John D. (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
Mention John D. Rockefeller’s name and chances are that it will elicit kneejerk responses: “pirate,” “monopolist,” “soulless money-grabber,” “Gave dimes to little children but nothing to his workers.” To biographer David Freeman Hawke, in his John D.: The Founding Father of the Rockefellers, the man was far more of a decent human being than people have given him credit for, while still being every inch the mercenary businessman and trust-builder.
To Hawke, the dichotomy between Rockefeller (JDR) the gracious, even kindly family man of simple tastes and devout disposition and Rockefeller the scheming, sly tycoon is as arresting as it is true.
In essence, John D. serves as one man’s answer to those historians who single out JDR as the chief villain of late nineteenth century America. To those who would condemn Rockefeller’s business tactics, Hawke says, “You are absolutely correct,” but to those who would lay the blame for America’s Gilded Age business corruption entirely at JDR’s feet, he counters, “You are unfair. Others even more cruelly grasping than him were involved.” John D. is neither grist for the anti-Rockefellerian mill nor is it an apologia; rather, it is one writer’s attempt to set the record straight.
Hawke, an established biographer, has explored the lives of several prominent Americans (among them, Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin) as well as the social context of such events as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At present, he teaches at Lehman College of the City University of New York.
According to Hawke, what really established JDR’s reputation as an evil, grasping man were two inflammatory articles written for Maclure’s magazine by Ida M. Tarbell, best known for her best-selling History of the Standard Oil Company, one of the first accounts of Rockefeller’s role in forming his oil cartel. In the articles, she went well beyond the bounds of her book, lapsing into innuendo and the most vicious of commentary. Her cutting remarks about JDR often were aimed at his physical appearance. For example, when seen from behind in church, JDR is said to be “diseased” and “repulsive,” although his homely appearance is not due to some inner malady of the soul but simply to a disease called alopecia. To Tarbell, however, his odd features are punishments for an ill-lived life, a judgment easily accepted by her reading audience for whom the name “Rockefeller” became a variation upon “bogeyman.”
To Hawke, JDR was a monster only to those whose refineries he drove out of business. In actual fact, as Hawke tells it, JDR was a gentle man, given to the simple life. Contrary to popular opinion, he avoided the posh clubs, restaurants, and theaters of the New York rich, preferring the confines of his home. He was not a burner of one hundred dollar bills nor a conspicuous consumer. In short, he led a life that confounded his high-living peers. Yet, the public at large never seemed to understand how little pomposity and arrogance he displayed, choosing instead to believe what was more comfortable to believe.
In many respects, as Hawke points out, JDR was living proof that “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” His first love was the countryside near Cleveland which, in the early nineteenth century, had an unspoiled appearance. There he swam and fished and did all of the other things that rural boys did at that time. So accustomed was he to country ways, that the rough-and-tumble ways of Cleveland, Ohio, came as a distinct shock. Still later, New York was to awe him. Yet, he never loved it, although he took up residence there, preferring the Midwestern way of life over that of the East Coast, he remained a fish out of water for the rest of his life.
Cleveland, booming Great Lakes port that it was at mid century, gave JDR, the country lad, his first chance to rise in the business world, and he felt forever loyal to it for that reason. Distressed to find so much of the oil refining business being done elsewhere, whether in the Pennsylvania fields at Pittsburgh or in New York State, JDR eventually made Cleveland the United States’ oil capital. In achieving this aim, he undeniably used every trick in the nineteenth century entrepreneur’s book: bribery, kickbacks, sweetheart deals, and piracy. His ruthlessness was greatly feared and did much to destroy competitors; he early made it clear that he would not stop until he controlled the refining of oil, and he managed to do exactly that in record time. His ferocious tactics contrasted dramatically with his at-home demeanor where he was the model Baptist father—calm, understanding, devout, and loving. It is as if two persons inhabited one body.
Hawke describes JDR’s parents as formidable molders of his character, each in turn responsible for a different part of his nature. From his mother, he...
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