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The Cast: Chapters 1 & 2

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is populated by a large cast of secondary characters. Here are a few from chapters 1 and 2, "The Islander" and "The Duelist."


Phebe Vanderbilt: Cornelius Vanderbilt's mother. Of English descent, she was tough, shrewd, and frugal. She made her own money, which she lent out at commercial rates of interest, and even foreclosed on a mortgage held by her own daughter when her daughter's husband died. Vanderbilt revered her.

Cornelius Vanderbilt Senior: Often dismissed in biographical accounts as inept and unsuccessful, the father of Cornelius Vanderbilt was in fact an entrepreneurial fellow who lifted himself up from nothing to amass a reaonably sizeable estate. He ran a sailboat ferry, salvaged wrecked ships, and operated a farm. He was his son's partner in some of his early operations.

Sophia Vanderbilt: In 1813, Vanderbilt married his first cousin, Sophia. Quiet, unassuming, and hardworking, she moved with him from Staten Island to Broad Street in New York late in the War of 1812, where they lived in an artisans' boarding house. In the 1820s, they moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where she operated Bellona Hall, an inn for travelers between New York and Philadelphia. She used the proceeds to feed, clothe, and educate her many, many children. She would be pregnant for nine months out of every twenty between her wedding and the onset of menopause.

John De Forest: Vanderbilt's brother-in-law. A sea captain who ran a ship along the Atlantic coast before the War of 1812, he took on young Vanderbilt as a partner after the war. He then went to work for the Richmond Turnpike Company, headed by Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins (of Tompkins Square Park and Tompkinsville fame today), serving as captain of the Nautilus, the first steam ferry between Manhattan and Staten Island.


Chancellor Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton: In 1798, the aristocratic Robert R. Livingston, chancellor of New York's court system, received a grant of a monopoly on steamboats in state waters. Unfortunately he didn't know how to build steamboats, but fortunately he met Robert Fulton, who did. Livingston died in 1813 and Fulton in 1815, but their monopoly lived on in the hands of Livington's heirs.

Aaron Ogden: A hero of the Revolution, Ogden lived in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. He became a United States senator and governor of the state. In the latter capacity, he fought the Livingston monopoly—in part, to be able to run his own steamboat ferry to New York. In the end, the Livingstons sold him a license to operate his ferry.

John R. Livingston: Chancellor Livingston's brother, John was gout-ridden, suspicious, and volatile. He owned the rights under the family grant to operate steamboats in New York Bay—that is, between Manhattan and New Jersey, Staten Island, and western Long Island. He had given Ogden (and Tompkins's Richmond Turnpike Company) a steamboat license only under intense family pressure.


Thomas Gibbons: An irascible and obese slaveowning planter from Georgia, Gibbons resettled in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, to escape his family (though he kept possession of his slaves and plantations). A gifted lawyer and an old patrician (he engaged in multiple duels over the course of his life), he fell into a dispute with his neighbor Aaron Ogden. When Ogden refused to fight a duel, he decided to bankrupt him by running a steamboat in opposition to Ogden's. To operate the boat, he hired a young ferry master named Cornelius Vanderbilt. Meanwhile he pressed ahead with plans to have the Supreme Court declare the steamboat monopoly unconstitutional.

Daniel Webster: One of the most important statesmen of American history, Webster was already prominent as a congressman and lawyer before the United States Supreme Court when young Vanderbilt went to Washington to hire him to represent Gibbons in his challenge to the steamboat monopoly. Vanderbilt and Webster impressed each other, and Vanderbilt took a keen interest in the legal case. When John R. Livingston had Vanderbilt arrested for violating the monopoly, Vanderbilt appealed all the way to the Supreme Court himself. Vanderbilt v. Livingston was next on the high court's docket when it heard the landmark case Gibbons v. Ogden.
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Now as Leading Man

"His character is a hard one to catch. The recorded memories of him run to black and white. There are no subtleties, few ambiguities."

So writes the estimable Louis Auchincloss about Cornelius Vanderbilt in The Vanderbilt Era, an elegant rumination on the Vanderbilt dynasty. Auchincloss did his best with the poor information available to him to sketch a more nuanced portrait of the Commodore, but he didn't have much to work with. I agree that accounts of him tend to be monochrome, but I would say that historians and biographers paint Vanderbilt in garish colors—loud, unsubtle, uncomplicated.

In virtually every book that mentions the Commodore, he comes across as relentlessly consistent, even monotonously so. He is depicted as crude and cruel, a man of force and not much else. Sometimes he is even cast as determinedly boorish, indulging in prostitutes, getting drunk, and spitting tobacco on his hosts' carpets. He is portrayed as wildly eccentric, making business decisions based on the visions of spiritualist mediums, in conversation with the dead.

Some of these notions are exaggerated, and others are flat-out false. But why have they proliferated? Why are modern writers so eager to believe (or make up) the wild tales about a man who was, after all, at the center of national affairs for half a century?

First, let's note that there is some basis in truth for some of these notions about Vanderbilt, especially those of him as a social outsider and a man of force. It took decades for genteel New York to accept him as a social equal—though they did, in time. He could be incredibly ruthless when locked in combat. He was remorselessly competitive, in his personal life as well as profession.

But all this is only part of the picture. There is abundant evidence that he experienced doubts, fear, love, loss, and loneliness. Even in business, he was true to his word and practiced patient diplomacy. He was famous for exacting revenge, but he also consistently forgave his rivals (once they admitted defeat, that is). In short, he was a three-dimensional figure.

Am I a genius for figuring this out? I don't think so—and if I was a genius, I think I would be smart enough to know it. So why have writers depicted Vanderbilt so shallowly? Indeed, why have they been so willing to believe stories that are entirely without basis? Most descriptions of the Commodore uncritically recite utterly apocryphal tales. Why?

Part of the answer is sheer laziness. Not since Wheaton J. Lane published his biography in 1942 has anyone conducted serious research into the life of Commodore Vanderbilt. Rather, modern writers have taken their cues from nineteenth-century newspaper writers, who did not exactly have modern journalistic standards. Vanderbilt's obituaries, for example, are an oft-cited source, but they contain a great deal of material that was simply made up.

But I think the underlying answer is that Commodore Vanderbilt has always been a supporting actor in other people's stories. Serious biographies have been written about just about every prominent figure whom Vanderbilt dealt with in his long life, from Daniel Webster to John D. Rockefeller, including Jay Gould, Daniel Drew, and Victoria Woodhull. In many of these cases, Vanderbilt has been treated as an outsized but easily caricatured figure who lends color to the narrative. Why investigate well-worn stories about Vanderbilt, if the writer is focusing on a different figure entirely? Why be skeptical, when he makes for good copy?

In researching The First Tycoon, I learned why historians and biographers have left Vanderbilt alone: He left no collection of papers to paw through. To write authoritatively about him, then, I had to engage in a lot of creative research, follow seemingly tangential leads, get some lucky breaks, and accept the long, long hours of digging through archives and newspaper accounts in pursuit of an elusive, secretive businessman. But I put in the work, building a portrait of a round, full, complex (yet still outsized) character. Many canonical stories fell away, to be replaced by previously unknown ones; his monotonous consistency evaporated, replaced by a strong personality laced with contradictions.

Now, as leading man, Vanderbilt finally came into his own. And the real figure was a lot more interesting than the caricature. Read More 

Investigating Business Secrets

In writing my forthcoming biography, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, I faced a problem that appears to have steered historians away from the Commodore (as Vanderbilt was called) for nearly seven decades—a problem that may have steered one biographer completely off the rails.

Vanderbilt left no papers.

John D. Rockefeller and his descendants have an entire archive in New York (an old Rockefeller home—a lovely place to work). J.P. Morgan left a library. Andrew Carnegie left a treasure trove of letters and manuscripts. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, wrote in one of his few surviving letters that he hated writing letters. His lifelong clerk, Lambert Wardell, described how he "abominated" papers, and would throw letters in the fire.

And yet, Vanderbilt was at the center of the national economy, even national political events, for nearly seven decades. He was clearly significant enough to warrant a major biography. But where to start?

The digitization of newspapers has made this a bit easier. Using such databases as Readex's Historical Newspapers and Proquest's newspaper database, I spent month after month reading through PDF files of newspaper reports that came up positive on such searches as "Vanderbilt." Unfortunately, such searches also pulled up classified ads for property on Brooklyn's Vanderbilt Avenue, or court reports for Judge John Vanderbilt. The wheat-chaff sifting occupied a great deal of time. (Readex's digitized Congressional Serial Set was a marvelous source as well.)

The digitization of manuscript catalogs helped, too. I searched WORLDCAT and others, and went through the online catalogs of various archives, such as the Library of Congress and New-York Historical Society. I searched not only for Vanderbilt, but people and businesses associated with him.

But digitization can only supplement traditional research. I made lists of citations in the endnotes of other books on Vanderbilt and related topics and people, and searched the sources they cited. This led to major discoveries—for example, in the papers of Erastus Corning, and in the National Archives.

Research discoveries are made through a combination of persistence and brainstorming—looking into collections for items that appear, at first, only tangentially related. I followed up sidetracks, examining papers that archivists had noted could provide information on various corporations that Vanderbilt was connected to, where I often discovered rich accounts of the Commodore and his doings, including letters by him and about him.

But the most fun, and sometimes the most revealing, discoveries are made by accident. The most unexpected resource I discovered this way were court records, both in courthouses and in the papers of lawyers who dealt with cases connected to Vanderbilt and his allies.

I had despaired of finding information about the early decades of Vanderbilt's life, before he became a truly public figure, until I started work in the New York Municipal Archives. These are housed on the ground floor of the Surrogate Court building in Manhattan—the interior of which is familiar to viewers of Law & Order, which films many hallways scenes in its grand central space. I asked the head archivists where I might find Marine Court records, and was directed to the seventh floor. What's the seventh floor? I asked. "I don't know," he shrugged. "It's the seventh floor." I took rickety elevator up, the light fixture held in place with duct tape, and walked into what is literally New York's legal attic: the Old Records Division of the New York County Clerk's Office.

The Old Records Division holds the surviving papers of three centuries of New York's civil legal history. I probably added a year to my work on this book, as I spent month after month going through original legal papers that unlocked many of Vanderbilt's secrets, and the shrouded activities of his allies and enemies, such as the ever-mysterious Daniel Drew. I became a fixture in the office (as citizens came to get certified copies of old divorce decrees or lawyers came for copies of filings in long-running lawsuits), as I discovered in entire episodes of Vanderbilt's life that were unknown before.

But I should close with one piece of advice for other biographers. If you wish to make a living at this business, work with someone who left papers behind. This book will be published seven years after I started on it. It was necessary, if I was to write an authoritative account of such a long and significant life, but I don't relish the idea of trying it again.
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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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