By Ron Chernow

Thank heaven for Ron Chernow.

Just as I had all but given up on the genre of biography (home of the learned and soon to be remaindered doorstop), the award-winning historian of American business comes through to save the day.

I wonder if there has ever been a biography this good written about such a profoundly uninteresting person. Certainly there was very little, aside from the money, that was remarkable about John D. Rockefeller. He was not a great thinker, remained disengaged from politics and public life, and failed even to take a mistress. A shrewd and capable man indeed, but that’s about as far as it went.

What makes Rockefeller’s story interesting, and his life worth reading about, lies in what he symbolized. Rockefeller was not just an American businessman, he was the American businessman: the “archetype of capitalism,” emblem of both greed and enlightenment, father of the modern corporation, and patriarch of a political and business dynasty. A devout Baptist, he was the incarnation of Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic, a man whose personal philosophy was a “perfect fusion of capitalism and Christianity.”

This complex “amalgam of godliness and greed” was not hypocrisy. Rockefeller honestly believed that his becoming the richest man in the world was a blessing upon all mankind. Contradictions like these defined him.

He was, in turn, compassionate and cunning, righteous and ruthless. One of America’s greatest philanthropists, he could also be brutally authoritarian. His support of the bloody suppression of the Homestead strike was indicative of an anti-union bias that would later bear fruit in his son’s callous handling of the Ludlow Massacre.

Chernow’s history has an added interest because of the way Rockefeller’s career marched “in perfect lockstep with the progress of American business history.” (And covered so much of it. He died in 1937 at the age of 97.)

Rockefeller’s story is the story of America: from the development of the mid-West, through the boom years of the Civil War and Gilded Age, to the rise of the giant trusts and their muckraking nemeses.

Like any good capitalist, Rockefeller despised free enterprise almost as much as he distrusted the government. He saw competition as inefficient and destructive. His alternative was what he called co-operative capitalism – what his critics called monopoly. His Standard Oil (a.k.a., “the Octopus”) at one time controlled nearly 90 per cent of the oil produced in America. It gained such dominance through conduct that was often shady, collusive, immoral, and, in the final judgment of the Supreme Court, illegal.

But despite the legal victories of the trustbusters in the battle to break up Standard Oil, Rockefeller was content that his vision of corporate co-operation had won the war. And he was right.

Throughout Titan, Chernow helpfully translates Rockefeller’s wealth into current dollars. The results are surprising. Even after taking the effects of inflation and his far greater philanthropy into account, Rockefeller’s wealth only comes to half that of a modern titan like Bill Gates.

The concentration of corporate power and wealth in America, along with the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots, has continued apace. Rockefeller’s story, so symbolic of the history of American business, still has a lot to say about America today.

Review first published June 27, 1998.


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