: The first tycoon: the epic life of cornelius vanderbilt (vintage) (9781400031740) : T.J. Stiles : Books
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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life Of Cornelius Vanderbilt (vintage)

by T.J. Stiles
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Publishing date: 20/04/2010
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9781400031740
  • ISBN: 1400031745


Book Description
A gripping, groundbreaking biography of the combative man whose genius and force of will created modern capitalism.

Founder of a dynasty, builder of the original Grand Central, creator of an impossibly vast fortune, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt is an American icon. Humbly born on Staten Island during George Washington’s presidency, he rose from boatman to builder of the nation’s largest fleet of steamships to lord of a railroad empire. Lincoln consulted him on steamship strategy during the Civil War; Jay Gould was first his uneasy ally and then sworn enemy; and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, was his spiritual counselor. We see Vanderbilt help to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation—in fact, as T. J. Stiles elegantly argues, Vanderbilt did more than perhaps any other individual to create the economic world we live in today.

In The First Tycoon, Stiles offers the first complete, authoritative biography of this titan, and the first comprehensive account of the Commodore’s personal life. It is a sweeping, fast-moving epic, and a complex portrait of the great man. Vanderbilt, Stiles shows, embraced the philosophy of the Jacksonian Democrats and withstood attacks by his conservative enemies for being too competitive. He was a visionary who pioneered business models. He was an unschooled fistfighter who came to command the respect of New York’s social elite. And he was a father who struggled with a gambling-addicted son, a husband who was loving yet abusive, and, finally, an old man who was obsessed with contacting the dead.

The First Tycoon is the exhilarating story of a man and a nation maturing together: the powerful account of a man whose life was as epic and complex as American history itself.

Excerpts from an Interview with T.J. Stiles

Question: Your last book was a biography of Jesse James. What drew you to Cornelius Vanderbilt as your next subject?

T.J. Stiles: I was drawn by who he was as a person, the lack of writing about him, and the historical themes that defined his life.

Like Jesse James, Vanderbilt was man of action--decisive, dramatic, and always interesting. He courted physical danger, fought high-stakes financial battles, and always set the terms of his existence. Like Jesse James, Vanderbilt has not been the subject of much serious research. And like Jesse James, Vanderbilt opened a window on the making of modern America. Vanderbilt was central to the rise of the corporation, the emergence of Wall Street, and the birth of big business. His was a dramatic life played out on an enormous stage.

Q:How long have you been working on this book and what kind of research went into it?

TJS: I worked on it for more than six years. My research was challenging because Vanderbilt kept no diary, preserved no letters, and left behind no collection of papers. Second, the last serious biography about him was written in 1942. The increasing digitization of newspapers and Congressional documents helped, but I did most of my work the old-fashioned way, digging through archives and sitting in front of microfilm readers. My biggest discovery came when I stumbled upon the Old Records Division of the New York County Clerk’s Office; I spent months there going through original lawsuit papers from as early as 1816. I uncovered entire episodes of Vanderbilt’s life that no one ever suspected--fistfights, steamboats ramming each other, inside trading and noncompetition agreements, details about his physical office and epic tales of betrayal. I also focused on Vanderbilt’s associates and rivals, and found priceless letters about him in their papers. Of course, I spent months more going through the papers of his various railroad corporations at the New York Public Library. I found so much new material that I decided to include a lengthy bibliographical essay.

Q:Throughout the book, you highlight Vanderbilt's role in the making of the modern idea of economic regulation. You also write, "The Commodore’s life left its mark on Americans’ most basic beliefs about equality and opportunity." Where in our modern institutions do you think his legacy is most apparent?

TJS: Vanderbilt early on voiced a political philosophy rooted in radical Jacksonianism. He believed in individual equality, in the right to compete freely. He denounced monopolies and corporations. This strain of thought remains a key part of American values. Yet he ended his life at the pinnacle of an incredibly unequal society, the master of a giant corporation that overshadowed almost every other business in America. That late-life transformation strongly influenced the new acceptance of government regulation that arose after the Civil War. I don’t think so much that Vanderbilt’s legacy can be seen in our institutions as much as our economic culture--the rise of the modern idea that government should intervene to regulate large businesses, and redress the balance of wealth and power in society.

Q: What do you think Vanderbilt would have to say about our current economic climate; its root causes as well as the ever increasing bail-outs of giant corporations?

TJS: When the Panic of 1873 hit, Vanderbilt gave an immediate analysis to a newspaper reporter that virtually describes the current situation. The problem was asset inflation: a speculative bubble (in his case, railroads, in our case, real estate) that tamped down skepticism about the value of securities issued by overvalued companies (or, in our case, mortgage-backed securities based on shaky home loans). Eager to ride the rising wave, banks in New York marketed the securities abroad, giving a stamp of approval, much as they have done with mortgage-backed securities today. In other words, Vanderbilt would have understood the root causes of our crisis, despite the great differences in the economy between then and now. And, though he usually looked askance at government intervention, the seriousness of the situation might have led him to approve of strong action. It’s hard to say, because he denounced subsidies, yet after the Panic of 1873 he also urged the federal government to pump new money into the economy. In any case, he would have had a sophisticated grasp of our conundrum.

Q:Your own family history recently made national news when it was discovered, at The Smithsonian in Washington, DC, that one of President Lincoln's watches contained a secret inscription from your great-great grandfather. That must have been pretty exciting for you, not only as a family member but as a historian who has written extensively about the Civil War. How do you feel about this news and what do you make of all the attention it received?

TJS:The news accounts floored me. I never expected this favorite family story, one I never quite believed, to enter national mythology. My great-great-grandfather, Jonathan Dillon, was an Irish immigrant who was working in a Washington, D.C., watch repair shop when Fort Sumter was fired on. He happened to be holding Lincoln's watch in his hand. He made an inscription on the back of the dial, closed it up, and said nothing to Lincoln about it. My second cousin, Douglas Stiles, tracked the watch to the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, and convinced the director to open the watch up and check. The message was there--a little different from my great-great-grandfather's memory, but it was there.

I think it struck a chord with the nation at the moment of Lincoln's bicentennial. Here was a plucky, immigrant watchmaker who left a silent message of encouragement in Lincoln's pocket. No fanfare, nothing attention grabbing, just a patriotic, very human little act. I grew up with this story, and named my own son Dillon, in a kind of chain tribute to Jonathan Dillon, the watchmaker. (My father's middle name is Dillon, and of course it was my great-grandmother Isabella Dillon's maiden name.) When he was born in 2007, I often told the story about Lincoln's watch. If I had my doubts about it, I figured that no one would dare tear open Lincoln's watch to check. Glad they did.

As a historian, I found it particularly startling to be brought so close to perhaps the most important American of any era. I wrote about Lincoln in The First Tycoon. Now I know that, as he held an urgent conference with Cornelius Vanderbilt over how best to deal with the Confederate ironclad Merrimack, he might have had in his pocket a secret message from my great-great-grandfather. The story adds an immediacy to the past, showing how close any one of us is to great historical events.

(Photo © Joanne Chan)

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  • I caved in and bought the book.
    From Amazon

    I found it very difficult to purchase this book as I hate to reward companies that do not understand the digital world. That said this book was fantastic and would recommend it.. now i just have to settle how I feel about caving in.

  • The First Tycoon is a detailed study of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who ruled sail, steam and railroads in the Gilded Age
    From Amazon

    Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) was a force of nature! He died worth in excess of 100 million 1877 dollars having worked himself to tycoonship over corporate American through genius, guile and sheer hard work. If ever there was a Horatio Alger of business then Vanderbilt fits the bill! Cornelius Vandebilt was born to Duthc-English parents on Staten Island. From an early age he engaged in the Staten Island ferry business taking passengers to New York. Later he would buy sailing vessels, steamboats and railroads which spanned the continent in the age of manifest destiny, the birth of big business and the transformation of America into a land of huge corporate giants. Stles is incredibly detailed in discussing all of the business deals and mergers made by Vanderbilt. T.J. Stiles rightly won the 2009 National Book Award for "The First Tycoon." It is a hefty volume of 571 densely written pages with over 100 pages of footnotes and bibliographic entries. Stiles labored on this biographical and economic history for several years. The essential points made by Stiles as to why Vanderbilt is an important, but often neglected, figure in American economic history are: 1. He was involved in the Supreme Court decision rendered by Chief Justice John Marshall in the landmark "Gibbons vs. Ogden" case that state erected barriers to trade were against the law. This case shattered the 18th century culture of deference in which the aristocracy ruled. Gibbons was a business mentor of Vanderbilt who favored Jacksonian individualistic rights to oppose monopolies. 2. Business competition was viewed by Vanderbilt as essential to personal, economic and political virtue in the new United States. 3.Through his superman work in the transportation industry Vanderbilt helped in the trade and textile industry of New England mills and led to the present mobile and highly industrialized American economy. 4. Vanderbilt's Nicarauga steam and railroad line through that Central America nation led to the growth of California especially the city of San Francisco during the gold rush of 1849. Due to titans like Vanderbilt the United States was united from sea to shining sea. Vanderbilt had to fight off the evil dictator filibuster William Walker in Nicaragua and also fight unscrupulous partners in the venture such as the notorious Joseph White. 5. Vanderbilt was highly instrumental in making New York City the hub of the stock market and business community in America. His building and transportation work greatly abetted the economic boom in the 1850s in New York City. His company built Grand Central Station and he owned the New York Central and Hudson railroads as well as several trunk lines throughout the nation. He aided in the recovery of the national economy during the 1873 Panic by shoring up failing railroads owned by his associates. 6. During the Civil War he gave his ship "The Vanderbilt" to the US government. He also transported gold from California to the east despite the predations made on trade by Confederate raiders such as Captain Raphael Semmes and his raider "The Alabama." Vanderbilt married a southern belle and was a good friend of Confederate general Braxton Bragg, 7. Vanderbilt was the first and most important corporate titan in American life. When he began his career most Americans lived on farms and in rural areas. When he died the nation was increasingly urban united by the powerful tie of rail transportation. 8. Vanderbilt believed in reconciliation between the North and South following the Civil War. He gave almost one million dollars to help fund Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The great university was dedicated in 1875. Vanderbilt could be cranky and irascible. He had trouble with Cornelius Jr. who was a gambler. His son George Washington attended West Point and died young. Son William succeeded his father in power dying worth at least 200 million dollars at the time of his death Vanderbilt enjoyed racing horses, playing euchre and spending evenings with his cronies at the Manhatten Club and in quiet evenings at home. Vanderbilt never learned to spell, was often profane and disdainful of aristocrats. Vanderbilt was an uneducated man who was, nevertheless, a genius. He was often coarse and ruthless in his business dealings. He was wed twice loving both Sophie and the young Frank Crawford whom he wed in late old age. He had many children but spent most of his time at his office. He ate sparingly and drank little keeping in strong physical condition. He also had little interest in organized religion. Vanderbilt was no saint and there is much to criticize in the ruthless unregulated business world of the nineteenth century. The reader must make up his/her mind as to what is to be learned from Vanderbilt's incredible career! This book is a difficult read for folks like this reviewer who is a neophyte in the world of high finance. I am, nevertheless, glad I stuck with it. Not everyone's cup of tea but worth the effort!

  • Much more than a bio
    From Amazon

    The First Tycoon is for anyone who wants to know more about the history of our Nation and our economy. It is illuminating and relevant.

  • Minority Report
    From Amazon

    I'm frankly suprised that the Stiles biography has been so widely honored. That it is comprehensive is inarguable. It is exhaustive. It's also exhausting. Stiles writes with numbing detail, often, but not always, buttressing a contention with a quote where either would have sufficed. Occasionally he offers an anecdote only to then to render it moot by saying it was certainly apocryphal, adding to the book's tonnage without adding anything to our knowledge. It almost feels at times that Stiles found quotes and wrote around them and at other times, had a tidbit of information and went searching for a corroborating quote. There are parts of the book that seem repetitious, even if they actually aren't. Vanderbilt certainly lived an epic life as the subtitle of the book would have it, and had enormous, some would say unparalleled impact on the nation, and is clearly worth of the kind of scrutiny Stiles has brought to it. But judicious editing would have produced a livelier read, without materially affecting the scope or sense of completeness of the book nor of the man.

  • Great story, breat topic, but too long
    From Amazon

    The book is a great story of a great person that defined its era. I learned a lot. On the other hand, sometimes the story went into too much details, sometimes it was difficult to keep attention. I understand that it is very subjective for every reader and authors can not please everyone, but I personally prefer more condensed writing.

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