John D. Rockefeller: Lover of Money or Enterprise?


Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow

When people talk about John D. Rockefeller they all seem to say something different. Some talk about Rockefeller the innovative entrepreneur, some talk about Rockefeller the back-dealing monopolist, and some talk about Rockefeller the charitable do-gooder.

From being derided as the devil of modern industry to being hailed as the saint of modern philanthropy, Rockefeller always was, and still remains, a controversial figure.

It’s no surprise then that Ron Chernow’s biography of the man (aptly titled Titan) paints a picture no less diverse. Chernow takes us chronologically from Rockefeller’s backwater beginnings to his astounding rise to wealth, focusing all the while on what made the man tick.

Sounds all too familiar, right? A man with humble beginnings overcomes all odds to become a happy and successful family man. But what is so unique about Rockefeller is the extent to which he did not change despite his rapid rise to fame. Certainly he evolved in many regards, but as a father, as a husband, as a worker, and as a tither, we see the same moral framework from beginning to end.

That’s right. There is no “Bathsheba moment” of weakness, no interlude of repentant exile, and no climactic epiphany that “money doesn’t buy happiness.” In a way, what is most boring about Rockefeller’s life is also what is so fascinating about it.

Some people believe that money can change you, but for Rockefeller, the key to success was not letting that happen.

John D. Rockefeller at age 18.

Rockefeller’s childhood was not a dainty one. His father, William A. Rockefeller, was known around town as “Wild Bill” for being a notorious liar, thief, and scam artist. He was also a womanizer and a bigamist. When Rockefeller was eighteen, Wild Bill permanently ditched the family for his other wife under the pretense of cross-country “business.” Before leaving, he told the young Rockefeller, “I shall be away and must rely on your judgment.”

Whether his father knew it or not (and Chernow thinks he did), Rockefeller’s judgment could definitely be trusted, and from that day forward, young John flourished as the new “paterfamilias” of his mother’s home. This triggered similar success in the business world, as Rockefeller worked hard to fill the gaps his father left. Chernow calls it an “exquisite” irony that Bill “turned his back on his family just as his eldest son began to amass the largest fortune in history.”

Plainly put, Rockefeller was not intimidated by crummy circumstances; he was inspired by them. Life was about opportunities, not disadvantages.

As the story goes on, plenty of good things happen for Rockefeller, much of which you are probably familiar with. He began his career clerking at a produce commission firm, after which he started his own firm, after which he moved into the oil business and built what would eventually become the largest refiner in the world, the Standard Oil Company. In short, Rockefeller’s innovative methods, financial wisdom, and visionary insight led not only to Standard Oil’s success, but also provided the model for what we now know as the modern corporation.

But let’s take a moment to look at some of the controversy.

Rockefeller is often disdained as one of the nineteenth-century robber barons who greedily pursued money and power by sucking up innocent competitors, gouging consumers, and starving employees. Those who argue this will point to Rockefeller’s sneaky business tactics and strong-armed “persuading” of smaller businesses to either sign on or be snuffed out. Rockefeller also colluded with the railroad companies to sign a deal that would have given him a complete (and unfair) advantage over his competitors. The deal, however, never went through.

Standard Oil's first refinery in Cleveland, Ohio.

I have so far lauded the innovative mind and productive life of Rockefeller and pointed to his lifelong moral consistency, but certain pieces of his life do strike me has desperately money hungry and cringe-worthy. Nobody likes it when someone plots another person’s demise. Nobody likes to watch a mob gang up on an innocent bystander. Nobody likes a monopoly, because nobody likes to see “unfair” competition.

How then, do we reconcile the two portraits? Rockefeller’s genius certainly produced great things for the society of his time, and as already mentioned, he pretty much developed the baseline for America’s 20th-century prosperity. So how do we appreciate Rockefeller the family man, the philanthropist, and the wealth creator, despite his anti-competitive and often brutish business tactics?

I think it boils down to understanding Rockefeller’s fundamental view of money and his ability to manage it. Chernow writes about how Rockefeller understood that he had a gift from an early age. He noticed the way others squandered their money and mismanaged enterprises. He watched the way his father suckered people into shams, which to Rockefeller said just as much about the suckers as it did about his father. However, in addition to seeing value in his own gift, Rockefeller also saw value in the Church. He was a devout Baptist from a young age, and through his faith he saw money and influence as a means to help others if utilized appropriately.

Rockefeller saw his ability to pursue and create wealth as an opportunity to help others, whether in direct or indirect ways. Eventually, this led Rockefeller to think he was entitled to a monopoly of the oil market simply because he thought he was the one most fit for the job. In Rockefeller’s mind, owning a monopoly of the oil market wasn’t a bad thing. However, although he pursued control of the oil industry, it’s important to note that he never seemed controlled by his money. In fact, this was the primary reason he was able to accumulate it so efficiently. His foresight and his wisdom were not focused on the money itself, but instead on building a well-managed, well-functioning and useful enterprise. I don’t agree with everything he did to achieve it, but whether you believe in Rockefeller’s saintly intentions or not, his fruit proved fresh and tasty.

John D. Rockefeller, painted in 1917 by John Singer Sargent.

Years after Rockefeller stepped down, the government finally broke up Standard Oil and enacted policies to prohibit many of the tactics that led to its success. Reasonable people may disagree on whether such policies were helpful or necessary, but whether Rockefeller pushed it too far or not, we must be grateful to him for at least showing us the extent to which human achievement can go. It was by one man’s reaching for the sky that the government saw the need to determine the rest of our limits.

To sum up Rockefeller’s view of himself and his wealth, I think it’s helpful to contrast him with his father (“Wild Bill”).

When Rockefeller was a boy, Wild Bill was a man who couldn’t keep a job. As mentioned, Wild Bill eventually ditched his family for another woman, after which he traveled the country selling fake medicine, and, in the end, tried to manipulate his wealthy son for cash. As Chernow describes him, he was a “scheming, selfish, money-mad charlatan.” From a brief look at this life, we can see selfishness epitomized. There was no honesty, no consistency, and no regard for his God, his family, or anyone else. When Wild Bill died, he had produced no fruit.

And then we turn to Rockefeller. He was a man who stood up for his family when his father wouldn’t, who gave away his money before he had any, and who would later go on to be a businessman famous for his frugality, wise investments, and contractual integrity. Whether or not people liked the outcome or the businesses he targeted along the way, Rockefeller was a man of his word. From a brief look at this life, we can see rational self-interest epitomized. There was no get-rich-quick scheme. There was no pursuit that didn’t include a long-term and mutual benefit. There was honesty, consistency, and utter regard for his God, his family, and his business partners. Thus, when Rockefeller died, he had produced plenty of fruit.

Due to Rockefeller’s continuous wisdom and stability, his family had long-lasting domestic and financial security. Due to his charity, new businesses and universities were started and numerous medical innovations were funded. And due to his productive business endeavors, America had a massive and efficient oil pipeline at its disposal.

To lambast Rockefeller as an immoral demon set on simultaneously destroying the earth and hogging it all for himself is to have an outlook that is both naïve and materialistic. It is naïve in that it does not understand that wealth creation is not a zero-sum game, and it is materialistic in that it so closely correlates money with morality.

Rockefeller was not perfect — indeed none of us are — but a macro view of his life shows a man who had a gift and used it to the best of his ability within the constraints of the law and beyond the call of objective morality. He did not live a life of mass consumption and luxury only to give it all away in the end. He became wealthy because of his wisdom, trustworthiness, and generosity.

His life reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16. Jesus concludes the parable by saying the following:

He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. He who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much [e.g. Wild Bill]. If therefore you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?

After the parable, the Pharisees (whom Luke calls “lovers of money”), are angered that Jesus would relate earthly wealth to heavenly gains. But Jesus replies with this“You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts.

Lovers of money are not lovers of God, and only God truly knows who loves money more than Him. Money can, however, reflect multitudes about our hearts.

When it comes to Rockefeller, I’ll let God be the judge, but from his fruit the reflection looks promising.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • AnyaKatarina

    Thanks for giving me a glimpse into a man I have known little about. How many times I have enjoyed a great concert or documentary on PBS, and then noticed that it was “funded by the “John D. Rockefeller Foundation”. Now I have a bit more insight into the ways that one individual's hard work, innovation and wisdom can carry the Blessing ahead into future generations. Inspiring!

  • davidekers

    You think if the government didn't regulate the oil industry we'd be in the situation we've been in for the last 20 years? Maybe Rockefeller was right (if he did believe that he should be the person running the industry). And if Standard Oil did exist today, through all those tactics that are frowned upon: “price gouging” and “price fixing”, would we have a problem with foreign oil?

    Also do you think that the disparity of the situation (a monopoly in oil), would have pushed innovation for green technology along much faster?

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    I, for one, disagree with what the government did in breaking up Standard Oil. Indeed, I think they saved a lot of face FOR the oil companies and allowed them to be MORE anti-competitive under the guise of competitiveness. What is perhaps most humorous about the break-up is that Rockefeller used the government action as a means for making MORE money. He held onto all of his shares until the price was at the max, and THEN sold them (which the government forced him to do). When Rockefeller heard of the court's conclusion about the break-up of the company, he was golfing with a priest from a nearby Catholic church, and “did not seem particularly perturbed.” He asked the priest whether he had any money. The priest replied said “No” and asked why. And Rockefeller immediately response was, “Buy Standard Oil.” This was indeed sound advice.

    Chernow sums it up like this: “[The anti-trust suit] proved to be the luckiest stroke of [Rockefeller's] career. Precisely because he lost the anti-trust suit, Rockefeller was converted from a mere millionaire into something just short of history's first billionaire.”

    When J.P. Morgan heard about the ruling, he asked, “How the hell is any court going to compel a man to compete with himself?”

    Indeed, how often does the government's “regulation” of big business simply amplify the interests of big business? Chernow suggests the break-up only resulted in a new, and perhaps more uncontrollable “conspiracy.”

    Also, when I say that he is disdained for “price gouging” and “price fixing,” I should note that I think such criticism is highly unfounded. Howard Zinn and other revisionists have twisted the story of Rockefeller. Instead Rockefeller's company (and any so-called monopoly) can only stifle competition by LOWERING prices and maintaining or increasing quality. Rockefeller's initial gain in control over oil markets was because his oil QUALITY was far superior than any of the upstart small guys (and poor-quality oil was extremely dangerous).

    In short, the only monopoly that can survive (without government action) is the one that doesn't “gouge” consumers. As you implied, if he truly was gouging consumers, or began to, new competition would come out of the woodwork to fill the need, whether it would be foreign oil, or new markets like green technologies. I say something would arise if there was money to be made.

    I will probably post this video in the near future as a follow-up, but I recommend you watch this lecture promoting the view I express here. Alex Epstein from the ARC argues against the “Monopoly Myth” using Rockefeller as a case study: http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename…

    Thanks for your comments/questions!

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    I, for one, disagree with what the government did in breaking up Standard Oil. Indeed, I think they saved a lot of face FOR the oil companies and allowed them to be MORE anti-competitive under the guise of competitiveness. What is perhaps most humorous about the break-up is that Rockefeller used the government action as a means for making MORE money. He held onto all of his shares until the price was at the max, and THEN sold them (which the government forced him to do). When Rockefeller heard of the court's conclusion about the break-up of the company, he was golfing with a priest from a nearby Catholic church, and “did not seem particularly perturbed.” He asked the priest whether he had any money. The priest replied said “No” and asked why. And Rockefeller immediately response was, “Buy Standard Oil.” This was indeed sound advice.

    Chernow sums it up like this: “[The anti-trust suit] proved to be the luckiest stroke of [Rockefeller's] career. Precisely because he lost the anti-trust suit, Rockefeller was converted from a mere millionaire into something just short of history's first billionaire.”

    When J.P. Morgan heard about the ruling, he asked, “How the hell is any court going to compel a man to compete with himself?”

    Indeed, how often does the government's “regulation” of big business simply amplify the interests of big business? Chernow suggests the break-up only resulted in a new, and perhaps more uncontrollable “conspiracy.”

    Also, when I say that he is disdained for “price gouging” and “price fixing,” I should note that I think such criticism is highly unfounded. Howard Zinn and other revisionists have twisted the story of Rockefeller. Instead Rockefeller's company (and any so-called monopoly) can only stifle competition by LOWERING prices and maintaining or increasing quality. Rockefeller's initial gain in control over oil markets was because his oil QUALITY was far superior than any of the upstart small guys (and poor-quality oil was extremely dangerous).

    In short, the only monopoly that can survive (without government action) is the one that doesn't “gouge” consumers. As you implied, if he truly was gouging consumers, or began to, new competition would come out of the woodwork to fill the need, whether it would be foreign oil, or new markets like green technologies. I say something would arise if there was money to be made.

    I will probably post this video in the near future as a follow-up, but I recommend you watch this lecture promoting the view I express here. Alex Epstein from the ARC argues against the “Monopoly Myth” using Rockefeller as a case study: http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename

    Thanks for your comments/questions!

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    test

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    test

  • Pingback: The Monopoly Myth: Alex Epstein on Rockefeller and Standard Oil « Remnant Culture

  • Pingback: Money, Greed and God: Is Capitalism Evil? «Remnant Culture

  • who

    I believe from wild bill choking people with oil in the name of curing cancer all the way to the rockefeller institution being part of the cancer cure today sounds as crazy as rockefeller the saintly almost jesus bs. The family is a pawn for rothschild and rothschild is a red shield for the queen.

  • who

    I believe from wild bill choking people with oil in the name of curing cancer all the way to the rockefeller institution being part of the cancer cure today sounds as crazy as rockefeller the saintly almost jesus bs. The family is a pawn for rothschild and rothschild is a red shield for the queen.

  • Pingback: Business as Philanthropy: Gates, Buffett, and Transformative Change «Remnant Culture

  • Pingback: The Billionaire’s Dilemma: Charity vs. Job Creation «Remnant Culture

  • Pingback: 'Mom! Dad! AT&T's Not Sharing!' | Ethika Politika

  • Ramesh kamuni.

    Bank were not giveing loan to poor.they want surity of regular income parson. what is this?.

  • Robert Louis

    “but a macro view of his life shows a man who had a gift and used it to the best of his ability within the constraints of the law and beyond the call of objective morality,”

    Correction: Theodore Roosevelt denounced him as a law-breaker. Stating that he conducted his business practices within the constraints of the law is the furthest thing from the truth. The evidence, which is overwhelming to say the least, suggests otherwise. Though you seem to have written a fairly good article, some of your facts are nonetheless are messed-up.