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The Men Who Built America: Great Stories, Too Much Poetic License

The History Channel aired the first episode of its “The Men Who Built America” series last week, and I tuned in eagerly to watch it.

The series will profile the careers of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, oil man John D. Rockefeller, steel maker Andrew Carnegie, investment banker JP Morgan, and car maker Henry Ford. The opening episode focuses on Vanderbilt and Rockefeller.

As my regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of entrepreneurs who have gone from rags to riches in this country.  I’ve read dozens of books about this era in American history, including biographies of most of the primary and secondary characters in this series. If rock stars have their groupies, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller have me.

After watching the first episode of this program, I can offer only a qualified endorsement.

On the positive side, the History Channel does a pretty good job of sketching out the development of America’s leading ninteenth century businesses and businessmen for a mass audience. Viewers who know little or nothing about these stories can get a fairly accurate introduction to the names and major milestones.

Also on the plus side, the treatment History gives these stories is generally free of the taint of left wing Political Correctness. While the program does portray the movers and shakers of that era as flawed individuals (which all of them were), it stays away from the “Robber Baron” caricature so common in college textbooks and other media portrayals. Interviews with modern day businessmen like Jack Welch and Donald Trump give a more appreciative view of the early American business leaders that you’d  be likely to hear in a typical college classroom.

On the negative side, the makers of this series, or at least of the first episode, take far too many liberties with the stories. My overall impression is that the makers of this episode where more concerned with telling a dramatic story than they were with historical accuracy.

The first bit of carelessness comes in the opening minutes of the episode. To introduce the post-Civil War era, the show starts out with a dramatization of the death of President Lincoln. The narrator solemnly observes that Lincoln was “the final of the six hundred thousand deaths of America’s bloodiest conflict.” Aside from the bad grammer, the statement is untrue, as any Civil War buff can attest. The battle of Columbus was fought the day after the President’s death, and the Battle of Palmito Ranch a month later.

(President Lincoln was shot ten days after General Lee’s famous surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, but, contrary to popular belief, the Civil war didn’t end when Lee surrendered.)

The episode then moves rapidly from politics to business, introducing the viewer to the career of Cornelius Vanderbilt up to that time. Unlike more PC versions of history, the program mentions that Vanderbilt grew up poor and built his shipping and railroad business from scratch.

Then the program goes into a highly dramatized and very imperfect account of how Erie Railroad executives Jim Fisk and Jay Gould fleeced Vanderbilt with a stock watering scheme early in 1868. The narrator describes Fisk and Gould as being mere “middle managers” at the Erie before their successful scheme against Vanderbilt. In actual fact both of them were on the board of Directors of the Erie, and both were well known to Vanderbilt.

The History Channel then tells the viewer that Vanderbilt rebounded from this loss by entering into the oil-shipping business via a personal meeting with Rockefeller, who is portrayed as a struggling businessman threatened with bankruptcy before his fortuitous meeting with Vanderbilt.

In truth Rockefeller’s company was in no danger of bankruptcy when these 1868 negotiations took place, and Vanderbilt had little to do with them. Rockefeller, whose business was growing more profitable by the day, met with executives of the Lake Shore railroad, a subsidiary of Vanderbilt’s New York Central, a couple months after the Fisk-Gould stock watering scam. Rockefeller did agree in these meetings to ship sixty carloads of oil a day, just as the History narrator describes, but that’s about the only detail of the meeting that wasn’t stretched or changed for dramatic effect.

Another detail about Rockefeller’s business that the program gets wrong is why he chose Cleveland for his center of operations. The program claims that there were oil fields all around Cleveland in every direction, even showing a bogus map that purports to show where these wells were located. In actual fact all the oil fields in the world in 1868 were located in northwestern Pennsylvania, near a town called Titusville, about a hundred and fifty miles southeast of Cleveland.

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Another issue over-dramatized by the network is Rockefeller’s entry into the pipeline business. The show claims that the oil man came up with the idea himself, while staring at some pipes in one of his refineries. In actual fact the oil drillers near Titusville built their own pipelines before Rockefeller ever even considered the idea, and so did Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The program then introduces Andrew Carnegie to the viewer by claiming that he, as Scott’s protege, was present in meetings between Scott and Rockefeller in the late 1860’s and even into the early 1870’s. This is a fabrication obviously intended to tie Carnegie into the story so viewers will be familiar with him when he is profiled in the soon-to-be-aired second episode.

While it is true that Carnegie got his start in business working for Scott, he had ceased to do so several years before Scott got involved in the negotiations with Rockefeller portrayed in the TV show. Carnegie resigned from the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1865, right after the war ended. By that time his other business interests were far more lucrative to him than the work he did for Scott. (He only stayed with the railroad as long as he did because he considered it a valuable way to assist the Union war effort.)

All in all, this History Channel series is probably worth watching for anyone who wants to get a historical overview of late nineteenth and early twentieth century business, even though the producers have taken a few creative liberties to make for a more dramatic flow. And if a few viewers are inspired to learn more about the men being profiled, so much the better.

Al Fuller

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

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

And click here to read his review of the fourth.