Cornering the Market
Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and a host of lesser figures were unquestionably criminals. But who were their victims? As many Americans saw it at the time, Jesse, Billy, and the rest did not: victimize innocent citizens but attacked big banks, big railroads, big money—the very forces that were daily robbing the “common man.” If you wanted to talk about victims, well, the real victims were those who weren’t lucky enough to have been born a Gould or a Rockefeller. In the popular logic of the day, capitalists such as these were the robber barons, whereas the western outlaws were the Robin Hoods.
And what about government? In the popular view, lawmakers and police were counted on to go with the money, making and enforcing laws to serve the Goulds, the Rockefellers, and their kind. People who lived during the years following the Civil War took to calling their era the Gilded Age—glittering with showy wealth but corrupt to the core. The railroads boomed, transporting the raw ores of the West to the industrial machines of the East. With hundreds of thousands of discharged veterans flooding the job market, labor was dirt cheap, and the government was—well—pliant. Andrew Johnson, having narrowly escaped removal from office, was succeeded in the White House by Ulysses Simpson Grant in 1869. Grant had proven to be one of the nation’s greatest generals, but in two terms as president, he presided over the most thoroughly corrupt administration in American history. He was personally above reproach, but, naively, he surrounded himself with scoundrels who administrated, legislated, and operated hand in hand with the interests of big business—and (in the infamous phrase of railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt) “The public be damned!”