StMU Research Scholars

John D. Rockefeller: Friend or Fiend

The name Rockefeller is synonymous with monuments and centers in such cities as New York and Cleveland.1 It is also the name that is associated with one of the richest families in America and one of the richest men ever to have lived. However, John D. Rockefeller was also one of the most vilified men of his era due to how he came upon his wealth. Whether it was through inauspicious practices or law evasion, Rockefeller became one of the most disliked Robber Barons of his time. His tussles with the media, and specifically with Ida Tarbell, also aided in this negative perception. That perception began to change as time went on, as he became a major philanthropist in the early 1900s. This charitable work in his later years helped improve his public image as time went on and even after his death in 1937.

John Rockefeller Sr. and Jr. in 1914 | Courtesy of Wikipedia

The public’s perception of Rockefeller during the mid to late 1800s was that he was a Robber Baron as well as a morally compromised man. Ida Tarbell was one of the leading muckrakers of the Progressive Era, who dedicated herself to uncovering the truth about Rockefeller. She helped in exposing a side of John Rockefeller’s identity, which was that of a shrewd businessman who would often seek advantages through unfair means. In addition, she stated that Rockefeller’s philanthropy was tainted due to the immoral means he employed in his acquisition of wealth.2  Although some of Ida Tarbell’s criticisms of Rockefeller came out of spite as well as fact, there was no denying the influence she had in creating the public’s perception of Rockefeller. One result of her exposé was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to use the Sherman Antitrust Act to break up Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.3 Thus, one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world was severely crippled.

John Rockefeller’s identity had been tainted, and his company had been broken. Rockefeller was still very wealthy, but he did not necessarily know what to do with all his wealth. Thus, he became involved in his community as a philanthropist. Rockefeller devoted a portion of his money to charity, and he established a variety of institutions to help others. Rockefeller helped establish the University of Chicago and placed William Rainey Harper, someone he trusted, to lead the University. Additionally, Rockefeller always made it a point to give whenever he could to the University.4

Therefore, there is a contradiction when it comes to Rockefeller. How could such a Robber Baron be so generous when his life’s work had been to acquire as much wealth as possible? In addition, Rockefeller was also portrayed as a man who loved his children and taught them the value of money, while going to church regularly.5 But the John Rockefeller that was described by Ida Tarbell was of a man with a dual personality.6 In conclusion, many will call Rockefeller a Robber Baron for the underhanded tactics he employed, and who therefore cannot be absolved of these activities. Some will say that his philanthropic works, charity to churches, and personal character more than overshadow his past transgressions. What can be for certain is that the debate over whether John Davison Rockefeller Sr. should be viewed as a friend or fiend will continue for years to come.


  1. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “ Rockefeller Center ,” by John A. Flink.
  2. Steve Weinberg, Taking on the Trust (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 234-235.
  3. Ron Chernow, Titan: the life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (New York: Random House, 1998), 534.
  4. Allan Nevins, John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1941), 234-243.
  5. Ron Chernow, Titan: the life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (New York: Random House, 1998), 187–91.
  6. Steve Weinberg, Taking on the Trust (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 237.

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63 Responses

  1. The founder of Standard Oil is obviously one of the most intriguing businessmen who ever lived. I read somewhere that compensating for inflation in the year 1990 that John D. Senior would be the richest man who had ever lived. I believe I read he left behind a one billion dollar estate in 1937, and at least one third of that to charity. This of course is only one side of the robber baron.
    It’s also true that he created Standard Oil by overly shrewd business deals and finding ways to bankrupt his rivals.

  2. Reading about Rockefeller it is interesting to see both sides of the story as well as people on both sides of the court decision. In my opinion I believe that he worked hard to get where he was and should not have had his company broken up. But what he did with his money afterwards was give back to the community that helped him so he was a good person.

  3. I can’t agree with the general assessment of Rockefeller in this article, nor the willingness of its readers to appraise him favorably thus. His rapaciousness, and lust for power and control, belie his “philanthropies.” He funded birth control efforts; i.e., abortion, targeting the weakest of the weak, and in contrast to the mercies he ought to have learned from the bible. He also funded eugenics programs, i.e., the sterilization of those deemed intellectually, racially, and physiologically unfit.

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