Cornelius Vanderbilt died in January 1877. Six months later, the greatest social insurrection of the nineteenth century paralyzed the operations of Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad (by then overseen by his son William) along with the other three trunk lines connecting the East Coast to Chicago and points farther west. The Great Railroad Strike, as it came to be known, was an upheaval of extraordinary violence sparked by an astonishing act of collusion and callousness: a 10 percent wage cut announced the previous year–amid the century’s worst depression–and endorsed in concert by the four trunk lines. Armed confrontations between state militias and infuriated railroad workers and their legions of sympathizers broke out in cities and towns across the country. A general strike paralyzed St. Louis. On a single day 
in Pittsburgh, crowds burned thirty-nine railroad buildings and 1,300 railroad cars and engines as well as a huge grain elevator; armed with Gatling guns, the National Guard killed twenty that night and more the next day. Thomas Scott, who ran the Pennsylvania Railroad, concluded, “Nothing but the insanity of passion, played upon by designing and mischievous leaders, can explain the destruction of vast quantities of railroad equipment.” Nothing, that is, except the desperate circumstances of the railroad workers–who for paltry wages risked being killed or maimed in industrial accidents–and their families.

The three weeks of mayhem ended with widespread applause for the forces of law and order. Armories were erected in major cities to quell the anxieties of the middle classes, who since the incendiary days of the Paris Commune had lived in chronic fear of a bloody class confrontation erupting in America. In this tense climate, many came to revere the new lords of industry. A few years after his death, Vanderbilt was lionized by his first biographer: without “the Commodore”–a sobriquet by which Vanderbilt was widely known at the time–there’d be “no railroads or steamships or telegraphs; no cities, no leisure class, no schools, no colleges, literature, art; in short no civilization.” Millions shared in this idolatry.

A minority were irate and excoriated the titans of finance and industry as “robber barons” and worse. E.L. Godkin, founder of The Nation, launched a volley of invective at the new plutocracy: “kings of the street” like Vanderbilt displayed “unmitigated and immitigable selfishness” as appalling as their “audacity, push, unscrupulousness and brazen disregard of others’ rights.” Henry Adams, writing about the Credit Mobilier debacle after the Civil War, in which railroad operators connived with government officials to loot the public treasury, concluded that “the moral law has expired–like the Constitution.” This less sanguine view grew more popular in the twentieth century, especially during and after the Great Depression, a catastrophe millions of Americans blamed on a second generation of “robber barons.” Historical scholarship reflected that assessment. Biographies of Mellon, Carnegie and Rockefeller were often laced with moral censure, warning that “tories of industry” were a threat to democracy and that parasitism, aristocratic pretension and tyranny have always trailed in the wake of concentrated wealth, whether accumulated dynastically or more impersonally by the faceless corporation. This scholarship, and the cultural persuasion of which it was an expression, drew on a deeply rooted sensibility–partly religious, partly egalitarian and democratic–that stretched back to William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Jackson and Tom Paine.

The censure of big business continued through the 1960s and beyond, but it has gradually been eclipsed by the cultural and intellectual reclamation of Gilded Age tycoonery. During the past two decades, revisionist biographies and collective portraits of Mellon, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Harriman, J.P. Morgan and others have effectively rehabilitated the reputation of the robber baron. Even the railroad tycoon and speculator Jay Gould, known to his contemporaries as “the Mephistopheles of Wall Street,” has been rescued from cultural purgatory. The quotient of negative moral and political judgment in these studies has declined or disappeared entirely. The emphasis now falls on the commercial brilliance of these men, their implacable will to succeed, their pioneering roles in strengthening the country’s industrial and financial resources, and their mastery of the increasingly complex technological, financial and organizational innovations that have defined the modern economy.

Together this literature might be said to constitute a new genre: the misunderstood robber baron. The genre does not slight the harsh circumstances and nasty tactics that may have facilitated a robber baron’s rise to dominance: a no-holds-barred competitive ferociousness, a casual attitude about sticking to the letter of the law, an imperiousness that distanced him from the plight of those less fortunate, a ruthless drive to bankrupt competitors, the suborning of elected officials. But instead of criticizing these traits and tactics, the genre naturalizes them. If these men did things that today might strike us as unscrupulous, so too did their contemporaries, all members of a society motivated by the single-minded individualism characteristic of a robust free-market economy. Looked at from afar, what we are persuaded to see through the examination of these lives is the incubation of the modern world of industrial and financial capitalism and its ineluctable evolutionary mechanics, not always pretty but at the end of the day a blessing that endowed the country with wealth and power. This sunny picture mirrors today’s ownership society, with its free-market audaciousness and its reverence of businessmen in general, especially those committed to “lean and mean” competitiveness and financial empire-building. Arguably, the genre of the misunderstood robber baron is itself an expression of the shift in the zeitgeist, just as that earlier literature of moral condemnation shared in a more universal set of reservations about the reign of big business.

A telling undercurrent runs through many of these biographies. They seem haunted by the first wave of robber baron biographies and feel the need to exorcise their heavy admixture of judgmental criticism. They often do so by adopting a standpoint of Olympian disinterest. With a certain cool condescension they dismiss the spirit of anticapitalism as near-sighted or doctrinaire and fatally out of touch with the inexorable logic of economic development. They imply that earlier critics–everyone from Henry Adams, Henry George and Henry Demarest Lloyd in the nineteenth century to Charles Beard and other historians of the Progressive era and continuing on in the work of Matthew Josephson, Ferdinand Lundberg and the New Left historians of the ’60s–were captives of a grand illusion: that feasible alternatives to capitalism existed, a menu of possibilities ranging from the cooperative commonwealth to socialism. Historians of the misunderstood robber baron are free of that illusion; indeed, their freedom carries with it the conviction that for all its obvious failings the free-market system prevails because it works, and it works because it is in harmony with some deeper economic truth as lawful as a chemical reaction.

Whatever their Weltanschauung, many of these studies are first-rate histories, and The First Tycoon, a new biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles, is no exception. Vanderbilt’s rise from small-time ferry boat operator on Staten Island to the dominant figure in the nation’s maritime (steamboat) and land (railroad) transportation system is a fascinating story, and Stiles tells it well. His writing is lively and colorful. He is a meticulous and exhaustive researcher with an instinct for the telling anecdote. Drawing on the observations of local merchants, visitors from abroad and the aperçus of Herman Melville, Stiles artfully evokes the hurly-burly of early nineteenth-century New York City: the malodors of its wharves; the logjam of sailing ships and steamboats crowding its harbor; the frenzy of commercial wheeling and dealing in the serpentine streets of Lower Manhattan, which soon established the city as the headquarters of the nation’s commercial maritime economy. Vanderbilt made his fortune in this mercantile jungle, and Stiles does a superb job of portraying how it shaped his character–hardening its armature, sharpening his guile. And though “the First Tycoon” was often a clumsy and reluctant writer who didn’t leave behind much of a paper trail, Stiles has some convincing insights into Vanderbilt’s inner life.

Stiles’s account of the California gold rush of 1849 teems with vivid descriptions of prospectors, con men, gamblers and deal-makers, and captures the meteoric emergence of San Francisco, with its uninhibited night life and the extraordinary cultural diversity that drew fortune-seekers from all over the world. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill presented the opportunity for Vanderbilt to transform his Atlantic Coast steamboat business into a transoceanic one, transporting passengers west to the gold fields and, more important, carrying gold back east to New York’s banks. The gold rush also entangled the Commodore in endless intrigues to construct a land route (railroad/canal/steamboat) across Nicaragua connecting the two oceans, so as to speed up and lower the cost of transit to and from the gold coast. Stiles is especially good, although a bit long-winded, at describing the dangerous yet tragicomic players involved in these machinations, among them the Southern filibusters, freelance military adventurers and political self-promoters who aimed to overthrow local Central American governments and annex places like Nicaragua to the South, feeding Dixie’s insatiable appetite for new slave territories.

Stiles’s talents are by no means limited to his descriptive powers. His analysis of the political economy of the antebellum North is often compelling. He calls Vanderbilt a “shopkeeper of the sea,” a wonderful metaphor that conveys the distinctly mercantile character of the American economy in the decades leading up to the Civil War. It was an economy that rested on trade, not manufacturing, and the Commodore mastered it because he managed to control much of its motorized transport: first the steamboat coastal and then transatlantic trade, and later the land commerce carried by steam-driven railroads. Vanderbilt made his fortune and acquired power in this earlier, commercial phase of American development, not during the subsequent industrialization that made his fellow robber barons so rich and famous.

When Vanderbilt became a steamboat operator in 1817, the mercantile economy was controlled by an elite circle of Anglo-Dutch bankers and merchants dominant since the pre-Revolutionary era. Its members enjoyed a privileged position, in particular an entitlement to exclusive corporate charters issued by state and local governments to carry on various businesses: steamboat lines, turnpikes, railroads, canals and other facets of infrastructure vital to a trading society. The democracy for which the Jacksonian era is so well-known was marked by the desire to open up this state-supported, insular mercantile economy to every man. Antebellum America boiled with entrepreneurial energies; go-getters roamed the land eager to take advantage of the flood of business opportunities that accompanied the country’s territorial expansion. Aspiring men on the make denounced established ones, especially those enjoying the favors of the government, as monopolists and aristocrats. They sought a truly free market economy, universal incorporation laws and the end of state-sanctioned monopolies. It was a war against one form of capitalism on behalf of another.

Stiles makes a persuasive case that Vanderbilt was an important figure in the struggle to unseat an older, patrician form of capitalism. Although he was apolitical, neither a Whig nor a Democrat, and involved himself in politics only when it suited his immediate business objectives, Vanderbilt was in many ways the perfect Jacksonian. Again and again he challenged the state-sanctioned franchises run by politically connected grandees in New York and New England. He established rival steamboat lines, using his detailed knowledge of ship construction and the vagaries of the sea to drive established franchises into bankruptcy. He sank others in court. And he was hardly bashful when it came to deploying democratic rhetoric to discredit his top-drawer enemies while concealing his predatory aims.

The patrician old guard fancied itself a disinterested elite equipped with the breeding, knowledge and independence to act in the public interest; but in fact, as market society extended its reach the old guard behaved like ordinary businessmen, anxious to retain their special commercial advantages. As Stiles cogently observes, “New York’s old patrician families had carried on into this more competitive, egalitarian era, carrying their wealth and prejudices with them. Their elitism blended with the Whig faith in an entrepreneurial but orderly economy.”

Vanderbilt, on the other hand, might have preached the democratic virtues of the free market, but he was perfectly prepared to impose his own monopoly control when the chance presented itself, or to accept ransom money from his competitors so that they might continue to operate their monopolies. Stiles dubs Vanderbilt the “selfish revolutionary” and the “millionaire radical” because he grasped that laissez-faire ideology could perform double duty as a defense of and an attack on wealth. In August 1834 Vanderbilt published a piece of democratic demagoguery aimed at his patrician rivals in the New York Evening Post, a paper committed to radical Jacksonian anti-monopoly politics. His plea was written on behalf of one of his steamboat enterprises, pointedly named the People’s Line, running between New York and Albany: “Thus fellow citizens has this aristocratic monopoly, secure as they think themselves in wealth and power, wantonly attacked an individual whose constant endeavor has been to avoid a contest with them…the question now is, will the public countenance the combined companies in an act of overbearing oppression, or will they patronize and encourage one who is determined to resist aggression and injustice…. The North River is the great highway of the people, and does not belong exclusively to the Monopolists.”

All this verbiage capitalized on the huckstering riffs of the era’s Mammon-worshiping land promoters, town developers and canal and railroad stock jobbers. It’s an irresistible blend of the highfalutin democratic egalitarianism and unblinkered covetousness satirized by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit. Whether Vanderbilt really believed himself a warrior against monopoly or simply rented the rhetoric by the column inch is very hard to say. What’s clear is that he championed capitalism by decrying it. Most important, Stiles notes a deeper irony of the era: that the corporation, which originated as a creature of the state, subject at least in theory to its rules and regulations, would become instead in the decades to follow the master of the state, free of public constraints or any obligation to serve the public interest, thanks to the anti-monopoly social and political upheaval inspired by people like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Jackson.

For all its virtues, The First Tycoon devotes scant attention to the way this broader cultural atmosphere nourished the Napoleonic mythos that came to envelop businessmen like Vanderbilt. The Commodore’s modest social origins and rise to powerful heights mimicked those of Napoleon, a man from nowhere who became emperor. That’s one version of the American Dream and its promise of limitless opportunity and endless self-invention. It is the reason so many revered Vanderbilt. Great Fortunes, and How They Were Made, a classic celebration of self-made American heroes published in 1871, described Vanderbilt’s “mind of crystal, the heart of adamant, the hand of steel, and the will of iron.” In a more distanced and dispassionate way, Stiles endorses this romantic portrait of the Commodore. Aware that he was hated and resented by many, especially by his defeated business rivals, Stiles nevertheless touts Vanderbilt’s reputation as a great man, a rough-hewn economic genius, a primordial tycoon and architect of the modern world.

The endorsement forms the very spine of The First Tycoon. The titles of the book’s three parts–“Captain,” “Commodore” and “King”–convey the image of a triumphant warrior. The titles, in fact, reprise the appellations by which Vanderbilt came to be widely known; but once adopted as organizing themes for a biography, they develop a life of their own. Stiles never seriously questions the extravagant language used by contemporaries to describe Vanderbilt, such as the encomium issued by the directors of his railroad empire upon the Commodore’s death. The “splendor” of his “marvelous personal triumphs” lent them “the tinge of romance…. Beginning in a humble position…he rose by his genius, his indomitable energy and his clear forecast…. It was to his lasting honor that his uniform policy was to protect, develop, and improve the interests with which he was connected, instead of seeking a selfish and dishonorable profit.” Stiles’s own prose is not without grandiose flourishes. His images and metaphors grow overripe as he describes Vanderbilt casting “a shadow over millions of people” and rising “like a mountain peak above the clouds.” Throughout he deploys the vocabulary of the Napoleonic empire-builder, the dramaturgy of combat and daredevil heroism. He admires the Commodore’s “iron nerve” during the Panic of 1873, how he was in “full command as others nearly broke down in fear,” and talks about how alone among the railroad titans Vanderbilt remained “unbent and unbroken.”

Taking this approach raises the stakes, pressuring Stiles to make more of less, to puff up the pedestrian, lending it a grandeur it doesn’t warrant. One result is that the book bogs down at the midway point as Stiles slogs through one business deal after another in a numbing effort to demonstrate Vanderbilt’s superior acumen. Thousands upon thousands of words are invested in describing the intricacies of the Commodore’s Nicaragua venture, requiring some heroic efforts on the reader’s part to follow what’s going on. At the same time, Stiles strains to connect Vanderbilt’s homelier commercial machinations to matters of much greater national import–the sectional conflict over slavery, the collapse of the Whig Party–but these contrived attempts to lend his everyday life greater historical weight almost always fall flat.

Gilding the image of the First Tycoon has worse consequences. Vanderbilt quite consciously constructed a family dynasty, one mainly based on his railroad holdings. Stiles knows that, but, determined to paint a picture of Vanderbilt as the architect of modernity and the modern corporation in particular, he ends up conflating dynastic capitalism with its corporate successor. Vanderbilt’s New York Central did not initially exercise the rationalizing, bureaucratic management already installed on other major railroads, and even after the Commodore assumed command he practiced the kind of personal and familial control he’d favored his whole life. If he did engage in major reorganization of the road along corporate lines, turning it into a complex, impersonal hierarchy run by a cadre of managerial and technical professionals, Stiles provides the reader very little evidence of it. Besides, the modern corporation behaves quite differently, both in the marketplace and the political arena, from its dynastic predecessor. Here’s what a dynasty sounds like: “The law, as I view it, goes too slow for me when I have remedy in my own hands…. Let the other parties go to the law if they want, but by God I think I know what the law is; I have had enough of it.” Vanderbilt’s words are not those of a faceless corporate suit sensitive to his company’s intricate interactions with government bureaucrats and the courts, someone whose loyalty to and tenure at any specific corporation is a contingent one and hardly informed by the patriarchal ambitions of family lineage. Dynastic capitalism rests on an identity of interest and outlook between its owners and managers, since they are more or less the same people; the modern corporation severs that link. Stiles seems willfully blind to the distinction, so intent is he on proving Vanderbilt’s surpassing historical stature.

That’s because, for Stiles, associating Vanderbilt with modernity is axiomatically a good thing. He admires the tycoon’s pathbreaking, visionary ventures into the new world of corporate stocks and bonds and other forms of hypothecated paper values subject to the unpredictable fluctuations of the marketplace. There’s no denying that the rise of financial capitalism was a revolutionary transformation, a radical rupture with a traditional economic outlook whose measure of value remained tied to tangible manifestations of real, physical property, gold currency and the like. The new way of doing things allowed for the mobilization of liquid capital resources and their investment in all sorts of productive enterprises. Vanderbilt became a major player in this mysterious parallel economy. He faced off against rival speculators for control of various railroads, most notoriously the Erie, known far and wide as the “scarlet woman of Wall Street” because of the way it was looted and relooted by stock manipulators like Daniel Drew, Jay Gould and the Commodore. For Stiles that is the end of the story: Vanderbilt as pioneer of modern finance.

But these financial mechanisms also spawned a paper economy of fictitious value that might grossly over- or underestimate the actual value of the tangible assets they were supposed to represent, creating the conditions for periodic booms, busts and panics. Stiles dismisses the reservations of Vanderbilt’s contemporaries about this strange new world as old-fashioned, parochial and near-sighted. He takes for granted that the notion of real value is a delusion, that the market is the sole and ultimate arbiter of what anything is worth. That is the modern view. But those old-time, unenlightened anxieties about “fictitious value” don’t sound so retrograde in light of our recent financial meltdown and its impact on the “real economy,” nor did they in the Commodore’s day during the panics and depressions of 1837, 1857 and 1873 (the most devastating one of all).

East Coast Brahmins like Henry and Charles Francis Adams, Oliver Wendell Holmes and E.L. Godkin were among the many critics of Vanderbilt and the ascendancy of the giant corporation. They, along with legions of less well-known opponents of the Commodore within the nascent labor movement and among distressed and angry farmers and middling businessmen, originated the robber-baron stigma that shadowed Vanderbilt and his fellow tycoons well into the twentieth century. Even the New York Times acknowledged the existence of a “modern aristocracy of capital” and described the new breed of corporate capitalists as “the tyrants of modern society.” Stiles treats this language as incoherent but without explaining why. To be sure, there is a profound historical difference between the aristocrat and the capitalist. But the political significance of the analogy made by the Times and others was clear enough.

Stiles thinks the Adamses, Godkin and other patrician critics of the First Tycoon were cynics. After all, they loathed trade unions, lamented that Anglo-Protestant America was being mongrelized by immigrants, feared and deplored mass democratic politics, considered Populists to be hayseeds and were appalled as much by the vulgarity of the new tycoonery as they were by its inordinate power. Stiles says these unsavory views discredit the Brahmins’ withering critique of the robber barons’ greed, corruption and exploitation. But the charge is a cheap shot and also reflects a kind of intellectual snobbery. After all, the Brahmins’ criticisms were echoed in the indictments against the robber barons leveled by the Knights of Labor, farmer-labor and greenback political parties and anti-monopoly leagues, men and women untainted by the reactionary views of their social superiors. But these anonymous or less well-known political actors don’t turn up in The First Tycoon. They are as invisible to Stiles as they were noxious to Godkin.

Cornelius Vanderbilt liked to memorialize himself. One enduring monument–and vital piece of railroad centralization that substantially improved the New York Central’s economic efficiency–was the original Grand Central Terminal, completed in 1871. Stiles piles up in front of the reader a mountain of statistics about the extraordinary volume and diversity of materials used to build the station. It’s impressive. But there is another set of numbers Stiles shows no interest in compiling or analyzing. During this formative phase of industrialization, 35,000 workers died each year in industrial accidents. In 1910 one-quarter of all workers in the iron and steel industries were injured once a year, partly because of management’s failure to install safety devices or to shorten the hours of work. Between 1890 and 1917, 158,000 mechanics and laborers were killed in railroad repair shops and roundhouses. In 1888-89 alone, of the 704,000 railroad employees, 20,000 were injured and nearly 2,000 killed. On the Illinois Central between 1874 and 1884, one out of every twenty trainmen died or was disabled; among brakemen, railroaders who did the most dangerous work, the ratio was one in seven (and among railroad switchmen the number was almost as alarming). Part of the reason for this horrendous record of disfigurement and death was management’s relentless drive to increase the workload: brakemen, for example, were required to brake four or five cars rather than the two or three that had been the custom earlier. Yet the air brake, invented by George Westinghouse, had been available since 1869. It was expensive to install, however, and the railroad tycoons did nothing until its installation was required by federal legislation in 1893. The accident rate then declined promptly and precipitously by 60 percent.

Stiles insists that Vanderbilt deserves to be treated as a pioneer of modern industrial capitalism. If that’s so, and certainly there’s a case to be made, then what is more fundamental than understanding his relationship to wage labor, upon which the whole system rests? Thousands of workers, not Vanderbilt alone, made the road what it was. Did they end up dead and disabled in numbers comparable to, less than or more than their co-workers on other lines? Was the Commodore particularly solicitous about their welfare? Did he install the air brake? If not, why not? Did he share the bellicose view of people like Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad or was he, given his lowly social origins, more sympathetic, conciliatory perhaps? What was it like to work for one of the Commodore’s great enterprises? The First Tycoon has little to say about any of this, and its silence helps sustain the romance of the misunderstood robber baron.

Not that everyone was silent. Stiles cites an open letter of 1869 from Mark Twain to Vanderbilt in which Twain indicts the tycoon’s rapaciousness and greed. But what really bothers Twain (and Stiles emphasizes this) is the idolatry that Vanderbilt’s fortune inspired among ordinary people: “You seem to be the idol of only a crawling swarm of small souls, who love to glorify your most flagrant unworthiness in print or praise your vast possessions worshippingly; or sing of your unimportant private habits and sayings and doings, as if your millions gave them dignity.” Anyone living during the last quarter century must be acutely aware that the inclination to genuflect before great wealth has once again become a national pastime. It began back in the days of the First Tycoon. It is another, perhaps less savory contribution of the Commodore’s, or at least of his fellow robber barons. But while Stiles is eager to interrogate critics of that idolatry–Twain’s views are fairly presented but then derogated as the work of a “cynic”–he stays mum about the origins, meaning and consequences of the cult itself. Such silence is inherent in the genre of the misunderstood robber baron. It takes for granted what Twain and others worried about; indeed, it asks us to follow its example and prostrate ourselves before the captains, commodores and kings of great wealth.