The Gilded Age and the dawn of the 20th century are often remembered as an era full of monopolies, trusts, and economic giants in heavy industries like oil and steel. Men like Andrew Carnegie built empires like Carnegie Steel, and financiers like J.P. Morgan merged and consolidated them. The era also made names like Astor, Cooke, and Vanderbilt instantly recognizable across the globe. Over time, the unfathomable wealth generated by the businesses made the individuals on top incredibly rich, and that in turn led to immense criticism and an infamous epithet used to rail against them: robber barons.
Dozens of men were called "robber barons", but none were as notorious or rich as John D. Rockefeller, who co-founded Standard Oil and turned it into the first real trust in the United States. Rockefeller had been groomed ambitiously by a huckster father nicknamed "Devil Bill", who was just as willing to cheat his son as an unsuspecting public, and John certainly chased his dreams of living long and large. Rockefeller forged his empire in the first few decades of his life and nearly worked himself to death by the time he was 50, which helped compel him to retire for the last several decades of his life.
At one point, Rockefeller's wealth was worth more than 1.5% of the entire country's gross domestic product, and by adjusting for inflation, he is arguably the richest man in American history if not world history. Rockefeller was often demonized for being greedy, and there's no question that he was a capitalist par excellence, if not an outright proponent of Social Darwinism. Rockefeller often asserted that growing a business "is merely a survival of the fittest," and he even bragged, "I have ways of making money that you know nothing of." To charges that he was making his riches off the backbreaking work of others, Rockefeller admitted, "I would rather earn 1% off 100 people's efforts than 100% of my own efforts."
©2012 Charles River Editors (P)2015 Charles River Editors