The Misunderstood Robber Baron: On Cornelius Vanderbilt | The Nation


The Misunderstood Robber Baron: On Cornelius Vanderbilt

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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.

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Steve Fraser
Steve Fraser is a visiting professor at New York University, co-founder of the American Empire Project, and the author...

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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.

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