A robber baron initially referred to a feudal lord, usually in Germany, who charged huge tolls for those shipping goods through their lands. More recently, during the American Industrial Revolution, the term was used to describe a person who made enormous amounts of money in business. It was an insulting term implying that a person used unfair business practices and showed little sensitivity to the common worker.
It is certainly the case that early workers in factories suffered inhumane treatment, and worked in horrible conditions. Little regard was given to worker safety, or to giving workers even a fair amount of time off. Many immigrants of the 19th century became factory workers, and were, because of language barriers, less able to stop abuses.
The robber baron typically opposed unionization, as this would cost more money. So his money was often made on the backs of the suffering. Further, excess amounts of money from him could usually quell controversy or media attention if needed.
Most people are familiar with the names Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Though some might more positively call these men Captains of Industry, they were often referred to as robber barons because of their business practices.
Many an industry leader called a robber baron actually gave significant money to charity. In fact, New York City owes many of its striking buildings to the contributions of these men. Buildings like Rockefeller Center, and Carnegie Hall were built through charitable contributions of the Rockefeller and Carnegie families.
However, many historians and economists deplore that such charity did not extend to most of the people who were responsible for making these men very rich. Nowhere was criticism of the robber baron lifestyle more evident than in Thorstein Veblen’s analysis, The Theory of the Leisure Class. To Veblen, these people bore resemblance to barbarians. What they could not get by reasonable means, they got by force. As well, they lived off their spoils or ill-gotten gain.
Some who would have called a robber baron a Captain of Industry, like conservative novelist Ayn Rand, saw these men as benefactors of society. Most liberal analysts would not agree with Rand’s assessment.
The amount of money made by a robber baron was often seen as fulfillment and inspiration for the American dream. However, most did not start at the lowest strata of society. They came for middle class families, where they would have had greater access to better jobs with better working conditions. They cannot in most cases be viewed as coming from “rags” to riches.