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Rockefeller and the Muckrakers

Rockefeller and the Muckrakers

4 Mins
July 18, 2004

Just as there is much to celebrate in the life of John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), so is there much to loathe in the muckrakers' treatment of him. I choose a single example: the story of "the widow Backus," who inherited a small oil-refining company when her husband died in 1874.


In his 1894 book Wealth against Commonwealth, Henry Demarest Lloyd recounted this tale with great drama but no names: "For six years word had been passing from one frightened lip to another that they were all destined for the maw or the morgue, and the fulfillment of the word had been appalling….The woman was brave with love and enthusiasm for the memory of her husband and the future of her children. She had had a great success, but she knew the sea she was swimming. She saw strong men going down on every side….

"She told her fellow-stockholders that she had been informed by the agent who was dealing with her, that if they did not sell out it would only be a question of time before they would be forced to sell out, as he intended to place oil like that made by her company in the hands of all their agents, to undersell them and close them out. This decided them to sell….

"She put upon the property a price warranted by its income, $200,000….[In return,] the only offer she could get was $60,000 for the works and good-will, the purchasers paying in addition the cash value [$19,000] of the material in stock…[In a letter,] the widow could not restrain herself from giving a most uncommercial piece of her mind to those who had got possession of her property…'Were it not for the knowledge I have that there is a God in heaven, and that you will be compelled to give an account for the deeds done here; and there, in the presence of my husband, will have to confess whether you have wronged me and his fatherless children or not—were it not for this knowledge I could not endure it for a moment'" (Lloyd, pp. 74-81).

Ten years later, Ida Tarbell repeated the lie in The History of the Standard Oil Company, using "B—" instead of "Backus" and implying that Rockefeller's actions were tantamount to a crime. "A proposal from Mr. Rockefeller was certainly regarded popularly as little better than a command to 'stand and deliver.'…Rightly or wrongly [Mrs. Backus] had come to believe that a refusal to sell meant a fight with Mr. Rockefeller, that a fight meant ultimately defeat, and she gave up her business to avoid ruin." Thirty years later, in The Robber Barons, Matthew Josephson brought the lie to a new generation: "A certain widow, a Mrs. Backus of Cleveland, who had inherited an oil-refinery, had appealed to Mr. Rockefeller to preserve her, 'the mother of fatherless children.' And he had promised 'with tears in his eyes that he would stand by her.' But in the end he offered her only $79,000 for a property which had cost $200,000" (Josephson, p. 267).


In 1998, Ron Chernow published his monumental study Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and noted that key facts were omitted by the muckrakers' account. Mrs. Backus began by insisting that she would deal only with Rockefeller, and he agreed to meet with her because her husband had once worked for him as a bookkeeper. According to her own account, when she appealed to her status as a widow and asked that she be paid a fair price, "he promised with tears in his eyes, that he would stand by me in this transaction, and that I should not be wronged" (Chernow, p. 446).

And he kept his word: The superintendent of the Backus plant corroborated Rockefeller's assertion "that the $60,000 paid for the property was two to three times the cost of constructing equal or better facilities." Mrs. Backus's brother-in-law confirmed that Rockefeller had told his negotiators to add $10,000 to the purchase price.

And her own negotiator later swore that his client "had written down $71,000 for plant and goodwill." In other words, she valued the property at slightly more than Rockefeller's negotiators offered and considerably less than the price Rockefeller made his negotiators offer. Lastly, having portrayed Mrs. Backus as a Dickensian widow, the muckrakers fail to mention that she put her $79,000 in Cleveland real estate and died worth $300,000, approximately $6.5 million in today's money (Chernow, pp. 446-47).


What is the muckrakers' motive for distorting history? It is not far to seek. Early in 1932, Matthew Josephson wrote to his editor, Alfred Harcourt, about his idea for The Robber Barons: "I wish to place the brand of obloquy squarely upon the masters of capital in 1870-1890" and to focus on "the whole character of their construction, rotten at the core by virtue of the profit-making motive" (David E. Shi, Matthew Josephson: Bourgeois Bohemian, p. 157). With philosophical consistency, Josephson later praised a system where profit-making was absent: Stalin's Soviet Union.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

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