Who is the richest person in America in modern times? Many people’s first reaction is to Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, who has been rich for nearly 30 years. But in terms of influence, the rich families of the Second Industrial Revolution shaped America for a century. Some media described these families as close to the “royal family” of this immigrant country, giving material and spiritual inspiration to ordinary people.
The Rockefeller family, rich in oil, continues to influence the US and the international community. John Rockefeller, the family’s first founder, founded Mobil Oil in 1870. When he died in 1937, his wealth amounted to 1.5 per cent of US GDP. In the latter years of his life, he established a charitable foundation, invested in the reconstruction of the University of Chicago, established Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Peking Union Medical College Hospital and other well-known institutions.
The Rockefellers’ legacy extends beyond philanthropy and education. The family contributed to the UN’s success in New York; The twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York were named after two Rockefeller brothers. Governors, vice presidents, collectors, bankers, diplomats… As the documentary The Rockefellers describes, “their members were at the center of everything the family wanted to do.”
The rockefellers rose to prominence at the same time as the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, and the Morgans. They all made their fortunes after the Civil War, during America’s Gilded Age of rapid growth, brutality and hope, and were among the most direct participants in rising inequality.
As the Rockefellers have long pondered, the key to the influence of these overnight millionaires over many generations is “how to handle their wealth, which is increasing exponentially every day.”
The American rose, in full bloom
Before philanthropy, John Rockefeller, founder of Mobil Oil, was known as “capitalism’s greatest monster”. This is not only a satire of his capitalist credentials, but also a description of his ruthless business methods.
In the mid-19th century, when the world’s first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, thousands of men came to drill for oil, the smoke of machinery billowing into the air.
Rockefeller, who grew up sensitive to money, was ahead of his peers in judging that the oil business was limited and that the real promise was in refining.
He soon teamed up with a chemist to start an oil refining company in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1870, forming mobil Oil, which has influenced the world to this day.
In mobil’s first five years, he bought refiners all over Cleveland while allying with railroads to raise rates against rivals. Within nine years, John Rockefeller had cornered 90% of the oil market in the United States.
By 1882, Mobil oil had grown so powerful that the U.S. government imposed legal restrictions. Rockefeller responded by using what he called a “trust” approach, in which companies were nominally not directly controlled by the same person, but the stakes were concentrated in a few hands. He was able to manipulate upstream and downstream suppliers in the late 19th century, indirectly controlling the national oil price.
In response, John Rockefeller presented himself as a prophet of the new order, convinced that monopolies were good for consumers. Speaking at Brown University, he said: “The beautiful American rose must sacrifice new shoots around it in order to bloom.”
The family contributed to the success of the United Nations in New York.
In the mid-19th century, the world’s first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania
John’s peers were already terrified of him, and a survival rule was: “Once he makes up his mind, you better sell your company, because one day it will belong to Mobil Oil.”
In the first half of his life, John Rockefeller amassed more than he could spend through oil refining. In 2006, Forbes translated the personal wealth of the richest men in history into the current dollar based on the gross domestic product of each period: Rockefeller was worth $305.3 billion, more than the $277.4 billion of the world’s top 10 richest men combined.
Behind the rise of John Rockefeller, the United States of America’s economic leap, national strength to become a prosperous era. Many of America’s most famous family founders made their first fortune at the same time. Andrew Carnegie, the “king of steel”, noticed the business opportunities waiting for him after the Civil War and founded the Bridge Company in 1865. On top of building Bridges, he borrowed heavily to create steel mills and built an empire in 30 years.
Benefiting from the “gold Rush”, Vanderbilt, the “king of ships”, also built shipping routes and railway lines across the United States during this period. By the time he died in 1877, his railroad empire had more than 740 miles of track and 9,000 trains in the family’s hands.
John Rockefeller saw himself as a prophet of the new order, convinced that monopolies were good for consumers.
The power of heavy industry and commerce shaped the new face of American economy and society. Carnegie was called the “builder” of the United States by economic historians. At the end of the 19th century, the steel company named after him became the world’s largest steel enterprise, with annual steel output exceeding that of the United Kingdom. Vanderbilt’s commercial needs led to the creation of the world’s largest train station, New York’s Grand Central Station.
During the Great Depression of 1930, construction began quietly on Rockefeller Center, named for his family. The 14-building complex would become an American landmark nine years later. 700,000 workers broke ground on it, in other words, they all had jobs.
Find a balance of power and goodwill
Some Scholars in the United States call it the gilded Age. “Gilt is not the color of gold,” historian Neil Owen Perleant told Time. ‘Gilding’ is the copper rust that covers something else, the shiny exterior and the rot underneath.”
This makes them “zeitgeist”, says Mr Perleant: “One of the hallmarks of the Gilded Age was the ostentation of wealth. Today’s wealthy Americans don’t want to reveal what they own.”
In a scene that rocked America in the late 19th century, the Vanderbilt family held a masquerade party for 1,000 guests in 1883. The ball was described by the New York Times as a “fairyland” — guests dressed in ornate gowns and eye-catching jewelry, hoping to stand out from the crowd.
According to the New York Museum, “most contemporary sources place the cost of the ball at $250,000 (about $6 million in today’s dollars)”.
But at the same time, the bloodlust of capital and the social gap between rich and poor are increasingly criticized by the American public.
Beginning in the late 19th century, John Rockefeller received several threatening letters. Many claimed to blow up his house and kidnap his children.
In the early 20th century, the United States government, under pressure from public opinion, introduced various policies to disperse the wealth, such as the introduction of a federal estate tax, progressive tax system, and the anti-trust law specifically aimed at the monopoly of John D. Rockefeller family.
In 1911, the Supreme Court ruled that Mobil Oil violated the law and ordered it to be broken up into 34 companies.
It’s a time when the top rich are starting to think about how to make the most of their wealth. “Many of us realize that life is about finding a balance between power and good will,” a family descendant told the documentary The Rockefellers.
Carnegie, in his publication “The Gospel of Wealth”, suggested that those who had acquired wealth should inspire the “good and diligent poor” to help themselves, so there were seven best areas for charitable giving: universities, free libraries, disease-prevention facilities, parks, concert halls, swimming pools, etc.
Influenced by national policies and social culture, John D. Rockefeller announced the establishment of charitable foundations in the early 20th century. Well-funded foundations quickly make an impact around the world. An important measure was that the Foundation, shortly after its establishment, sent a delegation of top medical education experts to China. After the investigation, it was decided to establish a medical college in Beijing that integrates teaching, clinical and scientific research.
In early fall of 1921, John Rockefeller jr., the only son of John Rockefeller, and his party took a trans-ocean cruise to attend the opening ceremony of the Union Hospital. Distinguished visiting scholars and scientists from across Europe, the United States, Japan and China. Rockefeller Jr. expressed his hope that “the best medicine that the West can offer will always take root in the soil of China.”
As historian Neil Owen Perleant has concluded, the capitalists of this period “were not just robber barons and rich men; their emergence was not all bad; the only certainty was that they were very powerful”.
Strict family rules and traditions have been interpreted as the reason for the rockefellers’ rise to prominence.
Trust funds avoid disputes
Instead of maximizing their wealth, how to make it last from generation to generation is a lifelong concern for the rich.
Dennis Jaffe, author of “Borrowed from Your Grandchild: The Evolution of a 100-Year Family Business,” concluded that most of the top rich want to maintain status and status. “Instead of saying, ‘When we get rich, we can all do what we want,’ they invest their wealth in the next generation and build great families.”
After studying more than 20 of the world’s richest families, Dennis Jaffe found that families tend to have diversified portfolios beyond stocks. “Usually by the fourth generation, they tend to own two, three or more private companies. Invest in many properties at the same time.
The trust is the rockefellers’ answer. In 1934, Rockefeller Jr. set up a $600 million trust for his wife and six third-generation children, each entrusted by Chase National Bank. In 1952, he set up a trust fund totaling $100 million for his grandchildren (fourth generation). These funds are distributed roughly equally, avoiding family disputes among the rich.
According to reports, the Rockefeller Foundation’s assets have grown from $100 million when it was founded to more than $4 billion in the 2000s, mainly investing in securities, but also dabbling in venture capital and private equity.
Successful preservation of wealth contributed to the spread of the Rockefellers’ influence. Rockefeller junior had a girl and five boys — all of whom the American press called “at the center.”
Eldest sister Babs and elder brother Rockefeller III devoted most of their lives to charity, while the middle brother, Nelson, made the most public appearances. He served four terms as governor of New York from 1959 to 1973, advocating investment and infrastructure improvement, and served as Vice president for Republican President Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1977.
The youngest, David, also holds the unbroken record of being the world’s oldest billionaire. He was 101 when he died in 2017. A long list of titles characterise his life: he has opened 70 banks; Before his death, he controlled pan American, Global, Oriental and other top five American airlines; During his decades at the helm of Chase Manhattan bank, he met with more than 200 foreign leaders, including Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Soviet Supreme leader Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
In 1973, before the United States and China formally established diplomatic relations, Zhou Enlai met David Rockefeller, a banker, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. David marveled at Zhou’s “astonishing knowledge” of the Rockefellers, and the two chatted happily about the international economic and monetary situation until 1am.
David’s trip to China led to early financial cooperation between China and the United States, and Chase Manhattan Bank became bank of China’s correspondent bank in New York.
Because of the third-generation family’s influence in the United States and internationally, when David died in 2017, the New York Times commented that he might be the last member of this rapidly fading family to make a mark on the world stage.
As for the ups and downs and continuity of families, Dennis Jaffe concluded that the vast majority of families still follow the “rich in three generations” principle, and only a few survive.
Strict family rules and traditions have been interpreted as the reason for the rockefellers’ rise to prominence. Peggy Dulaney, fourth generation daughter of David Rockefeller, said the family valued financial education and that as a child she was “asked to give away 10 percent of my pocket money.”
The motto that has influenced the lives of many Rockefellers is the one John Rockefeller Sr. summed up about himself: “I was brought up to play and work, and my life is one long, pleasant vacation; Working hard and playing hard, I let go of all my worries during the journey, and God has been kind to me every day.”