John D. Rockefeller: Friend or Fiend

"What a Funny Little Government!" by Horace Taylor in The Verdict, September 25,1899 | Courtesy of Pinterest

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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62 Responses

  1. I’ve heard of the Rockefeller name thought out many years of my life and the success story John and his Standard oil company. He was famous for the amount of wealth he required but many people dislike how he acquired his wealth, for his business tactics were looked down upon. Having such an obsession for wealth I’m glad he had a philanthropic mindset and gave back to the people.

  2. Everyone knows about the Rockefeller name, so it was refreshing to read about him. I enjoyed how you included the muckraker’s perception of him, whether it was through corruption or monopolies and how he wasn’t really liked by others. I was unaware of his contribution to the University of Chicago, so that was interesting to read about. The article does a great job of being able to give a good amount of information and still make it interesting to read.

  3. Good article, I think everyone even if you don’t live in New York knows the name Rockefeller. That being said I don’t think everyone knows the history behind the name so this article was defiantly interesting. I never knew about how Rockefeller gave money to charity or his involvement with the community. Overall I really enjoyed this article and found it interesting learning about a new angel about the name Rockefeller.

  4. It was very nice to learn about how John D. Rockefeller fell upon his wealth and not only how he got it, but what he did with it once he had it. Giving to charity is such a noble thing to do when you have all the money that he had. It’s very upsetting that after building up a good name for himself and his company, then having it demolished and losing his good name. This is a very well written article, good job.

  5. This was a great article; I remember learning about Rockefeller in high school. I really don’t remember many positive things about him he just seemed really smart and really rich but for the most part, he just hustled in the economy. I didn’t know much about his charitable acts, but I still don’t think he is a great person; nonetheless, he with forever go down in the history books.

  6. When I first saw this article, I thought that it said friend or friend. Once I realized what was going on, I could certainly identify the fiend. When I hear the names Rockefeller and Carnegie I think of New York and its history. We do not think about their history and if they were just or not. You pressed a really good question upon the readers by asking them about Rockefeller’s good deeds possibly outweighing the ruthless ways in which he got them. Great article!

  7. To be honest I don’t know anything about Rockefeller, though I feel like I have read his name in a book or heard it in a movie. The fact that he might have had dual personalities is very scary because he knew how to manipulate the business world as well as the people. In one hand he was that almighty business man who went through any means possible in order to get more money and the other hand is how he would give money to his university and also like and care for children. But yes this was a great article, I learned many things I didn’t know about someone like him.

  8. The picture is what captured my eye and what got me to read this, so it was very good choice. When learning about John Rockefeller in U.S. history, I was under a negative impression of him and never learned how became involved with the community and gave money to charity. This article was very informative and gave me more insight to Rockerfeller’s life.

  9. This article is about one of the most iconic names in history regarding the industrial age, this name being John D. Rockefeller. It tells the true colors of Rockefeller, he was seen as one of the most disliked men because of his business decisions. However it goes on to tell how many did now him as a loving, caring and religious man, who took care of his kids. In the end how we choose to see Rockefeller is of our own personal opinions. Over all this was a great article.

  10. Great article, I always feel Rockefeller and his family are not talked about enough in the past or nowadays. While it may be seen as a way to only improve hispublic image (like a company partaking in charity), you can’t deny that even after he had made enough money, he still decided to help his community. That can say a lot about how he changed and a second chance is what he needed.

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