Gilded Age Guilt

Several blogs ago, I mentioned a visit to Newport, Rhode Island that provided an interesting perspective on leadership—past and present. Along the glistening shoreline of the Atlantic, a heritage of U.S. history remains preserved for future generations to enjoy. In addition to viewing mansions like The Breakers, Marble House, and Beechwood, I also gained two significant insights as I strolled along this summer playground of the rich and famous:

  1. The businessmen (yes, primarily men—although many had influential wives who greatly enhanced their success) of the late 1800s and early 1900s were not only visionaries, but they also exponentially increased America’s influence in the global economy.
  1. There is a surprising tendency by 21st century pundits to apologize for the success of these former titans of industry, a trend of apologetics that seems to be seeping into many sectors of society today.

Let me begin by saying that I certainly don’t agree with every tenet or tactic implemented by those powerful leaders of the Gilded Age, yet men like the Vanderbilt and Astor not only employed countless citizens, but they also gave generously to philanthropic efforts. Their summer homes offer a glimpse into the Gilded Age glamour experienced because of their business efforts and acumen.

This is the bigger point I’ve been pondering: why are we apologizing for the accomplishments of successful individuals of ages past? Indeed, why is there a tendency today to apologize for success in general? After all, isn’t achievement a fundamental aspect of a land of opportunity? Haven’t many individuals from around the world come to the United States in order to strive for similar opportunities of success?

The Gordon Geckos and “Wolves of Wall Street” should apologize for themselves—but the captains of industry who strive, employ, give generously, and, yes, even succeed greatly shouldn’t be embarrassed by achievements attained morally and ethically. Let’s leave guilt to those who’ve earned it and instead focus our appreciation on those who are keeping the American dream moving ever forward.

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