Examining the richest American of his time
Computer software magnate Bill Gates may be refining the art of monopoly as we enter the next millennium, but it was John D. Rockefeller who perfected the practice more than a century ago. Indeed, much can be learned about the current state of capitalism and competition by studying Rockefeller, who dominated the oil market as America moved into the 20th century. Ron Chernow's latest book, Titan, provides a primer on the life of Rockefeller, creator of the Standard Oil Company monopoly.
Chernow masterfully examines the complexities of a man who rose out of an impoverished childhood to become the richest American of his time. The author uses detailed, descriptive writing to show how some people saw Rockefeller as the personification of the evils of capitalism, while others viewed him as a patron saint for his philanthropic work.
Chernow is already established as a respected biographer and social historian, having won praise for his earlier works, The House of Morgan and The Warburgs. He decided to profile Rockefeller after discovering a 1,700-page transcript of private interviews with the oil baron for an authorized biography that was never written. But as Chernow delves into the transcript and hundreds of other written records, the portrait of Rockefeller becomes more perplexing. "In truth, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., had left behind a contradictory legacy -- an amalgam of godliness and greed, compassion and fiendish cunning," Chernow writes.
Born in 1839, Rockefeller was the son of a medicine peddler and a deeply religious mother. Chernow argues that these contradictory influences became the foundation for his actions. "I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can, fairly and honestly; to keep all you can and to give away all you can," Rockefeller once said.
As Chernow reveals, Rockefeller slowly squeezed out competitors by cutting deals with railroads to provide cheaper shipments to customers. By the time his Standard Oil Trust flexed its full muscle in 1882, it controlled 90 percent of the nation's oil refining and distribution. Rockefeller became a billionaire. Later, when President Theodore Roosevelt led a trust-busting campaign, it resulted in Standard Oil being dissolved in 1911 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the twilight of his life, Rockefeller donated millions to charity and created such institutions as the Rockefeller Foundation, Rockefeller University, the University of Chicago, and the General Education Board. "The fiercest robber baron had turned out to be the foremost philanthropist," Chernow writes.
Judgment of Rockefeller will be left to the ages. The difficulty of that task is best summarized when Chernow relates a meeting between Henry Ford and a frail Rockefeller shortly before his death at age 97. "Good bye, I'll see you in heaven," Rockefeller says, to which Ford replies, "You will, if you get in."
John T. Slania is a writer in Chicago.