9781400031740

The First Tycoon

by
  • ISBN13:

    9781400031740

  • ISBN10:

    1400031745

  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 4/20/2010
  • Publisher: Vintage

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Summary

NATIONAL BESTSELLER 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 Tycoondescribes an improbable life, from Vanderbiltrs"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.

Author Biography

T. J. Stiles has held the Gilder Lehrman Fellowship in American History at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, taught at Columbia University, and served as adviser for the PBS series The American Experience. His first book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, won the Ambassador Book Award and the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship, and was a New York Times Notable Book. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon.com, Smithsonian, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in San Francisco.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpts

The Islander

They came to learn his secrets. Well before the appointed hour of two o’clock in the afternoon on November 12, 1877, hundreds of spectators pushed into a courtroom in lower Manhattan. They included friends and relatives of the contestants, of course, as well as leading lawyers who wished to observe the forensic skills of the famous attorneys who would try the case. But most of the teeming mass of men and women—many fashionably dressed, crowding in until they were packed against the back wall—wanted to hear the details of the life of the richest man the United States had ever seen. The trial over the will of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous, notorious Commodore, was about to begin.

Shortly before the hour, the crowd parted to allow in William H. Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s eldest son, and his lawyers, led by Henry L. Clinton. William, “glancing carelessly and indifferently around the room, removed his overcoat and comfortably settled himself in his chair,” theNew York Timesreported; meanwhile his lawyers shook hands with the opposing team, led by Scott Lord, who represented William’s sister Mary Vanderbilt La Bau. At exactly two o’clock, the judge—called the “Surrogate” in this Surrogate Court—strode briskly in from his chambers through a side door, stepped up to the dais, and took his seat. “Are you ready, gentlemen?” he asked. Lord and Clinton each declared that they were, and the Surrogate ordered, “Proceed, gentlemen.”

Everyone who listened as Lord stood to make his opening argument knew just how great the stakes were. “the house of vanderbilt,” theTimesheadlined its story the next morning. “a railroad prince’s fortune. the heirs contesting the will. . . . a battle over $100,000,000.” The only item in all that screaming type that would have surprised readers was theTimes’s demotion of Vanderbilt to “prince,” since the press usually dubbed him the railroadking. His fortune towered over the American economy to a degree difficult to imagine, even at the time. If he had been able to sell all his assets at full market value at the moment of his death, in January of that year, he would have taken one out of every twenty dollars in circulation, including cash and demand deposits.

Most of those in that courtroom had lived their entire lives in Vanderbilt’s shadow. By the time he had turned fifty, he had dominated railroad and steamboat transportation between New York and New England (thus earning the nickname “Commodore”). In the 1850s, he had launched a transatlantic steamship line and pioneered a transit route to California across Nicaragua. In the 1860s, he had systematically seized control of the railroads that connected Manhattan with the rest of the world, building the mighty New York Central Railroad system between New York and Chicago. Probably every person in that chamber had passed through Grand Central, the depot on Forty-second Street that Vanderbilt had constructed; had seen the enormous St. John’s Park freight terminal that he had built, featuring a huge bronze statue of himself; had crossed the bridges over the tracks that he had sunk along Fourth Avenue (a step that would allow it to later blossom into Park Avenue); or had taken one of the ferries, steamboats, or steamships that he had controlled over the course of his lifetime. He had stamped the city with his mark—a mark that would last well into the twenty-first century—and so had stamped the country. Virtually every American had paid tribute to his treasury.

More fascinating than the fortune was the man behind it. Lord began his attack by admitting “that it seemed hazardous to say that a man who accumulated $100,000,000 and was famous for his strength of will had not the power to dispose of his fortune.&#

Excerpted from The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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