Shaky History Behind 'Men Who Built America'

By Jeff Pantages

The early reviews are in for “The Men Who Built America” and they are mixed. The New York Daily News describes the History Channel’s new eight-hour miniseries as “standing as tall as Rockefeller Center” in “outlining the way Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford literally shaped the America in which we live”.

The New York Times headline describes the “slickly made” series as “Then as Now, Business Bent on Power.” It’s an “unflattering portrait of these men, one that suggests that they didn’t care about people who depended on them for jobs, or about what their posturing and stock market fiddling were doing to the overall economy.” (It boomed during this period, didn’t it?)

Newsday notes that the series is a “bit too comfortable with the Great Man theory of history – that a few great men built the modern world – while tending to overlook the mass of other men and women who helped build it as well.” Their headline describes the series as a “History dud.”

Variety is unimpressed, noting that the show “fails to leave its mark” and that the “docudrama series' ostentatious style begins to grate within the first 30 minutes.”

What all the reviews fail to note, however, is the series' questionable account of history. 

In one scene in the miniseries the “Battle for Homestead” is portrayed as a group of mercenary Pinkerton guards marching upon and firing at a defenseless group of strikers, huddled behind barricades in the steelworks. Only, that’s not how it happened, according to H.W. Brands in his book, “The Reckless Decade.”   

He and other historians tell us the Pinkertons attempted to sneak in under the cover of darkness by floating down the Monongahela River. Their approach was noticed by union lookouts, who raised an alarm. An angry mob of steelworkers met the Pinkertons at riverside and fired, first distantly at the barges and later directly at the Pinkerton men, as they attempted to disembark. One Pinkerton guard was killed; five others injured. Return fire from the barges killed at least two strikers and injured a couple of dozen others. The Pinkertons quickly retreated, taking refuge in the enclosed, converted coal barge.  

By midday union leadership was attempting to calm the fevered pitch of resentment and anger, but some of their men were not ready to be reasonable. It wasn’t until late afternoon on that hot July day that union leadership finally convinced the mob to allow the Pinkerton guards to surrender. Still, even then, they were forced to run a gauntlet of exhausted, angry steelworkers and family members, who wanted revenge for the injuries and deaths on their side, and for the threat to their jobs. The Pinkertons were punched, pelted with rocks and hit with rifle butts, some to unconsciousness. 

This was a dramatic, multi-layered, rip-roaring story of competing rights and desires, sadly though not good enough for the History Channel and this miniseries. Do these facts not get into the “documentary” because they don’t fit the narrative of the noble workers fighting against evil, heartless management? One wonders.  

A later scene depicts an anarchist shooting Henry Clay Frick. Frick, shot twice and stabbed three times, wrestles the assassin to the ground, mercilessly pounding his face. In fact he has to be pealed off his assailant by his assistants. Most historians, however, describe the scene a bit differently. It’s another man in Frick’s office who subdued the assassin, with Frick assisting. No bludgeoning the anarchist. Granted, history doesn’t view Frick kindly, but this series makes him out to be something of a psychopath.  

Look, artistic license is okay, but this needlessly crosses the line. In other spots the chronology of events is just wrong, as are the supposed relationships between the men themselves. It really is egregious.

One blogger, impressed with the show, noted that, “It was amazing to hear that J.P. Morgan’s father dismissed electricity as a fad.” Did he? I know he did in the show, but how about real life?

I am not a historian, but there are plenty of good historians quoted in the show. Brands, T.J. Stiles and Maury Klein, to name a few who make quick appearances. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have been consulted on the script. Furthermore, rather than letting these experts talk facts, the miniseries imports current corporate luminaries like Mark Cuban, Donny Deutsch, Donald Trump and others to make guest appearances, offering bromides on the dog-eat-dog world of business. For example, consider “The people who really succeed in life are those that don’t quit” and “The idea is to see what’s missing and serve the people.” Golly, why didn’t I think of that!  

Interestingly, the producers sought out comments from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who appears to disapprove of his great-grandfather (and namesake) and the way he accumulated wealth. Perhaps he is right, but the original John D came from nothing, spent his life building a business and left his family multi-generational wealth. The Senator, John D. IV, came from great wealth, spent his life in politics and is leaving his country a collective multi-generational debt.  

Apart from the history, the presentation itself is long and the constant recaps of scenes just seem a bit tedious. They aren’t necessary. I bet there is maybe five hours worth of material in this eight-hour series. It is all a bit frustrating, because much of this series is interesting, even impressive. I especially liked the Johnstown Flood dramatization. If they stuck to the drama of real facts and avoided crafting new ones to fit a preordained storyline, they’d have had a good show. 

The series is still running on the History Channel, so you can catch further episodes each Tuesday night at 8 p.m. EST. But, have your computer nearby so you can check the historical facts.

Jeff Pantages is the Chief Investment Officer at Alaska Permanent Capital Management. He is an adjunct professor in economics and finance at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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