Friday, September 4, 2009

The Commodore

You’ve been hearing about capitalism’s bad breaks recently, but it is, to continue the paraphrase of Lou Gehrig’s famous speech, the luckiest economic system alive, and, unfortunately, to switch clichés, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. But even if capitalism never dies, it still had to be born, and debates on where and when capitalism emerged is one of the oldest of historical chestnuts. And if he wasn’t the first capitalist, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, as the title of an excellent book by T.J. Stiles has it, was the first tycoon, the first multi-multi-millionaire whose wealth simply existed on a totally different level of magnitude from ordinary wealthy people. Worth about $100 million at his death in 1877, when the total value of the US money supply was bout $900 million, he was very likely, in comparative terms, the richest man who ever lived.

Most of the great fortunes made in NYC were made by people like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould , Andrew Carnegie, Michael Bloomberg, were made by people who moved to the city from elsewhere to make the fortunes. Of the great tycoons, perhaps only Cornelius Vanderbilt was native to the city (or to pre-Consolidation Staten Island, at least.) And Vanderbilt career was made in what the first great NYC industry, transportation, first in steamboats and then in railroads. Before NYC was anything else, it was a transportation hub and nexus. And as Stiles shows, Vanderbilt understood capitalism, and the emerging abstract world of stocks and bonds and how to buy and trade them better than almost anyone else. He was his own investment bank (they really didn’t exist in his time), and really, he was his own corporation, at a time when the corporate form of organization was only first gaining traction.
Well, having read Stiles book, I conclude there is nothing particularly admirable about Vanderbilt. He was a hard driving son of a bitch (though, as Stiles shows, generally honorable in his business dealings.) He left no great public benefactions, no museum, no library, no concert hall honors him in his city, and if he is remembered, he is not particularly commemorated in the city, that he as much as any single individual, transformed into a center of world commerce. This is, I suppose, okay with me. But if he doesn’t deserve a monument, he definitely needed a good biography, which he lacked until now. And Stiles book, which goes from his involvement in the landmark case Gibbons v. Ogden to his role in the Erie War of the late 1860s, fills the bill.

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