The phrase “robber baron” entered the American vernacular in 1859. Originally a reference to medieval German nobles who ran extortion rackets on the Rhine, the phrase was revived by New York Times reporter Henry J. Raymond to describe railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. Though “robber baron” now connotes the unscrupulous avoidance of competition in business, Raymond initially used it to describe excessive competition — “competition for competition’s sake; competition which crowds out legitimate enterprises.” Commodore Vanderbilt, the parvenu son of a ferry operator, had turned the genteel, “legitimate” shipping business into a street brawl. The sheer scale of his wealth — …
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