John D Rockerfeller: the Original Rober Barron


In the modern world, one country has been the most powerful and most dominating country in the world- the United States of America. Ever since its inception in 1839, the country has been the paradise for freedom, inspiring the French Revolutionaries to build their ideals of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” decades later. However, it was only in the early 1900s that the concept of the “American Dream” was born. This was due to 5 key personalities who built the country into the superpower it is today. One of them off course is John Davison Rockefeller, the richest human being to ever live on this planet. Till today, the way he accumulated enough wealth to engrave his family to be one of the richest families in the modern world is absolutely unknown and attracts people to examine his life and the methods he employed to achieve this, like moths are attracted to light.  

What is the most surprising about him is the fact that he was born into a rather unconventionally large family that lived on the fringes of society in terms of wealth. Second eldest of 6 children, Rockerfeller inherited a strong Scottish descent from his mother, who was of Scottish-Irish descent. As for his father who held a strong English-German most people, alluding to his thrifty nature and his predominant occupation of a con artist, often referred to descent, as “Devil Bill”. His secondary profession was of a travelling salesman who identified himself as a “botanic physician” and sold elixirs. Strong parallels can be drawn between him and Arthur Miller’s protagonist, Willy, in his play, ‘A Death of A Salesman’ where, Willy Loman is a man who is dying of Alzheimer’s, slowly, day by day, as his brain rots as each minute passes by and finally, he does commit suicide at the end of the play. He is unable to come to terms with the fact that he is no longer a salesman and the fact that times have changed and only those who are able to adapt to the changing times actually survive. The rest, simply fade away, just as the dying profession of the travelling salesmen are.  Willy too, like Bill was a travelling salesman who spent much of his time away from home and was, like Bill, unfaithful to his wife. The difference between the two is that Bill was a con man and was far more unfaithful to his wife than Willy ever was. As a result of all of this, both their children grow up mostly disconnected from their fathers. As a result of this, they were much closer to their mothers. Thus, John grew up very closely connected to his mother a homemaker and devout Baptist struggled to maintain a semblance of stability at home, as Bill was frequently gone for extended periods. She also put up with his philandering and his double life, which included bigamy. Willy Loman’s wife, Linda Lowman too serves this purpose. Living in a delusional world, she refuses to accept that her husband is slowly falling prey to his condition of Alzheimer’s and lives to portray the ‘perfect’ family that she strives to maintain, regardless of what is happening in reality. Thus, a strong parallel is seen between her and Eliza Davison, Rockerfeller’s mother.

Thrifty by nature and necessity, she taught her son “wilful waste makes woeful want.” As a child, he earned his money by completing his chores and then, earned more through completing a various array of odd jobs ranging from selling potatoes to raising turkeys and eventually to lending small sums of money to neighbours. Despite his rather estranged relation with his father, his advice to “trade dishes for platters” served as a major influence in his business career, where, he was encouraged to always get the better half of the deal and to scout for it every opportunity he got.  In spite of his father’s absences and frequent family moves, young John was a well-behaved, serious, and studious boy. His contemporaries described him as reserved, earnest, religious, methodical, and discreet. He was an excellent debater and expressed himself precisely. He also had a deep love of music and dreamed of it as a possible career. Early on, he displayed an excellent mind for numbers and detailed accounting. Most would simply turn the pages and discard this information, classifying this to be rather trivial. However, that is anything but the case. The truth is, John Davidson Rockerfeller suffered from an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that has its roots embedded in his childhood.

“An obsessive-compulsive is one who is driven to an act or acts, generally being asocial, by his own fixations but by nature of his peculiar psyche must balance these actions with others more socially acceptable.”

One of the main instances was when he took up bookkeeping, working for a small produce commission firm called Hewitt & Tuttle, at the age of sixteen. He was an assistant bookkeeper and the fact that this was his first legitimate job is incredibly significant. According to the book, ‘Neuroses, Behavior Disorders, and Perversions0’ by Franz Alexander and Louis B. Shapiro, common characteristics of OCD are described as:

“Full blown cases of obsessive-compulsive states present a dynamic equilibrium in which obsessive preoccupation with ego-alien fantasies… are precariously balanced by rituals representing an exaggeration of social standards, such as cleanliness, punctuality, consideration for others he dynamic formula is similar to bookkeeping in which on the one side of ledger are the asocial tendencies which the patient tries to balance precisely on the other side with moralistic and social attitudes… Every asocial move must be undone by an opposing one….”

As a child, it became apparent that Rockerfeller was unlike most children. For example, he refused to play with other children unless he could choose the game himself and was often described to be “thinking” as a child. He married Laura Spelman, who is often described to be strikingly similar to his own mother, who he was raised by predominantly.

Rockerfeller started business by borrowing $1000 from his father at a 10% interest rate, which at the time was well above the interest rates, indicating that his own father loan sharked him. However, his influence was not all rotten. Apparently ‘disturbed’ by his childhood, Rockerfeller absorbed his father’s cut-throat business tactics. After dropping out of high school and serving a clerical apprenticeship, Rockefeller went into business, forming a produce house with one partner and $4,000 of capital between them. In its first year its gross income was $450,000, with a net income of $4,400- better than one hundred percent return. This was after dropping out of high school and pursuing a whole year of clerical internships, and finally entered the world of business, where he would remain for the rest of his life. This was the first of many incidents which made his way of making money seem almost effortless, a captivating allure for most of the world.

Rockerfeller purchased his first refinery, ridding on the Civil War boom the country still experienced and then, he soon gave up the original partnership to focus on the oil business. In 1870, with a capital of better than one million dollars, Rockefeller reformed his company as the Standard Oil Company of Ohio. In order to save money, he came up with the idea of controlling even the smallest details of the means of production, even if it meant making his own barrels. However, like every successful business of the time, Rockerfeller was involved in a fair amount of illegal activities. For example, Rockefeller encouraged illegal railroad rebates and even invented a few new ones such as the “drawback”, a variation on the kickback. It is at this time that his obsessive-compulsive nature truly becomes visible. An adamant churchgoer, he strongly disapproved of: smoking, drinking, card playing, dancing, merriment, “wenching”, theatre going, concert going, banqueting, idling, socializing in general and “good fellowship”. He took no vacations, no time off. He did nothing in his small amount of free time except go to church two or three times a week. In other words, he was absolutely addicted to his work. As for going almost obsessively to church, one aspect was because he truly was that religious. The other is the fact that this is one of those ‘rituals’ described by Franz Alexander and Louis B. Shapiro that represent an ‘exaggeration of social standards’ commonly seen in OCD patients, where, they balance their asocial acts with acts accepted by the social convention and in Rockerfeller’s case, it was also used to present a façade of deep morality to both himself and others. 

In the anti-corporation hue and cry of the late 1800’s and early twentieth century, Rockefeller was assaulted by the courts in an attempt to reduce his virtual monopoly. In 1892 he was ordered to dissolve his trust, one of his inventions which allowed him control over a number of subsidiary companies. He simply placed relatives and friends at the helms of the newly-freed subsidiaries. In 1906 Standard Oil’s railroad rebate schemes were discovered and the company was fined $29.2 million. The judge, luckily for Rockefeller, had made an incompetent decision (his fine was too high by at least an order of magnitude) and the decision was reversed in a higher court. Standard Oil paid nothing. In the year following the 1892 decision, Rockefeller donated over $1.5 million to charities. While he had been donating money since his teenage years, this amount was three times as large as any sum he had ever donated in one year. In 1907, after the second major court case, he donated over $39 million. This was also the largest amount he had ever donated, by a large margin. We can say with some assurance that these hefty donations were a result of Rockefeller’s obsessive-compulsive disorder; he was simply balancing the guilt he felt from his business practices with philanthropy.

Despite everything, the main question is that how much did his OCD actually influence his success? The main fact remains, John D Rockerfeller was a financial genius with or without OCD. However, his condition compelled him into making more wealth It would probably be safe to say, at the very least, that any fortune generated by illegal activities after the mid 1890’s was the result of his obsessive-compulsive complex; perhaps his obsession for money spurred him on from his very first business venture through the last days of Standard Oil. Too few records exist of Standard Oil and Rockefeller for us to be sure at what point Rockefeller’s obsessive-compulsive disorder became the dominant force.   John D. Rockefeller is, by all historical accounts, a clear-cut case of an obsessive-compulsive, one who commits asocial acts and feels a need to balance these actions with more socially becoming conduct. The origins of Rockefeller’s disorder appear to have occurred in his childhood; the obsessive-compulsive syndrome that resulted was probably responsible for most of his financial ambition and subsequent success.