Strikebreaker vs. Muckraker

Jean Forst

How can two Americans, sharing the same classically American virtue of hard work, affect their country in such profoundly different ways? Steve Weinberg’s Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller (Norton, March 2008) explores the remarkable work ethic that drove John D. Rockefeller and Ida Minerva Tarbell. He invented the trust. She invented investigative journalism. Destiny demanded that they meet – and parry.

Rockefeller tapped xenophobic impulses to drum up business, implying that European investors backed his competitor, the Tidewater Pipe Land Company.

With narrative flair, Weinberg crafts a dual biography that dramatizes the clash of two formidable personalities: Tarbell, the careful researcher and writer, Rockefeller, the intensely ambitious corporate titan. 

So aptly does Weinberg tell a story that we sympathize with a tyrant. Surviving an upbringing rendered precarious by a selfish, conniving father, Rockefeller matured early, Weinberg tells us, meeting life gravely with a seriousness of purpose. Six weeks of knocking on doors led to a tedious bookkeeping job, at which point the 16-year-old Rockefeller worked tirelessly to care for his siblings and his beloved mother. In his early 20s, Rockefeller held a series of odd jobs, until a chemical engineer who knew him from church turned his attention to oil. 

A hands-on entrepreneur,” Weinberg writes, Rockefeller pushed a barrel maker he had hired to develop a sealant to prevent oil from oozing through container slats, and then replaced those still-faulty storage devices with tank cars drawn by horses. 

Desiring that his company be known for clean-burning kerosene that would not cause fatal explosions, Rockefeller invested accordingly. And while other would-be tycoons hastily constructed shoddy devices to extract oil out of the ground as quickly as possible, Rockefeller reflected and planned. If interested in getting rich, he proved different from those wishing to get rich quick. 

With comparable aplomb, Weinberg details Tarbell’s growth as a scholar and a writer, first at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, then in Paris, where she traveled to research French Revolution icon Madame Roland, and finally at McClure’s Magazine, where she worked alongside journalists like Lincoln Steffens. 

Meticulously tracking her professional life, Weinberg tells of the hardships Tarbell endured as a history-oriented investigative reporter for McClure’s. She inhabited the Library of Congress and other Washington repositories to pore over original documents about Napoleon. She traveled great distances to access court records for her study of Abraham Lincoln. This determination would serve her well in taking on Standard Oil.

Like earlier Rockefeller biographers that Weinberg draws upon (such as Titan and John D: The Founding Father of the Rockefellers), he pairs examples of Rockefeller’s misdeeds with examples of his munificence: Though Rockefeller bought people out, he made them rich in the process; despite his need for control, he sought out talent and rewarded it. Rockefeller amassed enormous wealth, but he gave huge chunks of it to charity, an instinct he developed when he was poor.

Weinberg compares Rockefeller’s approach to charity with Andrew Carnegie’s. Carnegie widely publicized his generosity – hence Carnegie Mellon, the Carnegie Foundation and Carnegie Hall. In contrast to Rockefeller, Weinberg notes, Carnegie is today remembered largely for his philanthropy. True, Rockefeller established the Rockefeller Foundation, but he also anonymously created a medical institute that helped stamp out yellow fever, as well as quietly founding the University of Chicago (which, granted, includes Rockefeller Chapel).

Still, Weinberg neglects to mention that while Rockefeller donated portions of his fortune to charity, he held on to most of it, while Carnegie shed 90 percent of his wealth. 

Rockefeller desired total control of the oil industry. In 1870, Standard Oil processed just 2 percent to 3 percent of America’s crude oil. By 1880, it controlled 90 percent of the refining business. 

As an antitrust wave swept the nation, the staff at McClure’s considered taking on the sugar and beef trusts, then U.S. Steel, before deciding to target Rockefeller’s behemoth. 

Tarbell’s father despaired at Rockefeller taking over his Petroleum Producer’s Union, and that guaranteed that Tarbell would take on the titan. But an exposé remained an idea in the back of her mind until she encountered Henry Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth Against Commonwealth, which launched a systemic indictment” of the trusts. Lloyd had neglected to name names. Tarbell named Rockefeller. Then, making use of documents, such as transcripts from the hearings of congressional committees and state legislatures, she proceeded to specify his abuses and parse his psyche.

Weinberg outlines the destructive power of Standard Oil. He describes the infamous Cleveland Massacre,” in which Rockefeller pounced on distressed competitors to integrate” 22 of Cleveland’s 26 oil refineries into Standard Oil. 

In another incident, Rockefeller tapped xenophobic impulses to drum up business, implying that European investors backed his competitor, the Tidewater Pipe Line Company. Fixing railroad rates and slandering his competitors, Rockefeller deflated the entrepreneurial spirit of others. Control tipped into self-serving corruption, and the greed that followed consumed him.

Tarbell never begrudged Rockefeller his wealth. Rather, Weinberg explains, in The History of the Standard Oil Company, she revealed through careful study that he hadn’t played fair in gaining it. To her credit,” Weinberg writes, rarely did Tarbell portray Rockefeller as personally evil.” In fact, surmising that he suffered for his success, Tarbell noted – while discreetly observing Rockefeller in church one day – that “[n]othing but paying [for his sins] ever ploughs such lines in a man’s face, ever sets his lips to such a melancholy angle.”

In an era that could easily give way to sensationalist reporting, Tarbell ploddingly got it right. Tarbell was a woman in a man’s world, a fact Weinberg seldom highlights. But then, Tarbell experienced little discrimination as a woman, and so presumably transcended her gender. Yet, raised by a forthright suffragist mother, Tarbell famously and disappointingly declared that the only reason she was glad she was a woman was because she did not have to marry one.

How difficult she is to categorize,” Weinberg concludes, after devoting only a couple of pages to this controversy in the book’s final chapter. Her paradoxical ideas inspire lively discussion among Tarbell scholars. Engaging these debates more fully would have strengthened Weinberg’s study.

The clash between Tarbell and Rockefeller was a singular one for a singular era. Yet Weinberg’s fleeting references to Microsoft and Wal-Mart suggest that today’s trusts are no less extraordinary, as corporate heads ruthlessly attempt to leapfrog legislation to gain a lion’s share of the market. 

Weinberg’s study of Tarbell’s achievements in confronting corporate abuse will inspire future journalists, and make her more the rule than the exception.

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Jean Forst has worked as a community organizer around literacy, environmental and labor issues. She is completing a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Illinois.
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