I recently read The Myth of the Robber Barons by Burton C. Folsom Jr. (non-fiction). This short book is a great overview of some of the 19th Century capitalists that built America and contributed to raising the standard of living. Contrary to popular opinion, many of them came from humble roots and worked to build their business, without climbing over the backs of the poor, oppressed common people.
The book definitely has a free-market slant that it backs up with facts and a seemingly thorough, in-depth bibliography. There are plenty of references for further investigation of specific individuals.
James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway, is covered in the book. He is supposedly the inspiration for Ayn Rand’s use of railroads in her epic work Atlas Shrugged.
I enjoyed the piece on John D. Rockefeller as I had read God’s gold: the story of Rockefeller and his times by John Thomas Flynn. (It’s available to read free, online, as linked.) This book was written in 1932, before Rockefeller’s death in 1937. It is as much a history of oil discovery and production in Pennsylvania as an examination of Rockefeller. In my proverbial spare time and for a different perspective I’d also like to read THE HISTORY OF THE STANDARD OIL COMPANY by IDA M. TARBELL (written 1904, available free, online as linked also). Wikipedia says about her “She was known as one of the leading “muckrakers” of the progressive era, work known in modern times as “investigative journalism”.”
A few things I learned from Robber Barons: There were Political Entrepreneurs and Market Entrepreneurs. The Political types relied on government support and subsidies, the Market types used “free-market” business tactics. Market entrepreneurs like Cornelius Vanderbilt (steamships) and John D. Rockefeller succeeded by cutting costs. This greatly reduced consumer prices.
Andrew Mellon, of the Mellon banking family, and Secretary of the Treasury during the 1920′s, advocated and put into practice reduced federal taxes in order to increase federal revenues. What a novel idea! It’s what modern-day Republicans propose and Democrats oppose.
Myth of the Robber Barons is a excellent read. I recommend it.