Ron Chernow is a historian of business whose previous work dealt with banking. His first book, The House of Morgan (1990), won the National Book Award; his second, The Warburgs (1993), won the Eccles Prize of the Columbia Business School as the best business book of the year. His books are written in an easily understandable style and stress the cultural context in which the people and institutions he discusses operated.
Titan is the first study of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., to be based on the voluminous company and family records collected by the Rockefellers and their charitable foundations since Allan Nevins published his massive John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Industry (2 vols., 1940; revised under the title Study in Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist, 1953). Other than material dealing with family matters that was not yet open to the public in the 1940’s, Chernow uses little data that was unavailable to Nevins. Chernow, however, is much more impartial in his evaluation of Rockefeller’s behavior. Nevins, attempting to correct factual misstatements in critical studies of Rockefeller published during the Progressive and New Deal years, tended to defend Rockefeller’s business practices. Chernow is less willing to accept Rockefeller’s rationalizations concerning his business behavior. Where most biographers portray Rockefeller as either essentially good or essentially evil, Chernow depicts him as both. Chernow’s carefully balanced narrative makes Titan the best account of Rockefeller’s life and career available.
John Davison Rockefeller was born in 1839 in Richford, a small town in upstate New York. His father, William Avery Rockefeller, was an itinerant peddler who sold homemade medical nostrums in rural areas and country fairs across New York State and the upper Middle West. His mother, Eliza Davison Rockefeller, was a devout Baptist who raised her children in that faith. Her son never abandoned the Baptists for a denomination higher in the social scale and became the sect’s most influential layman. When Rockefeller was thirteen, the family moved to Cleveland, where he attended high school and became a full-fledged member of the Erie Street Baptist Church. As soon as he started to earn his own money, he began to contribute regularly to his church and to charitable causes.
Other biographers have viewed Rockefeller’s piety as hypocrisy, charging him with showily attending church on Sunday while conducting his everyday affairs with utter unscrupulousness. They considered his charitable donations merely an attempt to divert attention from his rapacious business behavior. Chernow insists that Rockefeller’s faith was sincere, that he had no trouble reconciling his business practices with his religion. The church of Rockefeller’s youth taught him that it was his duty to work hard, earn as much as he could, and give away as much as he could. “The church,” Chernow argues, “provided him with a stock of images and ideas that, instead of checking him, enabled him to proceed with a clear conscience. Religion validated his business misdeeds no less than his charitable bequests, buttressing his strongest impulses.”
At the age of sixteen, Rockefeller went to work as a clerk- bookkeeper for a Cleveland commission merchant. By April, 1858, he had saved enough to start his own firm in partnership with another young man. When the Civil War broke out, Rockefeller believed his responsibilities to his business and family excused him from joining the Army. Wartime demand for commodities produced substantial profits for the partnership, and Rockefeller, looking for investment opportunities, was attracted by the oil industry, which was expanding rapidly after the 1859 discovery of oil in western Pennsylvania. In 1863, he joined a partnership to build a refinery in Cleveland producing illuminating oil, or kerosene. By 1870, when Rockefeller’s various oil investments were incorporated as the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, with Rockefeller as president holding one-quarter of the stock, he controlled the largest and most efficient refinery in Cleveland.
The early oil industry suffered from a rapid alternation of booms and busts. Word about high profits enticed newcomers to build refineries or drill for oil, but the rapid increase in production drove prices down, bankrupting many. This process reduced supplies, leading to higher prices and increased profits, encouraging new entries into the industry and, consequently, a repetition of the previous cycle. Rockefeller’s refineries, where he installed the most efficient technology and vigilantly cut costs, could ride out the low-price periods that destroyed many of his competitors, but the uncertainty and loss of profits irritated him. Chernow stresses that Rockefeller, the most successful capitalist of his day, did not believe in free markets and competition but looked for ways to control the fluctuating business cycle. His opportunity came when Tom Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, asked him to join the South Improvement Company.
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