Titan, by Ron Chernow

The definitive biography of John D. Rockefeller was published in 1998. I was in college then, and I took a history course that spanned the robber baron era, when villainous tycoons got over on the public through various shady dealings until America was saved by President Teddy Roosevelt and his trust-busting. At least, that’s the universally-agreed-upon version of the story, but what Chernow reveals in Titan about Rockefeller is much more fascinating and multi-dimensional in this masterpiece biography. I would have been better served skipping that dreadfully dull class to read this book. Rockefeller committed dastardly acts, but he’s not the mustache-twirling villain history has made him out to be.

John D. Rockefeller is remembered today as a ruthless businessman, and also as a major philanthropist, which is apropos. He was both godly and amoral, a man of devout religious beliefs who absolutely crushed his competition by any means necessary.

It was his faith that both drove and justified his ruthless business practices. Rockefeller was religious in a way that people aren’t religious anymore—refusing to attend parties or seemingly any gathering where alcohol was served (echoes of Mike Pence), attending mass every week, teaching Sunday school, making large donations to his church, and more. By all accounts, even though he was possibly the most powerful man in the world, he never stepped out on his wife, drank, or gambled. He lived a clean and godly life.

Having such a deep sense of spiritual mission—and such a healthy lifestyle (no drinking, no smoking, no staying up late)—fueled him. He had a religious fervor, and his belief in god and salvation extended beyond religion and into business. It turns out that constancy is a transferrable skill. (Note: add constancy to my LinkedIn skills.)

“He steeled himself to persevere, subordinating his every impulse to the profit motive, working to master truly unruly emotions and striving for an almost Buddhist detachment from his own appetites and passions.”

How did John D. Rockefeller become the richest man in the world? The answer was: God. Subordination to the lord, and subordination to the growth of Standard Oil. God wanted him to make a lot of money, and his devout, unbending faith in his own righteous destiny (in addition to world-class accounting skills) was his greatest asset to the lord and oil.

“John D. regarded God as an ally, a sort of honorary shareholder of Standard Oil who had richly blessed his fortunes.”

The book reveals some truths that my old textbooks did not. While Rockefeller is often accused of being everything that is wrong with capitalism, in reality he scorned the free markets that were held in esteem by the likes of Adam Smith. Rockefeller was more a fan of “cooperation”—provided it was always Standard Oil dictating the terms. The oil business was precarious in its infancy, “forged in a desperate spirit of self-preservation,” and one can see why Rockefeller preferred a smooth, profitable status quo over rollicking and destructive competition. Still, his firm either bought out the competition or annihilated it visibly or invisibly, leaving just enough competition in the market to give the impression that market competition existed, leaving behind kind of a Potemkin market.

To Chernow’s credit he casts his judgment on Rockefeller from a market point of view, as he should, because Rockefeller dominated the energy market for decades, and the free market was the source of his wealth and power.

“Standard Oil taught the American people an important but paradoxical lesson: Free markets, if left completely to their own devices, can wind up terribly unfree.”

By looking at Rockefeller as a businessman in a market economy, as opposed to evil incarnate, Chernow offers up the deepest possible criticism. Libertarian commentators often point out (and get no credit for doing so) that the fiercest opponents to free-market capitalism are often businessmen. As someone who clearly would not disagree with that assertion, Chernow compared the 19th century’s most successful businessman to Karl Marx.

“Like the Marxists, he believed that the competitive free-for-all eventually gave way to monopoly and that large industrial-planning units were the most sensible way to manage an economy.”

The capitalist as a Marxist—another dichotomy, like the saint and the sinner. It’s not a shocking split when you consider the Christian desire to prostrate oneself before a greater power, which communism also demands, though to a secular power. There’s a consistency to the business tycoon’s seeming contradictions.

I was drawn to this book because Rockefeller is from Cleveland, and I hoped to learn something about my hometown, and one of the men who built it—giving it not only Standard Oil, but donating money and/or land to Euclid Avenue Baptist Church, Alta House in Little Italy, Western Reserve University, the Case School of Applied Sciences, the Cleveland Orchestra, Rockefeller Park, and Forest Hill Park. Rockefeller founded his oil company in Cleveland because of its proximity to western Pennsylvania’s oil fields, and because Cleveland was the hub of so many transportation networks (the Erie Canal, Lake Erie, the railroads), which gave him leverage to negotiate favorable transportation rates. The Pittsburgh-Cleveland rivalry dates back to Rockefeller, with Standard Oil using the railroads to crush Pittsburgh’s refineries so that they could not compete with Cleveland’s. (The Steelers have since meted out decades of revenge.)

It was Standard Oil’s rebate deals with the railroads (receiving discounts that other refiners did not) that tarnished Rockefeller’s reputation and led pioneering journalists like Ida Tarbell and a president of the United States (Teddy Roosevelt) to persecute him for his alleged crimes. Chernow, in trademark fairness, writes:

“So were Ida Tarbell and other detractors justified in tarring Rockefeller’s whole career based on railroad rebates? Unfortunately, the controversy was played out in a gray area of ethics and the law that makes a definitive answer impossible. From a strictly economic standpoint Rockefeller rested on solid ground when he insisted that bulk shippers deserved a discount.”

That’s not a fashionable view, but considering the evidence, it is a fair one.

In his second act, as a philanthropist, Rockefeller put his unmatched talent for industrial organization to good use, doling out his massive fortune to establish colleges, help African-Americans, and push medical care to new heights. By all accounts he did much good with his billions, absorbing the world’s thirst for kerosene, oil, and gasoline like a sponge, and returning that money to the public in the form of world-class institutions of higher learning and medicine that would become the envy of every other country on earth. His commercial products, while never celebrated, provided countless jobs (to this day), illuminated businesses and homes, and gave the individual American a newfound mobility.

“His good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad. Seldom has history produced such a contradictory figure. We are almost forced to posit, in helpless confusion, at least two Rockefellers: the good, religious man, and the renegade businessman, driven by baser motives. Complicating this puzzle is the fact that Rockefeller experienced no sense of discontinuity as he passed from being the brains of Standard Oil to being the monarch of a charitable empire.”

Rockefeller was, Chernow writes, “an implausible blend of sin and sanctity.”

Perhaps you need to be, in order to achieve such towering heights.

@joedonatelli

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Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
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