The Rockefeller Billions
by Jules Abels
Macmillan, 412 pp., $6.95
Among the many problems that confronted John D. Rockefeller when he first set out in the 1870s to monopolize the American oil business there was at least one that, in only slightly different form, was later to face Stalin when he undertook to collectivize Soviet agriculture. For both tycoons it was a matter of converting the kulaks—the small time operators—or, failing that, of liquidating them, if not in one way then in another. For both men too it was the outraged criticism of the liberals, with their Jeffersonian or populist longings, that forced them or their successors to mend their ways, at any rate to improve their public relations. The Rockefeller Billions by Jules Abels is a sketchy but earnest attempt to retell the history of the man who collectivized the American Oil industry and of his money from its origins to the present. Though most of the anecdotes are familiar, the first half of the book makes lively reading as it describes the adventures of the austere young Calvinist, the hymn-singing Sunday School teacher who, while his contemporaries were about to march off to the Civil War, stayed behind to run the modest commission brokerage in which, with $1000 borrowed from his father, he had become, at the age of twenty, a partner.
As with all geniuses, the springs of Rockefeller’s character are largely enigmatic and Abels does little to enlighten us. Still, if we cannot understand we can nevertheless marvel at the astonishing single-mindedness of this worthy graduate of Folsom’s Business College who, from the age of sixteen, maintained a personal ledger which, in later years, he was to value more highly than “all the ledgers in New York and all they would bring” and in which he would record such useful disbursements as $0.25 to a “poor man in the church” and $0.12 to the Five Points Mission in New York for whose poor this adolescent seemed to feel a special responsibility. The links between religious devotion and capital accumulation are, by now, of course, famous, but nothing explains the special phenomenon of young Rockefeller in whom every instinct, every capacity or potentiality from the onset of his manhood was consecrated to his balance sheet and to his church so that for years he was to begin each business day with a current statement of his net worth and even in his eighties would sing hymns as he made his way around the golf course. Yet he was not as cautious as his notorious devotion to small change would suggest. He was bullish from the start and, to the alarm of his more conservative partners, he would in the early days habitually extend his (and their) small capital to extremes which men of smaller faith might reasonably consider hazardous. The banks, on the other hand, knew the divine imprint when they saw it and were happy to let the godly young man go into debt.
Abels records only one episode in …