TJ Stiles won the National Book Award for this biography of the FIRST TYCOON.
Most Americans know more about Gloria Vanderbilt than they do about Cornelius, and if what TJ Stiles says in his biographical essay is true , his biography is the first on the Commodore to use proper historical research.
Stiles is an incredibly hard worker. There are over a hundred pages of detailed footnotes with another twelve pages of bibliography. There's lots I didn't know. For instance, I didn't know the Commodore owned ocean liners or that he ran a steamship line to Nicaragua during the Gold rush and another from the Pacific side to San Francisco. He also had plans to dig a canal that never came to fruition.
Stiles works hard to rehabilitate the Commodore's reputation as a aggressive robber baron who would steal from his own mother. He did use some suspect business tactics, such as insider trading on Wall Street and starting a steamship line, then selling out to the competition once he had made inroads on their business, often making more than he paid for the construction of the boats. But he was also involved in a landmark Supreme Court case, Gibbons vs. Ogden, which made it easier for the independent businessman to compete with established interests. The case involved the Livingston family which had a stranglehold on the steamboat business.
Although he was a taciturn, private man, Stiles provides lots of information on the Commodore's person life. He was really hard on his first wife and his sons, referring to William as a "blatherskite." His son, Cornelius, a profligate gambler, was an even sadder case. The Commodore also loved horses, and raced them at Saratoga and he liked to play Whist.
Considering the recent Supreme Court decision that ruled corporations have the same first amendment rights as the individual, this book is especially significant. William, who eventually won over his father and became vice president of New York Central, one of the main trunk railroads, was forced to sell a controlling interest in the stock because he was advised the government was on the verge of breaking up the huge monopolies, as they eventually did with Standard oil. Ironically, the Commodore began his career as an outsider looking in, trying to compete with monopolies, while at the end, he was the monopoly.
Dave Schwinghammer's published novel, SOLDIER'S GAP, is available on Amazon.com.