The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
by T.J. Stiles, published 2010
How and why did Cornelius Vanderbilt, steamship and railroad entrepreneur, become America’s “first tycoon” and in the process earn a fortune worth an estimated $100M in the 1870s? The simplest answer provided by this lengthy biography is that Vanderbilt was able to think about abstract entities such as corporations as representing competitive business opportunities in an age when most other people controlling them thought of them as profitable grants of privilege from the State (which they were). The result was that Vanderbilt thought strategically about his acquisitions in the sense of actively seeking to own things with identifiable competitive advantages (the best route, the lowest operating costs, network effects) which he would then exploit while slashing prices, while his competitors were stuck playing defense until they gave up and offered to buy him out in self-defense.
But the book really doesn’t offer enough specific and concrete evidence to validate this thesis, it’s really just a hunch and an attempt to read between the lines of what is offered. Like most biographers and historians, Stiles consistently fluctuates between the two extremes of failing to provide the necessary evidence to actually understand what was happening and why, and forcing a tortured narrative metaphor of “the capitalist as king/general” that ends up just confusing the issues. Vanderbilt is constantly in “rate wars”, is “battling” for control of companies and finds himself with an “empire” after yet another “conquest.” But we never hear this language in Vanderbilt’s own quotations (based upon written correspondence, newspaper interviews and courtroom testimony) which are numerous.
How Vanderbilt saw himself as a businessman and operator, and how Stiles chooses to depict him with his jarring anachronistic fadism are even more incongruous because Stiles himself spends much of the time arguing against his own descriptions! It is a puzzling choice. Perhaps books about old tyme capitalists don’t sell well without a not so subtle nod to the villainous Robber Baron laying in wait inside of all of them, but it’s a shame because the much more interesting story would’ve been the one told through Vanderbilt’s own eyes. Not to mention the fact that the Robber Baron myth is a lie perpetrated against Vanderbilt, not because he was a horrible monopolist but because he was such a pain in the ass to the horrible monopolists!
[The NYT] attacked him for, as he wrote elsewhere, “driving too sharp a competition” [… deriding] “competition for competition’s sake; competition which crowds out legitimate enterprises… or imposes tribute upon them” [… and called on] “our mercantile community to look the curse of competition fully in the face.”
Similarly, there are constant references to “the world Vanderbilt helped make” with reference to markets and businesses, the city of New York and the emergent nation of the United States of America. And while certainly the man’s actions and decisions were influential and impactful, Vanderbilt was not a statesman and never saw himself as anything more than an ambitious private citizen. There is not one example in the book of Vanderbilt plotting to remake the world in his own image. This is just another forced biographical trope that dopey readers, editors and authors seem to think makes a story ten times better to insist upon when the world just doesn’t have that many psychopaths in fact.
Other information missing from the story that seems essential to charting Vanderbilt’s rise: what he paid for various business assets and how he financed them, what he earned from them and what he paid in taxes, when he controlled an asset and when he was a minority partner, etc. Especially, we should like to know his leverage over time and how he was able to benefit from the various money panics that occurred repeatedly throughout his business career. One thing is for certain, he seemed to always be a buyer in such scenarios, never a seller, and he seemed comfortable being in control of his investments and making and enforcing operating policy, rather than being a mere financial speculator such as a partner like Daniel Drew might.
There are many charming bits of early American social and business vernacular we learn sprinkled throughout the book and its strength is in providing so many direct quotations from primary sources, especially the business media of the day, which really help to flavor the narrative and transport the reader to the place and time described. But this can also be a weakness, when the author ends up name-dropping a litany of capitalists involved in some deal or scheme and dribbling their worries and anxieties from private correspondence over several pages as the deal unfolds. I found it difficult to follow and mostly tuned out what I assume are supposed to be the action-packed moments of the story.
I first read this book shortly after it was published in 2010. I since decided to re-read it and while I wish I had had a bit more energy and focus when I did, I am glad of it. I took a new and different appreciation from some of the book’s events than I did on first pass, which suggests I’ve either improved my mental framework or at least changed it in meaningful ways over the last 7 years. Vanderbilt still comes across as a unique and heroic figure, a true titanic will. The narrative is as confused and cluttered as ever, and while I think there were the makings of a better, more concisely argued book here, and the author certainly has done his research, I am not convinced he did the right research or even fully understood what lessons he was taking away from it. The result is I’ve since downgraded the value of this particular work in my mind and think it belongs to a pretty standard class of historical biographies. Vanderbilt the man himself though is easily a five out of five as far as members of humanity are concerned!
I’ve got far more I’d be willing and able to discuss about this work and Vanderbilt as an example in private correspondence than I think I could fit into a short, coherent blog post, so really ruminating on this story will have to wait for another time and a different occasion.