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The term robber baron dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and originally referred to feudal lords of land through which the Rhine River in Europe passed who abused their position to stop passing merchant ships and demand tolls without being authorized to do so.
More goods have been moved through the Rhine than over any other river in Europe. This makes the Rhine a member of a small group of rivers - including the Congo, Mississippi and Amazon - which are the primary natural passageway through their continents.
For one thousand years - from 800 AD to 1800 AD - tolls were collected from ships sailing on the Rhine River in Europe. During this time various feudal lords, among them archbishops who held fiefs from the Holy Roman Emperor, collected tolls from passing cargo ships to bolster their finances.
Only the Holy Roman Emperor could authorize the collection of these tolls. Allowing the nobility and Church to collect tolls on the busy traffic on the Rhine seems to have been an attractive alternative to other means of taxation and funding of government functions.
The Holy Roman Emperor and the various noblemen and archbishops who were authorized to levy tolls seem to have worked out an informal way of regulating this process.
Among the decisions involved in managing collection of tolls on the Rhine were:
- how many toll stations to have,
- where they should be built,
- and how high the tolls should be.
While this decision process was no less complex for being informal, common factors included the local power structure (archbishops and/or nobles being the most likely recipients of a charter to collect tolls), space between toll stations (authorized toll stations seem to have been at least five kilometers apart), and ability to be defended from attack (some castles from which tolls were collected were tactically useful until the French invaded in 1689 and leveled them).
Tolls were standardized either in terms of an amount of silver coin allowed to be charged or an "in-kind" toll of cargo from the ship.
In contrast, the men who came to be known as robber barons violated the structure under which tolls were collected on the Rhine either by charging higher tolls than the standard or by operating without authority from the Holy Roman Emperor altogether.
Writers of the period referred to these practices as "unjust tolls," and not only did the robber barons violate the prerogatives of the Holy Roman Emperor thereby, they also went outside that society's behavioral norms, since merchants were bound both by law and religious custom to charge a "just price" for their wares.
During the period in the history of the Holy Roman Empire known as the Interregnum (1250-1273), when there was no Emperor, the number of tolling stations exploded in the absence of Imperial authority. In addition, robber barons began to earn their newly-coined term of oppobrium by robbing ships of their cargoes, stealing entire ships and even kidnapping.
In response to this organized, military lawlessness, the "Rheinischer Bund," or Rhine League was formed by and from the nobility, knights, and lords of the Church, all of whom held large stakes in the restoration of law and order to the Rhine.
Officially launched in 1254, the Rhine League wasted no time putting robber barons out of business by the simple expedient of taking and destroying their castles. In the next three years, four robber barons were targeted and between ten and twelve robber castles destroyed or inactivated.
Not only was the League successful in suppressing illicit collection of tolls and river robbery, but also, at least on one occasion intervened to rescue a kidnap victim - the Queen of Holland, who had been kidnapped by the Baron of Rietberg.
In 1255 the League captured Rietberg Castle and rescued the Queen of Holland, an operation funded in large part by the city of Worms, Germany.
The procedure pioneered by the Rhine League for dealing with robber barons - besiege their castles, capture their castles and destroy their castles - survived long after the League self-destructed over political strife over the election of a new Emperor and military reversals against unusually strong robber barons.
When the Interregnum ended, the new Emperor Rudolf of Habsburg applied the lessons learned by the Rhine League to the destruction of the highway robbers at Sooneck, torching their castle and hanging them. While robber barony never entirely ceased, especially during the Hundred Years' War, the excesses of their heyday during the Interregnum never recurred.
Robber barons in the industrial age
The term robber baron was revived in the 19th century in the United States, where it was a pejorative use of the word to describe businessmen who allegedly engaged in unscrupulous tactics in business operations and on the stock market to amass a huge personal fortune. A large part of their wealth also came from the industries they built, many owning a large majority of their respective industry. Some of these businessmen became great philanthropists.
Though public opinion has long been against these people, some historians argue that it was they who made the United States into a world power at the beginning of the 20th century, because of their large investments in industry and the American people. Many of these men established dynasties or large philanthropic trusts or both.
List of notable businessmen who were called robber barons:
- John Jacob Astor (real estate, fur)
- Andrew Carnegie (steel)
- Jay Cooke (finance)
- Daniel Drew (finance)
- James Fisk (finance)
- Henry Flagler (railroads)
- Henry Clay Frick (steel)
- Jay Gould (finance, railroads)
- Edward Henry Harriman (railroads)
- Collis P. Huntington (railroads)
- James J. Hill (railroads)
- J. P. Morgan (banking)
- John D. Rockefeller (oil)
- Leland Stanford (railroads)
- Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads, shipping)
- Folsom, Burton W., Jr.. The Myth of the Robber Barons. Herndon, VA: Young America's Foundation, 1993. ISBN 0-9630203-1-5
- Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901, San Diego: Harcourt, 1995. ISBN 0-15-676790-2
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