Pity the Tycoon

Illustration by Tony Millionare

On August 3, 1907, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis fined Standard Oil $29.24 million for taking illegal rebates from the Chicago & Alton Railroad. It was, at the time, far and away the largest fine in American corporate history. The plutocrats of the day were irate. Below, a letter written six days later by Frederick T. Gates, the former Baptist minister who oversaw the Rockefeller family’s investments, to his boss John D. Rockefeller Sr.

Dear Mr. Rockefeller:

No oriental despot, I am persuaded, certainly in modern times, has committed such arbitrary acts of confiscation as the present administration is responsible for, under the forms of law. The administration has apparently assumed the responsibility for this decision publicly and has sought to arouse popular passion with which to support and enforce it by the timing of the publication at the moment of the decision of its arbitrary report. It has sought to meet the issue by saying to the public—“Quite true, the Standard Oil Company may not be guilty of a serious offence or of any offence in this particular instance, but the fine of Thirty Million dollars, and other fines which may be imposed, are amply justified by our suspicions as to its general character and history.” This, of course, is anarchy pure and simple.

I have been a republican all my life, but I could not vote for [Theodore] Roosevelt and I was not even content with remaining away from the polls. I took a positively hostile attitude toward his election and voted for his opponent, casting the first democratic vote in my life, at the last Presidential Election. My hostility to Roosevelt, therefore, antedates his arbitrary attacks on my friends and his arbitrariness and the injustice and tyranny of his course as President and his use of his great office in many an instance to vent his personal spites, to gratify his personal whims, to punish his personal enemies and to promote his personal fortunes. His whole conduct in office has been that of an arbitrary, irresponsible and despotic ruler, passionate, rash, inconsiderate, foolish and destructive.

He first came under my notice in the early 80s and what I read of him then led me to regard him with admiration, and I began to follow his course and to study his conduct, always, of course, at a great distance. His character only gradually revealed itself to me, partly as Police Commissioner of New York, later in connection with the Spanish-American War and his canvass for the Governorship of New York. It was his conduct in this canvass that disclosed to me finally his true character and the reversal of my judgment and my revulsion of feeling has been confirmed by almost every public act and by innumerable private acts since that time.

I do not wish to be a pessimist—I have always been very hopeful, but I will confess that the signs of the times are ominous. There are too many evidences for my peace of mind that wherever the voice of the people finds absolutely free expression, that voice is not the voice of reason, of enlightenment, and least of all of a deep seated sense of right in public things. It is not the voice of conscience nor of justice, but the voice of reckless greed to lay violent hands on other people’s property, of reckless disregard of right or justice, of heedless legislation, wholly oblivious of private rights. There is hardly a legislature in this country that has not passed laws of this sort within the last winter, with wellnigh absolute unanimity as if there were no such thing as justice of property rights in this world, which the people in their corporate capacity should respect or heed.

It is possible that this frightful act of tyranny, without color or right or reason—this amazing and reckless robbery and plundering under the forms of law, may awake the business interests of the country and thoughtful men, to the perils into which we have drifted.

Pity the Tycoon