The Misunderstood Robber Baron: On Cornelius Vanderbilt
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.