The Rockefellers and class warfare.

The history behind current events.
Oct. 19 2007 12:45 PM

The Rockefellers and the Angry Commoners

A century ago, the super-rich had to contend with class warfare.

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The following year, however, his father's chickens came home to roost. In the spring of 1914, armed guards at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. fired on striking workers and then set fire to their tents, killing 11 children and two women cowering in a pit below. The Rockefeller family, the press soon revealed, owned a controlling interest in the company's stock, and Rockefeller Jr. sat on the board. The outcry was instantaneous. "Mr. Rockefeller is the monster of capitalism," Helen Keller (a socialist as well as a hero to the disabled) told reporters, according to Ron Chernow's Titan. "He gives charity and in the same breath he permits the helpless workmen, their wives and children to be shot down."

In the months that followed, protesters held regular vigils in front of Rockefeller's Standard Oil offices, his 54th Street mansion, and his country estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., demanding that he condemn the murders and respect their right to free speech. When he failed to heed their pleas, a few prepared to deliver a less subtle message. On July 4, 1914, three New York anarchists accidentally blew themselves up in a Lexington Avenue tenement while allegedly preparing a bomb to assassinate the "tyrant of Ludlow."

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Rockefeller Jr.'s first instinct was to lash out against his critics. "There was no Ludlow massacre," he wrote in a private memo, according to Chernow. "While this loss of life is profoundly to be regretted, it is unjust in the extreme to lay it at the door of the defenders of law and property."

Rockefeller Jr. changed his stance, however, after consulting with Ivy Lee, a public relations strategist (these were pioneering times for the P.R. industry, too). Called the following year to testify about the affair before the Commission on Industrial Relations, he adopted a conciliatory tone, promising that he was moderating his social views. He also tentatively offered CFI workers the right to join a company-controlled union, a scheme known as the Rockefeller Plan. Even his father, who abhorred any concession to labor, took pains to ameliorate his image by the 1920s. Possibly on Lee's advice, he began to hand out dimes to poor children.

Both father and son performed other, more substantive good works as well, of course, establishing not only the Rockefeller Foundation, but also the Rockefeller Institute, Riverside Church, and the University of Chicago, among other institutions. Many of today's CEOs-turned-philanthropists look to such accomplishments as models of philanthropic behavior. As they do so, however, it's important to understand that this earlier generation turned to philanthropy at least in part as a matter of self-defense. Indeed, measured against the political pressures facing the tycoons of the early 20th century, the charitable activities of the Slate 60 seem decidedly selfless: They are giving away their fortunes even though nobody is threatening their lives.

On the other hand, as this recent New York Times magazine and other articles show, the new rich are also spending their money on $40 million Manhattan apartments and $120,000 birthday parties for their kids. The Times package, like much of the reporting on the rich of the new Gilded Age, smacks vaguely of voyeurism. ("Econ porn," you might call it.) More importantly, the attention being lavished on the ways of the contemporary rich misses a larger point about our current politics of inequality.

The real question of today's Gilded Age, highlighted by the comparison to its predecessor, is not why the rich became rich, or whether they behave well with their billions. It's why the rest of us seem to feel we can do so little about it.

Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, is the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded.