Rockefeller Remembers

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Rockefeller does not directly answer the charge that Standard benefited not merely from rebates but also from a related device called the drawback —a payment by the railroad to Standard Oil of part of the shipping charges paid by non-Standard refiners. His response, one imagines, would have been what it was in the case of rebates: Standard “made the best bargains possible....Other companies sought to do the same....All this was following in the natural laws of trade.”

A third criticism leveled at the oil company was that Standard forced its competitors to sell out at prices it dictated. Rockefeller answers in detail the charge that, in one celebrated case, he “personally robbed a defenseless widow of an extremely valuable property, paying her only a mere fraction of its worth.” His answer is persuasive, but vindication in a single case will not satisfy readers who know that dozens of other cases remain unmentioned.

Insofar as it deals with his business career, the most interesting passages in the autobiography are those that offer glimpses of Rockefeller in moments of uncertainty. In his youth Rockefeller did not know that he would one day become the richest man in the world. So, in his twenties, the young man worried, just as the head of any small business might: “… I seldom put my head upon the pillow at night without speaking a few words to myself in this wise: ‘Now a little success, soon you will fall down, soon you will be overthrown. Because you have got a start, you think you are quite a merchant; look out, or you will lose your head—go steady.’”

Rockefeller’s greatest gift, I think, was the ability to keep a clear head. Hope never skewed his calculations. “Look ahead,” he advises. …Be sure that you are not deceiving yourself at any time about actual conditions.” He notes that when a business begins to fail, most men hate “to study the books and face the truth.”

Rockefeller’s interest in “The Difficult Art of Getting,” as he titles Chapter 3, was balanced by an interest in “The Difficult Art of Giving.” It was not an interest he developed late in life. At eighteen Rockefeller was made a trustee of his church, the Erie Street Baptist Church in Cleveland, and he describes with obvious pride and pleasure his role in raising two thousand dollars to pay off the church’s mortgage.

“The best philanthropy,” said Rockefeller, “is constantly in…search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”

As his fortune increased, requests for assistance proliferated. Rockefeller was willing to give, but he could not bear to give blindly: “About the year 1890 I was still following the haphazard fashion of giving here and there as appeals presented themselves. I investigated as I could, and worked myself almost to a nervous breakdown in groping my way, without sufficient guide or chart, through this ever-widening field of philanthropic endeavor.”

What he needed, he felt, was to rationalize his philanthropy—to develop an “organized plan” based on some “underlying principles” of giving. The philanthropy that mattered most, he concluded, was philanthropy that struck at the root of fundamental problems: “To help the sick and distressed appeals to the kindhearted always, but to help the investigator who is striving successfully to attack the causes which bring about sickness and distress does not so strongly attract the giver of money....The best philanthropy is constantly in search of the finalities—a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”

To this philosophy Rockefeller added an institutional innovation —the “Benevolent Trust” specially organized “to manage the business side of benefactions.” He founded four major philanthropic institutions in his lifetime: the Rockefeller Foundation, the General Education Board, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

As a guide for giving, the principle of attempting to “cure evils at their source” is as relevant today as it was when Rockefeller articulated it. We need not wonder, for instance, how Rockefeller would have responded to appeals for the homeless. “It is interesting,” he writes, “to follow the mental processes that some excellent souls go through to cloud their consciences when they consider what their duty actually is. For instance, one man says: ‘I do not believe in giving money to street beggars.’ I agree with him…but that is not a reason why one should be exempt from doing something to help the situation represented by the street beggar.”

In The Autobiography of American Business, a 1974 anthology of excerpts from the autobiographies of businessmen, John Brooks says that Rockefeller’s is “probably rightly forgotten.” I couldn’t disagree more. It’s true that the book contains few surprises. But even though it was ghostwritten, I think the book presents views that deserve a hearing, and, more important, it preserves Rockefeller’s voice—a voice that still fascinates.