The Men who Built America – DVD

The chronicle of the rise of the Titans who built the key pillars of Industrial America

Rating: 5 out of 5

This History Channel documentary deals with the key individuals who single-handedly built the key pillars of Industrial America – steel, railroads, oil, finance & ultimately the motor car.

Prior to their rise, America which was recovering from the devastating effects of Civil War, was still not industrialised but within 30 years of unbridled capitalism, was converted into a worldwide power house & incipient super power.

In spite of their reputations as the poster children of uncaring capitalism, the motto should read “honour to whom honour is due”. Not to be held in thrall but rather as an acknowledgement of their achievements while recognizing their frailties. This quintet comprised Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, JP Morgan & Ford. Their signature trait was an intense focus

The former three each had a hardscrabble, hobbled upbringing but all shared the same traits of being larger-than-life individuals who all triumphed against the odds. Their driven personalities resulted in their defining opponents not as rivals but as enemies, enemies to be destroyed by whichever way possible; anything but murder.

This series catalogues their rise & the methods that they used to gain the ascendancy. Essentially each man developed a different industry often from scratch & often only against great odds did they succeed. Each in their own way could have failed spectacularly but each due to perseverance & some luck overcame the odds & succeeded.

Where the negative perceptions about them arose related to their future actions where they strove through fair means or foul to take over their competitors & become monopolies. In Carnegie’s case, he went one further. In his desire to become the richest man in America, he knew that he had to reduce his labour cost. Not wanting to be personally involved in the consequences of that action, he appointed a Chairman, Frick & went of holiday in Scotland. After driving the men too hard in their 12 hour day, they revolted. A strike ensued. The Chairmen refused to negotiate & instead hired some prairie guns to remove the strikers. The result was six deaths.

Carnegie’s decision came to haunt him. He quickly returned to America to assume control of the situation but the dye was cast. Political opinion was turned adverse.

Now the Titans were playing for different stakes.

The seminal moment in their ultimate downfall was their decision to convince the Republican candidate to appoint Roosevelt, an ardent opponent of naked, unfettered capitalism as McKinley’s deputy. Their logic, which could not be faulted, was that a Deputy President had no power & would “wither on the vine.”  McKinley’s assassination derailed their cunning plan. By the end of his second term Roosevelt had largely broken up the Trusts & splintered the monopolies into a slew of independent companies.

Ford belatedly entered the scene not as a rapacious capitalist but as a humanist. By paying his workers $5 a day instead of the going rate which was half of that, he ensured that he had a contented workforce but also a workforce able to purchase their own output, the horseless carriage.

This almost 7 hour documentary throws the well-deserved spotlight on a little known aspect of American life. A superior production by the History Channel recounts the saga of these larger-than-life characters. There is one detraction in an otherwise excellent production & that is a summary of the facts every 20 minutes. Despite this it is well-worth watching.


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