneurs to succeed in order to create value and improve the lives of all Americans—especially those in need. It is the investors who have more at stake and thus, will make better decisions about how to build the economy. As harsh as the narrative was against the entrepreneurs, the History Channel’s closing message paints these men as heroes. It takes note of Henry Ford’s contributions to American society through his innovative assembly production line and his affordable automobile. In turn, William Harley and Arthur Davidson put an engine on a bicycle, Milton Hershey implements the production line for his chocolate business, Wrigley chewing gum goes national, and makeup becomes a consumer production. This new stock of entrepreneurs creates products for the masses while providing their workers with a “livable wage.” The apparently monopolist era of Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Morgan (among others) appears to be over. To the contrary, as the History Channel rightly points out, these men are “just as relevant as before.” For example, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil gasoline stations begin to pop up across the country. These gas stations provide fuel to Ford’s cars, which are built by Andrew Carnegie’s steel plants (eventually purchased by Morgan), powered by Morgan’s electricity. The narrator notes that entrepreneurship is different after the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, but “their innovations wouldn’t be possible without the groundwork laid.” The result of the first class of entrepreneurs is that wealth and prosperity is shared broadly throughout the country, resulting in the creation of the middle class. Here’s to the success of modern American entrepreneurs—let’s hope that these men and women continue to innovate and succeed alongside this legacy of the men who built America.