The Blog

My Face, Not My Show: History Channel's "The Men Who Built America"

October 17, 2012

Tags: History Channel, The Men Who Built America, T.J. Stiles, The First Tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Commodore Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie

After the presidential debate, I was able to watch the History Channel's new quasi-documentary series, "The Men Who Built America". I was interviewed for the first episode. And I'm alarmed by the result.

First, let's dispense with the re-enactments: These don't really bother me. They're standard in historical documentaries these days, and the producers put a lot of money into them. True, I'm disappointed that the real visual imagery was more dramatic than the re-enactments, for the most part. Cornelius Vanderbilt was taller in real life. He did not have a beard (and wore a white, not black, tie). The blockade of the Albany bridge in 1867, an episode depicted in the show, was actually in a howling blizzard, with passengers and freight piling up on the western banks of the frozen Hudson—and no one aimed a rifle at the oncoming trains. When the show got to Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, it depicted Gould drinking and carousing with what appeared to be a prostitute—behavior characteristic of Fisk, but never Gould.

So there were inaccuracies, but such is the state of the genre these days.

Second, and more important, the show presented fiction as if it were fact. Now, I expect simplification. And, if this were presented as a fictionalized miniseries, I would expect some invention as well. But this episode went beyond simplification. It invented events wholesale, and sold them as fact. I had the impression that the producers read my book (and viewed my lengthy interview), and decided to present the opposite. That's one reason why I'm so alarmed.

Let's take some examples:

• The story of the war over the Erie Railway in 1868 was presented as Vanderbilt's scheme to monopolize America's railroads. As I show in the book, this is demonstrably false—though it was claimed by his opponents. The key player was Daniel Drew, who never appeared on screen. He was an old friend of Vanderbilt's on the Erie board who betrayed him and his allies on the stock market in a deal concerning Erie stock. So Vanderbilt tried to corner the market to punish Drew for his treachery. That drew in Gould and Fisk (new members of the board, not "middle management," as the show claims), who didn't care about Vanderbilt's motives. They issued massive amounts of new stock to drive down the price and defeat Vanderbilt's corner. The show claimed the Erie could issue new stock without shareholder approval thanks to some "fine print." Not true. Strangely ignored in the show was an epic battle in the New York state legislature over the legalization of the new (and blatantly illegal) stock. The battle ended when Gould bribed the legislature wholesale—though Vanderbilt still managed to force Erie to repay his losses. The real drama was disregarded in favor of a less interesting fictional version. (And don't get me started on the show's misrepresentation of "stock watering," which they called "watering down stock," a term that is not only historically inaccurate but shows a misunderstanding of what contemporaries were complaining about.)

• The relationship between young John D. Rockefeller and Vanderbilt was just made up to inject conflict (at the expense of actual conflicts in both their lives). The show depicted Vanderbilt "making" Rockefeller after "summoning" him to New York, followed by an epic battle between the two. All false. Rockefeller, already rapidly rising, had an office in New York; when he was in town, Vanderbilt asked to see him, but Rockefeller actually saw and negotiated with an underling. Later the two did not clash, but rather joined together with Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania and with the post-Gould Erie to create the South Improvement Company, a notorious device for dividing traffic and giving preference to Rockefeller's Standard Oil. Given Rockefeller's highly favorable relationship with the railroads, he did not pioneer pipelines, because initially they actually harmed his competitive advantage. Apart from some routine squabbling, Vanderbilt maintained a healthy relationship with Rockefeller to the end of the Commodore's life. The story told on the small screen was simply not true.

Third, I'm alarmed at the celebratory nature of the show. One of the elements of Vanderbilt's life I spent a great deal of time discussing in my interview, and in my book, was the controversy he created. But the show's producers seem to be uninterested in anything at all negative when it comes to these industrialists and financiers. I half expected to see Ayn Rand listed in the credits for "The Men Who Built America."

True, I admire Vanderbilt as a businessman, and think he did a lot of good. He was honest in running his businesses, made money for investors, vastly improved transportation, and lowered costs for shippers and consumers. But the very things that made Vanderbilt so hugely rich—his success in creating larger and larger enterprises—changed the way Americans argued about politics and the economy.

As I note in the book, Vanderbilt came of age in the Jacksonian era, when there was no big business. Political radicals believed in laissez faire, to give everyone a fair chance at competing, while conservatives wanted government sponsorship of enterprise, to develop the young economy without destructive competition. By helping to create big business, Vanderbilt helped spin the political spectrum 180 degrees.

By the end of his life, laissez-faire meant (in radicals' eyes) allowing big business to run roughshod over everyone else; government intervention in the economy came to mean regulation of giant enterprises, to protect the little guy. Vanderbilt himself always believed in laissez faire (and proved how much wealth it could help create at its best), but he also demonstrated the power that private interests could have over the public, especially when he closed the Albany bridge in 1867. His views went from radical to conservative over his lifetime without ever changing, because he helped to change the political landscape itself.

"The Men Who Built America" is only interested in one side of the tale, and even bungles that part of it. It's too bad, because the industrialists and financiers it focuses on have very good stories, stories that can make us think about who we are and what we want from our economy today.