John D. Rockefeller: A Character Study
Ida M. Tarbell
Author of "The History of the Standard Oil Company," "Life of Lincoln," ETC.
Illustrated with Portraits
WHEN the late Senator Hanna said of John D. Rockefeller, "Money mad, money mad, sane in every other respect but money mad," he gave the true biographic clue to the man's character. No candid study of his career can lead to the conclusion that he is a victim of perhaps the ugliest, the least reasonable of all passions, that for money, money as an end – a victim, for the passion has mastered all other ambitions and cravings – has made itself supreme and is in his eyes worthy of what it has cost him.
It is not a pleasant picture that such a reflection arouses – not the portrait of a gentleman one would like to know – this money-maniac secretly, patiently, eternally plotting how he way add to his wealth. Nor is the man himself pleasanter to look upon. Study the photograph on page 388; the last taken of Mr. Rockefeller, study George Varian's powerful sketch from life made in 1903 and say if it be worth the while to be the richest man in the world at the cost these portraits show. Concentration; craftiness, cruelty, and something indefinably repulsive are in them. The photograph reveals nothing more. Mr. Varian's, sketch is vastly more interesting for it suggests, besides both power and pathos and no one can look long on Mr. Rockefeller without feeling these qualities.
The impression he makes on one who sees him for the first time is overwhelming. Brought face to face with Mr. Rockefeller unexpectedly, and not knowing him, the writer's immediate thought was "this is the oldest man in the world – a living mummy.” But there is no sense of feebleness with the sense of age; indeed there is one of terrific power. The disease which in the last three or four years has swept Mr. Rockefeller’s head bare of hair, stripped away even eyelashes and eyebrows, has revealed all the strength of his great head. Mr. Rockefeller is a big man, not overly tall but large with powerful shoulders and a neck like that of a bull. The head is wide and deep and disproportionately high, with curious bumps made more conspicuous by the tightly drawn, dry, naked skin. The interest of the big face lies in the eyes and mouth. Eyes more useful for a man of Mr. Rockefeller's practices could hardly be conceived. They are small and intent and steady and they are as expressionless as the wall. They see everything and reveal nothing. It is not a shifty eye – not a cruel or leering one. It is something vastly more to be feared – a blank eye, looking through and through things, and telling nothing of what they found on the way.
But if eyes say nothing the mouth tells much. Its former mask, the full mustache Mr. Rockefeller has always worn, is now completely gone. Indeed the greatest loss Rockefeller sustained when his hair went was that it revealed his mouth. It is only a slit – the lips are quite lost, as if by eternal grinding together of the teeth – teeth set on something he would have. It is at once the cruelest feature of his face – this mouth – the cruelest and the most pathetic, for the hard, close-set line slants downward at the corners, giving a look of age and sadness. The downward droop is emphasized by deep vertical furrows running down each side of his nose. Mr. Rockefeller may have made himself the richest man in the world, but he has paid. Nothing but paying ever ploughs such lines in a man's face, ever sets his lips to such a melancholy angle.
The big cheeks are puffy, bulging unpleasantly under the eyes, and the skin which covers them has a curiously unhealthy pallor. It is this puffiness, this unclean flesh, which repels, as the thin slit of a mouth terrifies. To the whole face a certain distinction is lent by the nose which is small and fine, rising like a thorn from between the heavy cheeks – a nose whose nostrils might vibrate were not the man so much the master of his features.
All together it is a strange and powerful head, and one cannot look on it and ever forget it. It is a head which has suggested many unpleasant comparisons and all of them with their savor of truth – all of them comprehensible. One who knows what it cost to build Mr. Rockefeller's fortune understands why a man who had done business with him shuddered when he looked at Mr. Varian's sketch and said, "An Indian with a tomahawk – an Indian with a tomahawk”– understands Jules Harets description in one of his American letters: “Under his silk skull-cap he seems like an old monk of the Inquisition such as one sees in the Spanish picture galleries” – understands why a man of imagination characterized him as “dead, like a devil-fish,” and recalled Victor Hugo’s famous comparison, “A sleeve with a fist sowed up inside.”
But when one has counted the cost of making Mr. Rockefeller's fortune – the cost to the public, to his friends, and foes, and to himself, he has not said all. There is, if you please, another Mr. Rockefeller – the anti-thesis of the man we have been studying – a modest, retiring gentleman, loving his home and church and friends and spending his leisure in charity and golf. For forty years, this other Mr. Rockefeller has been a model helpmate for the one whose acquaintance we have made. It is not easy to learn much of this other man, for, there is probably not a public character in the United States whose private life is more completely concealed than that of John D. Rockefeller. The same cloak is drawn over his business life and up to this time the law has never forced back the cloak as it has repeatedly from his business life. Mr. Rockefeller gives the world none of the chances to study him which most men of importance do. The club never sees him. He is almost never numbered among the banqueters at great celebrations. He never appears on the platform where men of public importance gather to discuss public questions or stimulate to action in public causes. His opinions on great issues are never quoted; that is, John D. Rockefeller has no part in that vital and important part of a citizen's duty which consists in meeting his fellows and by intimate and personal intercourse keeping in contact with the ambitions and ideals of his times. Now, as thirty-five years ago when Mr. Rockefeller's business virtues were celebrated in "Cleveland Past and Present," he avoids all honorary positions that cost time.
For several years Mr. Rockefeller has spent practically all of the year at one or another of his three homes – Forest Hill, a country place near Cleveland, Ohio, where he lives from May until October; his New York town house on Fifty-fourth Street or his great estate at Pocantico Hills, near Tarrytown-on-the-Hudson. It is fair to judge something of a man's character from his homes particularly when the man is one who is freed from the necessity of considering cost in building.
Mr. Rockefeller's homes force several reflections on one. Certainly they show his cult of the unpretentious. Not one of the three houses he occupies has any claims to rank among the notable homes of the country. They are all unpretending even to the point of being conspicuous. Not only that, they show him to have no pleasure in noble architecture, to appreciate nothing of the beauty of fine lines and decorations.
Mr. Rockefeller’s favorite home, the house at Forest Hill, is a monument of cheap ugliness, a great modern structure built in the first place as a sanitarium, it is amazing that anyone not compelled to do so should live in its shadow. His city house is without distinction, and there has never been an appropriate mansion at Pocantico Hills.
But if Mr. Rockefeller knows nothing
or at least cares nothing for beauty in buildings, he has the love of
noble land. At Forest Hill the park of over four hundred acres is one
of great loveliness – rolling wooded hills, shady ravines, fine
fields with splendid trees – the whole cared for with more than
intelligence. There is something like affection gone into the making of
this beautiful spot. His estate at Pocantico Hills beyond Tarrytown shows
the same fine taste for broad fields and noble trees and great out-look.
Taking it all in all, however, there
is little doubt that Mr. Rockefeller’s reason for playing gold is
that he may live longer in order to make more money. “He has two
ambitions” a life-long intimate of Mr. Rockefeller once said, “to
be very old and to be very rich." He is sixty-six years old now.
He worked for many years with an intensity which long ago ruined his digestion.
To live and complete his ambition he was obliged to exercise much, and
so we have Mr. Rockefeller spending a portion of every day in patiently
following a ball that he may be very old and very rich.
Mr. Rockefeller's modestly administered households have never been social centers of importance. Because of parsimony or for some other reason it is certain that Mr. Rockefeller has never exercised that broad hospitality which society has a right to expect of its leading citizens as it has a right to expect their services in efforts for social and political betterment. Beyond his intimate personal circle and his church and charity associates, Mr. Rockefeller seems to have no social life. Here is a man who has completed a commercial structure which he claims is a benefaction to the country – has worked out an organization which spreads literally all over the earth and whose representatives in many foreign lands are more influential, it is said, than the representatives of the United States; but this man has nothing to do with his peers in influence and achievement.
He only meets them when there is business in it! Can it be that Mr. Rockefeller prefers not to meet his peers except when he has a use for them. Or does he have an uneasy feeling that after all he is not the peer of the men of achievement who do their work in the light and seek in their leisure stimulus and companionship among their fellows. "He always begs my pardon when he starts to speak," said an eminent gentleman at one time thrown for days into Mr. Rockefeller's society. Can it be Mr. Rockefeller recognizes dimly in these men of the world, among whom, from his position, we should expect him to associates, certain ethical and intellectual qualities he does not possess?
Does Mr. Rockefeller feel vaguely that he is not their equal, that despite all his riches he is a crippled creature, and does he for this reason shrink from their open hospitality which must ever remain one of the obligations as it is one of the privileges of great wealth? Is it for this reason he apologizes before addressing his peers? It may be so. It may be, too, that this vague consciousness that he is an inferior creature, bringing him face to face with free, aspiring, achieving fellows, has helped bring the lines of pathos to his face.
Or the explanation may be simpler – and less appealing. It is quite possible, we may even say quite probable, that Mr. Rockefeller no more recognizes an obligation of hospitality towards society, no more feels a need of the society of his peers than in business he recognizes the obligation to play fair or the need to preserve the respect of his fellows,
The only public place in which Mr. Rockefeller appears with any regularity is at the services of a Baptist church in the community where he happens to be living. He is particularly devoted to the services of the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church of Cleveland, and rarely from May to October does he miss the Sunday meetings, and he always appears at the annual Sunday school picnic. Here he seems to be at his freest; here he even makes little speeches on occasions. And yet to one who from a pew watches Mr. Rockefeller in the bosom of his church, it seems as if the Sunday service can be nothing but an ordeal. The writer was once present at the annual October gathering in Mr. Rockefeller's Cleveland church where he says goodbye for the season, to the Sunday school of which he is the honorary superintendent. He sat through the session of Sunday school, his back to the wall (they say in Cleveland Mr. Rockefeller always sits with his back to the wall when it is possible. So many things can happen behind one's back in an assembly) incessantly peering into the faces of those before him. No child in the assembly was so uneasy. Throughout the church service which followed, this same terrible restlessness agitated him. He sat bent forward in his pew, for a moment, his eyes intent on the speaker, then with a start he looked to his right searching the faces he could see, craning his neck to look backward. Then his eyes would turn again to the speaker. But not to stay there. A few moments later he was searching the aisles to his left, craning again to see behind him. Those who have observed Mr. Rockefeller in church over a long period of years say that he has shown this uneasiness for years. Unconscious habit, perhaps. Fear, fear of the off-repeated threats of the multitude of sufferers from the wheels of the cars of progress he has rolled across the country, so many a man who knows him will say. If does not matter what it is. It is pitiful, so pitiful, that one cannot watch John Rockefeller sit through a church service and ever cease to feel that he is one of he saddest objects in the world. For what good this undoubted power of achievement, for what good this towering wealth, if one must be forever peering to what is behind!
And yet Mr. Rockefeller is evidently pleased and satisfied in this "church home.” It is evident he likes the deferential faces, the hands outstretched apologetically the general obsequiousness. He likes to speak to the children, too, and does it in a modest way. His talks are the merest commonplace expressions he learned forty-years ago evidently, but they are uttered in a natural and rather agreeable voice, and with evident sincerity of feeling. The tenor of them is very like the following. In fact, many of the expressions he uses here are repeated again and again by him:
At the session of the Sunday school where the writer heard Mr. Rockefeller speak, he said, among other things:
It was curious to note how firm Mr. Rockefeller’s voice became when he began to talk of dividends. He was one speaking with authority. “You must put something in if you would take something out” he said, with the curious gesture of Mr. Varian’s sketch and as he said it we had the money-king in all his power and relentlessness. Indeed in all of Mr. Rockefeller’s speeches of which trustworthy reports are obtainable the only parts which are not merely platitudinous are those dealing in some way with money. Mr. Rockefeller himself was very modest about his speeches. One of the pleasantest tales we have of him is from a young reporter who had occasion to report on his Sunday school talks once. It gives a side of Mr. Rockefeller which few people see:
Devoted as he is to his church, Mr. Rockefeller makes much more impression by his charities which are indeed one expression of his religion. Mr. Rockefeller has always held that methodical giving was a part of a Christian's duty. Again and again he has stated this view in his Sunday school talks. “I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can fairly and honestly;" he told young men one day, "to keep all you can and to give away all you can." Will they (the people of the future) say of us, we accumulated wealth” he remarked in a little Cleveland address a few years ago: "No, that will all be forgotten. They will want to know what we did with it. Did we spend it for the benefit of our fellow man? Of that we ought to think” Such expression are often on his tongue They are but reflections of his practice of fifty years. Never since the time when he was accustomed to enter in “Ledger A” “10 cents for foreign missions,” 12 cents for Five Point Missions,” has he failed in methodical giving. It is evident that his giving is governed by some theory of the percent due to the Lord, though it is evident that he never has gone as high as ten percent! Whatever the percentage he has decided on he distributes it cautiously and reverentially, and it is not probable that he often exceeds it, for those who have dealings with Mr. Rockefeller in charities frequently are met with the plea "I cannot afford it." The spirit in which he gives is one of plain, hard duty. It is an investment on which he has determined, an investment in the Kingdom of Heaven; and he means to get all possible out of it. He himself has stated his theory – "According as you put something in, the greater will be your dividends of salvation!"
In his earlier days Mr. Rockefeller and his family looked after his charities and it is said that his children are carefully trained to his own scientific methods of doing good. In later years his charities have become so extensive and the appeals to him so numerous that Mr. Rockefeller has been obliged to build up what may be called a Charity Bureau at 26 Broadway, for handling applications and disbursing funds.
The range of his giving is very wide. It may be said to begin with the distribution of Mr. Rockefeller's own cast-off clothing. There is a well-authenticated case, dating back only a few years, of a partly worn pair of shoes sent to a less fortunate friend with a personal note from Mr. Rockefeller. Nothing, nothing must be wasted in this matter of charity any more than in an oil refinery. Property is all sacred.To waste is wicked, and so whether if be a bequest of a million dollars or a pair of cast-off shoes it must all be put where its full value will be employed. “I have known Mr. Rockefeller to give away a hundred thousand dollars on a demand he believed worthy, and turn around and haggle over the price of a ton of coal," a life-long intimate said once.
There is no doubt that many of his
charities are personal and never known outside of his immediate circle.
There are three or four old ladies in Cleveland, friends of his youth,
to whom he gives an income. Unfortunate Baptist ministers, worn-out teachers
and missionaries in great numbers are helped by him, while the poor of
all grades receive much direct help. Of course he gives much to his church,
but he has never made any church the object of affectionate and lavish
giving. He seems never to have been willing to give more than what he
considered his share. One would imagine that Mr. Rockefeller would enjoy,
making of the Euclid Avenue Baptist church of Cleveland, which he has
so often declared to be the church of his heart – a temple of beauty
and splendor – a fit offering unto the Lord. One would imagine that
for a man of his professions there could be no greater happiness than
to build in Cleveland a noble structure, fill it with inspiring art, give
it great music and put into its pulpit a virile intellect; but Mr. Rockefeller
does not see it that way. He gives his proportion.
Mr. Rockefeller's private charities
and his gifts to the church must have aggregated to a very great sum in
the forty-five years that he has been giving so methodically, but it is
small compared with the money he has given for education and for medical
research. His chief object of interest is Chicago University, an institution
founded by John D. Rockefeller, according to the letter-heads of that
Besides this fifteen millions given to Chicago. Mr. Rockefeller has distributed some seven millions among other institutions, ranging from $25.000 to the William Jewell University to $1.375.000 to Barnard College. Mr. Rockefeller’s interest in medical work is almost as great as in education. The Rush Medical College has received $6.000.000 from him. His gift of $5.000.000 to Johns Hopkins Hospital to help it out of the embarrassment caused by the Baltimore fire is still fresh in mind. He has given several hundred thousand to the Y.M.C.A. He has given the Baptist Missionary Society about one million.
It has been computed that Mr. Rockefeller’s entire gifts, public and private charities, have amounted to about $36.000.000. It would be fair to call the aggregate $40.000.000, and that would probably do Mr. Rockefeller full justice. It is not a great sum considering Mr. Rockefellers vast income. Probably his dividends from the Standard Oil Company alone in the last three years would cover it. And the Standard Oil Company is only one of Mr. Rockefeller's dividend earners.
It is quite probable that the man would give more money if he could give it, without doing, from his point of view, more harm than good. He hates waste and shiftlessness. He must have seen long ago that money given freely is more often than not administered carelessly. He must have seen how charity to individuals often engenders dependence; ruins self-reliance. He must have come to understand that lavish giving is a terrible social menace, injuring the self respect of recipients, fostering greed for more. He must have learned that one of the most difficult things in this world is to give so that it will not corrupt and weaken. It is generally said by Mr. Rockefeller’s friends that it is such consideration as well as his abhorrence of waste that has led him to establish the “Charity Bureau” at 26 Broadway which investigates before giving, and which in many cases audits annually the accounts of institutions which have taken his money.
If Mr. Rockefeller thinks on these things and the care with which he scrutinizes his gifts, would lead one to think he does, may he not come to realize finally the utter impossibility of justifying by charity the injustice which such an accumulation as his has cost? Today he can not give away more than a pittance of his great total income without doing harm. In a few years he will die and the colossus he has erected will be left to others to administer. Can they do better than he has done? Impossible. May not Mr. Rockefeller come to see finally that the injustice and wrong it takes to build such a fortune as his are only equaled by the weakened manhood and the stimulated greed engendered in its spending? Is it too much to hope that Mr. Rockefeller may finally understand how much more good he would have done the world if, thirty-five years ago, he had turned his great ability to bringing order with justice into the industry in which he was the leader, instead of bringing order with injustice. How many more men he would have helped if he had set his face towards equalizing opportunities instead of restricting them. Is it too much to hope that even Mr. Rockefeller will see, at last, that what we need in society is not charity but fair play, and that he who attempts to substitute the one for the other handles a sword which deals fatal blows in two directions. It may even be that it is because Mr. Rockefeller has begun to see vaguely that he will never be able to give away enough to drown the wrong he has done that his face has taken its terrible pathos.
Here then there is the other Mr. Rockefeller as the world sees him, a quiet, modest church-going gentleman, devoted to Sunday school picnics, golf, and wheeling, whose evenings are never spent in anything more exciting than a game of Numerico washed down by a glass of cider, whose chief occupation, outside of business, is giving away as much money as he can without its doing more harm than good, whose chief pleasure is in fine fields and trees, in flowers and gardening, whose smile is friendly for young and old, who welcomes old friends, who adores his grandchildren, and who meets criticism and misrepresentation by quoting the meek doggerel:
There is so much bad in the best of
It is a rare "other self." But how harmonize it with the Mr. Rockefeller the business world knows, the man with a mask and a steel grip, forever peering into hidden places for money, always more money; planning in secret to wrest it even from his friends, never forgetting, never resting, never satisfied. Is the amiable Mr. Rockefeller a foil for the man before whom the public writhes? Does Mr. Rockefeller know that modesty, benevolence, and piety are the tricks which deceive the most people the longest time? Does Mr. Rockefeller know that, when he patiently point how gentle, charitable, and devoted he is, and asks how can it be that a man who is all this can do a business wrong, more people will hesitate and keep silent than before any other face he could present. It is supposing a great knowledge of human nature and a still greater power as an actor so to explain Mr. Rockefeller, but that it is a plausible explanation cannot be denied.
Or is Mr. Rockefeller true to himself in both roles? Does he believe that money is a paramount duty, a sort of higher law justifying law-breaking, falsehood and extortion? Does he believe that the good his gentler self can do by charity, and his wise bequests to hospitals and to colleges with the money thus obtained more than balances the harm its accumulation works? That is, does the end justify the means, in Mr. Rockefeller's opinion, so that he can, unflinchingly face his own record and say, “I am right." Is it the inner consciousness of his own righteousness that keeps him silent before a sneering public?
It may be so. Or it may be that Mr. Rockefeller is one of those double natures that puzzle the psychologist. A man whose soul is built like a ship in air-tight compartments – to use the familiar figure – one devoted to business, one to religion and charity, one to simple living and one to nobody knows what. But between these compartments there are no doors. The life that goes on in compartment one has no relation to compartment two, has no influence upon it. Each is a solitary unit. It is an uncanny explanation; but it may be the true one.
Hypocrite, intriguer, freak of nature, it is not for us to say. The point is that for the student interested in finding out what effect a certain career has on the public, Mr. Rockefeller is a hypocrite. The great public does not deal in nice psychological distinctions. It takes the facts at hand and goes straight to the evident conclusion. It says that this man has for forty years lent all the power of his great ability to perpetuating and elaborating a system of illegal and unjust discrimination by common carriers. He has done this in the face of moral sentiment, in the face of loudly expressed public opinion, in face of the law, in the face of the havoc his operations caused at very side. For forty years he has fought to prevent every attempt to regulate the wrongs the system wrought and when he failed to do so he has turned craft and skill to finding secret and devious ways of securing the privileges he desired. He has done more than any other person to fasten on this country the most serious interference with free individual development, which it suffers, an interference which today, the whole country is struggling vainly to strike off, which it is doubtful will be cured, so deep-seated and so subtle it is, except by revolutionary methods.
Not only this, he has fought the publicity in business which is obviously necessary to its safety, he has introduced into business a spy system of the most odious character. He has turned commerce from a peaceful pursuit to war, and honeycombed it with cruel and corrupt practice; turned competition from honorable emulation into cutthroat struggle. And the man who deliberately and persistently does these things calls his great organization a benediction, and points to his church-going and his charities as proof of his righteousness. To the man of straight forward nature the two will not tally. This he says, is supreme, cruel wrong-doing cloaked by religion. There is but one name for it – hypocrisy.
It is not only the man in the street who feels the hypocrisy of the case. It is the man in the school of business Mr. Rockefeller has created; the man in the train of obsequious followers his giving has collected. And what is the effect? Why, to make hypocrites of them – hypocrites or cynics! On all sides we hear the justification of the practices of this school by its deeds of charity. A few years ago we heard it in the very Senate of the United States when Senator Payne of Ohio under the shadow of the charge that his seat was bought by the money of the Standard Oil Company made in substance the defense that the Standard Oil Company could not have bought his seat, because a few year's before "no institution, no association, no combination in my district did more to bring about my defeat and went to so large an expense in money to accomplish it "– and having accused the company of using money in politics, practically justified them for whatever they might do by pleading: “they are very liberal in their philanthropic contributions to charity and benevolent works, and I venture the assertion that two gentlemen in that company have donated more money for philanthropic purposes than all the Republican members of the Senate put together.
Not long ago one of the most finished products of the Rockefeller Business School, when the question of investigating certain serious charges against a chief justice of the State of New York was up – charges which the honor of the Court demanded should be investigated – opposed the proposition and the basis of the proposition was Scriptural: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," a degradation of the noble doctrine of Christian charity which would be ludicrous if it were not so impious. But it is an interpretation of the doctrine frequent enough. On all sides we hear men deep in trickery and spoils quoting, "judge not, that ye be not judged." On all sides the pulpit makes this defense or keeps silent, which is equivalent. The same man who once in a moment of genuineness said to the writer, “I have been in business with John D. Rockefeller for thirty-five years, and he would do me of out of a dollar today – that is if he could do it honestly," defended Mr. Rockefeller's reputation as a hypocrite – which he acknowledged by saying, “But how often in this world a man's reputation and his real character are different – we have one eminent example the case of our Lord and Saviour." Cant? Not in the Rockefeller School of Business. It is the doctrine of the school.
There are happily plenty of men who follow the methods and practices of this school who either are too frank by nature or have too large a sense of humor to accept the doctrine of justification by Scriptural quotation. They say bluntly: “Business isn’t a Sunday school, and Sunday school teachings have nothing to do with it. Whatever is necessary to win we are going to do. We are not in business for our health, but are out for the dollars." And they scheme for rebates, and bribe legislatures for franchises, and shun their taxes, and water their stock, and unload worthless securities on the market, and support open swindling schemes with the sangfroid and frankness of South Sea pirates. The black flag openly flaunted is certainly less dangerous and less odious than a religious banner. But it is not reassuring to know that so large a number of our commercial leaders go about their daily buccaneering with their tongues in their cheeks and a defiant “What are you going to do about it" on their lips.
Rich indeed should be the return to the public for what it has cost to build up a fortune like Mr. Rockefeller's. But what has Mr. Rockefeller given the public in return for the code of business principles he has taught it, in return for the havoc their enforcement has cost, in return for the hypocrisy and cynicism he has fostered? A great business organization – one of the greatest the world has ever seen – a demonstration of the possibilities of combination. True, but to build his organization he was obliged to perpetuate and expand secretly, by force, bribery and trickery a vicious business system the country at large was striving to overthrow, and whose perpetuation and expansion has brought us into one of the most serious public situations since the Civil War. Has that paid?
Perfected methods of oil transportation, refining and marketing – yes, but these methods were not his invention. They were the invention of those who sought to live free of his domination, and which he seized by force and strategy when they had been proved to be valuable. Is it for the good of the commerce of the community that the men who possess the blood and courage of the pioneer or the brains of the inventor should be discouraged and suppressed by being deprived of a fair share of the profits of their labors ?
Cheap oil? Mr. Rockefeller's fundamental reason for forming his first combination was to keep up the price of oil. It has been forced down by the inventions and discoveries of his competitors. He has never lowered it a point if it could be avoided, and in times of public stress he has taken advantage of the very misery of the poor to demand higher prices.Nobody has yet forgotten the raising of the price of oil in the coal famine of 1902. Even the coal barons themselves in that winter combined to see that the poor of the great cities received their little bags of coal promptly and at reasonable prices and in preference to rich patrons. But the price of oil and the price of oil-stoves went up. Does it pay the public to trust the control of a great necessity of life to such a man? He has built hospitals and colleges and endowed schools. True, and those helped have become his open apologists; by taking what they call the "large view" or the "charitable view," or by deliberately shunning a considerationof the subject, quietly not seeing it a topic for discussion. Does it pay to have those who are entrusted with the very sources of our intellectual and moral life blinded or silenced to the ethical quality of the practices of our daily life. Will it pay our colleges to put over their doors the teaching of one of our present-day moralists, "Never discuss politics or religion if you would succeed."
He has led a life devoted to charity and the church. True. And the principles of the religion he professes are so antagonistic to the principles of the business he practices that the very world which emulates him has been turned into hypocrites and cynics under his tutelage. While, in the world which look on, charity itself has become hateful to many a man – a cloak to cover a multitude of sins. Others actually withdraw their bequests from institutions which accept his funds. (It has been stated on the best authority that three wills making bequests to one of our leading universities have been changed because this institution has accepted money from Mr. Rockefeller). Not only has charity been tainted by the hypocrisy of his life, the church itself has been polluted and many a man has turned away from its doors because of the servile support it gives to the men of whom Mr. Rockefeller is the most eminent type. Does all this pay?
There is no shirking the answer. It does not pay. Our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner for the kind of influence he exercises. From him we have received no impulse to public duty, only lessons in evading it for private greed; no stimulus to nobler ideals, only a lesson in the further deification of gold; no example of enlarged and noble living; only one of concealment and evasion; no impulse to free thinking, only a lesson in obscuring vital ethical issues by dressing them in the garbs of piety and generosity. None of those higher things which the public has a right to demand from the man to whom the public permits great power are returned to it by Mr. Rockefeller. For Mr. Rockefeller has none of these things to give. He has nothing but Money, and never was there a there a more striking example of the impotency of money! He has neither taste nor cultivation, ideals nor potent personality. He is not a great man, not a “human man.” He is a machine – a money machine – stripped by his overwhelming passion of greed of every quality which makes a man worthy of citizenship. He has not made good. He cannot make good. It is not in him. He has nothing the aspiring world needs. On the contrary, that for which he stands is a menace to our free development not only or chiefly our free development in commerce, but, vastly more important, our free development in citizenship and in morals.
Were Mr. Rockefeller the only one of his kind he would be curious, interesting, unpleasant, but in no way vital. For he would be but temporary – a puzzling and pitiful monstrosity fit for Lombroso. Were he the only one, there certainly would be no justification of the brutality inherent in such a study as this. But Mr. Rockefeller is not only one of his kind. He is simply the type preeminent in the public mind of the militant business man of the day. From bankers down to street venders we have in operation the code which he has worked out, so perfectly, and to which he has given the sanction of piety. And this code, so repugnant to the sense of fair play and so demoralizing to intellectual honesty, has worked its way into every activity of life; until with a growing element of the country success is the justification of any practice, until no price is too great to pay for winning. In commerce the “interest of the business” justifies breaking the law, bribing legislators, defrauding a competitor of his rights. In politics, winning the election justifies supporting an Addicks, breaking international laws; enduring slanders, bribing voters. In athletics you may break an opponent's collar-bone if it will win the game for your team. In church and college you may close your mouth to national demoralization if it will bring you endowments. On every side of us the Rockefeller practice of separating morals strictly from the business in hand is winning adherents and defenders. On every side it is ceasing to be "practical" to consider the ethical quality of a transaction which it is believed will contribute to success. On every side it is “indiscreet” “unkind, “bad form," to mention these unpleasant facts.
It is this threatening saturation of all forms of American life with commercial Machiavellism which forces a study of John D. Rockefeller on those interested in our ethical and intellectual tendencies. He symbolizes the thing – is, as far as we can see, the very essence of the thing. Admit him to be the unconscious victim of his time – the inevitable result of the qualities he inherited – or did not inherit – explain him as you will, justify him if you can, there still remains the fact so tragic for Mr. Rockefeller that he is the founder of a creed charged with poison.
With what weapon is society to meet the exponent of a corrupting creed but analysis, ruthless and unflinching. It is only the courage and thoroughness with which she has studied and labeled her own products that has ever helped her to improve these products.
Since the world began her progress
has been in proportion to her knowledge and her judgment of the men who
symbolized the influences of a period. History is but a museum of dissected
heroes, warriors, kings, philosophers, their records stripped bare, their
influences traced to their flowering.