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The Blog

Character Spotlight: Joseph L. White

The long life of Commodore Vanderbilt naturally features a large cast of secondary characters. Fortunately for the reader, many of Vanderbilt's enemies and allies stuck around year after year, switching from friend to foe and back again. Some of them, such as Daniel Drew and Jay Gould, are well known. But there are others who have long been enigmas—until I uncovered new information about them.

One of the most important of these was Joseph L. White. White and Vanderbilt went into business together in 1849, at the start of the California gold rush. White, a former Whig congressman and a politically influential lawyer, served as counsel to Vanderbilt's Accessory Transit Company, the business he set up to carry California-bound passengers and New York-bound gold across Nicaragua (connecting to his steamships on either side). White was also a partner in the company that Vanderbilt formed, in an attempt to build an interoceanic canal across Nicaragua.

White as an astonishingly vain and treacherous man, as Dickensian a character as ever walked the earth. These traits allowed a British diplomat, Sir Henry Bulwer, to manipulate White into drumming up support for the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, an agreement that guaranteed the neutrality of any canal in Nicaragua—but also allowed the British to maintain a protectorate over Nicaragua's "Mosquito Coast." White let it be known (falsely) that he had personally dictated the terms of the treaty.

He loved deceit and intrigue, and double-crossed Vanderbilt more than once. In one of these incidents, he claimed that British bankers had agreed to finance the Nicaragua canal, when in reality they had refused to. White secretly sold his shares in the canal company as he lied loudly to the press—and to Vanderbilt. Indeed, many of the most perplexing twists in Vanderbilt's career during the 1850s can be attributed to White's machinations.

White's letters exude bombast and mendacity. He loved nothing better than to make a big show—whether there was anything substantive behind it or not. In a flash of success (thanks to his short-lived connection to Vanderbilt), he acquired a fine carriage, built a fancy townhouse, bought James Fenimore Cooper's farm, and took a private box at the opera. But in the end he was no match for the Commodore, who so loathed White's self-importance and dishonesty.

At the close of Vanderbilt's years as California steamship tycoon, White went bankrupt, and came to a fittingly violent end. . . .
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