John D. Rockefeller: The Quantity-Minded Type

Among the captains of industry with which factory-dotted America has added to the Chamber of Horrors of history, hardly a single one has fired the ambitions of more Americans than has John D. Rockefeller. Too successful to be typical of modern quantity-minded men generally and very different in outer appearance, he is yet worth studying because the very greatness of his success makes him the arch-type of the class to which he belongs.

Andrew Carnegie radiated a rather dour self-satisfaction. Charles M. Schwab a cheerful, steady conceit. Thomas F. Ryan a contented rapacity. But John D. Rockefeller never gave any impression of happiness. Yet he was happy, probably in the same way that all of these men were happy. Alfred Henry Lewis35 relates a story which a bookish neighbor of Rockefeller in Cleveland told about him. Rockefeller had a habit of dropping in to see him. One evening Rockefeller asked him, “You get pleasure out of your books, Judge?”

“Yes,” responded the bookworm.

“Do you know the only thing that gives me pleasure?” queried Rockefeller. “It is to see my dividends coming; just to see my dividends coming in.”

John D. Rockefeller was a huge-boned bulk of a man. At the heyday of his career the Rockefeller eyes were small and glittering, an unflattering student of him said, and added, “like the eyes of a rat,” while the contours of the Rockefeller mouth—a thin, long slit, which drew down at the corners—further suggested the cutting, gnawing rodent.

His father was a swashbuckling country sport, peddler, and horse trader. To his son the father gave only the sort of education which the country districts afforded at that time. At sixteen the son left school and started to work. At eighteen he was a bookkeeper in Cleveland, Ohio. At twenty-one he formed a partnership, and under the firm name of Clark and Rockefeller went into the produce commission business. The Civil War came along. The war, with its opportunities for profitable trading, made them both moderately rich.

The first American to vision the possibilities of petroleum, according to Ida M. Tarbell,36 was not Rockefeller nor any of his associates. It was George H. Bissell, a graduate of Dartmouth College, a journalist and teacher, who sent a quantity of coal oil, as it was then called, to Professor B. Silliman, Jr., Professor of Chemistry in Yale College. The Silliman report contained all the facts that were essential to fire the cupidity of the Rockefellers. The report analyzed the oil and pointed out the value of the oil as lubricant, as gas, and as illuminant. A horde of pioneers and adventurous business men then laid the foundation of the industry.

In 1862, when Rockefeller was only twenty-three years of age, an Englishman, Samuel Andrews, who was anxious to establish a refinery in Cleveland, gave him his first insight into the on business. A $4,000 investment by the produce partnership backing Andrews, who became the ablest mechanical superintendent of the early history of the industry, set Rockefeller on the road that enabled him in 1870 to incorporate the Standard Oil Company for a million dollars, and later to become one of the few billionaires the world has produced. The period of eight years between twenty three and thirty-one, which culminated in the formation of the first American trust, was one of intense preparation for the golden future. Alliances were formed, reformed, and rejected. The interest in the original refinery he sold to his partner Clark. He bought a share in a larger refinery for $72,500 and formed a new partnership with Andrews. Rockefeller and Andrews absorbed a refinery started by his brother William, and Henry M. Flagler was at that time added to the partnership. At the end of this period of preparation, John D. Rockefeller, his brother William, Flagler, Andrews, and a refiner named Stephen V. Harkness, formed the Standard Oil Company of which John D. Rockefeller was made President.

It was in 1870, when he was thirty-one, that Rockefeller began the far reaching campaign which not only established the Standard Oil Company as the first American trust, but made him personally the master of the industry.

Railroad rebates were the weapons with which he struck down his competitors though he used with equal effectiveness other weapons when rebates failed him. The weapons with which he fought for the conquests of business were different from those with which Cæsar and Napoleon fought for the conquests of empire, but they were, if anything, more effective. Within three months after he had frightened the railroads into giving him rebates and drawbacks on both what he paid them for freight and out of what his competitors paid as well, twenty-one out of twenty six refiners in Cleveland were bought in by him at about fifty cents on the dollar. The fury and hatred which this inspired in those whom he was crushing was like that with which the rising tide of Christians inspired the Apennine Romans. The hatred of the relatively decent men in the oil industry was so great that for a time all those who dealt with the Standard Oil Company and its allies were ostracised. Men who sold crude oil to the trust were sent to coventry. Lifetime associates cut them on the streets; they would not drink with them—in an age when social drinking had the character of tribal ritual; they tried in every way to ruin them for deserting the cause of free trade. As the truth about the operations of the trust became public, the sympathy of the entire nation went out to those whom he was ruthlessly stripping of their wealth.

An average man would have been thwarted by the popular contempt which was inspired by the exposure in 1872 of the methods by which he and his associates were ruining their competitors and stealing their business.

But Rockefeller was no average man. He had the average man’s appetite for money, but swollen to colossal proportions. He had the foresight which the average man lacks, and saw the enormous profits to be realized if he could control the oil industry. He had the cunning which enabled him to formulate the schemes that would give him that control. Above all, he had the one essential ingredient of the true quantity-minded man—the indomitable will necessary to make other men do what he wished them to do in order that he might get that control. The oil regions might rage and try to boycott him; the railroads be forced to repudiate their agreements with him; legislatures and congresses investigate and excoriate him; grand juries indict him; competitors sue him; the public hate and fear him. He kept on undisturbed.

“The oil business belongs to us,” he said. It has a familiar sound. Did not a quantity-minded king say: “The state? I am the state.” And a quantity-minded Pope of Rome equally sure of his title to rule, proclaim himself the vicar of God over all the earth?

After he was fifty, Rockefeller discovered other realms than that of business. He had always remained a pious member of the Baptist church, a church which in his formative years was even more devoted than it is today to the folkway of which tithes, alms-giving, and charity are the symbols. When Rockefeller had become many times a millionaire, he naturally became a philanthropist. In 1892, when he was fifty-three, he began the series of philanthropies on the grand scale which quantitatively dwarfed those of all contemporary millionaires. He discovered education in that year something to which Charles W. Eliot had at a corresponding age already given more than thirty years of productive and creative time as teacher, scientist, author, publicist, reformer, and university administrator. Between 1892 and 1910, he gave to the “University of Chicago founded by John D. Rockefeller” twenty five million dollars; to The Education Board he gave during the same period forty-three million dollars. He gave millions to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City; to the Rush Medical College in Chicago, to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, to Barnard College in New York City. His gifts to the various branches of the Baptist church, notably the Baptist Missionary Society, dwarfed all similar gifts to the churches of America.

If we measure the contributions of men to the development of education, to medicine, and to religion, quantitatively and not qualitatively then it is possible to construct a very ingenious argument to justify Rockefeller’s whole career of aggrandizement. It is possible to argue that the net result of his cupidity, his political debaucheries, his ruining of other men, his exploitation of the consumers of oil, was a concentration of wealth which resulted in great gifts to education, to medicine, and to religion. On the theory that the end justifies the means, it may be argued that good having come out of evil, the evil has been justified. This is, however, a very superficial view of this whole matter.

First, the qualitative contributions to these aspects of civilization are more important than the quantitative. Pestalozzi and Froebel contributed more to education, Pasteur and Lister more to medicine, and Cardinal Newman and Theodore Parker more to religion than did Rockefeller. It is not number of buildings, amount of equipment, or size of staffs that is most important; it is the ideas that are contributed which go marching down the ages and which make for the real forward movement of mankind. And these ideas are not contributed by the men who devote their lives to quantitative acquisition.

Secondly, it is a complete mistake to assume that without philanthropies of the Rockefeller type, the world would have been without the educational, medical, and religious institutions and activities which their gifts brought into being. On the contrary, it is quite probable that, had wealth not been so concentrated, support of these institutions by the state, and contributions from individuals who had been deprived of wealth by the Rockefellers, would have exceeded their relatively niggardly philanthropies to them. The institutions might not have become such grandiose projects in point of size, but they might have permitted a much greater degree of freedom to those who really created and conducted them. The present stranglehold which “big business” has upon all our eleemosynary institutions would have hardly developed had the part played by educators, by scientists, and by artists in their development been better recognized, and the part played by the contributors of money been minimized.

Finally, had these various projects not been centralized, as sheer “bigness” required, there would have been less regimentation, less standardization, less conformity in American life. For quantity-minded men always build so as to make mankind amenable to centralized control. The empire builders, the church builders, the business builders must have great multitudes who respond alike to patriotism, to religion, to consumption. Multitudes must thrill to one flag, to one creed, to one trademark. And it is not a mere coincidence that the institutions which the Napoleons, the Pope Gregorys, the John D. Rockefellers create and develop, all tend to make mankind conform to things as the quantity-minded like to have them.

The Rockefellers of today “give” colleges, hospitals, foundations, just as the medieval barons used to “give” monasteries, nunneries, chapels, and the Roman senators used to “give” baths and amphitheatres. But in reality they “give” nothing. They merely return a part of what they were acquisitive and powerful enough to seize. Unfortunately they return these parts of their accumulations in forms and on conditions which lessen if they do not completely destroy their value to the public.

History is a record of mankind’s leadership by its John D. Rockefellers. Now and then mankind has turned for a time to a more sensitive type to be led, or to be entertained, or to be instructed. In religion it has sometimes followed a Zoroaster, a Buddha, a Christ. In ethics, it has sometimes followed a Confucius, a Socrates, a Spinoza. Even in political leadership, it has sometimes followed a Pericles, a Danton, a Lincoln. But it has usually followed such men for a short time only. It generally ends their leadership by crucifying them. It always ends by perverting their ideas. Generally, and naturally enough, and perhaps properly as well, the herd-minded masses are turned from their leadership and from devotion to their ideas by the quantity-minded men—men more interested in extending the sway of the church than in the practice of its teachings; men more interested in enlarging the territories of the state, than in making it the instrument for carrying out ethical ideas; men more interested in acquiring the wealth to be secured from the entertaining and exploiting of the multitude, than in enriching life—these types of men seize power by a superficial appearance of carrying out the ideas of the leaders they pretend to follow.

The quantity-minded individual may or may not begin his career with a better intellectual endowment than the herd-minded majority of his fellows. The opportunities which wealth and the exercise of power confer naturally affect the quantity-minded man and place him in an environment that tends to raise him above the intellectual level of the masses. John D. Rockefeller began his career with no more in the way of schooling and intelligence perhaps even less—than the average man. Success created the environment that enabled him to rise far above the John Does from whom he sprang.

The peculiar toughness of mental fiber and unusual strength of appetite which make the quantity-minded man are no respecters of family, of nationality, of race. They put in an appearance in the peasant’s hut, just as readily as in the king’s palace; in the person of a laborer digging in a trench, just as readily as in an educated and intelligent individual. Quantity-minded John D. Rockefeller and herd-minded John Doe may be alike in their tastes, in their preoccupation with the material aspects of life, but the predatory man has what the average man lacks: the superb appetite for pelf and power and the indomitable will without which it is impossible to secure and retain great wealth and great power. He is fascinated by the value of the things which he possesses; the amount of power that he can wield. What counts are millions of dollars—not how they are secured; the hundreds of factories he owns and thousands of workers he exploits, not the quality of the things he makes; the size of his houses, the value of his paintings, the amount of his philanthropies, and not the design of the houses, the taste in the paintings, the wisdom of the philanthropies. He is merely objectified personal will, much as is the barbarian, the child, and the brute. The quantity-minded man can always be recognized by either of two qualities: the ability to get wealth and power, or the ability to hold on to the wealth and power he already possesses.

What amazing forms the type has taken throughout the history of mankind: the priests, Torquemada, Loyola, Gregory, Luther, Calvin, Knox; the warriors, Genghis Kahn, Tamerlane, Alexander, Cæsar, Napoleon, Constantine, Charlemagne; the business men, Arkwright, Goodyear, Boothe, Vanderbilt, Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, Carnegie, Morgan, Patterson. But no matter what the outward form of activity, the quantity-minded man has always been in pursuit of more of whatever it is the “thing” to acquire by the conventional standards of his times: more converts, more subjects, more territory, more business, more wealth. The things he accumulates are merely outer expressions of an inner psychosis. They vary from age to age. Henry Adams calls attention to the way in which Constantine the Great used Christianity:

Good taste forbids saying that Constantine the Great speculated as audaciously as a modern stockbroker on values of which he knew at the utmost only the volume; or that he merged all uncertain forces into a single trust, which he enormously overcapitalized, and forced on the market; but this is the substance of what Constantine himself said in his Edict of Milan in the year 313, which admitted Christianity into the Trust of State Religions. Regarded as an act of Congress, it runs:

“We have resolved to grant to Christian as well as all others the liberty to practice the religion they prefer, in order that whatever ex ists of divinity or celestial power may help and favor us and all who are under our government.” The empire pursued power—not merely spiritual but physical—in the sense in which Constantine issued his army order the year before, at the battle of the Milvian Bridge: In hoc signo vinces! using the Cross as a train of artillery, which, to his mind, it was. Society accepted it in the same character. Eighty years afterwards, Theodosius marched against his rival Eugene with the Cross for physical champion; and Eugene raised the image of Hercules to fight for the pagans; while society on both sides looked on, as though it were a boxing match, to decide a final test of force between the divine powers.37

The quantity-minded man, being practical, conforms to the taboos, the virtues, and the traditions to which he finds it necessary to conform in getting whatever it is that he wants. Even when he seizes upon a fanatical idea, he remains, like Constantine, practical enough to secure results. Since he cannot gratify his passion for imposing his will upon the rest of his fellows unless he is an adept at compromise, he conforms in substance even when engaged in changing the outer appearance. He has a genius for recognizing the fundamental conventions.

Where valor is the ruling convention, an Alexander out-valors all others.

Where piety is the ruling convention, a Loyola out-pieties all others.

Where wealth is the ruling convention—a Rockefeller out wealths all others.

The quantity-minded founders of the Christian church, for instance, imposed a religion invented by fanatics upon the hostile masses of Europe by adopting one after another of the essential superstitions of the pagans and barbarians whom they sought to convert. The “unknown god” of the Ephesians became the Christian Jehovah; the Saturnalia, the birthday of Christ; the hierarchy of gods and godesses, the college of patron saints.

Times change, but the formula seems unchanging: 997 to 2 to 1. The predatory individuals simply adapt themselves to their times, and use equally well armies, or churches, or factories, in their struggle for pelf and power.

The tragedy of mankind, as it is the tragedy for the quantity minded themselves, is the fact that the values that inspire their activities offer no clue to what is a really superior way of life. Accumulation is set up as the supreme value in life. Accumulation becomes the most desirable activity in which man can engage. Unfortunately, devotion to accumulation contributes nothing to life, unless the purely negative virtue of acting as horrible examples is accounted a contribution.

The quantity-minded man today finds in business, as Lewis Mumford points out, “love, adventure, worship, art, and every sort of ideality,” with the consequence that “to withdraw from industry was to become incapacitated for any further life.”38 The mighty wills, which in the past built great empires and great churches and which today build great fortunes, find themselves palsied when confronted by the yearning, not entirely to be killed in any man, to live a really superior life.

There is something tragic in even the best-lived life. There is something doubly tragic, grotesquely tragic, in the life of an Andrew Carnegie—fifty years of successes achieved by the ruthless extinction of competitors in the race for wealth and power—frustrated in the end because the mind that achieved miracles of acquisition in business could not perform an equal miracle in re-education.

Next Section |  Charles W. Eliot: The Quality-Minded Type