There’s been surprisingly little written about the great philanthropists. Only two substantial biographies have been written on Andrew Carnegie, for example (one by Burton Hendrick in 1931, and the other by Joseph Frazier Wall in 1970). The only biography of Julius Rosenwald was published in 1939. The first biography of George Eastman was not published until 1996. There are no published biographies of the founders of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
There are several reasons for this lack of interest in philanthropic history. Many of the titans whose wealth was given to foundations commissioned biographies and then prevented them from being published. At least eight biographers, for example, wrote lives of George Eastman, but their work was suppressed either by Eastman or by the Eastman Kodak Company. It’s probable that the general distaste of America’s historians toward business history has ensured that the stories of important philanthropists are rarely told.
Not so for the Rockefellers, who have been written about by all sorts of people ever since the muckraking Ida Tarbell invented the corporate expose with The History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904. In the 1930s, populist libertarian John T. Flynn excoriated the Rockefellers in God’s Gold. In 1940, Allan Nevins responded with the respectful, semi-official John D. Rockefeller (later revised as Study in Power). Peter Collier and David Horowitz then produced The Rockefellers, the first in their multi-generational series of biographies of families. Most recently, John Ensor Harr and Peter Johnson have produced respectful and exhaustive studies of John D. Rockefeller Sr. and his descendants in The Rockefeller Century and The Rockefeller Conscience. Throw in Raymond Fosdick’s authorized history of the Rockefeller Foundation and the autobiography of Rockefeller’s philanthropic adviser, Frederick T. Gates, and you’ll see that the subject makes for a thick bookshelf.
One reason the Rockefellers have been the subject of so many books is the dedication of the Rockefeller family. Unlike most philanthropists, the Rockefellers have made their papers open to serious scholars through the Rockefeller Archive Center, and supported the center’s activities through the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The center also publishes its own books about the Rockefellers, such as “Dear Father,” “Dear Son,” (released in 1994), a collection of the correspondence of John D. Rockefeller Sr. (or “Senior,” as he was known within the family) and John D. Rockefeller Jr.
But it’s also likely that one reason why so many biographers find John D. Rockefeller a compelling subject is the obvious one: Rockefeller’s life was extremely interesting. Born in 1839, the long-lived Rockefeller came of age before the Civil War yet lived to enjoy the lubricious comedies of Jean Harlow before his death in 1937.
Moreover, the wealth Rockefeller created has endowed scores of charities, many of whom were not created by the Rockefeller family. Stephen Harkness, for example, was one of Rockefeller’s early partners, who dropped out of Standard Oil by the mid-1880s. But Harkness then became one of the first important philanthropists, endowing scores of projects in Cleveland as well as one of the first series of international scholarships. Henry Clay Folger was a director of Standard Oil and, after the trust was broken up in 1911, became the president of Standard Oil of New York (now Mobil). His wealth went to the Folger Shakespeare Library, which remains an important collection.
Ron Chernow ably retells John D. Rockefeller’s story. Chernow is an experienced business biographer, who has previously produced biographies of J. P. Morgan and the Warburg family. He is balanced, fair, and respectful toward his subject. His thorough mining of the Rockefeller archive and other archives ensures that he’s uncovered many new details. I’ve done a substantial amount of research on John D. Rockefeller, and I found many anecdotes and sources in Titan that were new to me.
Most people have two sets of questions about John D. Rockefeller. First, was his wealth obtained honestly? Was it “tainted money?” Was Rockefeller, as Theodore Roosevelt charged, a “malefactor of great wealth?” And second, what about Rockefeller’s philanthropy? Was it useful? Why did Rockefeller choose to create the Rockefeller Foundation?
Chernow conclusively shows that Rockefeller was no “robber baron.” The efficiencies produced by Standard Oil ensured that the price of kerosene fell by half between 1870 and 1900. While Standard Oil officials under Rockefeller’s control did bribe government officials (though the level of corruption increased after John N. Archbold succeeded Rockefeller as Standard Oil president in 1897), many bribes were a result of government regulation: in some states bribes were simply the cost of doing business. Further complicating matters, most states barred companies operating inside their borders from owning property in another state. This ensured that Standard Oil had to operate as a trust whose ownership was clouded in secrecy rather than as a legally-organized interstate corporation.
It’s also clear that the antitrust suit that fractured Standard Oil into several components (including the firms that became Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, and Chevron) was unnecessary. Standard Oil’s monopoly was based on its control of Pennsylvania oil. Yet even at the height of its power in the 1880s and 1890s, Standard still had some competitors, and as other sources of oil were discovered, Standard was unable (or unwilling) to compete in these new markets. Most notably, the Rockefellers had very little to do with the discovery of oil in Texas; the Spindletop oil strike of 1901 vastly enriched the Mellons and Pews, but not the Rockefellers. Indeed, Standard Oil’s share of the U.S. refining market had dropped from 86 percent in 1899 to 70 percent by 1911, when it was broken up. Its share of U.S. oil production had fallen from 32 percent to 14 percent during the same period.
Moreover, it’s clear from Chernow’s account that the journalists of the era had trapped Rockefeller in a game he could not win. Rockefeller’s virtues were repeatedly turned into vices by the press and the state. Unlike most of the wealthy men and women of his era, Rockefeller lived simply, practicing thrift until extreme old age. Because he did not build large mansions with his fortune, Ida Tarbell condemned Rockefeller as a “social cripple.” In 1915, when Senior spent too long in Cleveland comforting his dying wife, the state of Ohio rewarded his fidelity to his spouse by declaring that Rockefeller was a legal resident of Ohio that year, and presenting him with a million-dollar state tax bill.
The automobile ensured that Rockefeller’s wealth would mushroom after his retirement in 1897. When he retired, Rockefeller was worth about $100 million. But as the automobile changed from a rich man’s toy into a working man’s necessity, demand for gasoline relentlessly increased. Consumer demand quickly pushed Rockefeller’s wealth to $900 million in 1912 dollars, or about $25 billion today.
This dramatic increase in wealth, combined with Rockefeller’s continued vilification by the press, all but ensured that Rockefeller would leave his wealth to a giant foundation. And it was due to the machinations of Rockefeller’s assistants, most notably his philanthropic adviser, Frederick T. Gates, and his attorney, Starr Murphy, that the Rockefeller Foundation would not have to follow the ideas of John D. Rockefeller. Gates and Murphy each had their own ideas about where to take the Foundation, but they agreed on one thing—neither wanted to have to answer to Senior.
Still, Chernow shows that the Rockefeller Foundation did not neglect Rockefeller’s ideas entirely. Like Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller rightly realized that charity often leads to dependency. “It is a great problem,” Rockefeller once wrote, “to learn how to give without weakening the moral backbone of the beneficiary.” In the 1880s, according to Chernow, Rockefeller told his brother, Frank, that he did not intend to give money to a veterans’ organization because he did “not want to encourage a horde of irresponsible adventuresome fellows to call on me at sight for money every time fancy seizes them.”
So it was clear that Rockefeller’s wealth would not be redistributed to the poor. It was actually Frederick Gates’s decision to use much of the money on medical research, on the grounds that medicine was non-political, useful, and did not attract many donors at the time. Thanks to Gates, the Rockefellers created Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University), which has funded many useful medical discoveries.
Ron Chernow’s Titan is a well-written and highly entertaining account of John D. Rockefeller’s life. Rockefeller was a great man and a great philanthropist, and his greatness has been clouded by misinformation spread by his foes. Ron Chernow has ably scraped away the falsehoods and misinformation surrounding Rockefeller’s life and ideals. The result is that John D. Rockefeller is seen as he should be—not as a villain or an angel, but a flawed man whose innovations helped Americans lead happier and more productive lives.
Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center. His 1994 book The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of “Donor Intent” will be published in a revised and expanded edition by the Center this fall.