Go on, ask someone at your workplace under the age of 30 — heck, under 40 — who Cornelius Vanderbilt was.
The thing about Vanderbilt — and why he’s trying to tell us something even though he went on to the big bank vault in the sky, lo, 135 years ago — isn’t just that he was one of the richest humans ever to walk the earth. (He was, though, as he held something like an astonishing 9 percent of all America’s currency when he died, according to one estimate.)
Vanderbilt was about absolute control, and so he conceived big ideas. He was one of the first steam punks — he made his money in steamboats, and then moved on to railroads.
He built the original Grand Central Terminal in New York City with his own money. He also put down the endowment for the university in Nashville that bears his name.
He also enjoyed horse racing — not just at the track with thoroughbreds from his stable but also through the streets of Manhattan in his own rig. He always had to be first, in everything.
In one instance, as Harper’s Weekly reported and as T.J. Stiles notes in his book, “The First Tycoon,” dozens of charging horses and rigs — one driven by Vanderbilt in an impromptu race — pelted along a narrow New York street, “the spinning wheels cracked against each other, and three wagons were smashed to pieces, and all tumbled together.
“The Commodore came out all right.”
The Commodore, as he liked to be called, knew what he wanted, and he was willing to take risks — massive, historic gambles — to get it. Bribing politicians, crushing business competitors and calling in the police to smash — and I do mean smash — union organizers were as much a part of his day as breakfast and the morning newspapers.
Here’s another example: During the California gold rush of 1848-1855, the Commodore put up the cash to dig a canal through Nicaragua so his ships could carry miners from the East Coast, down through Central America and all the way back north to San Francisco. He calculated, correctly, there would be enough eager Forty-Niners desperate to try their hands and mining pans at getting rich out West.
Here’s another, more sinister, example: In 1869 the Commodore was lauded in the press as a national hero because he’d funneled millions of his personal bucks into companies deemed too big to fail, thereby almost single-handedly subduing what had been a Wall Street panic — the original “Black Friday.”
But what wasn’t mentioned as widely was that Vanderbilt was one of the captains of industry who’d instigated the panic — in his case by swamping the markets with shares from his railroad holdings to mess up some scheme of one of his competitors, Jay Gould (of the Boss Tweed-Tammany Hall scandals).
What the Commodore wasn’t about, as you might have guessed, was corporate ethics. His understanding of the phrase “for the greater good” would be more akin to “my way or the highway.”
Like the steamships and trains he monopolized, Vanderbilt pushed aside anything or anyone who got in his way.
In his book, Stiles does point out that Vanderbilt never uttered the infamous comment often attributed to him, “What do I care about the law?” But as with most famous statements attributed to people who never actually said them, the remark stands as a neat characterization.
Today as we debate Wall Street misbehavior — ho, there’s a nice, sanitized word for it — financial disparity in society and whether government truly should be run like a business, we should give an ear to the Commodore, to what he did, and maybe did not, say.
And remember what happens when power races its carriages through public streets for fun and good people do nothing to prevent it.