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  1. John D. Rockefeller: Introduction
  2. John D. Rockefeller: Early Life and Education
  3. John D. Rockefeller: Success Story
  4. John D. Rockefeller: Net Worth
  5. John D. Rockefeller: Famous or Infamous
  6. John D. Rockefeller: Most Influential Quotes

Rockefeller’s biographer Ron Chernow said it best: “his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad.” 

Anywhere you look in Rockefeller’s actions or thought processes, there is unassailable kindness cheek-by-jowl with callous disdain for others. Before he hired Frederick T. Gates to manage his fortune, Rockefeller was in the habit of giving every supplicant a hearing and every “begging letter” a read. Morning to night, Rockefeller was bombarded with requests for a piece of his fortune, and he did give a staggering amount of it away.

Yet when he was managing Standard Oil he would deploy any method to undercut a rival. He would lay veritable siege to his targets, bribing legislators, attacking competitors in the press, buying up supplies to strangle their operations and cutting secret deals with railroads to nearly double their shipping costs. 

His belief that making money was his calling, his divine mission for the good of humanity, dovetailed into another ideology that seems nearly irreconcilable with his Christian love of charity. Rockefeller was an avowed social Darwinist, subscribing to a pseudo-scientific reformulation of the old dictum “might is right.” He saw the refining business as a competitive ecosystem in which the “fittest” would survive at the expense of the weakest. OK, that’s capitalism.

But one wonders how much this thinking colored his ideas about society. Some of his wealthy contemporaries saw the poor as responsible for their own suffering. At the very least they saw poverty as a sign of inherent inferiority. Whatever Rockefeller thought about the impoverished people he did so much to help, what ultimately matters is that he helped them. (For related reading, see: The Christmas Saints of Wall Street.)

Still it is important to realize that his thinking was an idiosyncratic, compassionate brand of the same idea that would justify the forced sterilization of poor women, harmful experimentation on unwitting black subjects, and the horrors of the Nazis’ “final solution.” Shamefully, the Rockefeller Foundation provided support to forerunners of Nazi eugenics programs (it also helped scholars who fled Germany, however, when the nature of Nazi rule became clear).

The darker side of Rockefeller’s views was especially visible following the Ludlow massacre. In 1913, eight thousand workers at a Rockefeller-owned coal mine went on strike for better wages and working conditions. After a long standoff, a company of National Guardsmen fired on the strikers’ camp with a machine gun and set fire to their tents. At least 24 people were killed, including two women and 11 children who had been hiding in one of the tents.

Rockefeller, who was no longer involved in managing the business at that time, testified in Washington that he would have “taken no action” against the strikebreakers. He was vehemently opposed to unions and the labor movement. He was all for helping the poor, but not for them helping themselves. His philanthropy was undercut by a deep strain of paternalism. (For more, see: Is the Billionaire Charity Pledge a Good Idea.)

There’s one thread that runs through Rockefeller’s contradictions, that unites his social Darwinism and his Christianity, his charity and his empire-building. He was arrogant. He saw his every action as a gift to the world. Sometimes he was right, and sometimes he was dreadfully wrong. When he was running rampant through the Pennsylvania oil patch, subsuming every rival in his path, he saw himself as an evangelist, a crusader, a fiery-eyed missionary bringing the truth to those who wanted it and those who didn’t. As a philanthropist, he was also fulfilling his grand commission, just under a different guise. 

Rockefeller was a “great” man in the traditional sense of the word, as it has been applied to bloodthirsty conquerors who also had high-minded ideals. He wrung a fortune out of a country that was no match for him, and he gave much of it right back—but differently apportioned. When he looked at Standard Oil’s expenditures on barrels and solder, he realized there was a more efficient way to use the money. When he looked at the way American society used its burgeoning wealth, he had the same thought. He took control of that wealth so that he could show everyone exactly how it should be used.


John D. Rockefeller: Most Influential Quotes
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