Host Marilyn Stoddard reports on the May 21st event with T.J. Stiles reading from his book, The First Tycoon:
Stiles spent 7 years on this book. He said historians tend to go for people who have lots of papers. That was not true of Vanderbilt. He did not like to keep papers, and often burned letters after reading them. A diary written by his second wife survives. To fill in his life further, Stiles used the strategy of searching the papers of people with whom Vanderbilt had business dealings.
Cornelius Vanderbilt lived through 18 presidents and knew most of them personally. He was the leading man in the railroad industry at a time when it towered over the economy. In the first phase of his career he dominated the steamboat and railroad traffic between New England and New York. In the second phase of his career he helped organize the travel to the California Gold Rush. While arranging for transit across Central America, he got involved with the governments there; at one time he sent secret agents with gold to Nicaragua. The third phase of his career began with the Civil War. He came to dominate the railroad link between New York and Chicago. His pattern was to expand to ever larger enterprises. He saw the potential and developed the use of the corporation.
Before the railroads, America seldom had large companies. Wage earners expected to move onto being entrepreneurs. Vanderbilt's life shows the social, cultural, and political changes that took place in the 19th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, the old landed families were still in charge. By the end there was a shift toward commercial and individualist approaches. Charles Francis Adams, of the famous Adams family and a railroad regulator said, "[Vanderbilt] has introduced Caesarism into corporate life...[He} is the precursor of a class of men who will wield within the state a power created by it, but too great for its control."
Vanderbilt had little formal education, but he learned to design steamships. He had the kind of practical education that was typical of ante-bellum America. He had intense personal competitiveness. He raced horses into his 80's. He grew along with his business enterprises. While in 1853 he was described as illiterate and boorish; in 1873 he was described as a hightoned, honorable gentleman. This book is an excellent example of a biography that gives you a feel for the times the subject lived through.