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Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and T.J. Stiles, author of The First Tycoon, talks about the life and legacy of Cornelius Vanderbilt

by Chapter16.org

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Around Nashville, Cornelius Vanderbilt is best known for the university that bears his name. Most people are aware that Vanderbilt, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, was one of the 19th century's great industrial barons and one of the first to command the nation's vast rail networks. But where did he come from? And why was he called the commodore? And why would a Northern industrialist give a small treasure to fund a university in post-Civil War Tennessee?

As author T.J. Stiles details in his Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning biography, The First Tycoon, Vanderbilt led an epic life, one that began in near poverty less than a decade after the Constitution was written and ended atop one of the greatest accumulations of wealth the world had ever seen. He built this fortune first on ferry services around New York Harbor, then steamships plying the East Coast and Gold Rush California, and finally a web of railroads that linked New York with the riches pouring out of the Midwest through Chicago. Along the way, Vanderbilt played a key role in everything from Central American rebellions to Civil War naval confrontations.

We recently had a chance to interview Stiles, who is on tour to promote the paperback edition of his book.

A significant theme throughout the latter part of the book is post-Civil War reconciliation. Vanderbilt was a born-and-bred New Yorker, but he was also a relatively apolitical businessman. Where did he stand on the bundle of issues that defined the North-South divide?

There are only hints in the surviving record of Vanderbilt's views on many of the issues that fed the political ferment leading to the Civil War. When it comes to race and slavery, he seems to have had the bluntly practical view of a businessman who believed in self-interest as the path forward. For example, he grew up with slavery. There was a great deal of slavery in 18th century New York, and it was concentrated in heavily Dutch areas, including northern Staten Island, where Vanderbilt grew up. It only went away slowly, as the state ended slavery with a gradual manumission act.

On the other hand, the waterfront was one place where black men worked on something like equality with white men, and even had authority (though their position eroded over the years). Vanderbilt's employer from 1817 to 1826 was Thomas Gibbons, who was a planter from Georgia. Vanderbilt ran a steamboat for Gibbons, but he also worked with an emancipated man who was captain of a sailboat ferry also owned by Gibbons. Letters show the former slave took pains to assert his authority and equal standing with white men, who often complained to Gibbons. With Vanderbilt, on the other hand, there's no sign of friction. That's not to say he was not racist; to my knowledge, he never gave any authority to African Americans who worked for him, though he employed many. It's just that he was practical.

For most Nashvillians, Vanderbilt is first and foremost associated with the university he endowed in Nashville. He seems to have been much less given to grand charitable acts than men like Carnegie or Rockefeller, and yet he gave a great deal to Central University, which then changed its name to Vanderbilt. Why?

Vanderbilt's involvement in his eponymous university reflected two things. First, there was his sincere patriotism. He very deliberately mirrored his nearly million-dollar gift of the steamship Vanderbilt to the Union Navy with a nearly million-dollar endowment of the university, because it was in the South. As he told a reporter at one point, "It was a duty that the North owed to the South, to give some substantial token of reconciliation which would be a benefit, and he wanted to do his individual share by founding an institution." As he told the Rev. Charles F. Deems, as the minister recalled, "The Commodore . . . said that he had this in mind during the Rebellion. He spent a million of money in sending a vessel against the Southerners to show his views then, and he wanted to give the money after the war to show them that the men of the North were ready to extend the olive branch."

The second factor was Bishop Holland N. McTyeire, who was the central figure in the Central University. After a lifetime of betrayals by colleagues, personal character and ability was very important to Vanderbilt. He met McTyeire when he came to New York for medical care; his wife was cousin to Frank [Vanderbilt's second wife], so he stayed at the Vanderbilt home. He described the project, but was wise enough to avoid asking for money. As a condition of the endowment, Vanderbilt insisted that the founding documents of the university give McTyeire, whom he trusted, the final control over any decisions by the trustees. Though Vanderbilt never visited the university, he took close interest in the financial side of its establishment, providing cash as it was needed, for example, and gently chiding McTyeire when he handled finances incorrectly.

Vanderbilt died in 1877, not long after he endowed his namesake university. What kind of country did he leave behind, and how much did he do to bring it to that point?

There's a paradox in Vanderbilt's legacy. On one hand, he helped to craft the scrappy, individualistic, competitive, up-by-the-bootstraps America that emerged in the antebellum era. He embodied competition — "the spirit of resistance," as he once put it. This is still a key part of our culture today. Yet he also helped to create big business. That had a number of consequences. For one, his transportation lines helped to both expand and integrate the nation, making us more mobile and more interconnected. For another, it created enormous wealth, both directly through his highly profitable companies (which shared their profits through dividends) and indirectly, by speeding the growth of the economy.

But big business also led to more controversial consequences. Vanderbilt amassed immense power through the giant scale of his enterprises, which he often used ruthlessly to defeat his enemies, harming or inconveniencing millions of innocent bystanders. The power of private enterprise to hurt the public interest is bitterly debated to this day. The rise of big business also embedded Americans in an increasingly thick organizational web. It created classes of people who work permanently for others, particularly large companies. It institutionalized the average person's life. Today's worries about credit scores, mortgage payments, insurance of all kinds, resumes, and the state of one's 401k (which puts millions in contact with financial markets) all stem from birth of the corporate economy in the 19th century. Vanderbilt, a man born during the presidency of George Washington, was a creator and master of that economy. We feel his legacy in almost every financial thing we do. Fortunately for me, and my readers, he also lived an amazingly dramatic life.

To read the full transcript of this interview and to see more local book coverage, visit chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

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