The Mogul Who Built Corporate America
by Dwight Garner
Cornelius Vanderbilt, the great steamship and then railroad magnate, the man who built the original Grand Central Terminal, was not much of a conversationalist. If a man boasted in his presence, he would say, “That amounts to nothing.” If interrupted while speaking, he would stop talking and not resume the subject. Vanderbilt (1794-1877) didn’t need words. His actions spoke with a brute eloquence.
In this whacking new biography of Vanderbilt, T. J. Stiles, previously the author of a life of Jesse James, demonstrates a brute eloquence of his own. This is a mighty — and mighty confident — work, one that moves with force and conviction and imperious wit through Vanderbilt’s noisy life and times. The book, “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” is full of sharp, unexpected turns. Among the biggest: Mr. Stiles has delivered a revisionist history of American capitalism’s original sinner, the man who inspired the term “robber baron.” He has real sympathy for the old devil.
The phrase “epic life” is a biographical cliché. But it fits Vanderbilt in every regard: force of personality; degrees of ruthlessness, guile and accomplishment; even sheer life span. He was born less than two decades after the end of the Revolutionary War, while Washington was still alive, and he would live long enough not only to play a significant role in the Civil War but also to do business with John D. Rockefeller.
Vanderbilt essentially invented the modern corporation through his purchase and consolidation of New York’s major railroads, and brought, Mr. Stiles says, the American professional and managerial middle class into being. His influence remains so great as to be almost intangible.
As Mr. Stiles writes: “He may have left his most lasting mark in the invisible world, by creating an unseen architecture which later generations of Americans would take for granted.”
How you feel about the “unseen architecture” of American economics and corporate life says a lot about, or even defines, your politics. Mr. Stiles sees both sides of Vanderbilt:
“His admirers saw him as the ultimate meritocrat, the finest example of the common man rising through hard work and ability. ... His critics called him grasping and ruthless, an unelected king who never pretended to rule for his people.” But Mr. Stiles plainly gets a charge out of Vanderbilt’s raw nerve.
Cornelius Vanderbilt grew up on Staten Island, the son of a modest farming family. He attended school for only a few months, developing what Mr. Stiles calls “a lasting contempt for the conventions of written English.” He was born in the right place at the right time.
“Unlike most country folk,” Mr. Stiles writes, “the Vanderbilts lived within sight of the place of the most densely concentrated possibilities in North America: the city of New York.”
As a young man, Vanderbilt began working on ferries and schooners and then, with their increasing popularity in the 1820s and ’30s, steamboats. He made a name for himself in business for his “elbows-out aggressiveness.”
He made a name for himself, too, with his imposing appearance. A contemporary described him as “a man of striking individuality, as straight as an Indian, standing six feet in his stockings and weighing about 200 pounds.” Frugal and abstemious, Vanderbilt had one vice: the constant presence of a lighted or unlighted cigar.
The most flat-out enjoyable sections of “The First Tycoon” are those that deal with New York’s great steamship wars of the first half of the 19th century. Vanderbilt began to build and operate his own fleet, picking up the nickname the Commodore in the process. He engaged in price wars, cutting fares until competitors went out of business or paid him to go away. He slowly developed a chokehold on commerce.
By the late 1840s, Mr. Stiles writes, “almost everyone who traveled between New York and Boston took a Vanderbilt boat or a Vanderbilt train.”
Vanderbilt loved to compete, and to smite his enemies. Mr. Stiles tells of epic steamboat races, much reported in New York’s newspapers, that Vanderbilt took part in and gambled on. His boats ran against other ships up the Hudson nearly as far as West Point, then turned around and roared home. Vanderbilt helped fuel the gold rush, getting his steamships around to San Francisco. He tried to cut a more direct path to the West Coast, a canal through Nicaragua, and there are scenes of stranded steamers here that are straight out of the movie “Fitzcarraldo.” He provided steamships to the Union during the Civil War, including one, fitted out with a special ram, that stared down the Confederate ironclad warship, the Merrimack, keeping it in check for a short time in 1862.
The book’s final sections unpack Vanderbilt’s greatest coup, buying and then consolidating New York’s major railroad lines, using every trick in his arsenal, including the manipulation of stock prices. His wealth became enormous.
“If he had been able to sell all his assets at full market value at the moment of his death,” Mr. Stiles writes, “he would have taken one out of every 20 dollars in circulation.”
Mr. Stiles is clear-eyed about his subject’s nearly amoral rapacity. He writes that Vanderbilt “exacerbated problems that would never be fully solved: a huge disparity in wealth between rich and poor; the concentration of great power in private hands; the fraud and self-serving deception that thrives in an unregulated environment.”
But again and again in “The First Tycoon,” he also defends Vanderbilt against his most vocal detractors and, whenever possible, corrects the historical record when it has portrayed him unfairly. Vanderbilt did not actually say, to give just one example, a line that was used against him at the time: “Law! What do I care about the law?”
Mr. Stiles gets Vanderbilt the man onto paper. He is eloquent on Vanderbilt’s love of horses and horse racing, his tangled relationships with his 13 children and his dabbling in the occult. (About the séances Vanderbilt attended, Mr. Stiles writes: “The possibility of mastering even death itself must have been appealing.”)
He is even better on Vanderbilt’s fraught relationship with New York society, which at first shunned him as “illiterate and boorish.”
There are moments in any biography of this size when your eyes are going to glaze over; I certainly did not wish “The First Tycoon” were longer. But I read eagerly and avidly. This is state-of-the-art biography, crisper and more piquant than a 600-page book has any right to be.
Cornelius Vanderbilt emerges clearly in these pages as a man who, as his son-in-law put it, “was determined to have his own way, always, to a greater extent than any man I ever saw.”