The Men Who Built America Episode IV – Still Phony

This is the fourth in a series of reviews of the History Channel’s four-part series The Men Who Built America.

Click here to read Al Fuller’s review of the first episode.

Click here to read Al’s review of the second episode.

Click Here to read Al’s review of the third episode.


The History Channel aired the fourth and final episode of its The Men Who Built America series Sunday night, and like the first three installments, this one is terribly inaccurate. It’s a crying shame that the series contained so little real history; there are no end of fascinating and true stories about the great nineteenth century entrepreneurs, and an accurate version of this series would be good TV.

Part Four starts out with the long, detailed, and completely fictitious story of  a meeting between Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, in which the three moguls conspire to put a hand-picked puppet (William McKinley) in the White House in the 1896 Presidential election.

A teaser at the end of the third episode promised that the fourth episode would tell how the three titans conspired to do this:  “They devise a plan so bold that no one has ever attempted it before…To be successful, they can’t work alone. For the first time, America’s most powerful men will have to put their rivalries aside, and start working together.”  The goal, as Morgan states it, is that “We need to buy the President.”

When Part Four starts we see the three businessmen sitting in a library watching film of a William Jennings Bryan campaign speech on a home movie projector. In the footage Bryan, campaigning for President, threatens to break up the monopolistic “trusts” controlled by wealthy businessmen, and calls out Carnegie and Rockefeller by name. The History Channel narrator tells us that Bryan wants not only to break up the business interests of the three, but that Bryan won’t rest “until they’re behind bars.” They discuss options for an opponent to Bryan and come up with McKinley.

This meeting never took place. Nothing like it ever took place; the whole story is a fabrication.

I’ve read any number of books about this era in American business, including biographies by the yard, and no fewer than eight college freshman level American history textbooks,  and none of them mention anything like this. Surely if the meeting had taken place some author would have made mention of it.

What’s more, there are partisan issues involved; Bryan was a Democrat and McKinley was a Republican. It’s safe to assume if three corrupt rich guys had stolen a Presidential election from the Democrats, as it happens in this TV show, some historian with pro-Democrat sympathies would have mentioned it in a book or article somewhere along the line!

The truth is that JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie don’t seem to have played any very significant role in supporting McKinley’s campaign. William McKinley’s name doesn’t even show up in the index of Jean Strouse’s 700-plus page biography of Morgan, nor in the index of Joseph Wall’s excellent thousand-plus page biography of Carnegie.

According to Ron Chernow’s biography of Rockefeller, the Standard Oil company did donate $250,000 to McKinley’s 1896 campaign, and Rockefeller personally donated an additional $2,500. The only other mentions of McKinley in Chernow’s book are a few brief references to things that happened after McKinley was already President.

And even if the meeting had taken place, it certainly wouldn’t have been “the first time” that the three men were able to “put their rivalries aside, and start working together.” Carnegie had had a close working relationship with JP Morgan (and Morgan’s father Junius Morgan) long before 1896. In the 1860’s, before he went into the steel business, Carnegie, who was always an outstanding salesman, made good money selling bonds for large public works. The Morgans and the investors they represented were large customers who worked closely with Carnegie during that era. The Morgans later helped Carnegie find promising investments for some of his own money.

Morgan frequently helped Rockefeller find places to invest his personal funds as well. And, as I pointed out in my review of the third episode, Morgan turned to Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company in 1895 when he was trying to raise capital to protect the US Federal Government from bankruptcy and default.

The claim that runs all through this TV series, that the three men always hated and tried to destroy each other, is just as bogus as the claim that they met in 1896 to cook up a plot to “buy the President.”

After the November 1896 elections, according to the narrative, “Rockefeller is the first to break ranks” with the other two, when he “learns of a massive deposit of iron ore in Northern Minnesota,” (in the Mesabi Mountain Range) and launches into the iron mining business. After a few years of developing and marketing this resource Rockefeller forces Carnegie, the steel producer, to the bargaining table.

Other than the timing, the History account of the Mesabi Range deal is fairly accurate. Rockefeller actually started investing in the Mesabi properties three years before the ’96 election, not after it as shown on the show, and he and Carnegie concluded their deal just a few weeks after McKinley was elected. But it’s true that Carnegie was slow to appreciate the Mesabi ore as a resource, because the powdery consistency of the ore made it a bad match for steel mills using 1893 technologies. Rockefeller showed more insight than Carnegie on that issue, in life as in the TV show. And it’s true that, when steel mills started to be upgraded to allow use of the Mesabi ore, Carnegie was concerned about rumors that Rockefeller might build a steel mill of his own, and become a competitor.

The terms of the deal the two men eventually struck, as shown on the program, agree pretty well with the terms described in Ron Chernow’s biography of Rockefeller.

If you’re looking for actual history on the History Channel, the Mesabi Range story is about the closest thing you’ll find in this series.

Next the program shows how JP Morgan enlisted Carnegie Steel executive Charles Schwab to help talk Carnegie into selling his the company to Morgan. There are a number of over-simplifications in the History version of the story, and one statement that is glaringly false. In the initial meeting between Morgan and Carnegie Steel executive Charles Schwab, Morgan says that profits at Carnegie Steel have doubled “every year for the last five years” (i.e. the years between 1896 and this 1901 meeting.)

TV viewers who are good at math will quickly figure out that this would represent a thirty-two fold increase in profits in just five years, for a company that was already well-established and profitable. This is an absolutely absurd claim. It’s hard to understand why the makers of this program would be so shameless about making up facts like this out of thin air. It adds nothing to the story, and it made me laugh out loud when I heard it.

Morgan, of course, is shown buying the company with his own money, for his own use; just as in the third episode Morgan was shown using his own money to buy Edison General Electric and later to bail out the US Government. That too is false, but it is perhaps an excusable over-simplification.

Morgan could not have bought Carnegie Steel alone, any more than he could have saved the US government alone. Morgan was an investment banker. He brokered deals between wealthy businessmen. What he, competing steel makers, and various cash investors offered Carnegie and the other Carnegie Steel stockholders was a merger deal consisting of shares of stock in the new company, sweetened with gold-backed bonds for the Carnegie side. Carnegie wanted the liquidity the bonds offered because he intended to give virtually all the money to worthy charities.

The total value of the deal was four-hundred-eighty-million dollars, just as the History narrator said. According to biographer Joseph Wall, this sum represented a price/earnings ratio of about twelve; the previous year’s profits, in other words, had been around forty million dollars. (A healthy increase over 1896 profits, but nowhere near a thirty-two fold increase!)

There is far more that could be said about Carnegie’s retirement and the creation of United States Steel, and it would have made for interesting and entertaining TV. I can’t help but think that if the first half of this broadcast hadn’t been wasted on a fictitious account of the 1896 Presidential election there might have been more time available to give the United States Steel deal the coverage it deserves.

It’s too bad, for example, that History wasn’t able to say anything about the role John “Bet a Million” Gates played in the foundation of the new conglomerate. Gates’ wire company was one of those that merged with Carnegie’s to form United States Steel, and he was present at that first meeting between Morgan and Schwab, where he helped plot the merger. When Morgan denied him an executive position in the new company, Gates started nursing a grudge that would have somewhat comical results six years later. This was a real-life grudge between two high rollers that wouldn’t have to be fabricated like the grudges History invented for this TV series.

From Carnegie’s retirement the program veers into a very careless treatment of the early days of the Ford Motor Company. I have in my library a children’s book titled Henry Ford: Young Man with Ideas, by Hazel Aird and Catherine Ruddiman. It’s about a hundred pages, double-spaced with very large type, and written at about a fifth grade reading level; and it’s far more informative than the History segment on Ford.

In the television version Ford is shown coming hat-in-hand to the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM), and begging them to let him start a car company. He describes exactly the kind of car he proposes to sell, right down to how much it will weigh and how much he will charge for it. It uses a four cylinder engine, he tells them.

ALAM denies him the permission he craves, so to gain stature he challenges established car maker Alexander Winton to a race.

Ford, we’re told, “has spent years developing his car for the common man. He builds his first model at the age of thirty-two, and calls it the quadricycle, but vehicle is expensive to produce, and prone to breaking down. Ford’s second attempt, the Model A, is much more suited to the needs of modern America, but he can’t begin selling it without permission from ALAM.”

The truth is very different.

The quadricycle was not a “model” that Ford intended to mass produce “for the common man.” It was a homemade go-cart that he built in his spare time while employed as the chief engineer at Detroit Edison in 1896, seven years before the ALAM group even existed. There was no question of it being “expensive to produce;” he built it out of scrap metal and old bicycle parts.

Like my website? Read my book!

A Self-Made Nation

A Self-Made Nation tells the story of 18th and 19th century entrepreneurs who started out with nothing and created success for themselves while building a great nation.

Buy on Amazon

Read more.

The quadricycle is important only because it was Ford’s first experiment in building a motor vehicle. I’ve seen it up close; it’s on display in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. It certainly was not something he ever intended to mass produce.

Ford’s storied race with Alexander Winton actually took place in 1901, two years before ALAM was founded. In the History version of the story his performance in the race allows him to raise the $28,000 he needed to found the Ford Motor Company. In the real world Ford followed up his victory over Winton by founding a company that eventually morphed into Cadillac Motors after the other owners forced Ford out. He didn’t found the Ford Motor Company (which was indeed founded with exactly $28,000 in seed money) until 1903, the same year ALAM was founded. That same year he started producing and selling the Model A, which used a two cylinder, not a four cylinder, engine.

As for ALAM’s lawsuit against Ford, it’s little more than a footnote to history. The group couldn’t stop him from going into business, all they could do is waste some of his time in a lawsuit that he eventually won.

As with this whole series, the most disappointing thing about the Henry Ford segment is all the great stuff they left out. There’s no mention of the schoolteacher who lent her brother $100 for a share of Ford Motor Company stock, and ended up making a four-hundred-thousand percent profit. There’s no mention of the fact that Cadillac Motors went into business building a car that Henry Ford had designed. There’s not one word about the absolutely fascinating relationship between Ford and his idol and role model, Thomas Edison.

As I watched the final episode I found myself thinking for the hundredth time that an accurate account of the lives of these men would make better and more entertaining television than this hyper-dramatic fiction the network has been peddling.

I’m half tempted to launch into a series of blog posts on the actual history of this era. Perhaps I’ll wait to see if readers leave any comments expressing interest.

Click hear to read the first post in Al’s series “An Accurate Account of the ‘Men Who Built America’.”

Back to top.

24 thoughts on “The Men Who Built America Episode IV – Still Phony

  • If the meeting did take place and only those three were present, then how would any historian know about it?

  • You have no proof that the meeting never held. It doesn’t take away the predication that these 3guys could down any government.
    They could do it even if we claim it never happened

  • Thanks for posting this information! I saw this episode and believed it. It’s a great “story” that the three men donated 250k a piece, and sounds believable. Surely the History channel had some sort of basis for the claim though. Honestly I’m not sure what to believe, and the truth is, there’s probably not really good records about that, and it was over 100 years ago.

    If the story was true, it would be a good one! 🙂

  • All withstanding, the “history channel becoming a liberal media outlet” is a true statement, absence of evidence is still not evidence of absence.

    Just because a secret meeting was not documented, doesn’t PROVE it didn’t happen. I am sure anyone would agree – many secret cabals have been successful in pulling off secret meetings! I would hazard a guess, that some “secret cabals” are so clever, the cabals themselves remain a secret!!

  • Well, I stopped reading as soon as this guy said, “It wasn’t in any of my textbooks, so it absolutely didn’t happen!!!” I don’t think Carnegie was in my textbook, so clearly the guy never existed! But seriously, if you’re going to run a fact checking blog, learn how to do some real research.

  • I’m sure you have looked this up online, and, just because it’s in a history book doesn’t mean it wasn’t true or covered up. Here’s a copy of the literature about their bribes in 1999, way before this movie has ever taken place:

    1896: Presidential Campaign Criticized as Corrupt, Public Begins Demanding Campaign Finance Reform
    Edit event

    The presidential election is plagued with scandal and large monetary expenditures. William McKinley (R-OH) is the recipient of some $16 million in spending, a lavish amount for the time. The campaigns of both McKinley and his opponent, William Jennings Bryan (D-NE), are accused of bribery and poor ethical conduct. Mark Hanna, McKinley’s chief fundraiser and the chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), devises a system of quotas for large corporations. Hanna raises between $6-7 million in donations from corporations through this quota system, in return for strong support of a big-business agenda. McKinley promises to oppose the establishment of silver coinage, supports protective tariffs, and other pro-corporate positions. The campaign is so fraught with controversy that the public begins demanding regulation and oversight of campaign funding practices. [Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999]

    Entity Tags: Mark Hanna, William Jennings Bryan, William McKinley, Republican National Committee

    Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

    Now, please remember, JP Morgan controlled all of the publishers and was personally responsible for financially corrupting science and a whole boat load of other things for many years because he could do whatever he wanted. He controlled the stock market, most of inductry, except oil and steel, as well, he financed the entire electrical grid so by ousting Tesla’s asymmetric motor and transformer by eliminating the publishing of Maxwell’s true equations after his death in 1893, buy paying Lorenz to erase and rewrite the heavyside equations, science fell into a technological slump where electricity became a commodity that had to be paid for because he made overunity look as if it could not be done with any form of electrical generation. Asymmetric equations have finally been released again in 2010 when papers from Maxwell have turned up after the government’s findings of what Morgan has done, as well the 2010 court cases against GE for Morgan’s doings, and finally have been published and once again as well, are being taught in college studies worldwide..

  • Dear Al

    I write from Brazil where I am watching the series on History Channel. I confess I did not know much on the people or facts of the period, so I was watching and enjoying / learning. I couldn’t see any flaws on the history but some parts seemed a bit ilogical or too good (bad?) to be true. Then I googled it and landed on your website which is the best surprise.
    Living in poor Brazil, I most admire the entrepreneurs that build America and other rich countries alike. Down here, unfortunately, people believe that the government is capable of bringing wealth and prosperity…that’s the main reason why we never really take off…
    Anyway, congrats for the website that I bookmarked and will read carefully.

  • Great! Thanks a lot for the recommendations, I hope there’s a spanish version of “The Tycoons”, but I’ll buy it anyway, it looks interesting. bye!

  • Thanks for the kind words JD!

    If you want video you can buy DVD’s of old episodes of the A&E Biography Series on Amazon
    from Amazon. (I have the A&E bios of Ford and Carnegie on old-fashioned VHS tape, and they’re pretty good.)

    If you really want to learn more about these people, and don’t have a lot of time to spend, I strongly recommend that you read The Tycoons, by Charles Morris. It’s a quick read, only about three hundred pages, and it’s both accurate and interesting. It it covers all the highlights of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan’s biographies, and touches on Vanderbilt’s career as well. It also makes nineteenth century economics easy for a novice to understand.

  • Hi Al, I’m writing you from Argentina, here The History Channel started to air “The Men Who Built America” in eight episodes a month ago and after watching four of them, I started to doubt a lot if it was historically accurate, and looking on the internet for someone who could explain that. I’m glad I found your blog (although I wish they didn’t ruin the series, they didn’t have to, the real history is interesting too) you did a great job. I just wanted to thank you, I really appreciate this.
    I’ve seen that you recommended some bios, do you know if there is any other series/documentary of this men? I don’t know if I should keep watching The History’s version but at least I have your reviews now.
    Thank you and sorry for the bad grammar! 😀

  • @ Bob:

    Thanks for your kind words of encouragement Bob. It’s always gratifying to hear that the time and effort I put into this website is of value to someone.

    A source I would recommend for your son is a children’s book titled “Henry Ford: Young Man with Ideas” by Aird and Ruddiman.

    I’m not aware of any source for exactly what Ford may have had in his personal bank account in 1903, but the Ford Motor Company was down to $223.65, with bills coming due for more than that, when the company finally sold its first car. Ford certainly didn’t have any personal money to speak of; he’d spent everything he had trying to get a car company off the ground over the years leading up to that moment.

    (My source for that figure is not the children’s book; it’s a book called “Young Henry Ford” by Sidney Olson.)

    You’re certainly right that Americans of the past were far more strong-minded that the average person of today. That’s one of the reasons I continue to work on this blog. I hope to inspire at least a few modern-day Americans to hope and self-confidence by writing about the tenacity and toughness of our forefathers.

    One last thought. If your son wants to write a college level paper about someone like Ford in a few years, tell him to feel free to contact me for recommendations on source materials. I’d be glad to help.


  • Al, Nice work! I’ve bookmarked your blog site. I appreciate the books you mentioned to Erin and will pick one to start since I am weaker on history than I should be. Agree that Morgan is not particularly interesting in relation to the others since he had an aristocratic start (kind of like The History Channel’s “captain of industry” Donald Trump).

    I came to your site based upon today’s WSJ excerpt of the new Henry Ford book. I seem to recall that Ford was down to his last $100 or something when he started FMC. If that was one of the others, or if you have an accurate description of Ford’s finances at the time, please advise. I am particularly interested currently because my 2nd-grader is doing a report on HF for school.

    As an entrepreneur myself who has failed once – took me ten years to recover financially – and succeeded once, I am fascinated by brave entrepreneurs of all types and at all levels of success. Most Americans have little understanding of the types of people America used to have before we became a complacent bunch of sloths who complain and await hand-outs from others. Two quotes I like, one that would serve employees well and one serves entrepreneurs (and me of late) well:

    1. If you don’t like your job, quit (and go start your own company). If you don’t quit, shut up.

    2. Fail early and cheaply.

    Keep up the good history work and thanks!

  • The other fascinating story about Carnegie that his biographers don’t seem to mention is Carnegie’s role in starting Napoleon Hill off on Hill’s discovery of what it takes to be successful culminating in one of the best-selling books of all time, Think and Grow Rich.

  • @ Matt:

    I tend to agree with you when you suggest that the inaccuracies in this TV series were agenda-driven; particularly in regard to the totally fictitious portrayals of the Homestead Strike and the 1896 Presidential election.

    And you’re right when you say the government can collect money literally a gunpoint. (PJ O’Rourke covers that issue in a humorous-but-accurate way in one of his books.) GE and Walmart can only use the legal system to make you pay for a product you bought voluntarily. the IRS, on the other hand, can simply force you to hand over your money.

    Thanks for commenting, and I hope you’ll enjoy my series of posts on the business moguls of the 19th century.


  • I liked the series for the cool tough guy image that they tried to portray. The theme song is on my iPod. Throughout the series though I shifted, winced, smirked, puffed, moaned, then guffawed. I finally wrung my hands when at the end the point of the whole series became clear. “monopolies bad, regulation good!”. That’s when the libertarian in me just took over and said “DEAR GOD!”. Inaccurate, yes clearly, but agenda driven, that was the more subtle tone. Don’t know how Mark Cuban would lend himself to this, maybe he didn’t know the full story. When will History do a series on the evils of the U.S. Government monopoly? You know the ones that send the bill to your house with the promise of guns to the face if you don’t pay? Isn’t that called extortion? I’m still waiting on my bill from Standard Oil, or GE, or Walmart for that matter, with the promise of violence for non compliance.

  • In answer to Rich’s question:

    Roosevelt’s selection for VP at the 1900 convention had nothing to do with the three business moguls. It was purely a matter of power politics within the New York State Republican Party.

    Here’s how the choice is described in the the book America’s Promise, a relatively unbiased freshman history textbook:

    “The great surprise at the convention came when party bosses, led by New York’s Tom Platt, selected Theodore Roosevelt to run as McKinley’s vice president. Fearing that Governor Roosevelt might gain control of the New York party, the bosses ‘kicked him upstairs.’ Neither McKinley nor Senator Mark Hanna favored Roosevelt, but the party bosses were too strong to be circumvented.”

  • What about the indication that the “Titans” got Teddy Roosevelt named as Vice President to get him out of their way? Was that accurate?

  • To Erin, who asks for reading recommendations:

    I consider Titan, Ron Chernow’s biography of Rockefeller, to be about the best-written biography I’ve ever read, and I’ve read tons of biographies. It’s about seven hundred pages.

    Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography is a great read; it gives a good insight into Carnegie’s thinking. But it’s obviously not the book to read if you are looking for a purely objective account. Joseph Wall’s bio of Carnegie is very well researched and well written. It might be a bit too long for some readers at just over a thousand pages.

    I’ve read Edward Renehan’s bios of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould, and liked the Gould book better. Both are fairly short; about three hundred pages each. I’ve spotted a number of errors in his Vanderbilt bio, and it doesn’t really tell the reader very much about how Vanderbilt did what he did. Renehan talks a little about Vanderbilt’s work ethic and his commitment, but doesn’t really dig into the nuts and bolts of what it takes to go from childhood poverty to tremendous success.

    Getting back to Joseph Wall’s bio of Carnegie, Wall does an excellent job of making the reader understand what it takes to go from thirteen year old sweatshop worker, dressed in rags, to wealthy business owner. That’s what makes his book so much better than Renehan’s book on Vanderbilt.

    Jean Strouse’s bio of JP Morgan was well done, but I didn’t enjoy it all that much because I don’t happen to admire Morgan the way I admire self-made men like Carnegie. Morgan was born rich and always acted like an aristocrat; Carnegie’s life was a how-to video for anyone who wants to overcome childhood poverty and succeed in business. Strouse’s book is about seven hundred pages.

    If you want a quick introduction to this era I suggest a book called The Tycoons, by Charles Morris. The sub-title is How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and JP Morgan invented the American Supereconomy. It’s pretty well done and gives an overview of the interactions of these men in only 318 pages.

    I can’t recommend a good biography of Henry Ford, although a quick check of shows me that a couple of new ones have been written since the last time I checked. I haven’t read those.

    I’ve read Ford’s My Life and Work and enjoyed it but, again, you shouldn’t expect much objectivity in an autobiography. I’ve also read books on specific aspects of Ford’s career, but nothing I’d recommend to the casual reader. If you decide to read one of the new Ford biographies I’d be interested to hear what you think of it.

    Al Fuller

  • The History Channel is less about history and more about entertainment. It’s not surprising it would produce a hyped, nonsensical series starring some very dubious “captains of business,” including Casion owners, Donald Trump, and the CNBC guy who had no idea of the crash of 2009 until after it happened.

  • My husband has enjoyed watching this series, but I warned him about possible fabrication. It isn’t really possible to learn history from tv, after all! I would appreciate recommendations of biographies on these men and this time period!

  • The unidentified McKinley campaign aide I believe was Henry Cabot Lodge. If so, Lodge basically acted as a middle man for J.P. Morgan as the Rockefeller political machine operating out of Ohio. The main contact for the Rockefeller camp was William McKinley’s campaign manager Mark Hanna.

  • I have been watching this series interested in the connections of the men but after watching the final episode last night (dvr) I couldn’t believe the ridiculous liberal spin I was hearing. Even though the first 3 episodes were loose at best on the facts, none went so far as to quote 2012 presidential talking points of the Democratic Party. Shame on history channel for becoming a liberal media outlet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top.