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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt Paperback – April 20, 2010
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A Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, The New Yorker, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, and Kansas City Star Book of the Year
“A mighty—and mighty confident—work. . . . This is state-of-the-art biography. . . . The First Tycoon has been widely praised, and rightly so. . . . This is state-of-the-art biography.”
—The New York Times
“Superbly written and researched. . . . Worthy of its subject.”
“Truly remarkable. . . . A landmark study that significantly enhances one’s understanding of U.S. economic history. . . . [Stiles is] one of the most exciting writers in the field.”
“Stiles has painted a full-bodied, nuanced picture of the man. . . . Elegance of style and fair-minded intent illuminate Stiles’s latest, expectedly profound exploration of American culture in the raw.”
—The Boston Globe
“Stiles, a superb researcher, has unearthed quantities of new material and crafted them into the illuminating, authoritative portrait of Vanderbilt that has been missing for so long.”
—The Washington Post
“Very absorbing. . . . Much more than a biography. The book is filled with important, exhaustively researched and indeed fascinating details that would profit every student of American business and social history to read.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Stiles writes with both the panache of a fine journalist and the analytical care of a seasoned scholar. And he offers a fruitful way to think about the larger history of American elites as well as the life of one of their most famous members.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Vanderbilt’s story is indeed epic, and so is The First Tycoon. . . . Stiles is a perceptive and witty writer with a remarkable ability to paint a picture of the America in which Vanderbilt lived.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“Fascinating. . . . A reminder that Vanderbilt’s life and times still have much to teach us.”
“Gracefully written. . . . [Vanderbilt] was the right man in the right place at the right time, and the meticulous Stiles seems to be the right man to tell us about it.”
—St. Petersburg Times
“Stiles has given us a balanced and absorbing biography of this colorful and often ruthless entrepreneur.”
—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
“Monumental. . . . Arresting. . . . Stiles has a gift for making readers admire unsavory characters. . . . [The First Tycoon] resembles a five-course meal at a three-star restaurant: rich and pleasurable.”
“Engrossing and provocative. . . . Stiles draws on exhaustive archival research to clear away the apocryphal and celebrate Vanderbilt as an American icon.”
“At long last a biography worthy of the Commodore, meticulously researched, superbly written, and filled with original insights.”
—Maury Klein, author of The Life and Legend of Jay Gould
“Stiles writes with the magisterial sweep of a great historian and the keen psychological insight of a great biographer. . . . With panache and admirable ease, Stiles maps the financial and political currents on which Vanderbilt buccaneered and shows that it was Vanderbilt, more than anyone else, who enabled business to evolve into Big Business.”
—Patricia O’Toole, author of When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House
“A brilliant exposition of the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt and the entrepreneurial environment that he shaped. Readers will look at Grand Central Station and much else in American life with fresh eyes.”
—Joyce Appleby, author of The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism
“The definitive biography of Commodore Vanderbilt. Both as portrait of an American original and as a book that brings to life an important slice of American history long neglected, this is biography at its very best. A magnificent achievement.”
—Arthur Vanderbilt II, author of Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt
“Stiles brings the Commodore, warts and all, to life in this new study, which is at once up-to-date in scholarly terms, analytically incisive, and lucidly written.”
—Raleigh News and Observer
“Sweeping. . . . [A] magisterial, exemplary work . . . [that] offers entry into the storm-tossed world of our current tycoons and the rough waters they have piloted us into.”
—American History Magazine
“Superbly researched and elegantly written. . . . Stiles’s will likely prove to be the definitive biography of this epic entrepreneur.”
About the Author
Visit the author's website at www.tjstiles.com.
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Stiles’ biography is an enormously detailed book. It becomes increasingly technical in the economic sense as Vanderbilt moves from steamboats (and his fascinating adventures in Nicaragua) to railroads. Stiles should get enormous credit not only for his superb research, much better than earlier biographers of Vanderbilt, but also for his objectivity about the man and his ability to make as clear as possible to the average reader the often complex financial issues of Vanderbilt’s life. It is easy to see why this book won awards. Stiles not only gives us a man’s life (both personal life and business life) but how the American economic system developed in the 19th century.
Stiles is also a smooth writer. Chapters are divided into reasonable chunks separated by double spacing and the transitions and paragraph structures throughout the book are fluent and easy to follow. If I have any complaint (and it is a small one), it is that many many times Stiles ends these chapter subdivisions with either a cliffhanger sentence or some other “catch” line for the sake of dramatic continuity. This is unnecessary given the overall power of the book and Vanderbilt’s life. Except for that quibble, the book is a biographical tour de force that showed me not just the life of a brilliant, often cold, but complex man but also how the economic history of America as we know it today originated.
He was the original “robber baron.” Other familiar names associated with the nineteenth century — John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan — were young men in the early days of their careers when he was at the peak of his fame. Following the Civil War, he became the richest person in American history, and to this day remains the second-richest, bested only by Rockefeller. (Yes, richer by far than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, insofar as such things can be determined.) More importantly, he was one of the original architects of the modern corporation, “consolidating” one regional railroad into another to form one of the country’s first massive, impersonal corporations. And he singlehandedly restored order and stabilized the US economy in the midst of one of the most severe financial panics in our history.
A life spanning 18 presidencies
This man, Cornelius Vanderbilt, is the subject of T. J. Stiles’ magnificent biography. Researched in great depth, written with verve, and scrupulously balanced, The Last Tycoon rejects the one-dimensional portrait of Vanderbilt as an illiterate, uncouth tyrant, restoring him to the complex, contradictory, brilliant, flesh-and-blood person he really was while correcting significant errors in previous histories of mid nineteenth century America.
Born in the second year of George Washington’s presidency, “Commodore” Vanderbilt witnessed the passage of 83 years, outliving not just nearly all his contemporaries but several of his children as well. His life spanned the administrations of the nation’s first 18 presidents but (in my judgment, not Stiles’) proved more consequential than all but four of them (Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln). In several ways, the Commodore (as he was known through the last half of his life) had far-reaching impact on the growing nation: pioneering the efficient, low-cost passage to California in the wake of the Gold Rush, thus helping knit the country together, accelerate Western population growth, and shift tons of gold from the West Coast to fuel economic development in the East; leading the development and rationalization of the railroad network that heightened New York’s preeminence as the country’s financial center and biggest port; and breaking new ground in the development of the entity known as the corporation.
1Cobbling together the modern corporation
In hindsight, it seems to me, it was Vanderbilt’s groundbreaking work in piecing together his railroad empire that has left the biggest imprint on our times. Stiles painstakingly relates how the Commodore’s patient and protracted campaign eventually created the massive New York Central Railroad, one of the first of the huge corporations that soon came to dominate American life. (The other was the Pennsylvania Railroad, with which Vanderbilt alternately collaborated and competed.)
As Stiles makes clear, it’s difficult for us today, living in a world awash in corporations, to understand that the term “corporation” bore an entirely different meaning for much of the nineteenth century.
Originally, the corporation was a creature of the state, chartered for a specified number of years to advance the public interest in a particular way — building a canal, for example. The time limits fell by the wayside as the nineteenth century proceeded, but state-chartered corporations otherwise looked much the same in 1870 as they had in 1810: for example, a small group of wealthy investors would pool their money to build a railroad from one town to the next, seek a state charter, hire the dozens or even hundreds of employees they needed, then operate the business for as long as it proved profitable (which was not always the case!). As there weren’t that many wealthy investors with the necessary legislative connections, the number of corporations was strictly limited. The board and officers of any corporation could be easily identified, and it was they who personally managed the company. Capitalization was limited, usually no more than a few million dollars at most.
1More than anyone else, Cornelius Vanderbilt changed all that. As the US economy grew from mid-century through the Civil War, Vanderbilt shifted his efforts from the steamboat business he had dominated (meriting the honorific “Commodore”) into the fast-growing railroad industry. Just as steamboats had dominated transportation for decades, the railroads — the “high tech” of their day — soon far surpassed them. As Stiles notes, “The railroad sector surpassed all other industries combined, and individual railway corporations overshadowed any other kind of firm. Most manufacturing was still conducted in family-owned workshops and small mills; very few factories represented as much as $1 million of investment . . . Even the largest commercial banks rarely boasted a capitalization of more than $1 million. By contrast, at least ten railroads had a capitalization of $10 million or more even before the [civil] war began.” Small wonder that Vanderbilt, with his monumental ambition and ego, was drawn into the fray!
As the country’s population grew, fueled by increasing immigration, and the attractiveness of New York’s port became irresistible, “Western” (not Midwest) farmers and industrialists alike were demanding ever-great shipping capacity from West to East, and the Commodore responded by financing and running a series of small railroads that constituted strategic links along the way. His unsurpassed talent as a business strategist and financier enabled him to outsmart and outperform his competitors. The end result was the creation of a corporation that employed not dozens or hundreds but tens of thousands, encompassed thousands of miles of track across the Northeast and Midwest, and was capitalized in the tens of millions of dollars (the equivalent of billions today).
With a few exceptions — notably, Vanderbilt himself in his waning years — these behemoths could no longer be managed by amateurs. The modern corporation was born, with its insatiable need for salaried functionaries filling bureaucratic niches. Within a decade of Vanderbilt’s passing in 1877, the US Supreme Court enshrined the change in law by insisting that corporations are persons, entitled to all the rights embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment. The rush was then on to a world in which the corporation is king.
Anyone interested in US history — or, for that matter, anyone who loves biography — will find The Last Tycoon to be a superior reading experience. Three cheers for T. J. Stiles!
Top international reviews
According to the book, and it is persuasive, Vanderbilt created and refined business models which are in wide use today. It reminds us of the old truths - success being a product of consistent, long term effort, rather than short term enthusiasm, the importance of being able to handle disappointment and failure, the willingness to develop judgement and take calculated risks, etc.
I loved the book because, amongst its many qualities, it is well structured, easy to read and avoids the kind of sensational treatment characters like Vanderbilt sometimes attract. It does not pronounce judgement. Rather, it demonstrates an even balance and historical scholarship. But, it also reads like an adventure story and could make a stunning film with a Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.
My only criticism is that the although the book has been beautifully produced, I would have preferred a lightweight paper back version which didn't consume so much of the luggage allowance.
Upon finishing the biography I felt as though I had thoroughly submerged myself in the topic and spurred me on to read more about the Vanderbilts generally. My only criticism is that there were no contemporary comparisons of the value of the dollar. It was quite hard to judge just how much $600,000 dollars was worth in 1860 and Stiles doesn't offer any assistance. However the subject was clearly researched and thoroughly footnoted which made the biography seem quite believable.
Plus: Sehr interessantes Leben. Gute Einblicke in die Zeit, auch wenn diese keinen großen Raum einnehmen. Aus wirtschaftswissenschaftlicher Sicht hatte ich viele Aha-Erlebnisse.
Minus: Zu viele langatmige Passagen, v.a. wenn Exkurse angetreten werden. Die statistischen Angaben haben mich stets ratlos zurückgelassen. Die Gewichtung des Zeitraums, der die Schifffahrt betrifft und der die Eisenbahn abdeckt, habe ich mir ausgewogener gewünscht.
The material of the cover is very beautiful, even though a thin cover is of a different material, a little matte and textured.