Vanderbilt: The First Tycoon

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.