The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
In this groundbreaking biography, T.J. Stiles tells the dramatic story of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, the combative man and American icon who, through his genius and force of will, did more than perhaps any other individual to create modern capitalism. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, The First Tycoon describes an improbable life, from Vanderbilt’s humble birth during the presidency of George Washington to his death as one of the richest men in American history. In between we see how the Commodore helped to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation. Epic in its scope and success, the life of Vanderbilt is also the story of the rise of America itself.
walked the halls of power; banker August Belmont occupied the center of the national Democratic Party organization; and wealthy merchants organized mass meetings and citizens' committees that declaimed on every aspect of public affairs. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, represented a new species of wealthy Americans. After his precedent, it would not seem strange that Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller should shun public office, choosing to quietly exert their influence behind closed doors.
presided over the family tomb. “How wavering are the scenes of earth,” wrote Rev. Samuel Kissam, Billy's father-in-law, “our kindred pleasures, too.” Now, now that circle we behold In sorrow deep and wide, Weeping o'er son and brother cold, Long, long their joy and pride— Embalmed, and ready for the tomb. Vanderbilt buried his youngest son. Now he looked to his oldest. William would speak for him not merely on ceremonial occasions, but with the full authority of the Commodore's tens of
a disputed election. Out went Samuel Sloan, Moses H. Grinnell, Addison G. Jerome, and other giants. In came Vanderbilt's captains: Clark, Schell, Banker, and allies Oliver Charlick and Joseph Harker. John Tobin survived from the old board, of course, as did Leonard W. Jerome, who (according to rumor) had cooperated with Vanderbilt in the second Harlem corner. The new board elected Tobin president and created a standing executive committee—a common device, but typical of Vanderbilt's desire to
Vanderbilt's lobbyists in Albany testified that he forbade them from buying votes (at least, not explicitly).95 On close inspection, even the Commodore's relationship with the preposterous Judge Barnard proves to be more than a matter of graft. Little doubt exists as to Barnard's corruption, but there is no evidence that he simply took cash from Vanderbilt and did as he was told. Indeed, being a Tweed ally made him a foe of Horace Clark and Augustus Schell, who had started the Manhattan Club as a
sensuality. The idea that he was forced to marry Frank at all, let alone by a family that had barely met her, flies in the face of direct documentation. As for Treat's explosive account, it is hearsay of hearsay of hearsay, originating with Claflin herself, the most untrustworthy source of all. In 1871, she would proclaim her clairvoyant power in court—in order to soften an admission that she was a confidence artist. “To support this family I had to humbug people sometimes,” she would say.