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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius…
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The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (2009)

by T. J. Stiles

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Outstanding scholarly biography. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
There were the rich, the super rich, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. T.J. Stiles takes you through the life of the Commodore in The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Sons are notoriously prone to exaggerate the importance of their fathers, as are biographers with their subjects...

Vanderbilt founded a dynasty. The First Tycoon starts with one of the final challenges to that dynasty. The Commodore had left the vast majority of his estate to one of his children. The rest were challenging his will. He wanted his business empire to continue through his children, without it being severed and control lost.

Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt was born in relatively humble family on Staten Island during George Washington’s presidency. He started in his father's footsteps as a boatman. He latched onto the power of steam and assembled a huge fleet of steamships. After conquering the water, he assembled a railroad empire. We see Vanderbilt's role in transportation revolutions, battling the physical growth of the nation with better and faster means of transportation. Along the way he helped shape the growth of the modern corporation

T. J. Stiles argues that Vanderbilt did more than perhaps any other individual to create the current economic world. His steamships and railroad lines took vast amounts of capital, requiring more than one individual to fund the growth and expansion.

Compliance professionals and securities law aficionados may be fascinated by the growth of the corporate entity. At the time they offered less liability protection than we would expect today.

The history of Vanderbilt is also full of stock manipulation and anti-trust issues. Transportation companies routinely gathered together to set rates and limit competition. When competition did break out, it was a vicious battle between the rivals. Sometimes the battle was waged in the stock market with the players trying to corner securities and punish the wealth of their rivals.

The book does a remarkable job of balancing the epics tales with a fast-moving narrative. ( )
  dougcornelius | Aug 8, 2012 |
Just fantastic... A balance between the personal, the social and the financial transformations happening in society within that particular area. Starting with Cornelius humble beginnings, M. Stiles takes us from the New York debut all the way thru Vanderbilt's life until his grand finale: Grand Central Station. Only minor point is that at some point, Stiles goes a little too deep into the financial explanations of certain events. Other than that, a very entertaining read. It gives us a full view of this complex character that was Vanderbilt; from his way of dealing with his children to his relation with his wife and mistresses and especially his business enemies.
Overall would recommend it for any biography readers. ( )
  FriStar7406 | Mar 30, 2012 |
This book starts off well with the very interesting details of Vanderbilt's early life on the waters around New York and his transition from a minor entrepreneur to a major player in the development of shipping lines around the world as well as ferries and railroads in the northeast. However, the last third of the book, covering his activities as a major trader and manipulator of railroads, gets somewhat dull as quite a lot of it deals with stock trading, corporates shenanigans and backroom deals. Overall a pretty good however and worth the time if you are interested in nineteen century America. ( )
  jztemple | Dec 22, 2010 |
The author needs an honorary PhD for the attention to detail throughout this entire book. The definitive biography of Vanderbilt. It even has specific stock transactions including the amount paid, etc. ( )
  homeofharris | Oct 23, 2010 |
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T. J. Stilesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Deakins, MarkNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Jessica and Dillon, for giving me the future
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They came to learn his secrets.
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They never learned his secrets.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375415424, Hardcover)

Book Description
A gripping, groundbreaking biography of the combative man whose genius and force of will created modern capitalism.

Founder of a dynasty, builder of the original Grand Central, creator of an impossibly vast fortune, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt is an American icon. Humbly born on Staten Island during George Washington’s presidency, he rose from boatman to builder of the nation’s largest fleet of steamships to lord of a railroad empire. Lincoln consulted him on steamship strategy during the Civil War; Jay Gould was first his uneasy ally and then sworn enemy; and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, was his spiritual counselor. We see Vanderbilt help to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation—in fact, as T. J. Stiles elegantly argues, Vanderbilt did more than perhaps any other individual to create the economic world we live in today.

In The First Tycoon, Stiles offers the first complete, authoritative biography of this titan, and the first comprehensive account of the Commodore’s personal life. It is a sweeping, fast-moving epic, and a complex portrait of the great man. Vanderbilt, Stiles shows, embraced the philosophy of the Jacksonian Democrats and withstood attacks by his conservative enemies for being too competitive. He was a visionary who pioneered business models. He was an unschooled fistfighter who came to command the respect of New York’s social elite. And he was a father who struggled with a gambling-addicted son, a husband who was loving yet abusive, and, finally, an old man who was obsessed with contacting the dead.

The First Tycoon is the exhilarating story of a man and a nation maturing together: the powerful account of a man whose life was as epic and complex as American history itself.

Excerpts from an Interview with T.J. Stiles

Question: Your last book was a biography of Jesse James. What drew you to Cornelius Vanderbilt as your next subject?

T.J. Stiles: I was drawn by who he was as a person, the lack of writing about him, and the historical themes that defined his life.

Like Jesse James, Vanderbilt was man of action--decisive, dramatic, and always interesting. He courted physical danger, fought high-stakes financial battles, and always set the terms of his existence. Like Jesse James, Vanderbilt has not been the subject of much serious research. And like Jesse James, Vanderbilt opened a window on the making of modern America. Vanderbilt was central to the rise of the corporation, the emergence of Wall Street, and the birth of big business. His was a dramatic life played out on an enormous stage.

Q:How long have you been working on this book and what kind of research went into it?

TJS: I worked on it for more than six years. My research was challenging because Vanderbilt kept no diary, preserved no letters, and left behind no collection of papers. Second, the last serious biography about him was written in 1942. The increasing digitization of newspapers and Congressional documents helped, but I did most of my work the old-fashioned way, digging through archives and sitting in front of microfilm readers. My biggest discovery came when I stumbled upon the Old Records Division of the New York County Clerk’s Office; I spent months there going through original lawsuit papers from as early as 1816. I uncovered entire episodes of Vanderbilt’s life that no one ever suspected--fistfights, steamboats ramming each other, inside trading and noncompetition agreements, details about his physical office and epic tales of betrayal. I also focused on Vanderbilt’s associates and rivals, and found priceless letters about him in their papers. Of course, I spent months more going through the papers of his various railroad corporations at the New York Public Library. I found so much new material that I decided to include a lengthy bibliographical essay.

Q:Throughout the book, you highlight Vanderbilt's role in the making of the modern idea of economic regulation. You also write, "The Commodore’s life left its mark on Americans’ most basic beliefs about equality and opportunity." Where in our modern institutions do you think his legacy is most apparent?

TJS: Vanderbilt early on voiced a political philosophy rooted in radical Jacksonianism. He believed in individual equality, in the right to compete freely. He denounced monopolies and corporations. This strain of thought remains a key part of American values. Yet he ended his life at the pinnacle of an incredibly unequal society, the master of a giant corporation that overshadowed almost every other business in America. That late-life transformation strongly influenced the new acceptance of government regulation that arose after the Civil War. I don’t think so much that Vanderbilt’s legacy can be seen in our institutions as much as our economic culture--the rise of the modern idea that government should intervene to regulate large businesses, and redress the balance of wealth and power in society.

Q: What do you think Vanderbilt would have to say about our current economic climate; its root causes as well as the ever increasing bail-outs of giant corporations?

TJS: When the Panic of 1873 hit, Vanderbilt gave an immediate analysis to a newspaper reporter that virtually describes the current situation. The problem was asset inflation: a speculative bubble (in his case, railroads, in our case, real estate) that tamped down skepticism about the value of securities issued by overvalued companies (or, in our case, mortgage-backed securities based on shaky home loans). Eager to ride the rising wave, banks in New York marketed the securities abroad, giving a stamp of approval, much as they have done with mortgage-backed securities today. In other words, Vanderbilt would have understood the root causes of our crisis, despite the great differences in the economy between then and now. And, though he usually looked askance at government intervention, the seriousness of the situation might have led him to approve of strong action. It’s hard to say, because he denounced subsidies, yet after the Panic of 1873 he also urged the federal government to pump new money into the economy. In any case, he would have had a sophisticated grasp of our conundrum.

Q:Your own family history recently made national news when it was discovered, at The Smithsonian in Washington, DC, that one of President Lincoln's watches contained a secret inscription from your great-great grandfather. That must have been pretty exciting for you, not only as a family member but as a historian who has written extensively about the Civil War. How do you feel about this news and what do you make of all the attention it received?

TJS:The news accounts floored me. I never expected this favorite family story, one I never quite believed, to enter national mythology. My great-great-grandfather, Jonathan Dillon, was an Irish immigrant who was working in a Washington, D.C., watch repair shop when Fort Sumter was fired on. He happened to be holding Lincoln's watch in his hand. He made an inscription on the back of the dial, closed it up, and said nothing to Lincoln about it. My second cousin, Douglas Stiles, tracked the watch to the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, and convinced the director to open the watch up and check. The message was there--a little different from my great-great-grandfather's memory, but it was there.

I think it struck a chord with the nation at the moment of Lincoln's bicentennial. Here was a plucky, immigrant watchmaker who left a silent message of encouragement in Lincoln's pocket. No fanfare, nothing attention grabbing, just a patriotic, very human little act. I grew up with this story, and named my own son Dillon, in a kind of chain tribute to Jonathan Dillon, the watchmaker. (My father's middle name is Dillon, and of course it was my great-grandmother Isabella Dillon's maiden name.) When he was born in 2007, I often told the story about Lincoln's watch. If I had my doubts about it, I figured that no one would dare tear open Lincoln's watch to check. Glad they did.

As a historian, I found it particularly startling to be brought so close to perhaps the most important American of any era. I wrote about Lincoln in The First Tycoon. Now I know that, as he held an urgent conference with Cornelius Vanderbilt over how best to deal with the Confederate ironclad Merrimack, he might have had in his pocket a secret message from my great-great-grandfather. The story adds an immediacy to the past, showing how close any one of us is to great historical events.

(Photo © Joanne Chan)

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:50 -0400)

A gripping, groundbreaking biography of the combative man whose genius and force of will created modern capitalism. We see Vanderbilt help to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation.… (more)

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