Robber Barons of the World Unite!

Robber Barons of the World Unite!

San Francisco


San Francisco

Thanks to Steve Fraser for his lengthy review of my book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt [“The Misunderstood Robber Baron,” Nov. 30]. I wish to offer a few words in response, but I hope I don’t sound querulous. Fraser offers a healthy amount of praise, and his criticisms largely spring from a sympathy with wage workers. That’s precisely the attitude readers–including me–want and expect in your pages. We certainly don’t find enough of it elsewhere.

But I would like to stress the nuances that I tried to impart to my portrait. Fraser leaves the impression that my book descends into simple praise for a great capitalist, whereas I tried to uncover the complexities of Vanderbilt’s long career. Vanderbilt’s life, I found, contributed to the central conundrums of a corporate economy in a democratic society.

A key point of the review is Fraser’s claim that I take it as axiomatic that associating Vanderbilt with modernity is “a good thing.” I could not disagree more. I tried to illustrate the contradictions that accompanied the emergence of modernity, with rising wealth and productivity on one hand, and increasing polarization of incomes and power on the other. I do not use “modernizing” as a synonym for “making better.”

Fraser writes that I am “willfully blind” to the distinction between “dynastic capitalism” and the modern corporation. On the contrary, I stress Vanderbilt’s “peculiar role” as a transitional figure. He promoted the institutionalization of modern capitalism and was an individual who towered over banks and corporations–“both a relic of a bygone era and an aggressive leader of the new.” I contrast the owner/manager model of Vanderbilt’s corporations with the Pennsylvania Railroad, in which ownership and management were separated. I point out how the Pennsylvania model showed the way to the future, though I also describe the corruption and self-dealing that came with it.

More important is the question of how I treat the liberal reformers–E.L. Godkin, Henry and Charles Francis Adams Jr. and others. Fraser also writes that I take a “cheap shot” when I connect the liberals’ criticism of Vanderbilt with their distrust of democracy, and that I am engaging in “intellectual snobbery.”

This criticism may seem convincing within the confines of his review. In my book, however, I describe how the liberals’ distrust of popular government led them to oppose any attempt at government regulation. Fraser writes that I do not explain why the New York Times‘s attack on the “modern aristocracy of capital” was incoherent. But he leaves out the rest of my quote of the editorial in question: “It is no part of our present purpose to suggest a remedy. Indeed, we must frankly confess we see none.” I contrast this with new demands for federal regulation, which were endorsed by such agrarian radicals as the Grangers, to the liberals’ distress.

Notions of government regulation of corporate power began to emerge, in modern form, during Vanderbilt’s lifetime. Fraser ignores this issue, and my discussion of it.

Finally, Fraser writes that I overlook labor relations, industrial accidents and the air brake. These are important subjects, worthy of the many books already devoted to them. But much of Fraser’s critique on this point is misplaced. As a railroad owner and executive, Vanderbilt had no role in operational management. He did not pick brakes for his trains, any more than he set timetables. Labor relations and workplace safety in the railroad industry were largely outside the confines of my biography. On the other hand, I do describe how, as a steamship owner, he fired strikers–sometimes at his own peril–and ruthlessly cut wages.

More generally, I chose to focus on the larger conundrum that Vanderbilt represented for American society. As I discuss, he helped to polarize society, to create a class of lifetime wage workers unknown before the rise of the corporation. I describe the insecurity and poverty of labor in this new economy. And I write about how his pursuit of revenge against his enemies repeatedly imperiled hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

Of course, I had my say at great length in my book. Fraser’s emphatic, informed review serves the valuable purpose of continuing a discussion of the origins of corporate capitalism.


Fraser Replies

New York City

T.J. Stiles assures Nation readers that he, like them, has “sympathy with wage workers.” Thank goodness The Nation exists, because there are few places left, he laments, where such sentiments get aired nowadays. How true! But one place that doesn’t have room for that warm-heartedness turns out to be Stiles’s own book. He gives the game away near the end of his letter when he explains that he decided that matters like “labor relations” and “workplace safety” were “outside the confines of my biography.”

That is the real point. It’s not a question of “sympathy” for the downtrodden. The question is what a historian selects as important. The burden of my criticism of The First Tycoon is that to understand what the rise of industrial capitalism was about, whether pioneered by Vanderbilt or others, the reader needs a textured look at how it rested on the conversion of millions of people into wage laborers and how that experience transformed their lives. There is no capital without labor, no “First Tycoon” without the legions of working people he employed. But, Stiles insists, the Commodore didn’t have time to pay attention to such matters as the occasional amputation or fatality, or more basic “labor relations.” Odd, because industrialists of his ilk had to. Whether true or not, we are left to wonder why Stiles decided it should escape the “confines of my biography.”

Perhaps because it would spoil the heroic story he wants to convey about the misunderstood robber baron. Stiles says I find him guilty of too much reverential prose about his subject. He objects when I note that he conflates dynastic and corporate capitalism in order to gild Vanderbilt’s reputation as a “pioneer [in] the rise of the truly gigantic business corporation.” Stiles says he’s aware of the distinction between the dynast and the corporate suit. No doubt. But it is also Stiles who cites Alfred Chandler’s classic book on the rise of the modern bureaucratic corporation (The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business) to support the notion that Vanderbilt was among its foremost architects. However, this curious reviewer consulted Chandler’s book and found only five glancing references to the Commodore, none of them remotely confirming Stiles’s use of the book. What’s happening here is an inflation of honors. Stiles objects to that claim in my review. What is one to make, however, of a panegyric for Vanderbilt’s corporate dealings that singles them out as “acts of imagination” in “a world of the mind, a world that would last into the twenty-first century,” a world in which stocks “could be played like a flute,” “abstracted into a substanceless something” so pathbreaking that “even the most sophisticated thinkers refused to accept that stock could be increased at will, or that the market alone should determine the value of a share”? A wonderful turn of phrase that “substanceless something,” a realm where one need not ponder overmuch those more substantial realities like rickety rolling stock, farm foreclosures and harried brakemen that buoyed up stock increasing “at will.”

Most important, according to Stiles, is the unfair way I criticize his treatment of liberal reformers. I make note of what an undemocratic-minded lot they were (including the founder of The Nation), so I don’t know why Stiles raises it again. My point was that Stiles tries to vitiate their criticism of emerging corporate capitalism by dismissing it as the cynical antipathy of an elite–“cynicism, stark and sometimes overblown.” I call that a “cheap shot” because it allows Stiles to avoid any serious confrontation with what they had to say. And I call it “intellectual snobbery” because he fails to note the overlap in the criticisms offered by these elitists with the protests of the unwashed of the labor and farmer movements of the day, people whose antipathies to the corporation can’t be so blithely tossed off as the grumblings of an antiquated aristocracy. Someone who thinks it worth telling the reader how many millions of bricks and millions of pounds of iron and thousands of barrels of cement went into the building of Grand Central Terminal but doesn’t think it worth a similar inventory of severed limbs and fatherless families may or may not be chockablock with “sympathy” but definitely needs to take off his sunglasses.


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