Frederick T. Gates And John D. Rockefeller

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It could hardly have been a total surprise to Gates, then, when Rockefeller made a proposal epochal in the lives of both. The time was a March day in 1891; the place was Rockefeller’s office in the Standard Oil building at 26 Broadway. They had been conferring on university affairs. Gates rose to leave. “Sit down,” said Rockefeller. “I want to talk with you on another matter.” He was obviously harassed and worried. His gifts that year were destined to exceed half a million; for the next year, they would reach nearly a million and a half. His health, after twenty years of overwork, was badly impaired. Gates has reported his exact words:

“I am in trouble, Mr. Gates. The pressure of these appeals for gifts has become too great for endurance. I haven’t the time or strength, with all my heavy business responsibilities, to deal with these demands properly. I am so constituted as to be unable to give away money with any satisfaction until I have made the most careful inquiry as to the worthiness of the cause. These investigations are now taking more of my time and energy than the Standard Oil itself.”

At this time John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was a stripling; it would be two and a half years before he entered Brown University. Nor could the elder Rockefeller foresee that he would make philanthropy his lifework; on leaving college he might take up law or business. Rockefeller therefore went on to say that he must have a helper immediately.

“I think you are the man. I want you to come to New York and open an office here. You can aid me in my benefactions by taking interviews and inquiries, and reporting the results for action. What do you say?”

This speech had the ring of a heartfelt appeal. Gates had by now overcome his awe of Rockefeller. He always took the same attitude as William Rainey Harper: “No feudal relationship.” But he was touched by Rockefeller’s words; he had a vision of the great opportunities for bettering mankind which he might help Rockefeller to seize; and he was superbly confident of his capacity to do the work. He was aware, of course, that he would have to say a hundred “Noes” to every “Yes”; that he would soon make a host of enemies. But he accepted without hesitation. He quickly found that Rockefeller was being hounded by thousands of petitioners; that his desperation was well-founded. He was not safe from intrusion in his office, in his home, in his dining room, in his walks, in the elevated trains he took to and from work, or even in the aisles of his church. He was “hunted like a wild animal”—but now Gates was his shield.

“And so,” Gates has recalled, “nearly all comers, near or remote, friend or guest, high or low, were blandly sent to my office at Temple Court. I did my best to soothe ruffled feelings, to listen fully to every plea, and to weigh fairly the merits of every cause.” He found some rascals trying to impose on Rockefeller. But, he adds, “I gradually developed and introduced into all his charities the principle of scientific giving, and he found himself in no long time laying aside retail giving almost wholly, and entering safely and pleasurably into the field of wholesale philanthropy.” He and Rockefeller adopted these terms. To the end of his career Gates, as Dr. Abraham Flexner relates, would sweep aside petty applications with the scornful words: “That is retail business.” Before long, wholesale philanthropy meant some single gifts not of millions, but of scores of millions.

Before Gates’s activities reached this phase, however, he was compelled to turn to Rockefeller’s disordered investments. The date of his first appointment, 1891, is significant. Rockefeller’s health broke badly in 1891-92. In 1893 came panic and depression. While building the Standard Oil edifice, Rockefeller had of necessity entrusted his outside investments (his main accumulations were always in the Standard itself) to the hands of advisers. These advisers, with perfectly good intentions, were neither wise nor prudent. In particular, two fellow members of the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church, a broker named Colgate Hoyt and an entrepreneur named Charles L. Colby (son of the founder of Colby College), had led Rockefeller into dubious ventures in the South, the Great Lakes area, and the Pacific Northwest. As early as 1881 Rockefeller had been a large holder of Northern Pacific stock. That was well enough; but Colby and Hoyt, undertaking to develop what is now the city of Everett, Washington (named for Colby’s son), had poured Rockefeller money into a land company, mining company, shipbuilding yard, paper mill, and other enterprises in the Puget Sound area. As the Great Northern laid plans to make Everett its terminal, and a wild boom brought a host of speculators into Washington, Hoyt displayed a Colonel Mulberry Sellers enthusiasm: “There’s millions in it!” Then the panic crushed the boom. Everett became almost a ghost town.