April 15, 2009
One of the most important figures in the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt was his only employer, Thomas Gibbons. It's not too much to say that Gibbons was Vanderbilt's mentor, and essential to his remarkable success.
Gibbons was a Southerner, born in Georgia to a wealthy rice planter in 1757. He quickly began to exhibit the characteristics that would define him throughout his life: he was fat, impulsively combative, and brilliant. During the Revolution, he defied his family to stand by the king. After independence, he managed the congressional campaign of General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, and fought a duel with the other candidate. He issued a lot of challenges to duels, in fact, and one of them led to his connection with Vanderbilt.
Gibbons fell out with his wife and daughter, and moved to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, in 1801. He still maintained his plantations in the South, but he proved to be an able businessman in the North, often working with such partners as neighbor Aaron Ogden, who served as a United States senator and governor of New Jersey. But a succession of petty business squabbles and misunderstandings poisoned Gibbons against Ogden (admittedly an easy task with the irascible Gibbons). In 1816, Gibbons stomped over to Ogden's house, horsewhip in hand, and banged on the door. Ogden ran out the back and scrambled over a fence. Gibbons tacked a challenge to a duel on the door. Rather than exchange shots at dawn, Ogden had Gibbons arrested for trespass and for dueling (illegal in New Jersey after Aaron Burr had killed Alexander Hamilton a few years earlier).
Gibbons decided to destroy Ogden financially, by competing against his steamboat ferry to New York. But Ogden held a license for his ferry from the Livingston family, which had a legal monopoly on steamboats in New York waters. Gibbons, a talented lawyer, knew he had to both overturn the monopoly in the courts and defeat Ogden in business. For the first, he hired Daniel Webster and U.S. attorney general William Wirt. For the second, he turned to Cornelius Vanderbilt.
One of the revelations in The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is that Vanderbilt went to work for Gibbons by accident. On November 24, 1817, the captain of Gibbons's steamboat disappeared, and Gibbons asked young Vanderbilt (just 23) to take command "on this day, and, I expect, for a few days to come." Instead, the two worked togther until Gibbons's death in 1826. The cantankerous old Southern planter provided a priceless education in both law and business, and Vanderbilt absorbed every lesson.