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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.

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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’.”