Author: Edward J. Renehan Jr.

Publisher: Basic Books, 2007

ISBN-13: 978-0465002559, 364 pages


Tycoon “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt is an important figure in the history of American business. Author Edward J. Renehan Jr. set out to “put a face” on Vanderbilt’s ambition, enterprise and mania for wealth, and he succeeded. You will get a solid understanding of the vast, rapid changes the U.S. experienced during Vanderbilt’s life and his significant role in that change. His descendants--including his granddaughter, designer Gloria Vanderbilt, and her son, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper--continue to be prominent. Though this interesting, reportorial biography could have focused more on the historic context and economic impact of this financial giant, and a bit less on his all-too-human failings, getAbstract finds it a good read for anyone who is interested in American history.

A life of endless work

Cornelius Vanderbilt’s father, also named Cornelius, was illiterate, bitter and coarse. He worked steadily as a skilled seaman with no view beyond his daily labor. He married Phebe Hand, who was his intellectual superior. Their son, the future Commodore, was born on May 27, 1794, the fourth of nine children. He showed a skill for riding horses and sailing at an early age. When his older brother Jacob died, the family took Cornelius, 11, out of school and he began his life of endless labor. He actually enjoyed working, and studied the harbors, ports, rivers, tides, ships and the overall business of shipping.

At 16, he cleared rocks and stumps from an acre of his father’s land to earn $100 to buy his own small boat. Even when he was an old man, the Commodore was still nostalgic about operating that first boat. Hungry for profit, he went out in storms when others stayed on shore. His reputation for seamanship, price-cutting, speed and full cargo loads brought him business. Soon, he bought a 65-foot sloop that carried more freight and passengers, and was less susceptible to weather. In 1813, Cornelius married Sophia Johnson. Their mothers were cousins, and they had known each other since childhood. Sophia was beautiful, hard working and deferential. Between 1814 and 1839, the couple had 13 children, though only three boys. Sophia kept a clean home, had few expenses and always had hot food waiting whenever Vanderbilt showed up.

Working for Gibbons

The Commodore’s customers wanted fast, reliable, economical transport between New York and New Jersey, and he provided it. Known for keeping his word, he was worth $16,000 by 1817, with $9,000 in cash and $7,000 worth of boats. During this era of unfettered self-interest and rugged individualism, he made no pretense of charitable work. He struggled with the logistics of managing multiple vessels and the competitive emergence of steamships owned by the powerful Livingston-Fulton cartel, which New York politicos protected from competition.

Refusing to adhere to New York’s restrictions, the New Jersey legislature gave the state’s outgoing governor, attorney Aaron Ogden, a monopoly to operate steamboats in its waters. After a complex series of legal and business battles, Ogden formed a contentious partnership with wealthy Southerner Thomas Gibbons. Eventually they parted, and Ogden represented Gibbons’ son-in-law in a suit against Gibbons, who decided to ruin Ogden by competing with him. Gibbons hired Vanderbilt to run a small steamboat…

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