Josephson was an unlikely Wall Street historian. Born in Brooklyn in 1899, he studied literature at
Josephson's first two books were biographies: Zola and His Time (1928) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1932). By Josephson's own account, his consideration of the muck-raking novelist Zola -- whose fictions sought to document the plight of
In The Robber Barons, Josephson presented a quintessentially Marxian analysis of enterprise. Quoting Honore de Balzac's catchy but baseless aphorism that "behind every great fortune lies a great crime," Josephson painted Gilded Age capitalism simplistically as a zero-sum game where a dollar acquired by one person was necessarily one stolen from another. As Maury Klein has observed, Josephson was at heart "a moralist who cared less about the accuracy of the story than about the ideological message he saw in it." In shaping his facts to backup his ideology, Josephson completely missed one elemental truth: The leading entrepreneurs of the Gilded Age were to the modern American economy what the founding fathers were to the Bill of Rights. These men built the infrastructure upon which the whole of their country's 20th century prosperity was based. The Carnegies, Goulds, Rockefellers and Morgans created -- and that is a key word here, created -- capacity and jobs, thus enabling the rise of that most radical and democratic of things: a strong, stable, educated middle class. By being visionaries and taking business risks that served their own ends, the Gilded Age industrialists generated new wealth not only for themselves, but for their emerging nation-state.
During the forty years that followed the Civil War, the
Just a handful of volumes published in the wake of The Robber Barons have given the various Gilded Age moguls a fair shake. Of the dozens of biographies concerning Gould, for example, only three -- my recent Dark Genius of Wall Street (Basic Books, 2005), Maury Klein's The Life and Legend of Jay Gould (John Hopkins University Press, 1986), and Julius Grodinsky's Jay Gould: His Business Career, 1867-1892 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957) manage to circle in upon the truth of the man and his enterprises. Similar biographical percentages apply to Gould's fellow movers and shakers. For the most part, our literature maligns the titans who pioneered American oil and coal production, built the steel mills that produced the backbones of cities, financed many thousand miles of railway, and shrunk the world with telegraphic magic.
Accurate books do get written every once in a while. But for every Ron Chernow we seem to have ten Howard Zinns. And for every reliable study concerning the founding fathers of our modern economy, we seem to have ten volumes like Zinn's popular, unreliable People's History of the United States, in which Josephson is quoted as the most reputable of sources when it comes to the "robber barons" and their various "crimes."
The latest volley in this war of words is about to be fired, and fired for our side. Look for Charles B. Morris's The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J.P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy (Times Books/Henry Holt) to hit bookstores this month. Morris, as his title suggests, gives credit where credit is due.
The writer is author of Dark Genius of Wall Street.