Seizing the Generational Moment: A Story of John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Jr.
Note: This is the second of a two-part series on American generational cycles. This piece can be read as a standalone, but it is recommended you begin with part one, “How American Generational Cycles Influence Our Life’s Narrative.”
In the early ‘90s, when author Ron Chernow was asked to write a biography on John D. Rockefeller Sr. (1839–1937), he initially balked. He assumed that Rockefeller was an empty, dull monopolist of a bygone era.
Upon visiting the Rockefeller Archives, Chernow read through an old interview transcript between John D. and a prior biographer, and couldn’t believe how gripping it was. Rockefeller was much more perceptive, fiery, and humorous than he initially thought.
While working on Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr., Chernow was stunned at the degree to which Rockefeller was a “[bewildering] blend of sin and sanctity.” Rockefeller didn’t smoke or drink, was a devout Baptist, yet pursued wealth with a pathological intensity. Despite being the richest man in America, Rockefeller lived modestly and looked upon lavish spenders with disgust. He also gave away billions via his philanthropies, yet fostered a culture at Standard Oil that pressured workers to behave in the most ruthless, extortionate ways imaginable.
In the first part of this series, I discuss how, during our formative years, a nation’s cultural mood can powerfully shape our identities. Rockefeller serves as an ideal example of this: he experienced childhood during the Second Great Awakening, an era of feverish Christian revivalism, and was a young-adult during the 1850’s California Gold Rush, a time where the entire nation was completely money-crazed.
I also mention the very real possibility that we misapprehend the truth of our own’s life narrative. All throughout his life, Rockefeller belittled his critics and filtered out disturbing realities from his mind. Instead, he viewed himself as God’s vessel, carrying out His will in delivering cheap oil to the masses.
Even though Rockefeller lied to himself about his vicious tendencies, his son, “Junior” Rockefeller II, suffered for his father’s misdeeds. Junior would later admit that the barrage of negative press and slanderous attacks on his family led to constant migraines, insomnia, and placed him on the verge of a mental breakdown in 1904.
America’s cultural backdrop was much different during Junior’s upbringing than it was for Rockefeller’s. As they collaborated to manage the family empire, their dissimilar approaches weren’t an issue, but things came to a head during a public relations nightmare in 1914, when a labor dispute at their Colorado mining company turned violent.
Junior came to experience a generational clash, and as the labor crisis spiraled out of control, he had no choice but to “seize the generational moment”— to adapt to the new cultural mood of America, and part with the antiquated beliefs his father instilled in him.
Just like Junior, core parts of your belief system will be challenged as you age through life. Before examining Junior’s torturous experience of navigating the labor disaster, let’s do a quick dive into the life of John D. Rockefeller Sr., for he was a flawed, but extraordinary man.
The Early Years of John D. Rockefeller Sr.
John D. Rockefeller was born to Eliza and William “Devil Bill” Rockefeller in 1839, inheriting both his father’s enterprising nature and his mother’s God-fearing, diligent traits.
Devil Bill was widely known as a shameless con-man, a raging asshole with an insatiable thirst for riches. He would ditch his family for months at a time, travel to faraway towns, and devise countless schemes to defraud unsuspecting countryfolk. After twice knocking up the housekeeper that lived with his wife Eliza, Devil Bill would go on to marry a second woman in another state, keeping both wives in the dark about the other (unsurprisingly easy to do in the 1800s).
While Devil Bill was away selling “miracle elixirs” in distant towns, or pretending to be a deaf-mute to collect donations, his (first) wife Eliza dutifully brought up John and his four siblings. She showed remarkable strength in raising the family, crediting her Baptist faith for her indomitable spirit.
As the eldest child, John bore adult responsibilities very early, doing whatever necessary to keep the Rockefeller household afloat. “I was taught to do as much business at the age of 10 or 11 as it was possible for me to do,” he would later say. John found solace in the Bible as well, his respite from a joyless, grueling childhood.
Taking it upon himself to anchor the Rockefeller household, at age 16, John took up full-time work as a book-keeper, then went into the produce commission business at 21. His partners saw him as a boring cheapskate, but Rockefeller thought himself to be saving up for greater opportunities, which arose when oil was first struck in Pennsylvania in 1859.
It’s important to note what the business landscape of America resembled in the Gilded Age. With a non-existent regulatory structure, the world of commerce was a lawless, cutthroat Wild West. Congressmen skipped the small talk and demanded suitcases stuffed with cash in exchange for favors. Business owners sought to annihilate each other and were rarely satisfied with their profits.
Rockefeller became an oil refiner in 1863 and was irked with the unprincipled, boom-and-bust nature of the industry. If only someone would consolidate the drilling, refining, and transporting of American oil under one entity, he wondered. While his contemporaries focused on immediate gains, causing wild swings in the oil price, Rockefeller, with his far-reaching vision, quietly built his company Standard Oil into a corporate behemoth.
What makes Rockefeller such a fascinating, polarizing figure is how his religious zeal brought out both his best and worst traits. He was a deeply charitable, fiercely devoted family man with virtually zero vices. Yet he was also an unforgiving, tyrannical business chief willing to do the unspeakable if it enriched Standard Oil, justifying his actions by claiming he was doing God’s work.
Never one to acknowledge the sinister parts of his life’s narrative, he told his children that the exposés and harsh public opinions of him were baseless. His son, Junior, could only believe the lies for so long, as he was later forced to wrest control of the family’s affairs. His father’s ill-advised purchase of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, along with his stubbornness, dragged them into a labor catastrophe that threatened to tarnish the Rockefeller name forever.
The Ludlow Massacre: Junior’s Epic Generational Clash
John D. “Junior” Rockefeller II (1874–1960) was similar to his dad in many ways — both were quiet, industrious men capable of acting boldly when the moment called for it.
For much of his life, Junior felt torn over his life’s narrative. He took pride in his social activism (his family donated heavily to African-American causes) and commitment to his Baptist faith. But working at Standard Oil, and seeing the corruption from the inside out, revealed to him the brutish, monopolistic side of his father. Still, Junior pressed on, quelling his inner turmoil and working tirelessly at both the philanthropic Rockefeller Foundation and Standard Oil.
In 1902, riding high off of the lucrative sale of a Minnesotan business, Rockefeller, without doing his due diligence, acquired a majority stake in Colorado Fuel & Iron, a mining company. Whether he knew it or not, the executives at CF&I were soulless, despicable men, and since he and Junior were based in New York, CF&I leadership easily misled them about how terribly they ran the company.
Labor conditions at the CF&I mines were horrific: hundreds of workers were blown apart by gas explosions, and countless others were grossly underpaid. Foreigners were intentionally recruited so the language barrier stopped them from unionizing. Despite this, the mineworkers had enough and went on strike. Although Junior held a directorship role at CF&I, it was mainly for show — he never really knew what was happening on the ground.
Rockefeller held an outdated, erroneous belief that all unions were evil and drilled this into Junior. Acting as Rockefeller’s proxy on the strike, and wanting to be the obedient son, Junior insisted that CF&I not concede to the strikers.
Little did the Rockefellers know their troubles were only just beginning. CF&I workers lived in company-owned buildings, and thousands of strikers were evicted and forced into tent colonies. Some of the foreign strikers had combat experience fighting wars back in Europe, so they began to smuggle rifles and revolvers into the encampments, gearing up to retaliate. CF&I, aware of the imminent showdown, began to hire gunmen of their own and ordered the construction of the “Death Special,” an armored car with machine guns fastened to the roof. Foolishly believing whatever CF&I told them, the Rockefellers were utterly clueless about what was to come.
Weeks later, the inevitable occurred. Open warfare broke out between the strikers and CF&I militiamen. Tearing through the encampments in a Death Special, CF&I thugs unleashed machine-gun fire in all directions, slaying several workers in the process. The labor dispute had now become a front-page national scandal.
Junior, relying on distorted briefings from CF&I, was distraught over what to do. Called in to Congress to testify, he doubled-down on his anti-union stance, his easiest option. He hoped the labor disaster would disappear on its own, but since the cultural mood of America was one of pro-labor and fury towards big business, the strikers felt no reason to back down.
Shortly after Junior’s testimony, another conflict erupted between CF&I and the strikers. Setting their sights upon the encampments from nearby hills, CF&I gunmen loaded their rifles and fired away, rupturing numerous tents and slaughtering more workers. Later that night, a drunken band of CF&I guardsmen charged into the tent colonies and began torching the premises. Unbeknownst to the guards, 2 women and 11 children were hiding in a makeshift bunker underneath a tent, and the scorching flames overhead asphyxiated them. This became known as the Ludlow Massacre, and the Rockefellers were now arguably the most despised men in America.
The public’s hatred for the Rockefellers raged like never before. Junior and his father were trashed endlessly by the press. Helen Keller said of Rockefeller, “[He] is the monster of capitalism. He gives charity and in the same breath he permits the helpless workmen, their wives and children to be shot down.”
As a full-time philanthropist and Bible class instructor, Junior could not believe the ordeal he found himself in. Up until this point, the chaos surrounding the labor dispute was confined to Colorado, but now it spilled over into New York. Protestors called for Junior’s death outside the Standard Oil building in Manhattan, and an armed woman stormed into his office and had to be subdued. Anarchists and rioters later breached the Rockefeller estate and began smashing windows and committing arson.
With the crisis worsening by the week, Junior finally came to his senses. Even though Rockefeller and CF&I wanted to continue their assault on the strikers, Junior knew their savagery threatened to ruin his family’s legacy, to stain his achievements at the Rockefeller Foundation. He realized the anti-union stance was never his to begin with, it was something he passively absorbed from his father, who, at age 75, had no interest in keeping up with the times.
Junior understood it was time to clean up house at CF&I and stop deferring to their judgment. He went on to publicly apologize for his negligence, make concessions to the strikers, and take the reins from Rockefeller in handling the family’s business interests.
As we get older, it becomes much easier to dismiss younger generations as moronic, deceased generations as uncivilized, and overlook the ways society is permanently changing. We must resist the tendency to become inflexible, lest we end up blindsided just like the Rockefellers, who thought the rise of investigative journalism and pro-labor movements were simply fads.
The Rockefeller drama regarding the Ludlow Massacre also shows us, if we tell ourselves a fictitious story of our lives and how we affect others, the truth will inevitably win out, forcing us to confront whatever ugly realities we may have been avoiding.
Understand: if you do not have a solid grasp of your life’s narrative, an awareness of the major forces that have shaped you (and how they’d differ had you grown up under alternate circumstances), you will sleepwalk through life, clueless as to what’s truly driving your thoughts and behaviors. You can see proof of this all around you, of people who attach their identities to certain beliefs, then pathetically cling to them as a rapidly evolving society renders them obsolete.
Viewing the world through a variety of generational lenses not only gives you an immense competitive edge, but allows you to derive so much more joy from life. Embracing worthwhile change, yet retaining the wisdom of the ancients, will make you unstoppable.