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The Misunderstood Robber Baron: On Cornelius Vanderbilt | The Nation

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The Misunderstood Robber Baron: On Cornelius Vanderbilt

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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.

About the Author

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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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.

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