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Book Reviews

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Posted by friendsofthenewarkfreelibrary on November 5, 2018 at 9:30 AM

By T.J. Stiles

Reviewed by: Roy Lopata

T.J. Stiles has provided us with a biography that truly deserves the label “epic.” This is a classic and lengthy life and times tome that includes all the details of Cornelius (“Commodore”;) Vanderbilt’s remarkable story from birth in Staten Island, New York in 1794 to death in 1877, spanning the history of the United States from the age of George Washington to that of John D. Rockefeller. In describing his times, Stiles makes sure the reader understands that Vanderbilt lived through and significantly shaped a nation that changed from a rural, agricultural, and essentially colonial to a society becoming increasingly urban and dominated by an industrial and corporate economy.


Stiles begins his portrayal with Vanderbilt’s Dutch ancestry in Colonial New York and his early days as a local boatman providing ferry and freight service in small two-masted vessels from the small ports throughout post-Revolutionary New York harbor. His business acumen and dedication to hard work were quickly demonstrated as he adapted to the arrival of the steamboat by continuing to run his own sailing coast-wise service while captaining steam powered schooners for other ferry entrepreneurs. As a result, he became a participant in one of the earliest and still crucial U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding inter-state commerce (Gibbons vs. Ogden) that arose from the efforts of local steamboat men like Vanderbilt to break shipping monopolies granted by the New York State legislature. The Court established the principle that the United States government regulated interstate commerce, not the individual states. And this Supreme Court case, as Stiles notes, set a pattern for Vanderbilt as he began to establish his own steamboat businesses that ruthlessly cut costs, as Vanderbilt would have put it, “to destroy monopolies,” which ironically resulted in many instances with the establishment of his own.


In the meantime, Vanderbilt married (in 1813) and started what would turn out to be a large and at times difficult family. Stiles is particularly good at showing how Vanderbilt’s hardheaded and at times ruthless business practices did not translate well to raising his growing brood of thirteen children nor to happiness between Vanderbilt and his wife, Sophie.


As America grew during the years of the early Republic, Vanderbilt expanded his horizons beyond New York and began to provide steamboat passenger and ferry service from New England to the Delaware Bay. He soon saw too that the coming of the railroads provided an opportunity and a threat to his growing empire. So while he continued to expand his steam powered sea-going vessels to provide the fastest links from the East Coast to Gold Rush crazed California in 1849 by developing steam ship service to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Nicaragua and overland connections between these coasts, he also started to invest in the small railroads that had were expanding from New York City to New England, to Albany and to points south.


By the start of the Civil War, Vanderbilt had become one of the nation’s richest men by seizing control of many of the burgeoning transportation industries that provided the impetus and the economic links for the industrial revolution that spanned America’s 19th Century. Stiles notes, in particular, how Vanderbilt embodied the age’s Jacksonian spirit of hard work and laissez-faire government while, at the same time, set the stage for the growth of giant business by improving service, driving down costs, and, thereby, eliminating competition. Stiles labels Vanderbilt, “. . . the selfish revolutionary, the millionaire radical . . .” who, “helped shape America's striving, competitive, productive society.”


In the final segment of his biography, Stiles provides an excellent description of the post-Civil War railroad consolidations and the restructuring and refinancing that led to Vanderbilt’s acquisition of the New York Central that became a model for corporate organization and management ever since. Stiles notes how Vanderbilt, and the other titans of the Gilded Age economy who followed his lead, uprooted rural America and created our national economy, linked by steel rails. In the meantime, Vanderbilt rose from a very wealthy and successful New Yorker to the richest man in the nation, symbolized by the construction of the Grand Central Depot in Manhattan that would eventual become Grand Central Station – the largest passenger station in the nation at the time of its opening in 1871. By the time of his death in 1877, as Stiles explains, Vanderbilt’s could look back on a life that had significantly contributed to America’s transformation from an economy of small farms and crossroads village markets to a continental-wide corporate world of huge businesses and national markets. In sum, a great read that tells a remarkable story.


Categories: Biography, Nonfiction

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