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The Blog

New Discoveries in The First Tycoon

Check out the First Tycoon page on this website for a new essay about the discoveries I made in the course of researching The First Tycoon.

Cornelius Vanderbilt had an enormously long and influential life, yet he has been the subject of relatively little in-depth research. Over the years of working on my biography of the man, I came across a great deal that was previously unknown. That's fairly rare in a biography of a major (let alone iconic) figure. Usually, as a biographer, you hope to tell a life story in a new and more interesting way, and to provide a new interpretation that casts that life in a different light. I certainly didn't expect to come across so many raw facts that had never surfaced before. Read More 
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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. . . . Read More 
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Coming to CSPAN's BookTV

Watch CSPAN's BookTV to see me (T.J. Stiles) in conversation with novelist Kevin Baker at the New York Public Library (taped on April 30). Here's the schedule:

All times are Eastern.

Saturday, May 30, at 2:00 PM
Monday, June 1, at 1:00 AM

Or, to watch online, click here.

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Long, yes. But also nimble.

I'm on a much-needed break in my tour to talk about The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. It's a good moment to say a few words abut the writing of this book.

There's one word that has appeared in almost every review: "long." Well, I can't argue. It is long, without question. Vanderbilt led an extraordinarily long and eventful life, and certainly deserved an "epic" biography.

The question a reader naturally asks is, Will I get bogged down in it? I hope the answer is a resounding no. I consciously took a few steps to make it as nimble as possible.

First, I learned something from perhaps my favorite writer of all: Tolstoy. No, I can't write like Tolstoy, but I noticed something about his two epic novels: He broke them into little chapters, often only a page or two long. That meant that you always had a natural stopping point just ahead. There was no sense of being lost in a sea of pages. My chapters are much longer, but I introduced breaks every few pages, to offer the same sort of relief to a hard-pressed reader. With a book like this, you need to be able to pick it up, put it down, and pick it up again later. I tried to make it easier.

The other thing I tried to do was to keep the narrative moving. One of my favorite definitions of plot is the creation of expectations, followed by their fulfillment. The fulfillment might not be what you think it will be, but you know there's resolution coming. The point is, as a writer I try to give the reader a reason to read the next page, and the next chapter. I try to create a sense that something is going to happen, that something will be revealed—that events are moving toward a climax (or, in my book, a succession of ever-growing climaxes).

I tried to end each chapter by opening a door to the next. Generally speaking, each chapter in my book is defined by a business conflict, which usually comes to some kind of resolution (or pause) by the end of the chapter. But there was always something looming over the horizon for Vanderbilt, and I tried to get the reader interested in discovering what was coming next.
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Character Spotlight: Daniel Drew

Few individuals loom larger in the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt than Daniel Drew.

If people know the name of Drew, it's probably in connection with the notorious Erie War of 1868, an episode of epic corruption and intrigue on Wall Street that was the subject of a fine book by John Steele Gordon twenty years ago. Drew battled Vanderbilt for control of the Erie Railway, short-selling the company's stock to undercut Vanderbilt's attempted corner. The Erie War created a lasting impression that the two men were enemies, that they were polar opposites.

In fact, they were only enemies for a brief, four-year period in the mid-1860s. The two men were close friends, and had been secret partners for much of their long lives.

In personality, the two men were indeed strikingly different. Drew was about the same age as Vanderbilt, but where the Commodore was tall, athletic, and fastidious about his appearance, Drew was a sly, silent, stoop-shouldered man. One observer thought he looked like "a cross between a cartman and small trader." Vanderbilt rarely poked his head into a church, but Drew was an avid Methodist who raised money for church charities and endowed a seminary (today's Drew University).

Drew began his working life as a cattle drover, and moved into New York's livestock market. He began to lend money, diversify his humble operations, and gradually became a financier. He moved into steamboats in 1831, which led him into a battle with Vanderbilt on the Hudson River. He forced Vanderbilt to buy him out, earning the Commodore's respect. But Drew remained a major force in transportation, running steamboat and railroad lines. He and Vanderbilt invested in each other's businesses, thus insuring against competition.

But it was as a player in the stock market that Drew won the most fame, and the most money. As treasurer of the Erie Railway, Drew engaged in insider trading on a massive scale, usually short-selling his own company's stock. He developed a reputation as Wall Street as the ultimate bear, the opposite of the bull Vanderbilt.

It didn't last. Drew tangled repeatedly with Jay Gould, and came off much the worse for it. He finally lost all his money shortly before Vanderbilt died (in 1877). Drew only lasted a year longer, then followed his friend to the grave.
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Character Spotlight: Thomas Gibbons

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.
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The Wrong Place at the Right Time

As I worked on The First Tycoon, I fell into a series of coincidences. Not all of them were happy ones, but they all gave me a different perspective on what I was writing.

The biggest, to my mind, is the fact that I had just finished the book when the financial crisis struck in the fall of 2008. For six years, I had labored on a major biography of a financial figure, only to coincidentally publish in the wake of a major economic crisis.

The same sort of thing happened when I finished Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. For years, I had worked on a biography that argued that Jesse James stood out among America's post-Civil War criminals because he insisted on bringing politics into his crimes and public image—that he was, in a sense, a forerunner of the modern terrorist. I was fine-tuning the finished manuscript when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred.

In both cases, I'd have preferred there to have been no catastrophes to make my books suddenly relevant.

But the coincidences have been coming for a long time with The First Tycoon. For example, about the time I started writing Part 3 of the book, I moved into the Presidio of San Francisco, where I watch commercial shipping enter and leave the Golden Gate, in the same channel used by Vanderbilt's steamships during the Gold Rush.

More directly, I happened to have been on the Staten Island ferryboat Andrew J. Barberi on October 15, 2003, when it crashed. It was the deadliest transit disaster in New York in a century.

I was certainly no victim of the tragedy. Being on the upper deck, I saw no carnage, and was never in any danger. But it immediately struck me that I was living through a historic event, one very much like some that I write about in my book, on the ferry service that was founded by Vanderbilt himself before the Civil War. (He sold it to the Staten Island Railway, which was later taken over by the city.) When I returned to Manhattan, I was besieged by reporters, and found myself delivering the kind of information that I consumed when reading nineteenth-century newspaper accounts. It was odd, to say the least.

I don't think that such personal connections necessarily improve the quality of my work. If they were necessary for fine historical writing, then we'd be in trouble. Much of the premise of scholarly investigation is that a disinterested outsider can come to understand a topic through dispassionate research and analysis. But, as I said, these developments did color my sense of the things I wrote about in my book—perhaps in ways that can never quite make it onto the page.
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The Cast: Chapter 5 & 6

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is populated by a large cast of secondary characters. Here are a few from chapters 5 and 6, "Sole Control" and "Man of Honor."

William H. Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt's oldest son, named for general and president William Henry Harrison, went to work in Daniel Drew's brokerage house as a young man. He suffered a nervous breakdown, and Vanderbilt sent him to live on a farm on Staten Island, which he slowly turned into a surprisingly profitable operation, though Vanderbilt would often browbeat Billy (as he called him).

Courtlandt Palmer: A native of Stonington, Connecticut, Palmer was president of the New York, Providence, & Boston Railroad—or the Stonington Railroad, as it was universally known. Palmer was outspoken, often accusing Vanderbilt of treachery their dealings, but he was also weak. Vanderbilt had only contempt for him.

William D. Lewis: Mostly an off-stage presence, Lewis was a senior official in the Girard Bank of Philadelphia, which held a large proportion of the Stonington Railroad's bonds. When the Stonington went bankrupt, Lewis served as a trustee. He eventually agreed to a plan by Elisha Peck to compromise the railroad's debt to bring it out of receivership, but in doing so he arranged a deal in which he and Peck profited at the bank's expense. The deal made the Stonington a target for a Vanderbilt takeover.

Oroondates Mauran: Owner of seagoing merchant ships, Mauran bought fifty percent of the stock of the Richmond Turnpike Company, which had been founded by Vice-President Daniel D. Tompkins. The company operated the first steam ferry service to Staten Island. When Mauran ordered his ferry captain to ram a rival boat operated by Vanderbilt's cousin Oliver, the other stockholders panicked, and sold out to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who took control of the ferry in 1838.

Menemon Sanford: Owner of the steamboat Charter Oak, Sanford was one of the major players in the combined railroad-and-steamboat lines that connected Boston and New York. In 1841, Sanford set an elaborate trap for his rivals (including the Stonington Railroad) that tricked them into giving him a cut of their profits. Vanderbilt saw through the plot, which set the stage for his final business campaign on Long Island Sound.

George Law: A rough-mannered, tough-talking canal contractor, Law made an art out of corrupting public officials. In the early 1840s, he entered the steamboat business, extorting money from established lines with his exceptionally fast Oregon. In 1847, he raced the Oregon on the Hudson River against Vanderbilt and his new Cornelius Vanderbilt, in front of thousands of spectators who lined the waterfront.

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A Secret Message for Lincoln

At The Atlantic Online, I've published a short essay about a big news story that broke last week: Lincoln's watch had inside it a secret message from my great-great-grandfather. You can read about it here:

The Secret Message

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The Cast: Chapters 3 & 4

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is populated by a large cast of secondary characters. Here are a few from chapters 3 and 4, "A Tricky God" and "Nemesis."

William Gibbons: The son of Thomas Gibbons, he inherited his father's steamboat business in 1826. William was younger than Vanderbilt, but he had more trouble adapting to the emerging competitive economy. Unable to cope with the stress of rival lines (some of them incorporated, a new phenomenon), he sold his boats in 1829. Vanderbilt, who had always been running his own businesses on the side, thereafter worked only for himself.

Robert L. Stevens: Foremost of the sons of Col. John C. Stevens, the developer of Hoboken, Robert proved to be an important inventor (designing, among other things, the modern railroad rail) and businessman. He and his brothers organized the Camden & Amboy Railroad in New Jersey, and were partners in the de facto steamboat monopoly on the Hudson River. Vanderbilt narrowly survived a deadly wreck on the Camden & Amboy in 1833.

Jacob Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt had an older brother named Jacob, who died when Cornelius was 11—an event that may have had great repercussions, for it turned Cornelius into the oldest son. His parents named a later child Jacob as well. Cornelius tutored him in the steamboat business, and hired him as a captain. Jacob went into business for himself, and narrowly survived the explosion of a boat he co-owned on the Hudson River in 1831. With the boat destroyed, Cornelius stepped in to take over the route to Peekskill that Jacob had run.

Daniel Drew: Famous as Vanderbilt's enemy in a notorious fight for the Erie Railway in 1868, known as the Erie War, Drew spent most of his life as Vanderbilt's secret partner. He had been a cattle drover, and went into business in Manhattan in the livestock trade. The experience this gave him with street-level finance eventually led him into a career on Wall Street. He first encountered Vanderbilt in 1831 with a steamboat of his own, in a fight over the Peekskill route on the Hudson. He forced Vanderbilt to buy him off, winning his respect and starting a lifelong friendship.

Philip Hone: An aristocratic merchant and Whig mayor of New York. Though he is not known to have had a personal relationship with Vanderbilt, their lives often intersected, and Hone's diary offers fascinating commentary on Vanderbilt and the world they shared.

William Comstock: A tough veteran of the steamboat business, Comstock served as general agent of the Boston & New York Transportation Company, a steamboat corporation that monopolized much of Long Island Sound's traffic—until, that is, Vanderbilt entered the Sound in 1835. His foul-tempered letters to successive presidents of the company reveal how much other businessmen respected—and feared—Vanderbilt.

Dr. Jared Linsly: Linsly, Vanderbilt's personal doctor, tended to him in 1833 after the train wreck on the Camden & Amboy. Vanderbilt credited Linsly with saving his life, and kept him on as his physician for the rest of his life.

Daniel B. Allen: Husband of Ethelinda, Vanderbilt's oldest daughter, Allen was a native of Staten Island and childhood friend of his brother-in-law William H. Vanderbilt. In the early 1830s, he went to work for Cornelius Vanderbilt, eventually becoming the operational manager of his steamboat lines. He would serve as his father-in-law's capable lieutenant, with one painful interruption, until 1864. A morally upright man with a military air, Allen earned the respect of Vanderbilt, who often gave him important missions—and the latitude to carry them out as he saw fit.

Lambert Wardell: Wardell was a native of Shrewsbury, New Jersey, who went to work as Vanderbilt's personal clerk in 1837. Quiet, discreet, and unambitious, he earned Vanderbilt's complete trust. He worked for Vanderbilt for the next forty years, loyally serving in his office and never betraying a secret.

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