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  • Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • M. Stephen Salmon
Edward J. Renehan, Jr. Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. New York: Basic Books, 2007. xx + 364 pp. ISBN 0-465-00255-2, $27.50 (cloth).

Edward J. Renehan, Jr. has written a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt for the general reader. This volume's audience is not meant to be members of the historical profession nor business historians in particular. This is the first full-length biography of Vanderbilt since Wheaton J. Lane's Commodore Vanderbilt: An Epic of the Steam Age [End Page 417] (1942). As Renehan correctly notes, a reappraisal of Cornelius Vanderbilt is overdue. The author bases much of his new interpretation of Vanderbilt's life upon three previously unavailable sources: Lane's re-search notes made in anticipation of revising the 1942 biography, the papers of Jared Linsly, Vanderbilt's personal physician, and the papers of Webster Wagner. Wagner, the inventor of the railway sleeping car, was a partner with Vanderbilt in the Wagner Palace Car Company. However, readers should note that Commodore is a lightly referenced work.

Vanderbilt's family background and childhood on Staten Island are well sketched out. The author sees his subject's early interest in watercraft as an escape from the tyranny of his father's bullying. In 1810, at age sixteen, Vanderbilt bought his own periauger (a fore- and aft-rigged open boat) to operate between Staten Island and Manhattan. He was soon successful enough to acquire a larger sloop, which allowed him to trade further afield. The profitability of these first business ventures was helped by the War of 1812 that produced high freight rates and government contracts.

Vanderbilt is presented as an uncouth, rough-edged man with no education and few social graces. In his younger days he was not immune from using his fists if he could not get his way by other means. Physical threats appear to have been a good part of Vanderbilt's early business methods. And throughout his life he was quite willing to shock New York society with his uncultured behavior. Indeed, as Vanderbilt grew older, his actions became more and more erratic. Drawing on Linsly's papers, Renehan attributes these bouts of irrationality to Vanderbilt having contracted syphilis when a young man.

Unfortunately, we are given little detailed discussion of Vanderbilt's early business techniques beyond his ability to threaten his opponents with physical violence. This omission is significant for business historians because steam navigation was a new type of business that required innovations in planning and organization. More planning was necessary than running a sailing vessel. The ability of steam-powered vessels to move against the wind and the tide allowed them to keep to predetermined schedules. This in turn required that the steamboat's operations be organized to take advantage of this newfound reliability. Thus, fuel had to be available where and when necessary. Cargo had to be delivered to the wharf on a regular basis to meet the steamer's schedule, etc. The steamboat business could not be profitably run as a one-man show. For all that a steamboat owner may have been a cutthroat bully, he still had to run an organization that constantly dealt with other business people outside his direct control. Networking is not discussed in Commodore. [End Page 418]

Little is added to our knowledge of Vanderbilt's career beyond more details on how he "ruined" Charles Morgan and Cornelius Kingsland Garrison in the Nicaragua affair. Indeed, the biography only spends one paragraph on Vanderbilt's fight with Jay Gould and Jim Fisk for control of the Erie Railroad. For a full account readers are referred to the Renehan's work on Gould, Dark Genius of Wall Street (New York, 2005). In the end, despite being ravaged by syphilis, the old man gave the majority of his fortune to the son whom he trusted, William Henry Vanderbilt. Billy could be as ruthless as his father. This decision was an illustration that the elder Vanderbilt did know how to pick talent. In spite of his reputation for being a crude bully, he did have a number of innate entrepreneurial qualities that helped him...


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