The History Channel recently aired a dreadfully inaccurate mini-series called The Men Who Built America. It was billed as a historical account of the careers of businessmen Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan, and Henry Ford; but it was basically all fiction.
I love America’s great rags-to-riches success stories, so I tuned in eagerly to see how the History people would tell them. After each of the four episodes I vented my disappointment by publishing a blog post exposing some of the more glaring inaccuracies. In my post about the last episode I lamented that an honest and accurate account of this era would have been far more entertaining that the fiction History put on the air.
Judging from the comments and e-mails I’ve been getting, there are people out there who would be interested in a more accurate account of the lives and careers of these “Men Who Built America,” so I intend to tell the real story in a series of blog posts. As long as readers seem to be enjoying these posts I’ll keep writing ’em.
Post #1: The Years Before 1865
The History series was based on the years from 1865 to 1911, so I’ll focus on the same time period for the bulk of these posts; but in today’s post I’ll briefly touch on the events that led up to 1865, just to put the post-war era in context.
The History program introduced the post-Civil War environment this way: “The country is divided, and the world looks at American democracy as a failed experiment. But what most don’t realize is that a new era has dawned. The nation is entering an age of advancement. And from the void left by the death of (President Lincoln) a new breed of leader will emerge.”
A supposed “expert” then came on the air to say that the era following Lincoln’s death was the first time businessmen, rather than politicians, were responsible for America’s progress.
This claim is about as fictitious as everything else in the series. In reality American entrepreneurs didn’t have to wait for the President’s tragic death to begin an “age of advancement.” The advancements started coming before America was even a nation.
Here are a few quick highlights:
In 1723 a seventeen year old printer’s apprentice named Benjamin Franklin ran away from his family in Boston and went to Philadelphia with just a trunk full of clothes and books and a few dollars in cash. Over the years he worked his way out of poverty, went into business for himself, and became quite prosperous. At the age of forty-two (still sixty-one years before Lincoln’s birth) Franklin was wealthy enough to retire from business and devote himself to science and invention.
Franklin invented bifocals and the lightning rod among other things. He was also responsible for virtually everything the human race had learned about electricity by the time of his death. (Franklin coined most of the terms used in the electrical industry today, including “battery,” “charge,” “shock,” “conductor,” et al.)
In 1776, the same year the colonies declared their independence, economist Adam Smith observed that workers’ wages were higher in the American colonies than anywhere else in the world. This would continue to be the case in the ninteenth century, and it’s the reason Carnegie Steel would have such an easy time attracting strikebreakers during the 1892 Homestead Strike that was so inaccurately portrayed in the History series.
In 1783, the year England and the United States signed the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War, twenty year old John Jacob Astor came to America. Astor, the son of a poor German dairy farmer, made a few dollars selling musical instruments, then went into the fur trading business. When he died in 1848 he was one of the richest men in the world.
Eli Whitney, a poor schoolteacher, invented his famous cotton gin in Georgia in 1794. His invention made cotton a viable cash crop for the first time in history and laid the groundwork for what little economic development took place in the South during the era of slavery. Whitney soon learned that the legal system in the Southern states was not supportive of intellectual property rights, so he moved from Georgia to Connecticut to start his next business, a gun factory. He devised a way to mass produce his guns from interchangeable parts, a revolutionary idea at the time, and left his prosperous company to his son Eli Jr. upon his death in 1825.
Robert Fulton was the son of an Irish immigrant who tried to make a living as a farmer, then got a job as a tailor, then died when Robert was only eight years old. The younger Fulton’s rags-to-riches story came to fruition in 1806 and ’07 when he built and deployed the world’s first practical steamship.
In the early 1830’s, three decades before Lincoln’s death, a French bureaucrat named Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States and wrote a book about what he observed. Tocqueville accused Americans of “an unbounded desire of riches, and an excessive love of independence.” Americans “seek for fortune,” said he, with an “enterprising spirit.”
Samuel Morse sought his fortune by inventing the telegraph, which he first demonstrated in 1844.
John Deere and Cyrus McCormick revolutionized agriculture in the years leading up to the Civil War. Deere developed and marketed an advanced plow, and McCormick a harvesting machine. John Deere’s company still bears his name today. In 1902 JP Morgan, one of the moguls profiled in the History series, engineered a merger that combined McCormick’s company with several competitors to form the International Harvester company, which exists today under the name Navistar International.
In actual truth, it was the prosperity and progress created by entrepreneaurs in the Northern states that allowed Lincoln and his government to win the Civil War.
Factories mass-producing weapons and other materiel using techniques Eli Whitney had pioneered would be essential to the Union war effort. Samuel Colt, Oliver Winchester, and partners Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson likewise made their innovations (and their fortunes) in the weapons business in the North, and made major contributions to the Union victory.
The greater agricultural efficiencies that men like Deere and McCormick created likewise played a major role in helping Lincoln and the Union government win the war. During the war Secetary of War Edwin M. Stanton once said “Without McCormick’s reaper, I fear the North could not win.”
In sum, the narration of the History program was only half right. There certainly was an “age of advancement” in the United States, but it started long before the Civil War.
In next week’s post I’ll start offering up some accurate history from the era profiled in the History Channel series. Anyone who wants to receive these posts by e-mail is welcome to click the “Subscribe” button on the right-hand side of this page. There is no charge for a subscription.