The 19th century witnessed a universal transformation from agrarian society to industrialization in America. New technologies and manufacturing techniques allowed several men to become immensely powerful. Sometimes people categorized these men as “captains of industry,” whose resources, intellect, and power could be used for the public good. More often, however, the pejorative “robber baron” was attributed to the business titans of the late 1800s. Robber barons amassed wealth through treachery, bribery, monopolies, and conspiracies. Whether oil magnate John D. Rockefeller was a robber baron was discussed thoroughly by Matthew Josephson, who contended that Rockefeller indeed was a robber baron, and Ron Chernow, who contended the opposite. As Josephson argued, John D. Rockefeller was one such capitalist whose monopolies, exploitation of the poor, and unethical business practices warrant him the title “Robber Baron.”
John D. Rockefeller employed the power of monopolies in his perfidious conquest of oil in America. As oil was being discovered in America, Rockefeller foresaw the overwhelming potential of the oil industry (Josephson, 29). Determined to seize control of this nascent market, Rockefeller launched into both a horizontal and a vertical monopoly of oil. He desired not only to buy out competitors but also to control every aspect of oil from production to transportation to refinement to distribution. Tirelessly, Rockefeller worked through intimidation to ensure his success (Josephson, 32). He even struck deals with railroad companies to increase profits (Josephson, 32). Rockefeller’s ruthless monopolizing went unpunished for years. Yet his monopoly on oil was just the first of his vices as a robber baron. John D. Rockefeller’s exploits were far from victimless crimes, and his later philanthropy would never make up the misery he caused for so many thousands of lower class workers in America. Rockefeller made life hell for those who didn’t sell to him. One of the business partners of the father of renowned journalist Ida Tarbell killed himself as a result of bad business (Chernow, 38). Fires and accidents were abundant in the already struggling mines of Pennsylvania. Workers attempted several times to form labor unions, but Rockefeller wouldn’t have it. Thus, such horrors continued to abound in pre-labor laws America thanks to the robber baron John D. Rockefeller.
The way in which Rockefeller carried out his business transactions is perhaps the most heinous of everything in his life he did. Rockefeller began his streak of financial treachery with the foundation of the South Improvement Company. The South Improvement Company was a small trust of oil refiners who funneled profits directly to themselves (Josephson, 32). Rockefeller forced all those who entered his trust to sign a pledge of secrecy. Members enjoyed rebates while all others suffered cripplingly steep prices. Those who desired entry into the trust were appraised and bought out at a half, sometimes a third of their worth (Josephson, 34). Outsiders in the oil industry were faced with a lose-lose situation: sell to Standard Oil for much less than the worth or make no profit. As Rockefeller’s officers phrased it, “If you don’t sell your property to us, it will be valueless, because we have got the advantage with the railroads” (Josephson, 34). In a classic example of “surrender-or-die,” Rockefeller handcuffed the oil industry in America directly to himself. With no concern for the little man, Rockefeller crushed all competition under Standard Oil’s feet. Through treachery and bribery he established himself as the worst robber baron to ever have lived.
While Josephson’s opponent, Ron Chernow, has compelling evidence against the question of whether Rockefeller was a robber baron. Chernow’s flawed arguments seem to center around debunking the narrative spun by Ida Tarbell. Tarbell, a journalist who exposed much of Rockefeller’s treachery, was indeed guilty of writing demagogy. Many of her accounts were exaggerated. Yet even Chernow concedes that the misdeeds perpetrated in the South Improvement Company did indeed happen (Chernow, 24). Chernow merely debunks the accuracy of two tear jerking stories. Yet Rockefeller should be held responsible for the claims against both Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Chernow strictly acquits Rockefeller of two or three accusations that hardly lessen the deleterious effects of Rockefeller’s business.
John D. Rockefeller was undoubtedly a robber baron. His mistreatment of workers, obliteration of unions, corporate espionage, and monopolies reveal this fact. Matthew Josephson was spot on in his assessment of Rockefeller. No “captain of industry” would perpetrate the deception, conspiracy, and evil of Rockefeller, who was truly the worst of the robber barons.