The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

When he died, Vanderbilt was probably the richest man in the U.S., with a fortune that represented US$1 out of every $20 in circulation in the country, including cash and demand deposits (to put that in perspective, Bill Gates’s wealth in 2008 represented $1 out of every $138). But Stiles has much more in mind in this weighty tome than simply documenting the rise of one fabulously wealthy man. The real subject of his book is the transformation of the U.S. economy from the solo-owner, small-scale capitalism of the 18th century to the modern age of giant, publicly held corporations. To make that potentially arid topic appealing, Stiles casts Vanderbilt as the personification of that historical shift, beginning his career as the sole owner of a business in a simple industry characterized by many small competitors and ending it as the major investor in a huge company that, for all intents and purposes, is a monopoly.

The book succeeds brilliantly as a history of the rise of American corporate capitalism. Stiles has great command of the ins and outs of national economics and corporate finance. He explains in clear language and authoritative detail just how the U.S. came to have a national currency of “greenbacks,” and what caused the panic of 1873 and the decade-long depression that ensued (conditions in that sorry era sound enough like our current economic crisis to give a reader the willies). Similarly, he draws on internal corporate records to document exactly when, why, and how this or that corporate takeover (or bankruptcy) occurred. As history, this is great stuff. [James O’Toole, s+b Annotation]

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