If any single name became a byword for enormous wealth, it was John D. Rockefeller, who began his working career as a clerk for a Cleveland merchant and rose to dominate the oil industry. He drove out rival firms through cutthroat competition, arranging secret deals with railroad companies, and fixing prices and production quotas. Rockefeller began with “horizontal” expansion—buying out competing oil refineries. But like Carnegie, he soon established a vertically integrated monopoly, which controlled the drilling, refining, storage, and distribution of oil. By the 1880s, his Standard Oil Company controlled go percent of the nation’s oil industry. Like Carnegie, Rockefeller gave much of his fortune away, establishing foundations to promote education and medical research. And like Carnegie, he bitterly fought his employees’ efforts to organize unions.

The Electricity Building at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, painted by Childe Hassam. The electric lighting at the fair astonished visitors and illustrated how electricity was changing the visual landscape.

Next!, a cartoon from the magazine Puck, September 7, 1904, depicts the Standard Oil Company as an octopus with tentacles wrapped around the copper, steel, and shipping industries, as well as a state house and Congress. One tentacle reaches for the White House.

These and other industrial leaders inspired among ordinary Americans a combination of awe, admiration, and hostility. Depending on one’s point of view, they were “captains of industry,” whose energy and vision pushed the economy forward, or “robber barons,” who wielded power without any accountability in an unregulated marketplace. Most rose from modest backgrounds and seemed examples of how inventive genius and business sense enabled Americans to seize opportunities for success. But their dictatorial attitudes, unscrupulous methods, repressive labor policies, and exercise of power without any democratic control led to fears that they were undermining political and economic freedom. Concentrated wealth degraded the political process, declared Henry Demarest Lloyd in Wealth against Commonwealth (1894), an expose of how Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company made a mockery of economic competition and political democracy by manipulating the market and bribing legislators. “Liberty and monopoly,” Lloyd concluded, “cannot live together.”

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!