On John Adams

I recently finished reading John Adams by David McCullough.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be particularly insightful:

In truth, he was extremely proud of his descent from “a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers.” That virtue and independence were among the highest of mortal attainments, John Adams never doubted. The New England farmer was his own man who owned his own land, a freeholder, and thus the equal of anyone.

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings and a desire to know. But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessings and years of transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind.

The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved.

Few Americans ever achieved so much of such value and consequence to their country in so little time. Above all, with his sense of urgency anc unrelenting drive, Adams made the Declaration of Independence happen when it did. Had it come later, the course of events could have gone very differently.

Years later, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams would describe the voyage on the Boston as symbolic of his whole life. The raging seas he has passed through, he seemed to be saying, were like the times they lived in, and he was at the mercy of the times no less than the seas. Possibly he saw, too, in the presence of John Quincy, how directly his determination to dare such seas affected his family and how much, with his devotion to the cause of America, he had put at risk beyond his own life. Besides, as he may also have seen, the voyage had demonstrated how better suited he was for action than for smooth sailing with little to do.

To Thomas Jefferson, Adams would one day write, “My friend, you and 1 have lived in serious times.” And of all the serious events of the exceedingly eventful eighteenth century, none compared to the arrival upon the world stage of the new, independent United States of America. Adams’s part in Holland and at Paris had been profound. As time would tell, the treaty that he, Franklin, and Jay had made was as advantageous to their country as any in history. It would be said they had won the greatest victory in the annals of American diplomacy.

The role of the executive Adams was emphatic. If there is one central truth to be collected from the history of all ages, it is this: that the people’s rights and liberties, and the democratical mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a Strong executive, or, in other words, without separating the executive from the legislative power. If the executive power, or any considerable part of it, is left in the hands of an aristocratical or democratical assembly, it will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or as arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are undone.

The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us,” young schoolmaster Adams had written in his percipient letter to Nathan Webb, and to Adams now, as to others, dissolution remained the greatest single threat to the American experiment. “The fate of this government,” he would write from New York to his former law clerk, William Tudor, “depends absolutely upon raising it above the state governments.’ The first line of the Constitution made the point, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.’

‘o Adams the outcome was proof of how potent party spirit and party organization had become, and the most prominent was Burr’s campaign in New York. Washington, in his Farewell Address, had warned against disunion, permanent alliances with other nations, and “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Adams could rightly claim to have held to the ideals of union and neutrality, but his unrelenting independence—his desire to be a President above party—had cost him dearly.

In turbulent, dangerous times he had held to a remarkably steady course. He had shown that a strong defense and a desire for peace were not mutually exclusive, but compatible and greatly in the national interest.

In fundamental ways each proved consistently true to his nature they were in what they wrote as they had been through life. Jefferson was far more guarded and circumspect, better organized, dispassionate, more mannered, and refused ever to argue. Adams was warm, loquacious. more personal and opinionated, often humorous and willing to poke fun at himself. When Jefferson wrote of various self-appointed seers and mystics who had taken up his time as president, Adams claimed to have lad no problem with such people. “They all assumed the character of ambassadors extraordinary from the Almighty, but as I required miracles in proof of their credentials, and they did not perform any, I never gave public audience to any of them.”

I do not believe that Mr. Jefferson ever hated me. On the contrary, I believe he always liked me: but he detested Hamilton and my whole administration. Then he wished to be President of the United States, and I stood in his way. So he did everything that he could to pull me down. But if I should quarrel with him for that, I might quarrel with every man I have had anything to do with in life. This is human nature…. I forgive all my enemies and hope they may find mercy in Heaven. Mr. Jefferson and I have grown old and retired from public life. So we are upon our ancient terms of goodwill.

On a concluding note:

That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same day. and that it was, of all days, the Fourth of July, could not be seen as a mere coincidence: it was a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor,” wrote John Quincy in his diary that night, expressing what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread.

A highly recommended read in the areas of history and leadership.




Titan – The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

The name Rockefeller is ingrained within both American History and Business, but why so? This is the question that set me on the quest to read the National Bestseller, Titan – The Life Of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow.

Below are key highlights from this masterpiece that I wanted to share.

John D. Rockefeller’s began displaying and developing his business acumen at a young age:

Though only dimly aware of such distant developments, John D. Rockefeller already seemed a perfect specimen of homo economicus. Even as a boy, he bought candy by the pound, divided it into small portions, then sold it at a tidy profit to his siblings. By age seven, encouraged by his mother, he was dropping gold, silver, and copper coins that he earned into a blue china bowl on the mantel. John’s first business coup came at age seven when he shadowed a turkey hen as it waddled off into the woods, raided its nest, and raised the chicks for sale. To spur his enterprise, Eliza gave him milk curds to feed the turkeys, and the next year he raised an even larger brood. As an old man. Rockefeller said, “To this day, I enjoy the sight of a flock of turkeys, and never miss an opportunity of studying them.”

The same was also true for his attachment to his religious beliefs:

John D. Rockefeller was drawn to the church, not as some nagging duty or obligation but as something deeply refreshing to the soul. The Baptist church of his boyhood provides many clues to the secrets of his character. As a young man. he was raised on a steady diet of maxims, grounded in evangelical Protestantism, that guided his conduct. Many of his puritanical attitudes, which may seem antiquated to a later generation, were merely the religious commonplaces of his boyhood. Indeed, the saga of his monumental business feats is inseparable from the fire-and-brimstone atmosphere that engulfed upstate New York in his childhood.

These two elements formed the two pillars of his life:

He possessed a sense of calling in both religion and business, with Christianity and capitalism forming the twin pillars of his life…When challenges to orthodoxy arose in later decades, he stuck by the spiritual certainties of his boyhood…The church gave Rockefeller the community of friends he craved and the respect and affection he needed.

The role he had to play within his family, tough him responsibility:

Of course, this boyhood responsibility took its toll on John D., who experienced little of the spontaneous joy or levity of youth. Growing up as a miniature adult, burdened with duties. He developed an exaggerated sense of responsibility that would be evident throughout his life. He learned to see himself as a reluctant savior, taking charge of troubled situations that needed to be remedied.

On his entry to the Oil sector:

Tramping the banks. Rockefeller beheld the satanic new world bequeathed by the oil boom, an idyllic valley blackened with derricks and tanks, engine houses and ramshackle huts, thickly crowded together in a crazy-quilt pattern…Rockefeller represented the second, more rational stage of capitalist development, when the colorful daredevils and pioneering speculators give way, as Max Weber wrote, to the “men who had grown up in the hard school of life. calculating and daring at the same time, above all temperate and reliable, shrewd and completely devoted to their business, with strictly bourgeois opinions and principles.”

One of the keys to his business success was that he kept cash on hand, and allies in the banking sectors – which were essential particularly during the times of crisis:

It is impossible to comprehend Rockefeller’s breathtaking ascent without realizing that he always moved into battle backed by abundant cash. Whether riding out downturns or coasting on booms, he kept plentiful reserves and won many bidding contests simply because his war chest was deeper…To have orchestrated such a rapid campaign required a long relationship of trust with the banks.

Rockefeller believed in the importance of balanced work ethic:

Rockefeller bridled at the notion that he was a business-obsessed drudge, a slave to the office. “I know of nothing more despicable and pathetic than a man who devotes all the waking hours of the day to making money for money’s sake,” he recorded in his memoirs. He worked at a more leisurely pace than many other executives, napping daily after lunch and often dozing in a lounge chair after dinner. To explain his extraordinary longevity he later said, doubtless overstating the matter, “I’m here because I shirked: did less work, lived more in the open air, enjoyed the open air, sunshine and exercise.”

On his skillful negotiation skills:

One of Rockefeller’s strengths in bargaining situations was that he figured out what he wanted and what the other party wanted and then crafted mutually advantageous terms. Instead of ruining the railroads, Rockefeller tried to help them prosper, albeit in a way that fortified his own position.

One of his shortcomings was that he remained silent in the face of criticism, which haunted him particularly during the public relation battles he fought:

Only in the twilight of life did Rockefeller realize how poorly his taciturnity had served him in business battles. This was especially true during the SIC furor, which evolved into a political and public-relations battle. By remaining silent in the face of criticism, he thought he would seem confident and secure in his integrity—in fact, he seemed guilty and arrogantly evasive. Throughout his career. Rockefeller endured abuse with so much equanimity that Flagler once shook his head and said, “John, you have a hide like a rhinoceros! “

On his view of capitalism, and how he linked it to his religious beliefs:

In a critical distinction, he viewed competitive capitalism—and not capitalism per se—as producing a vulgar materialism and rapacious business practices that dissolved the bonds of human brotherhood. In a state of ungoverned competition, selfish individuals tried to maximize their profits and thereby impoverished the entire industry What the American economy needed instead were new cooperative forms (trusts, pools, monopolies) that would restrain grasping individuals for the general good. Rockefeller thus tried to reconcile trusts with Christianity, claiming that cooperation would end the egotism and materialism abhorrent to Christian values. It was an ingenious rationalization. While religion did not lead him to the concept of trusts, it did enable him to invest his vision of cooperation with a powerful moral imperative.

On his leadership skills and beliefs:

Even as a young man, Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis. In this respect, he was a natural leader: The more agitated others became, the calmer he grew.

Far more than a technocrat, Rockefeller was an inspirational leader who exerted a magnetic power over workers and especially prized executives with social skills.

Few outsiders knew that one of Rockefeller’s greatest talents was to manage and motivate his diverse associates. As he said, “It is chiefly to my confidence in men and my ability to inspire their confidence in me that I owe my success in life.” He liked to note that Napoleon could not have succeeded without his marshals. Free of an autocratic temperament. Rockefeller was quick to delegate authority and presided lightly, genially, over his empire, exerting his will in unseen ways. At meetings. Rockefeller had a negative capability: The quieter he was, the more forceful his presence seemed, and he played on his mystique the resident genius immune to petty concerns.

Rockefeller placed a premium on internal harmony and tried to reconcile his contending chieftains. A laconic man, he liked to canvass everyone’s opinion before expressing his own and then often crafted a compromise to maintain cohesion. He was always careful to couch his decisions as suggestions or questions.

On philanthropy:

Yet by the 1880s, Rockefeller had already formulated certain core principles for his bequests many of them stemming from beliefs he had long entertained as a businessman. For instance, like other industrialists he worried that charity fostered dependence and pauperized recipients…The most important concept Rockefeller bequeathed to philanthropy was that of wholesale giving, as opposed to small, scattershot contributions…Another cardinal principle of Rockefeller philanthropy was to rely upon expert opinion.

On Standard Oils’, the set of companies he started:

In a sense, John D. Rockefeller simplified life for the authors of antitrust legislation. His career began in the infancy of the industrial boom, when the economy was still raw and unregulated. Since the rules of the game had not yet been encoded into law, Rockefeller and his fellow industrialists had forged them in the heat of combat. With his customary thoroughness, Rockefeller had devised an encyclopedic stock of anti-competitive weapons. Since he had figured out every conceivable way to restrain trade, rig markets, and suppress competition, all reform-minded legislators had to do was study his career to draw up a comprehensive antitrust agenda.

Standard Oil had taught the American public an important but paradoxical lesson: Free markets, if left completely to their own devices, can wind up terribly unfree. Competitive capitalism did not exist in a state of nature but had to be defined or restrained by law. Unfettered markets tended frequently toward monopoly or, at least, toward unhealthy levels of concentration, and government sometimes needed to intervene to ensure the full benefits of competition. This was particularly true in the early stages of industrial development. This notion is now so deeply embedded in our laws that it has become all but invisible to us. replaced by secondary debates over the precise nature or extent of antitrust enforcement.

If Tarbell gave an oversimplified account of Standard Oil’s rise, her indictment was perhaps the more forceful for it. In the trust’s collusion with the railroads, the intricate system of rebates and drawbacks, she found her smoking gun, the irrefutable proof that Rockefeller’s empire was built by devious means. She was at pains to refute Rockefeller’s defense that everybody did it. “Everybody did not do it,” she protested indignantly “In the nature of the offense everybody could not do it. The strong wrested from the railroads the privilege of preying upon the weak, and the railroads never dared give the privilege save under the promise of secrecy.”

The following two excerpts summarize Rockefeller’s life and contributions:

The loftiest encomium to Rockefeller’s impact in this field came from Winston Churchill, who wrote shortly before Rockefeller’s death: When history passes its final verdict on John D. Rockefeller, it may well be that his endowment of research will be recognized as a milestone in the progress of the race. For the first time, science was given its head: longer term experiment on a large scale has been made practicable, and those who undertake it are freed from the shadow of financial disaster. Science today owes as much to the rich men of generosity and discernment as the art of the Renaissance owes to the patronage of Popes and Princes. Of these rich men, John D. Rockefeller is the supreme type.

The fiercest robber baron had turned out to be the foremost philanthropist Rockefeller accelerated the shift from the personal, ad-hoc charity that had traditionally been the province of the rich to something both more powerful and more impersonal. He established the promotion of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, as a task no less important than giving alms to the poor or building schools, hospitals, and museums. He showed the value of expert opinion, thorough planning, and competent administration in nonprofit work, setting a benchmark for professionalism in the emerging foundation field. By the time Rockefeller died, in fact, so much good had unexpectedly flowered from so much evil that God might even have greeted him on the other side, as the titan had so confidently expected all along.

On a concluding note:

Although Junior moved into Kykuit after Rockefeller’s death, he knew that his father was inimitable, and so he decided to retain the Jr. after his name. As he was often heard to say in later years, “There was only one John D. Rockefeller.”

Attorney Samuel Untermver issued this paean to the elusive witness he had interrogated: “Next to our beloved President, he was our country’s biggest citizen. It was he who visualized as did no other man the use to which great wealth could wisely be put. Because of him the world is a better place in which to live. Blessed be the memory of World Citizen No. 1.”

After reading this book, I can definitely say that the question I had has been answered. A highly recommended read from a historical, humanitarian and business perspectives. If you are looking to learn more about the Oil/Energy side of the story, I strongly recommend reading The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power by Daniel Yergin.

On The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

I recently finished reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such; but I entertain’d an opinion that, though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably those actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered. And this persuasion, with the kind hand of Providence, or some guardian angel, or accidental favorable circumstances and situations, or all together, preserved me, thro’ this dangerous time of youth, and the hazardous situations I was sometimes in among strangers, remote from the eye and advice of my father, without any willful gross immorality or injustice, that might have been expected from my want of religion. I say willful, because the instances 1 have mentioned had something of others. 1 had therefore a tolerable character to begin the world with; I valued it properly, and determin’d to preserve it.”

2- “I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These 1 esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more o. less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another. This respect to all with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induc’d me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increas’d in people. and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contribution, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused.”

3- “These names of virtues, with their precepts, were: 1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation. 2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business lave its time. 4- Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve. 5- Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing. 6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions. 7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak. speak accordingly. 8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty. 9- Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve. lo. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation. 11. Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable. 12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another s peace or reputation. 13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

4- “In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it. mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

5- “There seems to me at present to be great occasion for raising a United Party for Virtue, by forming the virtuous and good men of all nations into a regular body, to be govern’d by suitable good and wise rules, which good and wise men may probably be more unanimous in their obedience to, than common people are to common laws.”

6- “This pamphlet had a good effect. Gov’r. Thomas was so pleas’d with the construction of this stove, as described in it, that he offered to give me a patent for the sole vending of them for a term of years; but I declin’d it from a principle which has ever weighed with me on such occasions, viz., That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should he glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

7- “Some may think these trifling matters not worth minding or relating; but when they consider that tho’ dust blown into the eyes of a single person, or into a single shop on a windy day, is but of small importance. yet the great number of the instances in a populous city, and its frequent repetitions give it weight and consequence, perhaps they will not censure very severely those who bestow some attention to affairs of this seemingly low nature. Human felicity is produc’d not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day. Thus, if you teach a poor young man to shave himself. and keep his razor in order, you may contribute more to the happiness of is life than in giving him a thousand guineas.”

8- “Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects. The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but fared by the occasion.”


Omar Halabieh

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin