Ron Chernow is one of my most favorite biographers. I read his biography on George Washington that was captivating and interesting. I’ve also gotten about 3/4 the way through his biography on Alexander Hamilton, constructed with equal precision and acclaim.
One of Chernow’s first biographies was a look at one of America’s most controversial figures: John D. Rockefeller. Many have heard of Rockefeller (particularly because “Rockefeller Center” in New York City bears his name), but few are inclined to know the details that make this man intriguing and contentious.
Succinctly, John was an oil man. At the height of his wealth in the early 1900’s, he had nearly a billion dollars to his name (which would equate to several billion dollars in today’s economy). But how he got here is a matter of debate. John started buying property and soon had a booming business in the oil industry. He made an agreement with the rail companies that boosted his success enormously. Essentially, he would choose a particular train company that would ship his oil in exchange for extensive price cuts to the cost of shipping. It seems like a win-win: Rockefeller’s oil gets delivered for cheap and the train companies get the business of a burgeoning industry on the cusp of a huge breakthrough. This, of course, is illegal now and should have been back then: but that is not the extent of his controversy.
We must imagine in this time, there are no large corporations like “Wal-Mart.” It was literally the wild west when it comes to big business, and the laws concerning these businesses were largely unregulated. For example, a company cannot buy up all his competition because that hurts the market: one company is in control of the price and can do with it what he wants. Back in Rockefeller’s time, this was certainly legal but the morality of it was questionable. However, Rockefeller indeed did buy up all his competition. Even when legislation was passed to stop this practice, he developed a system where a third party would represent the company but be passed as an individual company. This was called a “trust.”
Rockefeller literally had total control over the oil industry in America. For years, his corporation, “Standard Oil,” reigned king in the oil business, squelching competitors who would try the open market. But in all his controversy, Rockefeller is known for something else: philanthropy. Growing up in wake of the Second Great Awakening, Rockefeller was a spiritual man who generously gave away millions of dollars to schools, foundations, organizations, churches etc.
When antitrust laws were passed and Standard Oil was disassembled from the inside out, Rockefeller enjoyed retirement with ease. He was able to live very comfortably for the rest of his life as his son dealt with Standard’s affairs for the remainder of the time it was a corporation. The breakup of Standard brings familiar names that our generation would recognize: ExxonMobile, Chevron, Texaco, and BP.
By the end of this book, Rockefeller dies in the last pages and I felt as if I had lost a friend I had grown to know intimately. For all his controversy, there is no doubt that Rockefeller possessed an immense character of giving that is often shrouded in dispute of his immoral practices as an executive. In any case, the legacy of John D. Rockefeller continues on, whether it be in the form of the beautiful Rockefeller Center in New York City, or a bygone era of complete control of the oil industry seen in the aftermath of the collapse of Standard Oil.