Yesterday was National Entrepreneur’s Day, a day created to honor the men and women who, through their ingenuity, willingness to take risks, and hard work, have made the American economy the envy of the world. A key part of a free enterprise system is the ability of individuals to innovate and create new products and services or improve existing ones. Their creativity has led to incredible economic growth throughout America’s history that has improved the lives of not only millions of Americans but billions of people worldwide.

Yet today, more and more American students aren’t being taught in their schools how free enterprise enables entrepreneurs to thrive and improve everyone’s lives, and they are instead taught that many of the great American entrepreneurial heroes are actually villains. History textbooks unfortunately have lumped successful market entrepreneurs, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, in with those who take advantage of government subsidies to make a quick buck under the title of ‘Robber Barons’.

However, in his book Myth of the Robber Barons, longtime YAF ally and history professor Dr. Burt Folsom brilliantly explains the distinction between market entrepreneurs, who profit from their inventions and innovations that benefit society, and political entrepreneurs, who engage in crony capitalism to the detriment of society. His book focuses on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when America rose from being a backwater country to the world’s leading economy and looks at the role that great business leaders played in that stunning transformation, including not only famous entrepreneurs such as Vanderbilt and Rockefeller but also James J. Hill, the Scranton Family, and Charles Schwab. These entrepreneurs and their stories also form the foundation of his podcast Books with Burt.

Dr. Folsom is also the longest tenured speaker for Young America’s Foundation and has been imparting his wisdom to YAF students for over 40 years. His lessons about the historical successes of free market entrepreneurs over government-picked monopolies always give conservative students ammunition to defend free enterprise. In his remarks at YAF’s 41st National Conservative Student Conference, Dr. Folsom told over 500 conservative students the tale of how Cornelius Vanderbilt defeated a competitor that had received several millions of dollars in federal subsidies and drove them out of the steam ship business through his diligence on cutting costs and innovation.

Entrepreneurs who have helped better American lives should be celebrated as heroes, not cast as villains. For anyone who is interested in learning more about some of the entrepreneurs that created the American economic juggernaut, you can purchase Dr. Folsom’s Myth of the Robber Barons here. Alternatively, you can celebrate National Entrepreneur’s Day by watching one of his fantastic speeches to YAF students instead!


Karl Stahlfeld is the associate director of YAF’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Free Enterprise.