Even now, more than a hundred and thirty years after his death, it’s pretty hard to escape the shadow of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Along with the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan, he was instrumental in the creation of our modern world. They kicked off the era of the mega-corporation and titans of industry, of the worship of laissez-faire and self-made men. They so dominated their age that even now, reading almost any newspaper, you can still see the fear these robber barons stirred. But if anything, Stiles’ account of Vanderbilt only makes him rise in my estimation. He wasn’t just the richest man of his age. He wasn’t just the railroad king with the killer sideburns. He was the 19th century’s Richard Branson. He was batman.
The story starts on Staten Island, where an entrepreneurial family instilled Vanderbilt with many of the skills and qualities that would lead to his total domination of the American economy. He wasn’t educated — he left school at the age of 11, and many of Stiles’ quotes betray a command of spelling and grammar that would embarrass a modern 11 year old. By sixteen he was already a skilled sailor and wheeler-dealer, by twenty he was ferrying goods and people along the cost, and only a couple of years later he was riding the crest of the Steam Revolution with Edward Gibbons.
What follows is several hundred pages tracking Vanderbilt’s rise through the echelons of the business and social world. First smashing the syndicates that monopolised shipping around New York, then pioneering new lines up and down the coast, and even riding the rapids through Nicaragua to the West Coast of America – to capitalise on the Gold Rush. Along the way Vanderbilt encountered entrenched interests, traitors, legalised monopolies, and even the American Civil War. He waged battle after battle (and not just financial), slashing fares and costs, and engaging in the short-selling and cornering that marked the new battlefield — the stock exchange. Eventually we wind up with Vanderbilt in the role most of us know him as: railroad king. A role that would see him build New York’s Grand Central Station and personally oversee/fund the construction of infrastructure that would shame the South and much of Europe. In all, we follow Vanderbilt from captain of a small skiff to his station as the first tycoon — a man whose wealth would have counted for $1 out of every $9 in circulation.
This is the book that any proponent of unfettered capitalism should be forced to read. But it also masterfully illustrates the shortsightedness of decentralisation, cronyism and over/needless regulation. It is hard to read of the syndicates, monopolies, vulture capitalism, lobbying, battles and dominance, and not wonder how this benefited the average consumer and citizen. But the regulatory and societal norms that Vanderbilt had to push through, also make you wonder what more he could have accomplished, and what others were left behind. Stiles has managed to write a book that both serves its purpose as a historical account, and provides commentary on our present. About the only complaint I can muster is that after a while the names and dates were just too much to follow — but this is no complaint at all. It is a brilliantly written — dare I say swashbuckling — story. The subtitle “Epic life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” doesn’t capture the half of it. Four out of five.