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John D. Rockefeller

Episode 4 of 5

Adam Smith tells the story of John D. Rockefeller. Why did the oil tycoon become a sworn enemy of the free market? From 2016.

In the 19th century, so-called 'Robber Barons' - men like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan - seized the great new opportunities thrown up by the United States' Industrial Revolution.

The Robber Barons built vast businesses, and helped forged a radically new country - the basis of the America we know today. But did they sow the seeds of amazing progress, or did they steal the American Dream? Historian Adam Smith tells their stories and confronts their legacy.

In this episode, Adam explores how Rockefeller spotted a huge business opportunity amidst the dynamic chaos and ruthless competition of the growing oil trade in America in the 1860s and 1870s.

Early Robber Barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt had begun their careers exulting in the anti-Establishment rebellion signalled by business competition. But Rockefeller saw another way: consolidation.

He cut secret deals with railroad companies, pressured his rivals into selling out to him, and so built Standard Oil - a gargantuan corporation that dominated US oil and 'vertically integrated' the production process, handing Rockefeller huge power.

Some condemned him as a monster - but he saw his company's actions as those of an angel of mercy, saving his fellow businessmen from the storms of the free market.

And all the while he was a devout Baptist, who spent his later decades giving away huge sums as one of America's pioneering philanthropists.

With: Joanna Cohen, Steve Fraser.


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15 minutes