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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Architects of America- Part 2

King of Oil – America’s Richest Man — Ever

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a six-part Historically Speaking series about the men who created the backbone of American industry, which built our nation. Next: the man who controlled the oil industry for years: John D. Rockefeller

By Tom Morrow

Controlling the American oil industry made John D. Rockefeller one of the richest men in history – he controlled first kerosene, then motor oil and gasoline. He truly was one of the moguls who built America.

John Davison Rockefeller Sr., born on July 8, 1839, controlled the American oil industry for all of his adult life. He became a business magnate, industrialist, and philanthropist. He is widely considered the wealthiest American of all time, and the richest person in modern history.

In 1867, at age 20, with a company owned by Rockefeller, his brother, and two partners, they formed an oil company, but instead of drilling for oil, they concentrated on oil refining.

As kerosene and gasoline grew in importance, Rockefeller’s wealth soared and he became the richest person in the country, controlling 90 percent of all oil in the United States. Oil was used throughout the country as a source for fueling lamps until the introduction of electricity and as a fuel and lubricant after the invention of the automobile. Furthermore, Rockefeller gained enormous influence over the railroad industry, which transported his oil around the country. Standard Oil was the first great business trust in the United States.

But, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that Standard Oil must be dismantled for violation of federal anti-trust laws. It was broken up into 34 separate entities that included companies that would become ExxonMobil, Chevron and others. Some of them still have the highest level of revenue in the world. Individual pieces of the company were worth more than the whole, and, as shares of these doubled and tripled in value in their early years,

Rockefeller became the country’s first billionaire with a fortune worth nearly 2 percent of the national economy. In 1913, his peak net worth was estimated at $336 billions, inflation-adjusted for 2007 dollars). Rockefeller spent the last 40 years of his life in retirement at his estate in Westchester County, New York.

His fortune was mainly used to create the modern systematic approach of targeted philanthropy. His foundations pioneered the development of medical research and were instrumental in the near-eradication of hookworm and yellow fever in the United States.

Rockefeller was a devout Northern Baptist and supported many church-based institutions. Rockefeller adhered to total abstinence from alcohol and tobacco throughout his life. A faithful congregant of the Erie Street Baptist Mission Church, he taught Sunday school, and served as a trustee, clerk and occasional janitor. Religion was a guiding force throughout his life and Rockefeller believed it to be the source of his success. Rockefeller also was considered a supporter of capitalism based on a perspective of social Darwinism and was quoted often as saying: “The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest.”

Rockefeller often offered his shares as payment for a business, and quite a few of whom became very wealthy as managers as well as owners in Standard Oil. They include politicians and writers, some of whom served Rockefeller’s interests, and some of whom built their careers by fighting Rockefeller and the “robber barons”.

By the time of his death in 1937, Rockefeller’s remaining fortune, largely tied up in permanent family trusts, was estimated at $1.4 billion, while the total national GDP was $92 billion. According to some methods of wealth calculation, Rockefeller’s net worth over the last decades of his life would easily place him as the wealthiest known person in recent history. As a percentage of the United States’ GDP, no other American fortune — including those of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, or Sam Walton — would even come close.

At age 86, Rockefeller penned the following words to sum up his life:

I was early taught to work as well as play,
My life has been one long, happy holiday;
Full of work and full of play—
I dropped the worry on the way—
And God was good to me every day.

Next Week: Andrew Carnegie


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