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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!
As this conversation, or any like it, will reveal, two remarkable men can so totally misunderstand each other that neither sees his companion’s remarkable traits. Who is to say that a man is cultivated, literate, or interesting, until we agree on definitions of cultivation, literacy, and interest? The Nobel prize winner in science at Berkeley may think the Harvard classicist abysmally dull and uneducated; a sports editor of the New York Times may be bored stiff by the prospect of meeting a Chicago sociologist at dinner. What Charles Lamb called “imperfect sympathies” inevitably play a part in assessments of cultivation, or manners.