Cornelius Vanderbilt and his fellow tycoon John D. Rockefeller were often called 'robber barons'. Newspapers said they were evil, and ran cartoons showing Vanderbilt as a leech sucking the blood of the poor. Rockefeller was depicted as a snake. What the newspapers printed stuck--we still think of Vanderbilt and Rockefeller as 'robber barons'. But it was a lie. They were neither robbers nor barons. They weren't robbers, because they didn't steal from anyone, and they weren't barons--they were born poor. Vanderbilt got rich by pleasing people. He invented ways to make travel and shipping things cheaper. He used bigger ships, faster ships, served food onboard. People liked that. And the extra volume of business he attracted allowed him to lower costs. He cut the New York--Hartford fare from $8 to $1. That gave consumers more than any 'consumer group' ever has. It's telling that the 'robber baron' name-calling didn't come from consumers. It was competing businessmen who complained, and persuaded the media to join in. Rockefeller got rich selling oil. First competitors and then the government called him a monopolist, but he wasn't--he had competitors. No one was forced to buy his oil. Rockefeller enticed people to buy it by selling it for less. That's what his competitors hated. He found cheaper ways to get oil from the ground to the gas pump. This made life better for millions. Working-class people, who used to go to bed when it got dark, could suddenly afford fuel for their lanterns, so they could stay up and read at night. Rockefeller's greed might have even saved the whales, because when he lowered the price of kerosene and gasoline, he eliminated the need for whale oil. The mass slaughter of whales suddenly stopped. Bet your kids won't read 'Rockefeller saved the whales' in environmental studies class. Vanderbilt's and Rockefeller's goal might have been just to get rich. But to achieve that, they had to give us what we wanted.

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