Nowadays, most people imagine that American businessmen have always favored free competition, at least in the abstract. But in the industrial boom after the Civil War, the most significant revolt against free-market capitalism came not from reformers or zealous ideologues but from businessmen who couldn't control the maddening fluctuations in the marketplace. In an unregulated economy, they had to improvise the rules of the game as they went along. Pestered by overproduction in the early oil industry, Rockefeller tirelessly mocked those "academic enthusiasts" and "sentimentalists" who expected business to conform to their tidy competitive models. Like some of his contemporaries, he didn't see how they could build vast, enduring industries in a volatile economy disrupted by recessions, deflation, and explosive boom-and-bust cycles, and he decided to subjugate markets instead of responding endlessly to their changing price signals. Thus, Rockefeller and other industrial captains conspired to kill competitive capitalism in favor of a new monopoly capitalism.
Rockefeller equated silence with strength: Weak men had loose tongues and blabbed to reporters, while prudent businessmen kept their own counsel. Two of his most cherished maxims were "Success comes from keeping the ears open and the mouth closed" and "A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds." Rockefeller adhered to a fixed schedule, moving through the day in a frictionless manner. He never wasted time on frivolities. Even his daily breaks were designed to conserve energy and help him to strike an ideal balance between his physical and mental forces. As he remarked, "It is not good to keep all the forces at tension all the time."
Rockefeller possessed an unlikely charisma. He never backslapped, roughhoused, or skylarked with his colleagues, and his statesmanlike calm evoked feelings of awe. As one reporter said in 1905, "No man, however unimpressionable he may be, can stand in the presence of Mr. Rockefeller without feeling the repressed power of the man." He seemed to possess oracular powers. As Archbold conceded, "Rockefeller always sees a little further than the rest of us--and then he sees around the corner." In the last analysis, Rockefeller prevailed at Standard Oil because he had mastered a method for solving problems that carried him far beyond his native endowment. He believed there was a time to think and then a time to act. He brooded over problems and quietly matured plans over extended periods. Once he had made up his mind, however, he was no longer troubled by doubts and pursued his vision with undeviating faith. Unfortunately, once in that state of mind, he was all but deaf to criticism. He was like a projectile that, once launched, could never be stopped, never recalled, never diverted.
In truth, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. had left behind a contradictory legacy. An amalgam of godliness and greed, compassion and fiendish cunning, he personified the ambiguous heritage of America's Puritan ancestors, who had encouraged thrift and enterprise but had also spurred overly acquisitive instincts. He had extracted mixed messages from his religious training as well as from his incongruously matched parents. Not surprisingly, he had served as an emblem of both corporate greed and philanthropic enlightenment. Starting in the 1870s, Rockefeller's stewardship of Standard Oil had signaled a new era in American life that had both inspired and alarmed the populace. His unequaled brilliance and rapacity as a businessman had squarely confronted the country with troubling questions about the shape of the economy, the distribution of wealth, and the proper relationship between business and government. Rockefeller perfected a monopoly that indisputably demonstrated the efficiency of large-scale business. In creating new corporate forms, he charted the way for the modern multinational corporations that came to dominate economic life in the twentieth century. But in so doing he also exposed the manifold abuses that could accompany untrammeled economic power, especially in the threat to elected government. As architect of the first great industrial trust, he proved the ultimately fragile nature of free markets, forcing the government to specify the rules that would ensure competition and fair play in the future. The fiercest robber baron had turned out to be the foremost philanthropist. Rockefeller accelerated the shift from the personal, ad hoc charity that had traditionally been the province of the rich to something both more powerful and more impersonal. He established the promotion of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, as a task no less important than giving alms to the poor or building schools, hospitals, and museums. He showed the value of expert opinion, thorough planning, and competent administration in nonprofit work, setting a benchmark for professionalism in the emerging foundation field. By the time Rockefeller died, in fact, so much good had unexpectedly flowered from so much evil that God might even have greeted him on the other side, as the titan had so confidently expected all along.