A frequent complaint against capitalism is that it permits the rich to get richer, even at the expense of the poor. Capitalists reply that the success of rich business leaders helps all people, providing jobs for workers and products for customers. Over the years, who have been the richest American citizens, and how did they make their money? For this study, I chose to take a snapshot of the country’s wealthiest citizens every fifty years, beginning in 1820.
Stephen Girard was one of the richest citizens of the United States in 1820. He made his first profits from shipping, and then increased his wealth through banking. John Jacob Astor is another wealthy American alive in 1820. His initial wealth came from the fur trade, but he then increased his fortune through buying and selling real estate. Banker Thomas Willing and real estate mavin Stephen Van Rensselaer were also among the richest men in the country two hundred years ago.
In 1870, Cornelius Vanderbilt was one of the richest people in the United States. His money came from railroads, as did that of another wealthy American, Jay Gould. Alexander Turney Stewart became wealthy from selling textiles and dry goods. In 1870 Frederick Weyerhauser was beginning to build his fortune from the timber industry.
One hundred years ago, John D. Rockefeller had become one of the wealthiest citizens of the United States through his profits from Standard Oil and the petroleum industry. Henry Ford was one of the richest Americans due to the automobile industry. Brothers Richard Mellon and Andrew Mellon began as bankers but increased their fortunes through steel, oil, and railroads. Andrew Carnegie barely misses the cutoff of 1920, having died the previous year, but his fortune came from railroads and the steel industry.
H. L. Hunt and J. Paul Getty both gained wealth through oil. But by 1970 the richest American was Howard Hughes, whose wealth came from air travel and the movie industry. Another wealthy American in 1970 was Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart.
And in 2020, the wealthiest Americans include Bill Gates (Microsoft), Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon). Another wealthy American is Warren Buffett, whose fortune came from the clothing and retail business.
Of course, all these wealthy Americans are white and male. Their opportunities for success were probably greater than potential competitors who were female or non-white. Looking beyond that impression, though, all of these men became rich by giving what consumers what consumers wanted. Railroads, cars, gasoline, steel, computer technology, and innovations in shopping mark the majority of these highly successful individuals.
Beyond that, most of them are known for philanthropy, for using their wealth for the benefit of others. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Walton, and other men on this list devoted much of their wealth to projects that helped others—combating disease and malnutrition, establishing opportunities for future entrepreneurs, and making libraries, concert halls, and museums available to the public. Most of these wealthy men and their families created foundations to continue their work beyond their lifetimes. Meanwhile, as they made their wealth by giving consumers what consumers wanted, they also created bountiful jobs for American workers.
Would railroads or automobile travel have been as affordable under government ownership and control? Would they have opened as many jobs as quickly as private investment made possible? If Walmart and Amazon were operated by the federal government, would they benefit as many shoppers? It is hard to imagine a scenario in which government control of these businesses would have been nearly as successful as they became under private ownership and control. J.