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Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
by T.J. Stiles
p. 2009/paperback 2010
Vintage  Books

    The Vanderbilt family, to a certain degree, defines America.  Not only is there the founder and business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, there are all his descendants, down to Anderson Cooper (son of Gloria Vanderbilt) today.  Stiles 2009 biography of Vanderbilt was a certified hit, winning a National Book Award and meriting a classy paperback edition, the version I read.  I don't often criticize the manufacture of a book, but this one actually fell apart when I was reading it, something that never happens, and it has to be because the spine of the paperback book was poorly designed/manufactured.  I don't think you need to include all the ancillary material if you are doing a paperback version, that's all I'm saying.

   Throughout The First Tycoon, I was reminded of two other books: Alfred Chandlers, The Managerial Revolution and Alan Trachtenburg's, The Incorporation of America.  The former title describes, factually, how the American economy was changed in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th.  The later title describes how that change influenced American Culture and Way-of-life.

   Corneilus Vanderbilt stands astride both the change itself and the way this change effected everyone, since he was either the first or one of the first men to obtain Wealth and Fortune from his mastery of this new, corporate, way of life.  He also did, indeed, live an Epic life, born during the Presidency of George Washington, he lived to do business with John Rockefeller- truly bridging the time span of several life times. Vanderbilt's life unfolds like a three act play:


    Vanderbilt got his start in the Dutch populated farming villages on the islands off of New York City.  His father worked by ferrying agricultural products from Staten Island and it's environs to New York City.  Vanderbilt followed in his father's footsteps.  As a young "Merchant" Vanderbilt was on the ground when the Steam Boat arrived, and he was quick to combine his already existent knowledge about the shipping/ferrying business with the new technology.

   Vanderbilt's Steam Boat enterprise was not a modern business corporation, nor was the country ready for that step.  Corporations were very limited by the state- requiring separate charters and limited life times and purpose.  Despite lacking modern business structure, Vanderbilt developed a business that had many of the characteristics of the modern business corporation: it was large, spread out and delegated decision making power to local employees.

  At the Dawn of Act 2, the reader can imagine a scene from the discovery of Gold at Sutter's Mill outside of Sacramento.  The California Gold Rush was a major impetus for people to want to take Steam ships.  Despite popular perception, most people got to California by taking a Steam Boat down to Central America, crossing and then picking up another Steam Boat on the other side.  Vanderbilt's life ended before the Panama Canal was built,  but he saw the California traffic as "the future" and spend the time between 1850 and 60 in a series of baroque political/military adventures in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

  Ultimately, Vanderbilt abandoned Central America and it's ceaseless turmoil.  He was helped towards this decision by the Civil War, which Vanderbilt participated in by giving his biggest steam boat to the Union for sub-hunting duty.  It was probably during the Civil War that Vanderbilt began to take on his mythic proportions in the minds of the American Public.

  During the Civil War, Vanderbilt got heavy into Railroads.  Railroads had existed for thirty years but they were kind of a mess from a business perspective, in that the owners would regularly play games with the stock and the capital in an attempt to benefit themselves.  Insider trading was not illegal at this time, so much of early "BIG BUSINESS" reads like the machinations of English Dukes during the War of the Roses.  Very few people had the strength and clarity of vision to develop the type of Railroads that did develop, and which now appear inevitable to the modern eye.

   Vanderbilt had the vision, and the money to implement it.  His big move was buying the Harlem Railroad, which had the benefit of being the only line that had track leading to downtown Manhattan.  On Railroad land he built Grand Central Station.  In the post Civil War era he engaged in a series of high finance shenanigans, often for no grander reason then spite.  As you would expect in a biography of Vanderbilt, he comes out better then his adversaries, but it's hard not to see a bit of the Simpson's Montgomery Burns in his elaborate financially based plots of revenge.

   Vanderbilt lived and was healthy long enough to conspire with John Rockefeller and Standard Oil in the late 19th century.  It's there that you can really see the outlines of "CORPORATE AMERICA" in grand, fully sketched out form.  Throughout The First Tycoon, Stiles shows a firm and capable hand deploying primary and secondary sources.  He is surely writing from the Corporate Appreciation school pioneered by Chandler, but he is versed enough to recognize the counter-thesis embodied in Trachtenberg's Incorporation of America.

  Much of the middle section involving Central America is less relevant to the modern reader.  Presumably one doesn't need to learn about American involvement in Central American politics in the 19th century from a popular biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, but if you do it's eye opening but not central.  Perhaps the one attitude that truly differentiates Vanderbilt from his successors is his utter lack of interest in the West past Chicago.  Despite the fact that he ran shipping lines to California, he never went there.  He never traveled between Chicago and California.  He was a man of the North East.

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