John D. Rockefeller Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Rockefeller created a near monopoly of the oil industry with the Standard Oil Company and established the model for philanthropic foundations. Monopoly charges brought by the U.S. government and supported by a 1911 U.S. Supreme Court decision forced the breakup of Standard Oil.

John D. Rockefeller was born into a French Huguenot family that in the seventeenth century fled to Germany, where they changed the spelling of their last name from Roquefeuilles to Rockefeller. The Rockefellers emigrated to Philadelphia in 1723 and eventually settled in Richford in upstate New York. Rockefeller’s father was frequently absent, and the family suffered both poverty and squalor. At the age of seven, John D. Rockefeller was already contributing to the family income. Under the puritanical upbringing of his mother, he learned the virtues of thrift, self-reliance, hard work, and enterprise. The young Rockefeller quickly established goals and pursued them to successful completion. His mother’s altruism is usually given as the probable origin of Rockefeller’s later Philanthropyphilanthropy.Rockefeller, John D.

The militant evangelicalism of 1820’s New York influenced Rockefeller to oppose smoking, dancing, playing cards or billiards, attending the theater, and doing business on Sunday. As a Christian soldier against temptation, Rockefeller was committed to personal self-improvement, the quest for perfection, and respect for women. His father’s failure to provide an adequate income and his later legal difficulties forced the family to make periodic moves, finally settling near Cleveland, Ohio, where John D. Rockefeller was employed as a collection agent for a rental property. By this time, he had learned that in a rapidly industrializing America, one could run a business both in complete disregard and in violation of governmental rules without penalty.

As Cleveland was a major refining center in the United States, Rockefeller directed his business acumen to the oil industry. By 1870, he had created the Standard Oil CompanyStandard Oil Company of Ohio and skillfully eliminated his competition by working with the railroads to receive rebates, using predatory pricing to drive out competitors, conducting industrial espionage, bribing politicians, and making advantageous deals with oil producers, refiners, transporters, railroads, marketers, and bank directors. By 1900, Rockefeller controlled 90 percent of the oil industry and was regarded as America’s first billionaire.

John D. Rockefeller.

(Library of Congress)

Rockefeller successfully escaped federal investigations until Theodore Roosevelt’s assumption of the presidency. Roosevelt’s progressive Monopolies;petroleum industryantitrust agenda and Muckraking;Standard Oilmuckraker Ida Tarbell, IdaTarbell’s hugely successful 1904 publication of History of the Standard Oil Company, The (Tarbell)The History of the Standard Oil Company tarnished both Rockefeller and his company. The Supreme Court decision in Standard Oil Co. v. United States (1911)Standard Oil Co. v. United States (1911), ordered the breakup of the Standard Oil Company into thirty-four new companies under the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, because the company had illegally engaged in discrimination in its use of private tank cars, in its classification of and rules regarding shipment, and in setting public rates and secret railroad rates. Evidence showed that Standard Oil had set excessive prices where no competition existed, cut prices when there were competitors, and bought out competitors. Emerging from the breakup of the Standard Oil Company were twentieth century oil giants Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Amoco, Arco, Conoco, Sohio, and Marathon Oil.

Rockefeller resigned as the head of the Standard Oil Company after the Supreme Court decision. Although he accepted the court verdict, it is doubtful that he forgot the drubbing his public image took. Rockefeller, never a man to reveal his true feelings, retired from the business world but proceeded to engage in philanthropic pursuits, establishing the model future charitable foundations would follow to both distribute and make money.

Further Reading
  • Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. New York: Random House, 1998.
  • Nevins, Allan. John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist. Norwalk, Conn.: Easton Press, 1989.
  • Weinberg, Steve. Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

Antitrust legislation

Business crimes

J. Paul Getty

Muckraking journalism

Panic of 1907

Petroleum industry


Robber barons

Sherman Antitrust Act

Standard Oil Company

Categories: History