Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What: T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

Why:  How one man, starting with little but his ambition, built a transportation empire and shaped the infrastructure of the American economy in the process.

It is not unheard of for entrepreneurs with whom members of our Entrepreneurial Services Group work bemoan how they are hampered by legal regulation at almost every turn. How much more they could achieve if only the government would keep its nose out!

So what was it like in the good old days? Enter T. J. Stiles, whose biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt quite justifiably won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2009 and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2010. In the interests of full disclosure, I note that I take a certain vicarious pleasure in these achievements, as both Mr. Stiles and I were history majors at the same small Midwestern liberal arts college, he being of somewhat newer vintage than me.

Stiles gives us a front row seat to the development of an economic empire that began with a ferry plying its trade between Staten Island and Manhattan and ended—many, many millions of dollars later—with a near-monopoly in the railroad industry. All mostly accomplished by Vanderbilt’s drive to run any business in which he was involved better than any of his competitors.

Along the way, we witness the growth of the stock market, the transformation of the corporation from a vehicle for public works to an engine of private business, and the boom in transportation that drove American economic growth in the 19th century. Vanderbilt was a part of it all, and himself played a crucial role in the transformation of the United States from an agrarian-based society to an industrial giant.

In all of this, the law lagged behind the growth, but the growth clearly drove the law. Vanderbilt himself resorted to the courts only rarely, preferring to use his economic power to punish rivals. Vanderbilt’s obituary quotes a letter he purportedly sent to partners who had double-crossed him. The letter actually never existed, but perfectly captures Vanderbilt’s attitude: "Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won't sue, for the law is too slow. I'll ruin you. Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt."

Perhaps Vanderbilt’s life is best summarized by this dust-cover blurb: “He was a visionary who pioneered business models. He was an unschooled fist fighter who came to command the respect of New York’s social elite.” This is an excellent read, an inspiration for any entrepreneur, but at some 585 pages not for those adverse to commitment or faint of heart.

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