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The Age of Vanderbilt
Portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt University, Special Collections and University Archives)

Portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt University, Special Collections and University Archives)

The buccaneering capitalism of America’s first century throws an interesting light on our economic crisis today.

In the age of steamships, railroads, and gold rush, the titan of titans — up by the bootstraps to unimaginable wealth — was Cornelius Vanderbilt, America’s first tycoon. From a boyhood farming on Staten Island, he built out a country and an economy that we still live in.

A new biography takes us through steam engine, jungle, and robber baron years to the roots of our finance system today.

This hour, On Point: Cornelius Vanderbilt, America’s first tycoon.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Guests:

T. J. Stiles, an independent historian who focuses on 19th-century America. His new book is “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.” He’s also the author of “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War.”

You can read an excerpt from “The Last Tycoon” at RandomHouse.com. Plus, Stiles’ own website offers a great deal of background on Vanderbilt and the research that went into the book.

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst and senior editor at The Atlantic. He’s the author of “Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900″ (2007) and the editor of “Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America” (2001).

Daguerrotype image of Cornelius Vanderbilt from before the Civil War.

Daguerreotype image of Cornelius Vanderbilt from before the Civil War.

On his site, T.J. Stiles offers a long list of “misconceptions,” “falsehoods” and “myths” about Cornelius Vanderbilt that he says his biography corrects. Here’s a sampling (scroll down this page for the full list):

Vanderbilt cheated at cards.

Vanderbilt hated trains.

Vanderbilt was a boor who chewed tobacco, drank heavily, and spat on carpets.

Vanderbilt and Daniel Drew were enemies.

Vanderbilt’s only maneuver on Wall Street was the corner.

Vanderbilt was a corrupt chief executive who hurt his own stockholders to make personal profits.

Vanderbilt was an unfeeling brute who abused his family, especially his epileptic son Cornelius Jeremiah.

Vanderbilt contracted syphilis in 1839, began to suffer dementia in 1868, and was used as an uncomprehending puppet by his son William H. for the rest of his life.

Here are some more historical images from Stiles’ site.

The Original Grand Central Depot
The Original Grand Central Depot
The Hudson River as Vanderbilt knew it, with a sidewheel steamboat passing the Hudson highlands.
The Hudson River as Vanderbilt knew it, with a sidewheel steamboat passing the Hudson highlands.
Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • BHA

    Vanderbilt, like all other ‘personal’ capitalists, stretched any available law to his personal financial gain. Due to their greed and immoral actions, we have laws against monopolies. Every time some greedy person or corporation goes well beyond reasonable in their quest for money, the government has to make new laws to slow them down.

    The ‘As long as I get mine’ attitude is what drove the world economy into the toilet, started by the collapse of sub-prime mortgages but exacerbated by the greed of those packaging them as investments such that they could not be traced.

    There is a difference between Capitalism in the economic sense of earning and investing money to grow your business and the economy and Capitalism in the sense of “make ME rich” with no consideration for society as a whole.

  • JP

    At least men like Vanderbilt actually built things that improved the lot of the country, even if he was ruthless in his ambition to create monopoly… very different from the wealthy today who build or create nothing, but instead manipulate only paper and illusion to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

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