Commentary Magazine


Titan by Ron Chernow

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
by Ron Chernow
Random House. 778 pp. $30.00

In March 1905, Reverend Washington Gladden, a Congregational minister in Columbus, Ohio, denounced from the pulpit a $100,000 gift his denomination had recently received from John D. Rockefeller, Sr. The donation, Gladden declared, was “tainted money,” the fruit of “the most relentless rapacity known to modern commercial history.”

That Rockefeller’s money should be greeted with suspicion was not surprising. At the time, he was not only the wealthiest but probably the most despised figure in American life, whose tactics in creating the Standard Oil Company were being exposed monthly in the pages of McClure’s magazine by the muckraking journalist Ida M. Tarbell. Mothers in Pennsylvania’s oil towns, far from invoking his rags-to-riches story as an example to emulate, warned their children that if they did not behave, Rockefeller would snatch them.

Yet even as ministers, journalists, and politicians assailed the practices by which Rockefeller built his fortune, he went on working diligently and intelligently at giving it away. Long before Tarbell’s exposés, he had founded the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute, a pioneering biomedical research laboratory. Shortly afterward, he would establish the Rockefeller Foundation, the prototype for today’s large grant-making organizations. Throughout his life, innumerable religious bodies were also sustained by his money, whatever the leaders of these bodies may have thought about how it had been earned.

In writing Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., an absorbing biography of the preeminent industrialist of the Gilded Age, Ron Chernow sets out to explain how a person supposedly so underhanded and ruthless in acquiring riches could be so generous and far-sighted in the realm of philanthropy. The answer offered by other students of Rockefeller is that he was engaged in a carefully contrived effort to win public approval. Chernow’s contribution, in part, is to offer a more interesting and persuasive explanation; he shows that in Rockefeller’s case, both the acquisitive and the charitable impulses grew out of precisely the same familial and social roots.

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Rockefeller’s father, it turns out, was a colorful “flimflam man” and bigamist who bequeathed to his son a penchant for bold schemes, but who also prompted a lifelong craving for respectability. (For years, Rockefeller even sought to conceal his father’s existence.) His long-suffering mother, to whom he was devoted, instilled in the boy a sense of altruism, reinforced later by his successful if austere marriage to Laura Spelman, an ardent churchgoer from a family much engaged in 19th-century social concerns. Rockefeller’s closest advisers, such as the one-time Baptist minister Frederick T. Gates, who guided his major philanthropies, likewise exposed the industrialist to a world far removed from the rough-and-tumble of the oil business.

Knowing about these relationships is useful, but it tells us more about the warring impulses in Rockefeller’s character than about how he managed to reconcile them. And reconcile them he did: if he had been merely engaged in a public-relations campaign, it would surely have been the most sustained, extensive, and costly ever mounted. As Chernow reports, Rockefeller’s involvement with his philanthropic projects consumed virtually the last 40 years of his life.

The key to the puzzle, Chernow convincingly shows, is that, as an industrialist, Rockefeller was inspired by religious doctrine to view oil as a divine gift whose production and distribution had to be properly organized—when necessary, by slighting the laws—if it were to be made to yield its value. By the same token, he saw the vast sums of money he accumulated in the oil business as another heavenly blessing that he had a duty to use wisely, by building institutions whose scale and efficiency would make them (exactly as in the case of Standard Oil) dominant in their fields. Thus, according to Chernow, Rockefeller regarded his business and philanthropic careers as closely related activities, grounded in a common outlook and dependent on similar methods.

The idea that generosity could be employed to offset a reputation for greed and deviousness seems hardly to have occurred to Rockefeller, in part because he never accepted his detractors’ views of his business life. When his money was decried as “tainted,” his reaction, observes Chernow, partook more of weary acceptance than of anger or despair. Moreover, though he played an active role in his major philanthropic projects, he was unusually reticent about taking public credit for them. It was several years after he set up the University of Chicago that he even set foot on campus. To obtain a federal charter for his foundation, he was willing to cede control to a board appointed by public officials and university presidents. For Rockefeller, apparently, giving away his fortune productively, like making his fortune efficiently, was reward enough.

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Although Chernow offers a generally admiring and even a laudatory portrait of his subject, he is by no means oblivious to his flaws, including his problematic relations with his children. Nor does he accept at face value Rockefeller’s own justifications for some of his conduct. For all its business success, Standard Oil, Chernow judges, behaved in ways that did indeed warrant public sanction and regulation. And while Rockefeller’s philanthropies were ambitious and progressive for their era, they can be faulted, in Chernow’s view, for shying away from anything too controversial, like social and economic reform.

Such criticisms have been aired copiously in other biographies of Rockefeller, and Titan neither dwells on them nor assesses the various rebuttals that have been offered to them. What it does refute, and very compellingly, is today’s increasingly fashionable notion that those who have amassed great wealth are by definition unfit to give it away intelligently.

In recent years, as foundations and other charitable bodies have come to be staffed by philanthropic “professionals,” the intentions of those who provided the money in the first place have tended to recede steadily in importance. Insofar as this trend reflects a need to rely on expertise in dealing with complex or long-term problems, it is by no means undesirable. Indeed, the Rockefeller Foundation itself partly owed its early success to its acknowledgment of this reality. But in many cases, those who staff philanthropic institutions today have come to believe that the outlook and skills conducive to making money on a vast scale are inconsistent with—or may even, to use that old term, “taint”—the practice of enlightened giving. Rockefeller’s dual careers show not only that this is not inevitably so, but that the creative powers of a successful businessman can themselves lead to extraordinarily creative acts of philanthropy.

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Can we expect similar philanthropic creativity from today’s “robber barons,” like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett? Clearly, the sense of religious obligation that informed Rockefeller’s giving is much weaker now for some (though by no means all) of the super-rich. Today’s titans are also likely to be closer to the cultural mainstream—and its faddish enthusiasms—than the isolated if always self-confident Rockefeller. At the same time, a craving for personal publicity—witness Ted Turner’s donation of a billion dollars to the UN—has become much more important in the philanthropic calculus than the mere achievement of enduring and beneficent results.

But the biggest difference between then and now probably lies elsewhere. Having been led to believe that business and philanthropy cannot mix, or that the former will contaminate the latter, too many of today’s successful entrepreneurs seem inclined to leave most of the philanthropic decisions to their spouses and children, or to let others take care of the matter, preferably after their demise. To judge from Ron Chernow’s engaging biography of a man who excelled at making money and excelled at giving it away, much good may thereby go undone.

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About the Author

Leslie Lenkowsky is professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University.




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