Business tycoonsAmerica once idealized the businessman who amassed a vast financial empire, the business "tycoon," the entrepreneur who not only made it big but made it very big. His epoch -- and that of thousands of lesser entrepreneurs -- was the second half of the 19th century. It began with the spread of the railroad networks in the 1850s, and it included the growth of Northern industry in the 1860s and the rise of investment banking in the 1870s. Throughout this period, business interests had significant influence over government.
The great tycoons were fierce competitors, singleminded in their pursuit of financial success and power. Among the giants were Jay Gould, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford. Some of these men were honest, according to business standards of their day; others used force, bribery and guile to achieve their wealth and power.
Business spirit was not indigenous to the United States; rather, it grew from the soil of European capitalism. But huge industrial enterprises such as railroads, with their extensive managerial hierarchies, became more prevalent and more powerful in the United States than elsewhere. Unlike most other countries, in the United States industrial bureaucracies, particularly railroads, grew faster and became larger than the government's own bureaucracy; in 1890, a dozen railroads employed over 100,000 workers, while the U.S. Civil Service in Washington numbered just over 20,000.
J. Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan, perhaps the most flamboyant of the entrepreneurs, operated on a scale of magnificence. He displayed ostentation and grandeur in his private and business life. He and his companions gambled, sailed yachts, gave lavish parties, built palatial homes and bought the art treasures of Europe.
In contrast, such men as John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford demonstrated puritanical qualities. They retained their small-town values and lifestyles. As church-goers, they felt a sense of responsibility to others. They demonstrated that personal virtues could bring success; theirs was the gospel of work and thrift. Later their heirs would establish the largest philanthropic foundations in America.
While upper-class European intellectuals generally looked on commerce with disdain, most Americans -- living in a society with a more fluid class structure -- embraced the idea of moneymaking with enthusiasm. They enjoyed the risk and excitement of business enterprise, as well as the higher living standards and potential rewards of power and acclaim that business success brought.
By the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, the image of the entrepreneur as an American ideal had lost much of its luster. The crucial change came with the rise of the corporation, the railroads first, then others. Few business barons remained. They were replaced by "technocrats," who became the heads of corporations. These executives, expert in every phase of corporate activity, became the indispensable cogs in the industrial machine. The high-salaried manager replaced the business tycoon. The rise of the corporation triggered, in turn, the rise of an organized labor movement that served as a countervailing force to the power and influence of business.
Big business leaders today are often involved in many areas of public life. They not only direct the fate of corporations, they serve on boards in their communities and as university trustees. These new corporate leaders fly to Washington to confer with government officials on national policy. They are concerned about the state of the national economy and America's relationship with other nations. They influence, but do not control the U.S. government -- neither openly nor behind the scenes.