Transcript of Brands, “How the Rich Got Rich: The Gilded Age in America,” 2011

Partial transcript from "How the Rich Got Rich: The Gilded Age in America"

The question is—and this is one of the reasons that I’m drawn to history generally—people like John Rockefeller, what made him do what he did? Was it the money? Some of it was the money; he grew up financially insecure and so the idea that he would have financial security was important to him. But like most—at least in my observation and experience, and I come from a family of businesspeople—the most important characteristic among entrepreneurs who succeed big is that they identify personally with their business. If the business succeeds, I succeed. If the business fails, I fail. And they like it that way. And for Rockefeller, it was a form of self-identification. Rockefeller had a genius. And the people who succeed at the highest level in almost any field have to have some sort of genius, and his was a genius for efficiency. He insisted on ringing out every inefficiency in the production process, in the process of refining. . . . He believed that not only was he doing well for himself, he was providing a great product and a great service for the American people. And there’s no denying the fact that he was. . . . Rockefeller’s customers were getting a better and better deal. . . . He was getting very wealthy, but he also thought he was doing a very good thing for the United States. And he was puzzled that the American people weren’t more grateful to him because there was something that they didn’t like about this arrangement. The American people, acting through their elected representatives in Congress, passed what could be called the anti-Rockefeller law of 1890. It’s generally known as the Sherman Antitrust Act, and it was designed to rein in precisely trusts like—well, it was really aimed at—John Rockefeller’s trust. . . . Here’s somebody who got in at the very beginning of a new industry, managed to gain, effectively, complete control over this industry, who delivered a product to the American people that they got more cheaply, more efficiently than they had ever gotten before, who thought that the American people ought to be grateful to him and was surprised that they weren’t. In fact, they took measures that seemed to him to be utterly counterproductive.

In 1900 the United States was more capitalist than it had ever been before, and more capitalist than it has ever been since. Capitalism and democracy, they’ve been these twins in American history, but like a lot of twins, they’ve had a sibling rivalry. There’s been a tension between the two sects, and one way of looking at American history is in terms of tension between capitalism and democracy, or a swing from one to the other. So if you look historically, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the pendulum swings toward democracy. And so in 1850, capitalism was still just trying to get its act together, but democracy was, at least in theory, pretty well understood and accepted. So by 1860, no one could say openly that democracy’s a lousy idea. . . . But in the second half of the nineteenth century the pendulum swings from democracy to capitalism, and by 1900 all sorts of Americans are thinking . . . this country has become way too capitalist. And they looked at people like John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, and especially J. P. Morgan, and said, "We’ve got to do something about this."