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“A Set of Mere Money-Getters”?
Were the great business tycoons of the nineteenth century only that? A distinguished historian says no—most emphatically
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
CHARLES FRANCIS ADAMS [ short but military-looking ]: I have heard much of you. Mr. Rockefeller, from my friend James Ford Rhodes, who thinks you a man of remarkable discernment and power. Did you know that Mr. Rhodes is working on a large history of the Civil War?
JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER [ quiet and reserved, but briskly incisive ]: I knew Mr. Rhodes well when lie was in the iron ore and lake shipping business in Cleveland, and admired his abilities. Since he went cast I have not kept in touch with his activities. Is he really wise in taking up history?
MR. ADAMS [ seeing he must try a new tack ]: The year just past. 1889. was one of unusual interest. Everyone will agree that its most important event was the replacement of President Cleveland by President-elect Harrison. For myself, I regard that as unfortunate; I had hoped to see Grover Cleveland carry on his reforms and reduce the tariff.
MR. ROCKEFELLER : I know that you are a mugwump, Mr. Adams. Time will show whether the change is unfortunate. But I do not agree that this was the most important event of the year. For myself, I think that the sudden reappearance of Russia as a tremendous exporter of petroleum, and a rival threatening our American oil industry in half the markets of the world, was the most important event of the year. When I think of her vast extent, her resources, and her concentrated power, I dread Russia.
MR. ADAMS : Russia seems far away to me, and whatever her inroads in the oil market, I think we can leave her to her European neighbors. What I fear is a period of reaction here at home. When I was young, my father was a political reformer, and I knew such men as Charles Sumner and William H. Seward well. Do you take an interest in politics, Mr. Rockefeller?
MR. ROCKEFELLER [ showing irritation ]: The politician I know best is Mark Hanna. He and I were in Cleveland High School together, and we became fast friends. Once, when a bigger boy tried to bully me, Mark was on him like a tiger, and gave him the thrashing of his life. Mark is a practical man, and knows business interests well. But I dare say you would not call him a reformer, Mr. Adams?
MR. ADAMS [ curtly ]: Far from it. A very practical man indeed. [Sees a new tack is needed again.] You must have been in the Cleveland high school about the time I was in a Boston secondary school. I went on to Harvard—a family tradition. And you?
MR. ROCKEFELLER [ crisply ]: Went into business. I wished to go to college, but there was no time and no money—much less family tradition. However, I have given a great deal of attention this last year to establishing a new university.
MR. ADAMS : A new university? Well, the East needs some new universities, well officered, nondenominational, with money behind them.
MR. ROCKEFELLER [ himself curt ]: This will be in the West—Chicago. And it will be Baptist—the Baptist Educational Board is advising me.
MR. ADAMS [ horrified ]: Chicago? And a Baptist backing?
MR. ROCKEFELLER [ decisively ]: Yes, Chicago, out by the stockyards. And Baptist, with a Baptist minister, William Rainey Harper, for president; a truly great educator.
MR. ADAMS [ wearily trying a third tack ]: Do you happen to have read William Dean Howells’ latest novel? I enjoyed his Rise of Silas Lapham . A wonderful picture of one of our business vulgarians [ checks himself ] business leaders, with a special ethical problem.
MR. ROCKEFELLER [ defensively ]: I have scant time for novels, Mr. Adams. In fact, the last novel I read was Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur . A wonderful book; I couldn’t put it down. Is Howells’ as gripping as that?
PORTER [ entering center ]: Your trains are almost due, gentlemen.
ADAMS [ exit right ]: The dullest, most ignorant person I evermet!
ROCKEFELLER [ exit left ]: The slowest, stupidest fellow I’ve seen in years!