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The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 26, 2023 3:01 am

The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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July 26, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, T.J. Stiles tells the dramatic story of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt’s humble birth during the presidency of George Washington to his death as one of the richest men in American history. The Commodore helped to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, invent the modern corporation, and create the modern American economy. 

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Listen to find strength in community on the MG journey on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. And we continue with our American stories. And up next, a bit of economic history and a bit of business history. In his pool of surprise-winning biography, The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, author T.J. Stiles tells the dramatic story of Cornelius Commodore Vanderbilt's humble birth during the presidency of George Washington to his death as one of the richest men in American history. The Commodore helped to launch the transportation revolution, propel the gold rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation.

This combative American icon, through his genius and force of will, did more than perhaps any other single individual to create the modern American economy. Here's T.J. Stiles with the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt has often been depicted as this purely amoral creature who was willing to do anything, basically. And he's often been conflated and confused with a lot of his rivals. For example, in the famous Erie War of 1868, the most famous of the Gilded Age Wall Street battles in which he fought with Daniel Drew and Jay Gould and Jim Fisk over the control of the Erie Railway, there was a lot of corruption of government officials. And I, when I started writing the book, I assumed that Vanderbilt was bribing away with the best of them.

And it turns out I could not find any evidence or even any accusations at the time that Vanderbilt was bribing people. And I thought that was kind of interesting because he was ruthless. He took extraordinary steps to defeat his enemies.

And I think for much of his career, at least until he got into the railway years, he saw his enterprises as much as military campaigns against his enemies as he did machinery and enterprise and businesses, which makes his life a lot of fun to read about, but raises questions about whether he did have a code. And surprisingly, he really did have a code of conduct. Now, his opponents didn't always agree, but he really polished his reputation as a man of his word. And I found letters from people he dealt with in which they would say, well, let's have a written agreement. He said, no, you know that my word is as good as my bond. And often when he had disputes, he almost always suggested that they go to arbitration.

You know, each side picks an arbitrator and then those two arbitrators pick a third. And when they, his opponents agreed, he almost always won, which tells you something. He would push his opponents as hard as possible, but once he made a deal, he stuck to it.

Another thing that's interesting about Vanderbilt, and again, I'm saying this, not, you know, trying to raise him up as a great hero. Now, looking at him on his own terms, what the evidence shows is that he was not only honest, but he also believed in his duty to his stockholders. And as he became a corporate official, he really believed that he had a duty, as he put it, to run a corporation as if it was his own personal private property. So what he did was invest heavily in the stock. And in the 19th century, stock was expected to pay dividends. They didn't look for growth in share value. They looked for steady dividends.

That's what investors look for then. So he took no salary. And the only remuneration he took was dividends in his stock. A lot of corporate officials engaged in side dealing. And Andrew Carnegie's mentors at the Pennsylvania Railroad are much more like the executives we have now, corporations. They were not major shareholders. They were professional managers hired by these largely anonymous shareholders who run the company.

Very smart men. Thomas A. Scott, Jagger, Thompson. They ran the Pennsylvania Railroad. They ran it very well, but they also pioneered shell corporations and dummy companies through which they funneled the company's business and they control those companies and skim money as it came in and out of the Pennsylvania.

Vanderbilt never engaged in that sort of business. He thought it was abhorrent. So surprisingly for a man who was utterly ruthless, and yet within the context of business, he had a strict code of ethics and he lived by it. Another thing about him is that he was driven by pride. And I think what drove him into railroads when he was 70 years old, well past life expectancy, past when he expected to live, he turned to railroads. He didn't think, I'm going to become the great railroad tycoon. No, he started off with the New York and Harlem Railroad, which at the time was considered the most necrotic company in America. It was a railroad that was considered barely worth the iron in the rails. And he said, you know what?

I can take this railroad and I can make it profitable. And he said repeatedly, it was a point of pride for me to take a company where the stock wasn't worth $10 a share and to raise it up and make it into a healthy, profitable company. And that pride drove him. That's why he was such a competitor personally with his racing horses. And he was a card player, fierce competitor at everything he did. And that personal pride was really something that drove him all the way through. And that of course also made him such a ferocious competitor with his enemies too. During much of his life, he was considered notably un-benevolent.

And I don't completely dismiss that idea. Certainly he was no Andrew Carnegie. He didn't engage in some of the truly great philanthropy that later tycoons did. There's no doubt about that.

On the other hand, there's two things to remember about Vanderbilt. One is that he hated people who were boastful and talked about themselves. And there are a lot of reports that are impossible to verify. They claim that he engaged in a lot of charity, but he just refused to put his name out there. And he would certainly, I do know that for example, young relatives, nephews, and grandsons, their letters to presidents and whatnot, where he'd say, I normally don't do this, but I really hope that you can help him out.

And I would like you to find a position for this guy. He engaged in helping people out much more than the public record would indicate, I think. The other thing is that he was a man who was deeply patriotic and a lot of the benevolence that he did take part in. But he, for example, during the civil war, donated his largest steamship worth almost a million dollars to the Union Navy and personally outfitted it and then re-outfitted it for the Union. He took part in helping to prepare major expeditions without any pay. He engaged in these activities because he was deeply patriotic.

He named his three sons after his heroes, George Washington, William Henry Harrison, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Like I said, he was a proud man. But then after the civil war, he really took on the idea of helping to reconcile North and South. And so he put up his name as one of the bondsmen for Jefferson Davis to get him out of prison. He specifically wanted to help found a university in the South deliberately to counterbalance his gift to the Union Navy. And those two gifts largely balanced each other. He actually gave slightly more money to found Vanderbilt University.

So it's true. He will not go down in history as one of the great charitable givers. But the record, I think, needs to be balanced a little bit and also specifically to be seen as his personal vision of trying to reconcile the two sides of the country rather than being, you know, I'm going to find libraries that let's try to bring the divided country together again. And again, he had a real knack. One of the secrets of his success was an unerring sense for where the main channel of commerce was in the country. Late in life, Chicago to New York during this period, the 1830s and 40s between New York and Boston. And he ran his steamboats on Long Island Sound and ran in connection with the railroads, which there wasn't enough capital to build a railroad all the way to New York.

So they ran short lines down to the seaport towns on Long Island Sound. Well, one of the interesting things is that Vanderbilt always had a large cash reserve when these panics hit. He always managed to see trouble coming soon enough so that he wasn't overexposed in terms of being overly leveraged. Another thing is that by constantly engaging in fair wars with his opponents, he kept prices on his steamboats very low.

And that, I think, had a surprising effect. In the 19th century before the Civil War, paper money was issued by private banks. And the banks would collect a reserve of gold and silver, which was, you know, gold or silver coin was worth its weight in that precious metal.

You could melt it down and sell it for the same amount. And they would issue loans by issuing paper money. Well, most paper banknotes were only issued for larger denominations, a dollar or larger, usually $5 or larger. Vanderbilt's fairs were usually a dollar or less often. So he had gold and silver coin, which would never lost its value. So ironically, on a lot of his routes, the low fairs actually ended up giving him a large cash reserve. And you're listening to TJ Stiles tell the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt. And my goodness, to live the years he lived, to get into the railroad industry at that late in age, I had no idea that he was that old when he started in, well, what turned out to be one of the most important investments of his entire life, and when he would come to dominate.

When we come back, more of the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt here on Our American Stories. For each person living with myasthenia gravis, or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis. From early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care, every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone.

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Find out now. Connect with AT&T Black Future Makers, past and present, by visiting slash dream in black. And we continue with our American stories and with author TJ Stiles, author of the book The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Let's pick up where we last left off. Vanderbilt was incredibly effective at doing things like getting cheaper fuel. He designed his steamships himself. He was one of the great maritime architects of the paddlewheel era. And the steamboats he started to put on Long Island Sound were written up in technical journals as masterpieces of naval engineering.

His first great Long Island Sound steamboat used half the fuel of its rival steamboats, and fuel was by far the largest expense. So these sorts of things, his ability to cut costs, were phenomenal. And one thing that I touch on in the book, and I won't go into great detail, his attacks on especially early corporations and on companies that had monopolies, legal or otherwise, played right into a big political conflict in the 19th century, in which an economy in which there weren't large businesses, the economy is relatively flat, laissez-faire was a radical philosophy. And corporations were seen as grants of special favors to men who are already rich, giving them limited liability and other special privileges.

And so Vanderbilt's business enterprises during the 1830s and 40s actually raised him up as a kind of Jacksonian populist hero. Here's this guy who's an individual going after these rich corporations that have special privileges granted by the government. And he made public pronouncements saying, you know, I'm the anti-monopoly guy. He called his lines the people's line. You know, his headline said, no monopoly, you know, power to the people, or the equivalent. And in his early career, he was a radical, he was a populist.

Now, his laissez-faire philosophy stayed the same as he became the great railroad tycoon, and he's the master of these giant corporations. And the political landscape rotated 180 degrees. So he's saying the same things he'd said in the 1830s when he got into the 1870s. And meanwhile, the first government regulation advocates are out there and the populists all of a sudden are favoring government intervention. So it's very interesting when we look at today's political landscape.

And I think a lot of liberals don't understand how people earning $30,000 a year or the family of five can be pro-free market and anti-government regulation. But when you look at the currents of American history, a lot of these currents are very deep, they go back very far. And these things come up in Vanderbilt's life again and again. He actually was notoriously unreligious. And he was raised in the Moravian church, some Vanderbilt ancestors switched from Dutch Reformed to Moravian. And he was capable of, you know, personal charity, and he would occasionally express things in religious terms. But I don't know if he ever went to a church except for a wedding or a funeral. And this is a period in American history when spiritualism was huge. And it was a mainstream belief. You have to remember, the Civil War killed the better part of a million Americans. Every family had lost loved ones. And spiritualism, you know, having seances contacting the dead, had gotten its start before the Civil War.

But in the decade after the Civil War, it became a huge phenomenon. And Vanderbilt, who outlived so many contemporaries, friends, family, rivals, he started going to seances during the Civil War. And I don't believe that he made any business decisions based on seances. And one of, I think, a telling story of a witness testified to being at a seance with him, in which he asked to speak to the ghost of Jim Fisk, one of his rivals. So the medium, you know, contacts.

I don't believe in spiritualism. I don't think they actually contacted Jim Fisk. Jim Fisk comes up, oh, Jim Fisk is here. And so Vanderbilt asked him a question about a stock in the stock market. And Jim Fisk, of course, medium doesn't know anything. So Jim Fisk gives a nonsense answer. And so Vanderbilt doesn't say, oh, that's interesting. He says, what are you talking about?

Are you crazy? And he starts to argue with a ghost. And then Vanderbilt says, yeah, well, we'll see who's right, you or me. And then he says, starts a joke with Fisk. He says, so how do you like it on the other side? And he said, well, you'll find out soon enough.

You're near the end of your line. And they have this, this hilarious exchange, Vanderbilt arguing and joking with a ghost of Jim Fisk. But it shows that I don't think he made any decisions based on these. I think he found them comforting.

I don't think that it was his guy. But late in life, his wife, his second wife was very religious. She was a Methodist. And he did give money to found Vanderbilt University, which was specifically a religious university. And he did give money to buy a church for the Church of the Strangers, which was a church for southerners in New York City. But interestingly, when he made those gifts, he didn't ask the bishop who was the first head of Vanderbilt University, or the minister who ran the church that he endowed. He didn't ask them about their religious beliefs.

He couldn't care less about theology. As he said to one of them after he'd been preaching to Vanderbilt for a while in the hot summer heat, waving a fan, he said, Doctor, everything you've said to me weighs about as much with me as that fan you're waving right now. But he did care about people. And he wanted to make sure that those men were honest and capable.

So he questioned them extensively, but about what they were like as men. That's what he knew from life and business. Then from his wife's diary, second wife's diary, when he was on his deathbed and had a horrible several months of his body beginning to fail, suffering terrible internal infections, he finally asked toward the very end of his life, you know, he asked her to take part in a prayer with him and said he wanted to give his life to Jesus.

And she said, Well, is it because you love Jesus or you're afraid of going to hell? He said, Well, you know, to be honest, both. He was a man of few words, but he was honest up to the very end.

And how did he see himself? There was an interesting incident in 1867, when he in a battle between his railroads and before he took control of the New York Central, he famously in the depth of winter, when boats couldn't get through the frozen harbor to Manhattan, he to settle a dispute the New York Central Railroad, he cut off access of all trains from the west into New York City, essentially personally levied a blockade on the nation's largest city. This created a bit of a fear it won him his battle with the New York Central, but it created a fear and the New York State Legislature started to talk about laws that could pass to control this.

And the way he responded when he gave testimony is very interesting. He didn't say that, you know, the law is no good, etc. He didn't talk about the public interest. He said, if you can pass a law that will compel men to pursue their interests more intelligently than their interests themselves will compel them, then it's all well and good.

But I don't think you can do that. In other words, he deeply believed that basically in the invisible hand without ever having read Adam Smith, I'm sure he didn't. He believed that the world is run by everybody pursuing their private interests to the best of their ability. Now he had a business code, he thought you should do it honestly, fiercely, but honestly, but he really believed we things function when everybody pursues their own interests.

So that's how he saw his legacy. He didn't see himself as, you know, he didn't think about the public interest. He thought the public interest, he said, I've served the public to the best of my ability. Why? Because it's in my interest to do so.

That's what he said. So he saw himself as a man who, if he served the public, fine, but it's because I'm pursuing my own private interests. And you're listening to author TJ Stiles, who's written a terrific biography, a Pulitzer Prize winning biography, the first tycoon, the Epic Life or Cornelius Vanderbilt.

And there's so much there to unpack the idea that he designed his own steamships when he was really doing in the end, it was extracting value out of that and through that design by making it more affordable to ride on his steamships as opposed to his competitors. And my goodness, what we heard there at the end. Well, what storytelling talking to negotiating with and arguing with a former rival at a seance.

I'd love to see that scene in that movie is that could be really funny. And though notoriously unreligious in the end, well, towards the end of his life hedged his bets. And this happens, well, so often in families across the country. When we come back, the remarkable life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is told by TJ Stiles. The storytelling continues here on Our American Stories. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why untold stories life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from I heart radio in partnership with our genics is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis from early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care. Every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone.

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Visit for details. And we continue with our American stories and with the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt as told by author TJ Stiles. Let's continue with his final part of this remarkable American story. Now with his family, you know, he had a total of 13 children, 11 of whom lived through adulthood. And he had a vast fortune when he died. 1877 it was estimated and it's hard to know for sure at $100 million. Now I don't give equivalent modern figures in the book because I don't think that's an honest way to do it. But I do look at the controller of the currencies report on how much money was in circulation. And if you look at the amount of money in circulation, if he had been able to sell all his assets of that estimated $100 million to American buyers, he would have taken, including cash and demand deposits, one out of every $20 in circulation. Now Bill Gates, when Forbes calculated his fortune at $58 billion, I think, could have done the same thing. And you take the Federal Reserve's M2 figure, which I won't go into, he would have taken one out of every $138. So the difference between the disparity in wealth is pretty obvious.

And that probably understates the disparity for various reasons. And plus, you've got the power that control of railroads gave Vanderbilt. There's no industry that overshadows the entire economy the way that railroads did at that time. So it was a vast fortune. And the money he left to his widow and to his various daughters were large amounts at the time. Half a million dollars he left to his wife and to some of his daughters, not at all. And that was enough for you to be very wealthy, extremely wealthy in the 19th century, even the late 19th century. But he left 95% of his estate to his oldest son.

And why? Well, first of all, he thought his oldest son was capable. He brought William H. Vanderbilt in as his operational manager, and he did a very good job. But because he deliberately wanted to perpetuate his name, the name that he had given to his steamboats and to his steamships, the name that he had given to his son, his second son, who unfortunately was a gambling addict and epileptic. And so he left all this money to one son deliberately trying to found a dynasty. And it bitterly divided his family. Now, Vanderbilt is more complicated as a family man than again, the myth is that he was this brutal tyrant who just abused his wife and his children hated him.

And that's not true. He was a hard man. He was very judgmental. It reminds me of a friend of mine who said that his father once told him when when he was young, you know, I'm never gonna let you beat me at anything.

You're gonna if we ever play a game, you're gonna have to beat me on your own. You respect a father like that. But when you're growing up, it's not a lot of fun either. And that's the way it was for Vanderbilt. Sometimes some famous incidents in which he was hard in his family, I think are overblown, but that doesn't make them nice. For example, his his first wife in 1846, he put her in an insane asylum for a while. Now, when you look at the testimony about that, it turns out that, you know, she was having serious problems, and a son in law who generally had unfavorable feelings by the time he spoke about this about his about Vanderbilt thought actually it was justified she needed medical help and an asylum was the way to do it. So it was a tough thing to do.

But it wasn't, you know, brutal tyrant. It was sort of like what do we do? She's she's just not herself.

She's acting weird. He again was hard on his second son, Cornille, the one who was a gambling addict. But then again, Cornille would have tried any father's patience. He was someone who's always in trouble with the law, skipping out on his bills, involved in bad debts, addicted to gambling, boastful, all the things his father wasn't. And I sort of use him as the anti hero in the book, because this troubled son brings out all the emotional complexity in Vanderbilt, the stern judge, the overbearing father, who sometimes is harsh on his son, and had him arrested and sent to an asylum also, at a time when they did not have a language for addiction. So again, a hard thing to do, but understandable in the context. And sometimes, you know, encouraging and loving. He's a more sympathetic character than I think we've realized. And that's not to take away any of the complications and ambivalence, personally or historically. But you know, again, that's that's the American experience.

Questions like addiction, and mental illness, are things that, you know, most families deal with at some point. And so William H. Vanderbilt was given credit for doubling the family fortune in a few years. I think that actually, if Vanderbilt himself had done nothing but kind of let his estate compound and he'd lived as long as his son, it probably would have been similar. As he put it, the New York Central Railroad could run itself after a certain point. But the interesting thing about William H. Vanderbilt is that he was surprisingly undiplomatic as a businessman.

You know, JP Morgan bought a large block of stock in the New York Central Railroad, in an attempt to control the destructive competition among railroads. And he complained continually about how he's always quibbling, he engages in disputes that would embarrass a Bowery lawyer, and, you know, a Skid Row lawyer. And he was a quarrelsome figure.

It was kind of testy. And I've read a lot of other letters complaining about how the son was testy, but he was a nice father. So Vanderbilt, the tough father, was a diplomatic businessman.

William, his son, was a terrible business diplomat, but you know, kind of a nice father. And William really, as soon as his father died, and once he settled this big fight over the will and secured his control of the estate, he sold a controlling block of shares to JP Morgan Syndicate, and began to build these lavish mansions, as did his children, that his father never would have tolerated. As soon as the old man's dead, boom, up go the huge mansions. And the Gilded Age excess begins, you know, once the sort of tight-fisted old man is gone, then they start building the famous Vanderbilt mansions. And by now the Vanderbilt fortune has been dissipated because it was founded on the first great industry in America, the railroads, the first industry to mature and fade also. And the New York Central Railroad, you know, was taken over by what are now publicly owned systems. Though the infrastructure Vanderbilt built is still vital to the city of New York, his statue is still out in front of the modern version of Grand Central, the terminal he built, and they still use infrastructure that he constructed, you know, back in the 19th century.

It's still very much a vital part of New York today. You know, I remember when I turned in the first few chapters to my editor, and he just sent them back with another, like, this is just not, you can do way better than this. I was just crushed. And I realized that I was just writing about his business. I wasn't writing about how it fit into the world in which he existed. And the turning point in his early life, for example, he took on his only employer he ever had in his life, a man who was really his mentor, was a man named Thomas Gibbons. And he's the man who hired Vanderbilt to work on his first steamboat, and he became a steamboat captain, and brought him into this great legal as well as business battle against a monopoly, a legal monopoly that New York State had given to the Livingston family for steamboats in New York waters. And it led to Gibbons v. Ogden, the first Commerce Clause case that the Supreme Court decided, and a legal landmark to this day, in which the Supreme Court said states cannot erect boundaries of trade. We have a free market basically in the United States.

Only Congress can control interstate trade. And it really is one of the keys to America's economic growth. And Vanderbilt, by the way, was keenly interested in this, went himself to hear the arguments, hired Webster, Daniel Webster himself, and he was a young man with very little education.

And as I started to look into this, I realized it's not even about law. It's not just about business. It is about the end of an 18th century culture of deference in which you had old landed aristocratic families, especially in New York, which they had mercantilist ideas. They expected to be granted special privileges and they sort of would take custody of the American economy in the way in which they had custody of politics and of other areas of life. And New York State at the time, for example, had not only property requirements, they had two separate levels of property requirements.

You had to have a high level to vote for governor and a lower level to vote for the state assembly. So it was this hierarchical society. And I realized that this era of Vanderbilt's life is not just about him getting ahead, meeting the right guy.

It's not just about this legal battle. It was about the end of this older hierarchical society and the birth of an individualistic, competitive society, much more like the one we know today. And a great job as always by Greg Hengler on the piece and a special thanks to author T.J. Stiles. And his book, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is the first tycoon, the epic life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

And so often these men, these titans are caricatured when we go to school and their contributions to society are downplayed, their villainy, well, upplayed. And in the end, the real story, well, so different. And we heard it straight from a great writer who spent a lot of time thinking about and researching this remarkable American life.

13 children, 11 went to adulthood, but he left almost all the estate to one and all because he wanted to see the name and the family business continue. And by the way, the idea that he grew up during the Washington presidency and was born during the George Washington presidency, saw the Civil War and got into the railroad business in his 70s thinking about the future. And the railroads were the Internet of their day. That's how transformative railroads were. And there was Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt in his 70s, when most people his age were dead. A remarkable story about a remarkable human being, the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt here on Our American Stories.

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Exclusions apply. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from I Heart Radio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share these powerful perspectives from real people with MG so their experiences can help inspire the MG community and educate others about this rare condition.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-26 04:25:00 / 2023-07-26 04:39:38 / 15

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