THE ROLE AND IMPACT OF ROCKEFELLER PHILANTHROPY DURING THE PROGRESSIVE ERA

JOHN WILLIAM KLEIN, Fordham University

Abstract

During the first two decades of the twentieth century John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and his associates diverted their attention from the world of corporate enterprise to the launching of several startling philanthropic ventures. Their reasons for this decision have presented several generations of Americans with an intriguing puzzle of complex motivation. Could the Rockefellers possibly be seeking only the advancement of civilization? Were the Rockefellers, in reality, attempting to employ philanthropy as an instrument for rehabilitating the Rockefeller reputation? Was organized benevolence actually a vehicle through which the Rockefellers responded to social forces threatening their administration of their vast resources? To what extent did his philanthropies permit John D. Rockefeller to build his family into a national institution, similar to the Malboroughs in England?^ In order to resolve these questions an attempt was made to closely examine the personal correspondence, memoranda and papers of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The Rockefeller Archive Center at Pocantico Hills and Private Archives of the Messrs. Rockefeller at Rockefeller Center proved to be invaluable sources of these materials. The papers of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bureau of Social Hygiene, the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission and the General Education Board, all found at the Archive Center were also closely studied. Several other manuscript collections in the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress supplemented these materials. In addition, editorial comment in eighteen newspapers was systematically examined for the period, 1905-1915.^ Research into these sources strongly indicates that John D. Rockefeller, Sr., entrusted primary responsibility for the formulation and direction of his benevolences to a talented corps of philanthropic advisors headed by Frederick Taylor Gates. These individuals transformed Rockefeller's random and haphazard approach to benevolence into a highly structured and coherent program of philanthropic giving. This effort garnered for the Rockefellers a wider latitude of influence than their wealth alone could have ever provided.^ During the years following the inauguration of the General Education Board, the first major Rockefeller philanthropic venture, the Rockefeller circle significantly widened its sphere of influence. In the process, it left an indelible imprint upon American society. Its educational programs helped to advance both primary and secondary school education in the South. The General Education Board also exercised a distinguished role in the uplift of higher education during the same period. The Rockefeller philanthropic efforts in the realm of agriculture not only augmented the productivity of many American farmers, but also convinced the federal government to address the problems of the nation's farm population. Through the vehicle of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, the Rockefellers succeeded in both extirpating a dread disease from the Southland and also persuading the state and federal governments to accept some responsibility for the public health of their citizens.^ In addition, philanthropy enabled the Rockefellers to neutralize some of the adverse public criticism engendered by their association with Standard Oil. Their benevolent initiatives further offered them the opportunity to influence the direction of the nation's social policy so that the control and administration of the nation's great fortunes would remain essentially in the hands of their accumulators. As the first decade and a half of the Rockefeller benevolent program drew to a close, while not exonerating them for their alleged business misbehavior the general public willingly accepted their philanthropic generosity. In the process, the Rockefellers won for themselves an enviable position as one of America's leading families. ^

Subject Area

History, United States

Recommended Citation

JOHN WILLIAM KLEIN, "THE ROLE AND IMPACT OF ROCKEFELLER PHILANTHROPY DURING THE PROGRESSIVE ERA" (January 1, 1980). ETD Collection for Fordham University. Paper AAI8020067.
http://fordham.bepress.com/dissertations/AAI8020067

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