A rousing life of the legendary robber baron who was in all the right places at the right time.
Cornelius Vanderbilt—called the Commodore in his day—rose from a common birth, the child of a Staten Island farmer, to control one of the largest fortunes in world history. Popular historian Stiles (Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, 2002) writes that although he was derided as an arriviste in his own time, “illiterate & boorish,” Vanderbilt was actually a man of much substance. The author credits him with being farsighted enough to envision the deeply hidden architecture of capitalism and to understand the importance of transport, the source of his earliest successes, in the new world system. Moreover, Stiles observes, he “saw that a group of men sitting around a table could conjure ‘an artificial being, invisible, intangible’ that could outlive them all”—in other words, the modern corporation, making money out of abstractions. Vanderbilt was ruthless too. Following what some have called the Wal-Mart model, he undercut the competition until they disappeared, then raised his prices to suit himself, a practice for which he was widely disliked. Born shortly after the Revolution and alive into the Gilded Age, Vanderbilt was an innovator in bringing law and politics to bear on his understanding of commerce. He surrounded himself with smart lieutenants, including one who, ordered to allow no free rides on a Vanderbilt ferry, insisted that the Commodore pay full fare. Expanding into railroads, transoceanic vessels, communications and many other realms and conquering nearly every economic opponent he confronted, he also founded something that Americans “had long thought to be the corrupt artifact of the aristocratic societies of Europe—that is, he started a dynasty.”
An exemplary biography and highly readable business history.