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The Blog

A Peek Inside The First Tycoon

On April 21, Alfred A. Knopf published my new biography, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Here's a peek inside.

The First Tycoon is organized into three parts, each named after the informal title he was given by the public, each defined by his primary businesses. Each has six chapters. There's also an epilogue, acknowledgments, bibliographical essay, endnotes, and a primary source bibliography.

Part 1: Captain, 1794–1847 covers the longest period of his life, though it is the shortest section. During these years, Vanderbilt went from master of a sailboat ferry and small general merchant to become the nation's leading steamboat entrepreneur. As I show, he also played a major role in New England's early railroads. Perhaps most important, he helped shape American economic culture, and inserted himself and his business battles into the debates between Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs.

Part 2: Commodore, 1848–1860 covers his years as master of oceangoing steamship lines. He operated a transatlantic line to Britain and France, but his most important operations involved gold-rush traffic to California. Most travel and commerce between the two coasts went by ship, connecting by a land crossing at Panama. Vanderbilt attempted to build a canal across Nicaragua (and failed), and started a rival steamship line and isthmus-transit in that country. This eventually led him into conflict with an American "filibuster," or freelance military adventurer, named William Walker, who seized control of Nicaragua in 1855. I offer a new account of this tale, based on sources never cited by historians before. During this era, Vanderbilt became a major player on Wall Street, cooperated closely with successive presidents, and became a major cultural icon.

Part 3: King, 1861–1877 covers the most famous, and perhaps most momentous, period of Vanderbilt's life: his reign as America's railroad monarch. I begin with a fresh look at his role in the Civil War, then offer a new account of his creation of a railroad empire. I look not only at the inner workings of his corporations and his business battles (including a fresh version of the infamous Erie War of 1868), but at how Vanderbilt played an important role in the making of modern economic thinking, and the creation of a new political matrix in light of the rise of the corporation and the growth of government power during the Civil War.

Along the way, I try to paint a portrait of Vanderbilt's fascinating private life, including the intrigue among his children and sons-in-law, his complicated relationship with his wives, and the truth about his friendship with Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin.

Whatever else Commodore Vanderbilt was, he was never boring.
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