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Published: November 24, 2009

 
 

Best Business Books 2009: Biography

Where the book doesn’t quite work is in regard to Vanderbilt the man. In my reading, he is an imperfect instrument for the complex tune Stiles wishes him to play. The Commodore, for all his wealth and power, was a rather one-dimensional character. Doubtless, he was a financial genius, and one of the first to understand how the game of publicly trading corporate shares could be made to work in favor of investors (he was the first to “corner the market” for a major stock). That said, had the book focused solely on the life of Vanderbilt, it would have been repetitious at 200 pages. Thus, what we get is a paragraph or two about the man, followed by long, fascinating asides on the culture, politics, or economy of his time. Occasionally we lose sight of Vanderbilt altogether, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the historical context Stiles describes is usually more interesting than the life of the man.

Vanderbilt was a ruthless competitor: opportunistic, aggressive, greedy, egotistic, monomaniacal, and vindictive. He believed in winning at all costs, and some of the methods he employed — for example, stock-price manipulation — were unethical even by the lax standards of his era and would be outright illegal today. He was a hypocrite to boot, a professed anti-monopolist who sought to create legal monopolies. Notwithstanding those manifest faults, Stiles bends over backward to offer a balanced portrait, trying to get us to at least respect his protagonist, even if we can’t like him. The main line of defense is that, for all his faults, Vanderbilt lived by “a strict code of honor in business.” In fact, he does seem to have been as “good as his word” — invariably a point of pride with even the most patently unethical entrepreneurs. Perhaps there is honor among thieves, but that doesn’t make thieves honorable.

Although Vanderbilt was the first to earn the sobriquet “robber baron,” he was not the least admirable of the group. That distinction goes to his archenemies, James Fisk and Jay Gould, owners of the Erie Railway, who had the pleasure of being among the few of Vanderbilt’s competitors ever to best him in a deal. In one tricky maneuver described by Stiles,

[Fisk and Gould] secretly purchased some six thousand head of livestock in the West. Then...they announced they were cutting the Erie’s livestock rates to $1 per car. The move forced the [New York] Central to follow suit, as they knew it would. Shortly afterward, Gould and Fisk boasted to the press that they had shipped their livestock over the Central at these absurd rates, reaping a huge profit at the Commodore’s expense. The Central instantly raised rates to $40 per car.

Vanderbilt predictably went ballistic, but he didn’t pull back from competition. Many of his investments turned out to be significant losses, and he took them like “the man” he prided himself in being. But he won many more than he lost and, in the end, “proved himself an expert at using the stock market to concentrate capital or avenge himself on his enemies.” Alas, there was little else about his life that merits reporting. Aside from betting on cards and horses (he helped establish harness racing as a sport), he had no discernible interests. He was an absent, perhaps even abusive, husband and father (he had his first wife briefly committed to an asylum so he would be free to dally with their servant girl); uninvolved in politics (except to lobby both parties in the service of his investments); unmoved by culture (his “only notable work of art was a bust of himself”); and lacking in almost any philanthropic inclinations (the exception being his funding of Vanderbilt University, which was far less expensive than one might expect).

 
 
 
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