John D. Rockefeller: A Character Study

By Ida M. Tarbell
Author of “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” “Life of Lincoln,” ETC.
Illustrated with Portraits

JD Rockefeller“A prince should earnestly endeavor to gain the reputation of kindness, clemency, piety, justice, and fidelity to his engagements. He ought to possess all these good qualities BUT STILL RETAIN SUCH POWER OVER HIMSELF AS TO DISPLAY THEIR OPPOSITES WHENEVER IT MAY BE EXPEDIENT. . . He should make it a rule, above all things, never to utter anything which does not breathe of kindness, justice, good faith, and piety; this last quality it is most important for him to appear to possess as men in general judge more from appearances than from reality. All men have eyes but few have the gift of penetration. Every one sees your exterior, but few can discern what you have in your heart.” — Machiavelli — The Prince. Chap. xviii.

John D. Rockefeller is without question the most conspicuous type of our present dominating commercial man. “The most important man in the world” a great and serious newspaper passionately devoted to democracy calls him, and unquestionably this is the popular measure of him. His importance lies not so much in the fact that he is the richest individual in the world, with the control of property which that entails; it lies in the fact that his wealth, and the power springing from it, appeal to the most universal and powerful passion in this country — the passion for money. John D. Rockefeller, measured by our national ambition, is the most successful man in the world — the man who has got the most of what men most want. How did he get it, the eager youth asks, and asking, strives to imitate him as nearly as ability and patience permit. Thus he has become an inspirer of American ideals, and his methods have been crystallized into a great national commercial code.

Nor is this all. Mr. Rockefeller distributes money in charity and in endowments. If not our first, he is certainly our second philanthropist; the amount of the money given being the standard. All over the land those who direct great educational, charitable and religious institutions are asking, “Can we not get something from him?” Receiving his bequests they become at least the tacit supporters of the thing for which he stands — that is, John D. Rockefeller exercises a powerful control over the very sources of American intellectual and religious inspiration.

Now a man who possesses this kind of influence cannot be allowed to live in the dark. The public not only has the right to know what sort of a man he is; it is the duty of the public to know. How else can the public discharge the most solemn obligation it owes to itself and to the future, to keep the springs of its higher life clean? Who then is this John D. Rockefeller? Whence did he come? By what qualities did he grow to such power? Has he proved his right to the power? Does he give to the public whence he has drawn his wealth a just return in ideas, in patriotism, in devotion to social betterment, in generous living, in inspiring personal character? Has John D. Rockefeller made good? From time immemorial men who have risen to power have had to face this question. Kings, tyrants, chieftains, since the world began have stood or have fallen as they have convinced the public that they were giving or not giving a just return for the power allowed them. The time is here when Mr. Rockefeller must face the verdict of the public by which he lives.

As to Mr. Rockefeller’s origin it is typically American. He sprang from one of those migrating families which, coming to this country in the seventeenth century, has moved westward with each generation seeking a betterment of condition. He and his brothers were the first great product of a restless family searching a firm footing on new soil. The first word heard of the Rockefeller family in Richford, Tioga County, New York, where John D. Rockefeller was born, was in the early ’30’s when his grandfather, Godfrey Rockefeller, moved to that community from Mud Creek, Massachusetts. There are still alive in Tioga County many men and women who remember Godfrey Rockefeller. It is not a pleasant description they give of him — a shiftless tippler, stunted in stature and mean in spirit, but held to a certain decency by a wife of such strong intellect and determined character that she impressed herself unforgettably on the community.

Godfrey Rockefeller had not been long in Richford when he was followed by his eldest son — William A. Rockefeller — a man of twenty-three or twenty-four years of age. There seem to have been other Rockefellers, for the family was sufficiently numerous and conspicuous to cause the farm in West Hill near Richford, where they settled, to be dubbed “Rockefeller settlement” — a name it still bears.

It is with William A. Rockefeller, father of John, that we have to do here. There is enough which is authentic to be gleaned about him to form a picture of a striking character. William A. Rockefeller was a tall and powerful man with keen straightforward eyes, a man in whom strength, and fearlessness, and joy in life, unfettered by education or love of decency, ran riot. The type is familiar enough in every farming settlement, the type of the country sport, who hunts, fishes, gambles, races horses and carouses in the low and mean ways which the country alone affords. He owned a costly rifle, and was famous as a shot. He was a dare-devil with horses. He had no trade — spurned the farm. Indeed he had all the vices save one — he never drank. He was a famous trickster, too; thus, when he first reached Richford he is said to have called himself a peddler — a deaf and dumb peddler, and for some time he actually succeeded in making his acquaintances in Richford write out their remarks to him on a slate. Why he wished to deceive them no one knows. Perhaps sheer mischief, perhaps a desire to hear things which would hardly be talked before a stranger with good ears.

It was not long after he came to Richford that he began to go off on long trips — peddling trips some said. Later he became known as a quack doctor, and his absences were supposed to be spent selling a medicine he concocted himself. Irregular and wild as his life undoubtedly was, his strength and skill and daring, his frankness, his careful dress, for he paid great attention to his clothes, as well as the mystery surrounding the occupation which kept him looking so prosperous, made him a favorite with the young and reckless and, unhappily, with women. On one of his trips he met in Moravia, New York, the daughter of a prosperous farmer, Eliza Davison. It is said that the girl married him in the face of strong opposition of her family. However that may be, it is certain that about 1837, William A. Rockefeller brought Eliza Davison to the Rockefeller settlement as his wife, and here three children were born, the second of whom — the record of his birth is dated July 8, 1839 — was named John Davison.

In 1843 William A Rockefeller moved his family to a farm near Moravia, Cayuga County. The reputation he had built up in Richford as a “sporting man” was duplicated in Moravia. He soon became the leader in all that was reckless and wild in the community, and was classed by the respectable and steady-going as a dangerous character on whom no doubt much was fastened that did not belong. It may be for this reason, as well as because of his frequent long and unaccounted for absences, that he is still classed popularly in Moravia as one of the gang who operated the “underground horse railroad” — and ran off horses from various parts of the country. There is absolutely no proof of this, but the conviction and sentence to the State prison, in 1850, of three of his closest pals for horse-stealing coupled with his bad reputation made many of his disapproving neighbors fix the crime equally on him, and to-day old men in Moravia nod their heads sagely and say, “He was too smart to be caught.”

There is an indictment against William A. Rockefeller for a more serious crime than horse-stealing in the records of the County, for 1849, and it is quite probable that he left Moravia under compulsion. At all events, about 1850 he again moved his family, which now consisted of his wife and five children, to Owego, New York. The family remained in Owego but three years, and then moved to Strongsville, Ohio, twelve or fifteen miles southwest of Cleveland. A year later they left Strongsville for a country settlement, about seven miles south of Cleveland, called Parma; and from there they went, in 1857, to Cleveland, moving into a comfortable brick house, which William A. Rockefeller had built for them.

In the Ohio communities where he lived the legends of “Old Bill,” as he is popularly spoken of to-day by his former acquaintances, are identical with those in Richford, Moravia, and Owego. They all remember him as a man who came home but rarely, who was supposed to sell some kind of medicine — a “cancer doctor,” is the opinion of one, a “quack doctor,” of another, and there are those who declare he was a gambler. In Ohio, as in New York, he always created a profound impression on his visits home, by his clothes, his good horse, and his crack shooting. “He was a rippin’ good one,” an old associate in Parma declares. “How he would shoot — bang-e-tee-bang — you’d thought there was a whole army around!” There are many sly winks at the occupations and morals of William A. Rockefeller by his old neighbors, but there is a universal verdict that he was a “good fellow,” jolly, generous, and kindly.

When William A. Rockefeller took his family to Ohio, his oldest son, John Davison, was a lad of fourteen years. A quiet, grave boy by all accounts, doing steadily and well the thing he was set at. Up to this time his training had been that of the ordinary country boy. He had gone to a district school a few months of the year, and the rest of the time had worked and played as a boy ordinarily does in a country settlement, chopping wood, caring for a horse, milking cows, weeding garden, raising chickens and turkeys. Nowhere does he seem to have made an impression, save by his silence and gravity. “He never mixed much with the rest of us,” one old man tells you. “He seemed to be always thinking,” says another. “He was different from his brothers and different from the rest of us,” says a third.

No doubt his mother had had much to do in shaping the boy’s mind to serious living. Dominated as this daughter of a prosperous farmer probably was by a spirit of narrow and stern New England conventionality, she must have come to hate the lawless and suspicious ways of this likeable sinner, this quack-doctor horse-jockey, this loose-tongued rake she had married, and all the arrogant respectability within her must have risen in a fierce effort to save appearances, and to force these children of his into good and regular standing. There is a something in the fine, keen face of John D. Rockefeller’s mother which recalls the face of Lætitia Ramolino, mother of Napoleon Bonaparte, and convinces one that she could not but have been a power with her boys, though there is little enough to go on in trustworthy tradition and records. That she kept her children in school and church is certain. Old friends of hers at Strongsville and Parma, Ohio, speak of her with profound respect — a good woman who made her boys do right, who did not allow them to read novels on Sunday, who “worried over saloons” in her vicinity. It is quite probable that it was her influence which persuaded her husband to send John to school in Cleveland soon after the family moved to Ohio.

The boy spent a quiet year in the town studying diligently, so his former schoolmaster has testified, his only outside interest being in the Baptist Church and Sunday-school — to which he had been directed by a wise landlady. In 1855, after a year of study, young Rockefeller left school and began to look for work. It was a hard time in the West, the year of 1855, and it is quite possible that William A. Rockefeller had not been so successful as formerly in his wandering trade or trades, whatever they may have been, and that he felt it time for his son John to do something for himself. At all events, in the summer of that year, John D. Rockefeller made his first attempt to get a footing in business.

The struggle and discouragement of the days he spent walking the streets of Cleveland looking for work made a deep impression on Mr. Rockefeller. Again and again in his later years he has referred to the experience in the little talks he has given at Sunday-school and church gatherings. Again and again he has expressed his lasting gratitude that finally he did find a position. It was a modest enough one, that of a clerk in a warehouse on the Cleveland docks. How modest, Mr. Rockefeller has frequently explained using as authority one of the few “documents” of his early life which he has seen fit to reveal to the public. This document is his first account book, “Ledger A” he calls it. It is not too much to say that this book has been more conspicuous than the Bible itself in the religious instruction which John D. Rockefeller has given for years to Baptist Sunday-schools. This is not strange, for in Mr. Rockefeller’s own judgment its brief entries explain his success. The little book is most significant. No wonder, as he once told his Sunday-school class, holding up “Ledger A” to their attentive eyes: “You could not get that book from me for all the modern ledgers in New York, nor for all that they would bring. It almost brings tears to my eyes when I read over this little book, and it fills me with a sense of gratitude I cannot express.”