Mar 12, 2014
Allen Barra on Cornelius Vanderbilt
Posted on May 22, 2009
By Allen Barra
A one-time friend of Cornelius Vanderbilt famously said upon the great man’s death, “He died without making a bad debt or leaving a friend.” Like so much said about Vanderbilt, the statement contains a hard kernel of truth. “The Commodore”—he got the nickname by dominating early steamboat transportation between New York and New England—did make the occasional bad debt, along with a great many enemies, few of whom actually knew him personally, and at least a few friends. Mark Twain even more famously wrote in an open letter, “You observe that I don’t say anything about your soul, Vanderbilt. It is because I have evidence that you haven’t any.”
But as T.J. Stiles makes clear in his monumental and outrageously entertaining biography, “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” Cornelius may not have had a soul but he had a pretty stout heart, and he made a few friends in his lifetime—though some of them would be better classified as admirers. And he even “rather liked his enemies. For decades, he had deftly switched from enmity to friendship, embracing ... [several of them] once their wars ended. He never took business disputes personally.” (Making an exception, Stiles points out, for such post-Civil War robber barons as Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, men who, in Vanderbilt’s estimation, “broke the gentleman’s code of business combat.”)
It was business, not personal, and it was combat, and the greatest financial warrior of his kind, in American and perhaps all of world history, was Vanderbilt. Unlike most of the great 19th century tycoons who followed in his wake, though, Vanderbilt left something tangible behind—a legacy that, for reasons both good and bad, continues to influence this country. Without pulling any punches—Stiles is very clear that Vanderbilt was “an instinctive predator” – “The First Tycoon” makes a solid case that most of what he accomplished was for the good, or at least did more good than harm.
Born to a sturdy Dutch father and English mother in 1794, Cornele, as his mother called him, began his business career in a New York City that “stank.” The docks consisted of solid masses of stone and dirt packed into wooden cribs, creating enclosures called slips. The water within the slips, observed a traveler, “being completely out of the current of the stream or tide, are little else than stagnant receptacles of city filth; while at the top of the wharves exhibits one continuous mass of clotted nuisance, composed of dust, tea, oil, molasses ... where revel countless swarms of offensive flies.” It was a second-rate city when compared to Philadelphia, but, as one observer put it, “Every thought, word, look, and action of the multitude seemed to be absorbed by commerce.” Everything “was in motion; all was life, bustle and activity.” Thanks largely to the bustle and activity of a handful of men, most notably Cornelius Vanderbilt, New York would soon vault into the position of the commercial center of the New World.
The thrift inculcated by Vanderbilt’s parents helped breed genius. “His life,” wrote a contemporary admirer, “was regulated by self-imposed rules.” He lived and worked “with a fixedness of purpose as invariable as the sun in its circuit. Among other things, he determined to spend less every week than he earned.” He told the New York Tribune in 1855, “The share of prosperity which has fallen to my lot is the direct result of unfettered trade and unrestrained competition.” In our own time, a great many executives who receive millions for failing sing the praises of free trade while forgetting the part about need for competition.
Stiles writes in a style the Commodore would have appreciated: swift, economical and direct, daring but never hyperbolic. The nearly 600 pages of text seem to fly through your hands. Judging from his previous book, “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War” (2002), and now “The First Tycoon,” Stiles has a genuine gift for putting complex historical subjects into perspective without lapsing into revisionism. In “Jesse James,” he was able to demonstrate that his subject had more in common with a modern terrorist like Osama bin Laden than with Old West outlaws like Billy the Kid without seeming trendy. Given the current state of the economy and those who are primarily responsible, it would have been easy for Stiles to cater to current biases and write Vanderbilt off as the father of the modern corporation—which of course he was—leaving it for readers to take that as an automatic association with evil.
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