Whether derided as a devil of modern industry or hailed as a saint of modern philanthropy, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller remains a controversial figure.
Although the reality of the man is surely complex, those who attack his legacy tend to indulge in more than a few historical errors and economic myths, painting him as a supreme symbol of all that is wrong with industrialization and capitalism. And yet, despite some troubling tactics and cronyist maneuvering, the man himself is a symbol of much that is good.
As historian Burt Folsom explains, the real picture has a bit more color and brightness. Contrary to his critics, Rockefeller’s empire prioritized ingenuity above indulgence, gift-giving above greed, and economic transformation above static consumerism.
Rockefeller’s special gift to the world? “Cheap kerosene,” says Folsom, and “cheap enough that anyone could buy it.”
And like any productive activity in the Economy of Creative Service, the gift-giving stretched well beyond the material. New ideas were formed, new skills and products were developed, old needs were met, and diverse and unsuspecting communities were connected. People of all stations worked together in a profound web of collaborative exchange, and the fruits were shared by all.
The stagnant and unscrupulous can surely use capitalism to secure themselves a small sliver of a certain pie. But while these prefer to use business as a means for mere provision, Rockefeller showed its power to improve life for all, offering new solutions to the broadest swath of society, whether rich or poor, privileged or disconnected.
“We had vision,” Rockefeller once said. “We saw the vast possibilities of the oil industry, stood at the center of it, and brought our knowledge and imagination and business experience to bear in a dozen, in twenty, in thirty directions.”
Rockefeller’s life isn’t without its problems, and his legacy has been done no favors by the mischief of his ancestors and standard-bearers. But when one steps back and surveys the full picture of his life, we see a man driven not by money, but by enterprise and its possibilities.
We will still see Rockefeller as a symbol of modern industrialization, to be sure, but one that inspires us to use our God-given creative capacity to transform society for the better.