May 21, 2013
Allen Barra on Cornelius Vanderbilt
Posted on May 22, 2009
By Allen Barra
Instead, Stiles takes a much more daring approach and presents Vanderbilt as a hero, not a hero as in a Hollywood film or even the cartoonish Ayn Rand type, but more like a classic figure with all of his virtues and flaws rendered in sharp relief. Here was a man who, in building his steamship trade, “had acted like a Viking prince, taking his fleet wherever trade or plunder seemed most promising, freely abandoning markets for a price.” At the same time, “There was something Homeric in this uneducated man’s conception of himself. ... Like Odysseus he would face ocean storms, river rapids, tropical fevers, and the crocodiles and sharks of Nicaragua’s waters. These trips would further open his eyes to the world and enhance his heroic reputation.” And if he was a tyrant, “at least he made the trains run on time—and profitably.”
This Viking/Greek sailor put a uniquely American tinge to the notion of great wealth: he was no member of “an affected aristocracy, the patricians of puffery.” To Jacksonian Democrats, writes Stiles, “who championed laissez-faire as an egalitarian creed, he had epitomized the entrepreneur as champion of the people, the businessman as revolutionary.”
The pseudo-brokers in the movie “The Boiler Room” would better have stopped watching scenes from “Wall Street” and read “The First Tycoon”: “When I have some money,” Vanderbilt once said, “I buy railroad stock or something else. But I don’t buy on credit. I pay for what I get. People who live too much on credit generally get brought up with a round turn in the long run. The Wall street averages ruin many a man there, and is like faro.” Tell us about it, Commodore.
In perhaps his most significant accomplishment in “The First Tycoon,” Stiles celebrates Vanderbilt’s colossal achievements without succumbing to the Commodore’s spell: “With the wave of one hand he created tens of millions in new wealth; with a wave of the other, he crushed his enemies; with cold-eyed calculation, he gambled with the lives of millions. The American people were fortunate that he gambled so well, but they had no say in how he placed his bets. Black Friday posed a great question: What was the place of a railroad king in a democracy of equals?”
It’s a question that hasn’t been answered 132 years after his death, but there should be no confusion of the issues. The ways in which Cornelius Vanderbilt created enormous wealth helped create enormous wealth for an entire country. He helped make New York into the city we have come to know and spurred San Francisco into a major city by providing tens of thousands with the transportation to get there after the California gold rush in 1849. He was the major impetus behind the most important business of the 19th century—railroads—and by ferrying so many future Californians to Panama, he can be regarded the grandfather of the Panama Canal.
In short, as Stiles puts it, “Probably no other individual made an equal impact over such an extended period on America’s economy and society. Over the course of his 66-year career, he stood on the forefront of change, a modernizer from beginning to end. He vastly improved and expanded the nation’s transportation infrastructure, contributing to a transformation of the very geography of the United States.”
His fortune was nearly incalculable; by the time of his death in 1877, “virtually every American had paid tribute to his treasure.” His power was immeasurable. (A statement falsely attributed to him by the popular early 20th century historian Matthew Josephson—“What do I care about the law? Hain’t I got the power?”—was nonetheless accurate.)
Given that wealth and power, Vanderbilt could easily have been a madman or the soulless despot that Mark Twain thought him to be. What’s amazing is the degree to which his fortune seemed to sober him. He made and played by his own rules—“the gentleman’s code of business combat.” Vanderbilt did not believe in the creation of wealth by simply rearranging numbers on paper or manipulating Wall Street. To the greatest capitalist the world has ever seen, unfettered trade and unrestrained competition never meant a world without rules.
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