John D. Rockefeller:
Infinitely Ruthless,
Profoundly Charitable

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 2000

John D. Rockefeller was the most hated businessman of the 19th century and one of the most generous philanthropists of the 20th. He was condemned for being “ruthless as a whirlwind” and praised for his genuine, deep-down piety. He epitomized an era of extremes – America’s Gilded Age – when money lust was unrestrained and the country congratulated itself for its Victorian rectitude.

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937)

John Davison Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1839, in a modest house in Richford, New York, near Ithaca and Binghamton. His father, William Rockefeller (“Big Bill”), was a traveling salesman and full-time rogue, selling snake-oil potions, chasing girls, living large. Big Bill’s greatest love was for hefty wads of cash; he bestowed upon his son a passion for profit and risk. Young John also took after his adored mother Eliza, as pious a soul as any in upstate New York, a devout Baptist who read scripture daily and sought with every action to serve the Lord.

John thus carried within himself an interesting set of characteristics – on the one hand, boldness and avarice, and on the other, faith, steely discipline, and perfectionism. He struggled in early adolescence to reconcile these family forces. He wished to get rich, but could he do so and serve Jesus? He got a useful tip from a minister: “Get money, get it honestly, and then give it wisely.” John inscribed the homily in a little book.

Formal Baptist doctrine in no way discourages the pursuit of wealth; quite the opposite. The roots of the Baptist faith are in Puritanism, the faith of the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, who found virtue in earning and saving, and saw the hand of God in long columns of ever-increasing figures. John Rockefeller, writes Ron Chernow, his best biographer, believed that he was “one of God’s soldiers.” He might not have achieved so much without his pleasant, reassuring belief that his dollars served the Baptist God. “I believe the power to make money is a gift from God,” he declared, “….to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind.”

With his conscience squared away, Rockefeller faced the next big question of his life – how, he wondered, could he obtain the desired fortune?

As he embarked on his working life in the 1850s he announced his desire to tackle “something big.” His timing was excellent – almost as if decreed by a higher power. The Industrial Revolution was coming of age in the United States. Railroads and steamships were spreading. The telegraph provided the astonishing ability to communicate instantly. California supplied a monthly trove of gold bars. America contemplated its “manifest destiny” – to expand continent-wide – and fairly bristled with energy.

At age 16, in 1854, Rockefeller got a job as a clerk in Cleveland. As he sat at his desk surrounded by ledger books, he could glance out the window and see Lake Erie barges loaded with merchandise. There it was – capitalism! He hungered to be part of it, and in 1856 he co-founded Clark & Rockefeller, a shipping firm specializing in the trading and transportation of grain and fresh fish on the Great Lakes. The company thrived, due largely to Rockefeller’s imperial confidence in God’s will, his talent for hard work, leadership, and organization, and his ability to look at columns of figures for 12 hours a day.

On August 28, 1859, when Rockefeller was 20, a man named Edwin L. Drake discovered a reservoir of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles from Cleveland. Petroleum was valuable even in those pre-automobile days because it could be refined into lubricants for factories and farms, and kerosene for lamps. In the wake of Drake’s strike, businessmen built refineries on Lake Erie and assembled transportation networks to the East Coast. Cleveland in the 1860s was an ancestor of San Jose, California (Silicon Valley) in the 1990s – the right place at the right time for young people with a feel for technology and a desire to get really, really rich.

The firm of Clark & Rockefeller bought a 50 percent interest in a refinery in 1863, and for the next few years Rockefeller analyzed every nook and cranny of the petroleum business, falling in love with it, seeing vast potential. In 1865 he purchased operating control of Cleveland’s largest refinery, and, in a rare unguarded moment, crowed about his prospects with all the exuberance of a man not yet 30 who sees that the world is his oyster and God is smiling: “Someday,” he announced, “I’ll be the richest man in the world.”

Meanwhile he established a stable home life. In 1864, age 25, he married Laura Celestia Spelman – nicknamed Cettie – a religious soul with whom he had five children: Elizabeth, Alice (who died in infancy), Alta, Edith, and John Jr.

He doted on his family. After a long day at the office in downtown Cleveland, wheeling and dealing, trading, shipping, and nailing down every detail, Rockefeller went home to Euclid Avenue, doffed his silk hat, read the evening newspaper, and enjoyed his brood. He didn’t sip so much as a drop of alcohol – he was a strict lifetime teetotaler, in keeping with his religious beliefs.

He played with his kids. He got laughs from them by balancing expensive china on his nose. He taught the children skating and swimming, and on moonlit nights led them on bike journeys through the woods, attaching a white handkerchief to his back so they could follow.

John and Cettie sheltered the children from the fact of the family’s growing wealth, paying them small allowances and encouraging them to earn spending money by doing household chores. Their cardinal lesson: the importance of duty to one’s fellows.

John was good at letting off steam, but he had a lot of steam to let off, and some of it, apparently, stayed inside. In his 50s he suffered from moderate depression and digestive troubles. And his hair began to fall out. By 1901 he did not have a hair on his body, a condition known as generalized alopecia. He began wearing wigs. The hair never grew back, but his other health complaints subsided as he lightened his workload.

The petroleum business in the 1860s and early ’70s was an unholy tangle of producers, refiners, manufacturers, distributors, brokers, and shippers. Everyone angled for a quick kill.

This, said John D. Rockefeller, is madness, the devil’s work. What’s needed, he told his team, is order. By which he meant monopoly control, which would be, he said, a “missionary service to the whole world.”

To establish control over the industry he organized the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, serving as president and chief stockholder. By 1872, Standard had bought most of Cleveland’s refineries, consolidated them, and established order.

Oh, to be sure, a few owners resisted selling. Rockefeller’s men approached these hold-outs quietly and patiently, and made offers that could not be refused. Sign here, they suggested politely: the alternative is to be crushed.

Some of Standard’s tactics were merely aggressive; others were flat-out illegal, or would be made illegal. The company poured a small fortune into political bribery, commonplace in the Gilded Age when industrial capitalism was unregulated. The firm frequently sold its products at cost in order to demolish competitors (today in the U.S., laws forbid such activity). It forced retailers to carry its kerosene exclusively. It paid a network of spies to keep tabs on the industry, and it used an arsenal of obstructive techniques.

Cold-blooded. Ruthless. Eager to not only be the best, but to wipe out everyone else. John D. Rockefeller was all of these things. It must also be noted that his company made excellent products and sold them at reasonable prices. Standard Oil’s employees pursued improvements every working hour – an early version of Total Quality Management. One day, Rockefeller inquired about Standard’s method for preparing five-gallon kerosene cans for shipment. He learned that each can was sealed with 40 drops of solder. He asked workers to experiment with 38 drops. Some cans leaked. He suggested 39 drops. This worked fine. Thirty-nine drops became company policy, and Rockefeller happily tracked the annual savings.

By the 1880s Standard controlled virtually all U.S. oil production and comprised the greatest corporate empire the world had ever known. America now faced a new question: Can corporate excellence be encouraged even as corporate rapaciousness is kept within reasonable limits?

Many Americans in the 1880s and ’90s viewed the rise of unchecked industrial monopolies as an assault not only on market competition, but on democracy itself, which, needless to say, is built on the equal participation of many voices. A famous quote appeared during the 1880s damning big corporations, supposedly written by Abraham Lincoln in a letter before his death in 1865. In fact Lincoln didn’t write it, but it’s interesting that the remark cropped up during these years: “Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in the hands of a few, and the Republic is destroyed.”

Public outrage at big business escalated in 1902-03 when the influential magazine McClure’s published a 19-part dissection of Standard Oil by Ida M. Tarbell. These pieces were issued in book form in 1904 under the title “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” a key document of Progressive Era. (In 1999 the New York Times ranked this work number five among the top 100 works of 20th century American journalism. See here for an examination of American journalism during the Ida Tarbell generation.)

McClure’s, November, 1902.

John D. Rockefeller, and Standard, became focal points for the nation’s anger. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt and his Justice Department filed antitrust charges against Standard, seeking to make an example of a big company and hoping to establish rules for industrialization (and gain political support). On May 15, 1911, the Supreme Court handed down its decision: Standard was guilty as charged. The government began slicing and dicing Rockefeller’s beautifully crafted monopoly into smaller independent firms. Rockefeller, now in his early 70s, accepted the process with outward stoicism, but it’s likely he was deeply hurt. His bruised feelings were perhaps soothed by the substantial equity positions he retained in the new companies, and by the dawn of the automobile age, spurred by Henry Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1908. (See here for a profile of Ford.)

The break-up of Standard Oil resulted in the creation of 34 new companies. A sense of Standard’s size at its peak can be gotten from a mention of four of these new firms (listed here under their current names): Amoco, Chevron, Exxon, and Mobil. Exxon and Mobil merged in 1999, forming what was then the world’s largest company by revenue.

John D. Rockefeller spent the first half of his life pursuing money, following the guidance he had received as a boy: “Get money, get it honestly, and then give it wisely.” In the eyes of many people he had faltered on the “get it honestly” part, but his own conscience was clear.

He spent the second half of his life giving money away.

Working closely with a strong team of advisers, he conducted large-scale philanthropy with energy and intelligence. His biggest contributions were to medical research and education, where his money was instrumental in bringing America into the era of modern medical care. In 1901 he founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City, now known as Rockefeller University, highly influential in medicine over the years, a home for many Nobel Prize winners. “When history passes its final verdict on John D. Rockefeller,” wrote Winston Churchill, “it may well be that his endowment of research will be recognized as a milestone” in human progress.

Starting in 1889 and continuing through 1910, Rockefeller funded the creation and initial growth of the University of Chicago, which today is one of the world’s leading institutions of higher learning.

He showed significant concern for African Americans, rare for a white businessman in that era, giving generously to black educational institutions, churches, and orphanages.

The Rockefeller family funded, or contributed enormously to, scores of additional projects, including restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Council on Foreign Relations, acreage for national parks, preservation of large stands of California redwoods, and, in a fitting tribute to the senior Rockefeller’s powerful faith, Manhattan’s Riverside Church.

John D. Rockefeller’s net worth at its peak in 1913 was $900 million; when this figure is adjusted for inflation, he stands as the richest person of modern history. He gave away $530 million in his lifetime. 

John Rockefeller was happy in the last 30 years of his life – active, sweet-tempered, and social, letting his playfulness come to the fore. He golfed almost every morning, played the stock market, watched car races, tapped his fingers to music, handed out dimes to children, visited with family and friends on his warm sunporch, and appeared in newsreels.

Rockefeller in his later years, wearing
a stiff detachable collar, common attire
in the Victorian era of his youth.

His beloved wife Cettie died in 1915. He did not believe that God intended man to be lonely, so he began courting lady friends, inviting them to accompany him on afternoon motor drives, where he revealed himself to be an exuberantly dirty old man, groping his guests beneath the car blanket as the vehicle accelerated and the chauffeur kept his eyes forward. One woman said, “He ought to be handcuffed!”

He moved seasonally between his 3,000-acre main estate, Pocantico Hills, in Westchester County near New York City, and a big house in Ormond Beach, Florida, near Orlando. He doted on his grandchildren, including Nelson Rockefeller, who would become governor of New York and vice president of the United States, and David Rockefeller, one of the foremost bankers of the 20th century.

“Many folks believe I’ve done much harm in the world,” Rockefeller said when he was in his mid-90s, “but on the other hand, I’ve tried to do what good I could, and I really would like to live to be a hundred.” He didn’t quite make it. He died at 97 in Florida, on May 23, 1937. He is buried in Cleveland, not far from the spot where, as a young man, he first saw barges loaded with goods.

In the year 2000, the 200 or so descendants of John D. Rockefeller were worth a total of between $15 billion and $20 billion, according to the family’s office at Rockefeller Center in New York City. ●

Rockefeller Sidebar:
The Ludlow Massacre

By Harold Frost

One of the deadliest confrontations in American labor history occurred in 1914 at Rockefeller-owned coalfields in Ludlow, Colorado.

Colorado coal miners went on strike in 1913 demanding the right to unionize. They wanted decent incomes, and they wanted safety. From 1884 to 1912 more than 1,500 miners were killed on the job in the state, and countless nasty injuries occurred – crushed hands, severe concussions, ruined lungs.

John Rockefeller Sr. and his son, John Jr., ordered their managers to dig in their heels and resist unionization (which was not given full legal protection in the U.S. until 1933 and the New Deal). The Rockefellers remained distant from the scene and made little effort to stay informed about the seriousness of the situation.

Strikers camped in Ludlow with their families; they were heavily armed, as were the mine operators. The Colorado National Guard was called in. At dawn on April 20, 1914, someone fired a shot. Within seconds, heavy gunfire broke out.

National Guardsmen, apparently drunk, ran through the camp setting fire to the tents, unaware (probably) that women and children were hiding beneath one tent to escape the bullets. Eleven children and two women were incinerated.

This horror became known as the Ludlow Massacre. Also killed that day were three miners, three company guards, and one National Guardsman; dozens more died in subsequent fighting. John Jr. eventually accepted workers’ rights, but his father never lost his hatred of unions.