Chapter Twelve

CHAMPION

“This famous pretended experiment for the spread of Anglo-Saxon enterprise and civilization at the point of a bayonet,” declared the New York Tribune, “and for introducing free institutions into Central America through the medium of a military despotism, has ended in blood, murder, rapine.” With these words, Horace Greeley succinctly described William Walker's reign in Nicaragua. But it had not ended quite yet. On January 27, 1857, the day this editorial appeared, the final siege of Rivas began.1

After Spencer's capture of the steamers and forts on the San Juan River, General Mora loaded most of his troops onto the steamboats and crossed Lake Nicaragua, where he joined the allied army encircling the filibuster stronghold. Walker would receive no reinforcements or supplies from the Atlantic—or from the Pacific, because Garrison diverted his ships to Panama as soon as he learned of Spencer's exploits.2 February, March, April—the siege of Rivas ground on. Finally an American naval officer, Lieutenant Charles H. Davis, intervened. He shuttled between the two camps and negotiated an agreement. On May 1, Walker surrendered to Davis, who conducted the filibusters through the allied lines. Walker departed Nicaragua.3

“The most disastrous blunder of Walker,” observed the New York Herald, “was his coup d'etat against ‘the house of Vanderbilt.’” The Commodore's role in Spencer's mission was suspected by the press as soon as the first reports reached New York in January. Then again, the newspapers imagined that the steamship tycoons were behind everything from the start. Ignoring evidence that Walker, Randolph, and the Central Americans had driven events, they called the conflict the “war of the commodores.” They even claimed, mistakenly, that George Law intrigued for the Nicaragua route. (The most he did was to sell rifles to Parker French.) In Spencer's case, however, the press was correct. The filibusters themselves stressed Vanderbilt's importance. “Walker owes his defeat not to the natives of Central America, but to his own countrymen,” one wrote in 1859, “and had it not been for the malice or revenge of Vanderbilt, he might have reigned in Nicaragua at this day”4

The filibusters based their entire movement on contempt for Spanish-speaking peoples, so they naturally underplayed the role of the “natives” in the war. In fact, the isthmian republics had fought hard and paid dearly. One British diplomat estimated that the war cost the lives of forty thousand Nicaraguans, Costa Ricans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans. The Central American soldiers who survived filibuster gunfire and outbreaks of cholera carried disease home, causing epidemics. The war bankrupted Costa Rica (despite Vanderbilt's aid), which prompted murmurs of dissent against President Mora. But the greatest suffering was inflicted on Nicaragua, where one city embodied the death and destruction that Walker had strewed about him. “Granada… presents, with her demolished houses and masses of ruined citizens, a consummate picture of misery and distress,” wrote a correspondent for the New York Herald. “Walker, in burning and in the destruction of Granada, has earned a notoriety which for ages to come the historian will chronicle with infamy and horror.”5

And yet, it cannot be denied that Vanderbilt played a decisive role in Walker's downfall. He had found the filibuster's weak point, crafted the plan to strike it, selected the agent to carry out the operation, and paid its costs. The Central Americans likely would have won in the long run without his help—but with it, they won in the short run. “Mr. Vanderbilt… has shown the ablest generalship,” the London Times observed. “Walker's most formidable enemy has conducted the campaign from New York.”6

He exacted revenge on Garrison and Morgan as well. Even before Spencer struck, Morgan had complained of the “large expenditures made to organize a line.” Morgan was so close-mouthed that it is difficult to know how much he had at stake; as the Mercantile Agency noted, with regard to the Morgan Iron Works, “The extent of their means is a family secret with Morgan.” But once the line collapsed, he could no longer conceal his need for cash. In April, he mortgaged his iron works for $317,500. In 1859, clerk Benjamin Voorhees testified that Morgan and Garrison “suffered a loss of about $300,000. I have been so assured by [Garrison] and from my own knowledge of his affairs. I believe it absolutely true.” This was a staggering figure—as large as the entire estates of many of New York's richest men. And Morgan continued to bleed as Vanderbilt competed against his Gulf Coast line, slashing fares by up to 90 percent.7

Vanderbilt had wrought his revenge by guiding the military operations of a sovereign nation, at a cost of dozens of lives, through the instrument of a murderer on a jungle river a continent away from 10 Washington Place. His blow had captured international attention, alerting enemies present and future to just how far he would go to punish betrayal. But revenge didn't pay the servants. As Harper's Weekly asked, just before the filibusters surrendered, “When we have got rid of Walker, what next?”8

ONE FRIGID EVENING IN JANUARY, Vanderbilt, his brother Jacob, and a third man boarded a rowboat in the Hudson River at Hoboken, New Jersey. It may not have been in January of 1857—it may have been 1856 or 1855 or 1854—but what is certain is that the third man circulated the story of what happened that night. They were returning to New York from a corporate board meeting in New Jersey. It was late, and Vanderbilt did not want to wait for a ferry. So he hired the craft and took a seat in the stern as two boatmen pulled on the oars. They rowed into a dense mat of slush. It was rapidly getting darker and colder. The slush was hardening. A chunk of ice floating with the current plowed through and cracked dangerously against the side of the boat.

“The Commodore had from the first sat quiet,” reported Harper's Weekly in 1859, “and his companions, who looked to him as their leader, had followed his example. At length he sprang up. ‘Boys,’ said he, cheerily, ‘this won't do. Give me an oar! Now you two,’ he added, addressing his brother and one of his friends, ‘take those oars and row’” At first the boatmen refused to give up control of the boat. Vanderbilt glared at them and said, in a low voice, “You keep out of my way, or you'll maybe come to grief.” Standing upright in the bitter cold, balancing on the gunwales, he plunged his oar in the water to serve as a rudder and guided the craft through the bombardment of ice floes until finally they docked, sometime around midnight. “One of the parties who shared the Commodore's society on that evening,” Harper's wrote, “has been heard to declare that he grew ten years older in the five or six hours they spent in the boat.”9

Cornelius Vanderbilt remained a powerful physical presence, even in his sixties, as he prowled the city, straight and tall, his cravat around his neck, a cigar swiveling around in his mouth, wearing an air of profound confidence even in crises that threatened his survival. A mastery of physical danger can breed character, or it can breed a bully; it seems to have done a bit of both in the former boatman. It certainly made him a man whom contemporaries found striking. “One's first impression of Vanderbilt is that he is a man of steel,” one writer observed, fifteen years later. “There is a steely glint in his grayish-blue eyes that reinforces the impression.”10

Character, judgment, self-possession—these rose in Vanderbilt's values as he gained eminence. More than that, he began to reveal strands of warmth and humanity in his soul; even strangers now remarked on “his extreme courtesy.” Such strands were gently pulled into view by Ellen Williams Vanderbilt, Corneil's wife. On February 12, 1857, for example, Vanderbilt did something very unusual: he wrote a letter in his own hand, to the Williams family in Hartford. His fondness for them, especially for his daughter-in-law, overflowed the page. He had sent a letter to “our Dear Ellen,” he said, by a messenger “who promised to deliver it with his own hand.… I am in hopes to spend an evening with you shortly when we can talk over matters & things. Please give my best regards to all the ladies. Tell Ellen to send her notes along. I like to read them.”

But these threads of warmth were wound around the steel core of a demanding father. The impetus for this letter came from his frustration with his son. “I this moment received a long letter from Cornelius in which he complains of Mr. Bond,” he wrote, “for something he dun on my account. All this looks like one of Cornelius visions.” This tantalizing choice of words hints that Vanderbilt still doubted his son's sanity, even after he had won his release from an asylum. The Commodore asserted that Mr. Bond felt great affection for the Williams family, “& if he did not he could not be a friend of mine for a moment. I think these few line should be all sufficient,” he added. “They air for the purpose of your correcting Cornl as his judgemint seams not to be mature upon all points. A great fault of his is to take disputes without sufficient cause.”11

This letter offers a flash of insight into Vanderbilt's own late-maturing notion of fatherhood. He flared with scorn for his son, yet also demonstrated genuine concern. He wanted to correct the troubled lad, to teach him judgment, coolness, character.

Soon after this note, the Commodore presented Corneil and Ellen with a “fine mansion,” together with an orchard, vineyard, garden, and hay-field, on a ridge overlooking Hartford. “There are few country seats in the land possessing equal attractions,” the Hartford Courant observed. “The rooms are uncommonly spacious.… The view of the city, of Hartford Rocky Hill, and of the valleys on both sides of the ridge is charming.”12 The Commodore still shook his head over Corneil, but he made sure that Ellen would live in comfort. In fact, he gave the estate not to his son, but to his daughter-in-law, whom he trusted more than his own flesh and blood.

ON MARCH 9, 1857, the New York Tribune announced the Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott case. “THE TRIUMPH OF SLAVERY COMPLETE,” declared one of its many headlines. The enslaved Scott had sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had resided in the free Wisconsin territory; Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled against him. Negroes, he wrote, “had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” What shocked the majority of the Northern public was not the blatant racism, but the implication that free states had no power to bar slavery within their borders.13

What Vanderbilt thought of the decision—or if he thought of it at all—is unknown. But his efforts to reopen the Nicaragua transit route would become entangled with the worsening sectional crisis, thanks in large part to two men: his son-in-law and advisor, Horace Clark, and the new president, James Buchanan. Just a few weeks shy of his sixty-sixth birthday, Buchanan was tall and portly, a deft Democratic politician who had leaped from the House to the Senate to posts as minister to Russia, secretary of state, and minister to Great Britain, winning the wry nickname “Old Public Functionary.” From beginning to end, his presidency would be defined by slavery. In the election of 1856, the new Republican Party had captured the northernmost tier of states on the pledge to stop its expansion; Buchanan had won only with the support of a nearly solid South. No one knew it better than the president, who sought to appease Dixie at every step.14

Yet the “irrepressible conflict” hardly monopolized Buchanan's attention. The great question for any new administration was patronage—the doling out of federal offices to create a network that would support both the party and the president personally. The most lucrative and nearly the most powerful position he had to fill was the collector of the port of New York. When Buchanan turned to the city's Democratic Party for a candidate, though, he found it divided between the adherents and opponents of Mayor Fernando Wood. The ambitious Wood relied on the support of the infamous Dead Rabbits gang of Five Points, whom he richly rewarded. When a gang leader, Fatty Welsh, was shot in his bar at 7 Mulberry Street, for example, the New York Herald revealed that “he holds the office of Inspector of Manure, at a salary of $3 per day.”

Wood assumed that he would control all federal patronage in the city but Buchanan loathed him. So the president chose as collector one of Wood's opponents: Augustus Schell, a man with small, round glasses, a professorial air, and swarms of greasy hair that dripped down the sides of his otherwise bald head. An even-tempered native of Rhinebeck, New York—and brother of stockbroker Richard Schell—he lived a quiet bachelor life as a lawyer in Manhattan. He served as chairman of Tammany Hall and (like the Old Public Functionary himself) valued party loyalty above all else. He had another advantage: the vocal support of his law partner, close friend, and political ally, a newly elected Democratic congressman named Horace F. Clark.15

The fact that Clark was Vanderbilt's son-in-law may have mattered a great deal to Buchanan. Like every president since Polk, he believed that the United States had no greater strategic imperative than securing the Central American transit routes to California. “To the United States these routes are of incalculable importance as a means of communication between their Atlantic and Pacific possessions,” he declared in his first annual message to Congress. A solid Jacksonian, he wished to restore competition with Panama. As he later wrote, reopening the Nicaragua route “is an object the accomplishment of which I have much at heart.”16

As Walker's downfall played out in the siege of Rivas, a serious question arose: Who owned the transit rights—the transit steamboats and property, and even the geographical route? Costa Rica and Nicaragua both claimed the San Juan River, but after the war Costa Rica remained in possession of it, along with the steamers Spencer had seized. Vanderbilt's final struggle to reopen the transit would center on this simple but weighty question of ownership.

He even had to fight for the Accessory Transit property within the United States. As a major creditor of the bankrupt company, he forced the sale of its steamships to himself and his family, including son-in-law Daniel Torrance and son Billy, who remained a farmer on Staten Island. Vanderbilt was accused of stripping the corporation of its assets, but he argued that he was pursuing the stockholders' interests; if other creditors forced the sale of the ships at auction, they would be unavailable to restart the line. At the annual meeting on May 5, 1857, he assured the stockholders “of his design to re-establish the company and save the property,” the New York Herald reported. “He expressed a confident belief that everything would work out in the most satisfactory way, and advised that no one should part with a share of stock.”17

In his fight for the transit route and property in Nicaragua, Vanderbilt faced two opponents, one old, one new. The new adversary was an Englishman named W. R. C. Webster. Webster had met the talkative Spencer in Costa Rica, and drew out of him the details of his mission with the skill of a practiced confidence artist. Webster then passed himself off as Vanderbilt's agent. Vanderbilt repudiated his every act, but Webster fooled President Mora, convincing him of the riches the transit could bring.

On May 6, Vanderbilt sent Spencer back to Central America with written orders. “You will proceed to Nicaragua, and to Costa Rica, if necessary, in the name and behalf of the Accessory Transit Company,” he wrote, “and… take possession of the steamboats and all other property.” When Spencer met Mora in San José on June 5, the president refused to cooperate. “He thought it was better that said steamers and other properties should remain in the possession of the Costa Rican Government until they could consummate some arrangement with the… company in relation to the Transit,” Spencer reported.18 Once again, Vanderbilt had been betrayed. Faced with the staggering expense of the war, Mora had been swayed by Webster's talk of Yankee gold into holding the steamboats and transit route hostage.

Vanderbilt's other adversary would prove even more troublesome. He was Joseph White, the one consistent villain in the Nicaragua tale. Every time Vanderbilt drove him out, he found a way back to preen and pronounce with consummate arrogance. As the New York Times sarcastically wrote, “Great is the Transit Company, and White is its prophet!”19 Now that he was truly locked out of Accessory Transit, he revived the dormant American Atlantic & Pacific Canal Company, drawing in the well-respected Henry G. Stebbins (a past and future president of the New York stock exchange) to serve as financier and president. Then he negotiated for a transit grant with Antonio Yrisarri,* newly designated as Nicaragua's minister to the United States. On June 19, they agreed to a contract; Yrisarri, it was rumored, received a large gift of stock in return. The document went off to Nicaragua for ratification.20

On one side, Vanderbilt was pressed by President Buchanan to reopen the Nicaragua route; on the other, he was obstructed by the conniving of confidence men and Central American authorities. Still the Commodore believed he would win out. What he did not count on was the most unpredictable factor of all: William Walker. For all the strategic interests of the United States and isthmian republics, for all the calculations of Vanderbilt and his enemies, Walker's megalomania would rule the day.

THE WAR VANDERBILT WAGED in Nicaragua made him feared on Wall Street, but did not garner him esteem. The merchants of New York were a provincial group in their own way; despite their sway over the national economy, they knew and respected best those businesses located in Manhattan, amid their homes and offices. In early 1857, the Commodore attended to two vast operations rooted in New York, operations that reflected his rising status and would raise it still higher.

First was his transatlantic line. He had laid up his European steamships for the winter, when weather was especially rough and passengers few. But his competitors began to disappear as well. Collins withdrew his company's steamships for April, claiming that the reduced subsidy of $19,000 per month to carry the mail to Liverpool was insufficient. And the Ocean Steam Navigation Company, the mail line to Bremen, trembled on the brink of failure under the Commodore's pressure.21

He prepared to start the year's operations with his enormous, luxurious Vanderbilt. On April 27, he threw the ship open to the public, and it “was thronged throughout the day by ladies and gentlemen,” according to the New York Times. On May 5, the great five-deck sidewheeler departed on its maiden voyage, carrying $445,000 in gold and 212 passengers, including Sophia Vanderbilt on her way to Paris. The Vanderbilt reached England in the fastest first crossing of any ship to date. “While the new steam frigate Niagara is eighteen days crawling from New-York to Liverpool, the new passenger steamer Vanderbilt skims over in nine,” said the Albany Evening Journal. “The Niagara is the ‘crack sailer of the Navy!’”22

“The verdict from all competent judges is, that the Vanderbilt is bound to win the prize of Atlantic ocean popularity,” the Hartford Courant reported. The London Times wrote, “Great interest was excited in commercial circles on account of the size and power of this vessel, and the rapid passage she recently made from New York.… She is in many respects the finest steamship we have ever seen.”23 It regularly beat its fastest rivals, Collins's Atlantic and the Cunard steamship Persia. After its reputation for speed and luxury had been established, Vanderbilt slashed fares—and made a point of departing on the same day as the Collins Line. When the Le Havre and Bremen postal contract expired on June 1, Vanderbilt agreed to carry the continental mail for the postage alone. The Ocean Steam Navigation Company soon went bankrupt. As for the Collins Line, “The result is a very serious curtailment,” the New York Times concluded, “and unless their ships also reduce the price of passage it must inevitably be broken down.”24

When the Vanderbilt made its maiden voyage, the Commodore did not accompany his wife to Europe. He remained behind to look after his other operation of 1857, involving a venerable project of New York's mercantile elite: the New York & Harlem Railroad, organized in 1831 as the city's first railway. As workmen had extended the tracks up Fourth Avenue, across the Harlem River, into Putnam County and beyond, its directors had positioned the line inland from the Hudson River to avoid competition with steamboats. Unfortunately, the major towns between New York and Albany all lined the river, so the Harlem (as the railroad was called) had had difficulty attracting enough business to pay for its expansion. Finally, in 1852, it had connected to the Western Railroad, which provided access to through traffic from Albany and western New York. It also profited from a connection to the New York & New Haven, made in 1848, which allowed trains to run between Boston and New York at last. But heavy construction debts burdened the line.25

Fraud pulled together the troubled Harlem and the Commodore—the great fraud of Robert Schuyler in 1854. Schuyler's deep involvement in the railroad (his brother George served as its president until Robert's scandal bankrupted them both) enmeshed Vanderbilt in a pair of bitter disputes with it. First, there was a battle over the dividends owed on the one thousand shares of stock assigned to him by Schuyler. In October 1854, he had sued the railroad to force it to pay; on January 20, 1857, a jury found in his favor.26 Second, there was an ongoing fight over a block of $1 million worth of the Harlem's first-mortgage bonds. Vanderbilt had pledged to buy them from the Schuylers in 1854, paying $100,000 as an installment; after the Schuylers went bankrupt the railroad had declined to refund the down payment, leading to an intractable dispute.27

Make no mistake: the money mattered to Vanderbilt. But the railroad's refusal to honor the acts of its agent struck at the heart of his commercial code. Over this matter, he did not sue; rather, he secured enough stockholders' votes and proxies to win election to the board of directors on May 19, 1857, along with son-in-law Horace Clark and Daniel Drew. Now he had a presence within the company—at a moment when it was highly vulnerable. In early 1857, the money market spasmed, and the company's floating debt (short-term loans, unstructured into bonds, that cost a high rate of interest) threatened to bring the corporation down.28

The railroad's precarious position made the other directors reluctant to meet Vanderbilt's demand—and also desperate for his help. Vanderbilt, too, was in a delicate position: he wanted his money back, but to get it he had to help restore the line to profitability. So the Commodore embarked on a subtle strategy of simultaneously frightening and sustaining the company. On June 15, he stood before the board and explained “the nature and circumstances of his claim,” as recorded in the minutes, “after which he and Mr. Clark withdrew.” On June 24, he tendered his resignation, terrifying his fellow directors. Yet he also arranged for Clark and Drew to make a large short-term loan to the line. Clark was not wealthy enough to have done so himself; he operated as a false front, disguising Vanderbilt's support for the company29

The hidden carrot and very visible stick worked. The board refused to accept his resignation; instead, it appointed a committee to settle with him—and secure his aid in rescuing the road. A decade later, Vanderbilt recalled how president Allan Campbell told him that the line would go bankrupt; with its assets sold off, his claim might be paid at last. “No,” he replied, “I will help you out and lend you what money you want, and am willing to do anything else than that. There will be a time, before a great many years, when this road's whole property will be worth par and it will be a stigma upon the man who will take this course [of bankrupting the company], and I won't take it.”30

How intricately his financial calculations interwove with his sense of honor: he foresaw a great future for the benighted railroad, a time when its stock would rise on the exchange to its par value; he was willing to let the situation mature until he could profit from its strengths. Yet he also wanted the credit—and resulting social prestige—for rescuing an enterprise so closely identified with the ambitions of New York's elite.

Daniel Drew said he would join Vanderbilt in endorsing the railroad's notes to see it through the crisis. “We will do it for two and a half percent [commission],” Drew said. “Mr. Drew,” the Commodore loftily replied, “I won't do it for two and a half percent! I will do it with you for one-half percent.” Drew agreed. As Vanderbilt recalled, the railroad “made the bargain, and they drew up, and drew up, and kept drawing and coming with things to sign—notes, if you please, and acceptances—until we got some [seven] hundred thousand dollars.”31

Thus the Commodore forced the Harlem to admit that he was right, even as he saved it from destruction. Within ten weeks, the railroad paid back his $100,000 with interest.32 The line would face further crises in the months to come, but Vanderbilt would be there to meet them. Once in Harlem, he would never leave.

FIVE POINTS WOULD HAVE its say about William Walker. Despite the deception of his recruiters in New York, despite the scores who died of disease and blundering tactics in his army in Nicaragua, he remained the greatest purveyor of freelance violence of all, and a hero in Five Points. So when Walker arrived at Pier No. 1 on the North River on June 16, a mass of laborers and rowdies cheered him. They followed his carriage to City Hall Park, where he addressed a crowd of thousands.33

Walker's arrival troubled Vanderbilt, who feared that he was preparing a fresh invasion of Nicaragua. Shortly afterward the Commodore went to Washington to ask Buchanan if he would prevent it. Publicly the president made no comment; he wished to avoid antagonizing the South, which strongly supported the filibuster, especially after Walker had reinstituted slavery in Nicaragua (an act that did not survive his rule). In private, Buchanan seethed. “That man has done more injury to the commercial & political interests of the United States,” he wrote, “than any man living.” He said as much to Vanderbilt. If Walker moved he would be “crushed out.”34

Less reassuring was Buchanan's refusal to commit to the cause of the Accessory Transit Company. Though the president was eager to reopen the Nicaragua route, he didn't particularly care who did it, which meant that Vanderbilt had to race to defeat White's maturing schemes. The Commodore corresponded with General José María Cañas, who commanded Costa Rica's troops on the San Juan River, in an attempt to regain Accessory Transit's steamboats. (Cañas hinted that he could carve out a new republic for the company along the transit route, but Vanderbilt thought that was going a bit too far.) He asked Goicouria to write to Nicaragua's new government to persuade them that White could not be trusted. He took Horace Clark on a visit to the White House in an attempt to convince Buchanan to refuse recognition of Yrisarri—White's coconspirator—as Nicaragua's minister. Finally he sent Daniel Allen to Nicaragua as his personal representative. Above all else, Vanderbilt had to secure the property and transit rights before Walker launched a second expedition.35

He failed. On November 25, Walker landed with 270 men on Punta Arenas.36 All calculations regarding the transit route immediately became obsolete.

IN THE MID-1850S, George Templeton Strong contemplated the metropolis of New York—from Alexander T. Stewart's gleaming marble department store at Broadway and Chambers to the squalor of Five Points to the domed Crystal Palace up on Forty-second Street—and marveled about it all in his diary. “There is poetry enough latent in the South Street merchant and the Wall Street financier,” he wrote;

in Stewart's snobby clerk chattering over ribbons and laces; in the omnibus driver that conveys them all from the day's work to the night's relaxation and repose; in the brutified denizen of the Points and the Hook; in the sumptuous star courtesan of Mercer Street thinking sadly of her village home; in the Fifth Avenue ballroom; in the Grace Church contrast of eternal vanity and new bonnets.37

This was the New York that Vanderbilt had helped to create: commercial, mobile, and individualistic—yet increasingly polarized into rich and poor. The age of unspecialized merchants and skilled artisans began to fade as mills, factories, banks, and railroads rose in their place. Most Americans still worked on their own farms, in their own shops, or for small partnerships or personal businesses, but New York (and New England) presaged a future of industrialization and incorporation, of stockholders, managers, and wage workers. Unquestionably the new economy worked wonders, creating a highly productive, exceedingly wealthy society; but in 1857 the great self-directed orchestra of New York threatened to break apart into cacophony and chaos.

In the middle of June, New York's policemen divided into two camps: the Metropolitan Police, organized by the Republican-controlled state legislature, and the Municipal Police, under the control of Mayor Wood. Skirmishes broke out over station houses; then an all-out battle erupted on the steps of the city hall as the largely Anglo-American Metropolitans tried to fight their way through a phalanx of largely Irish Municipals in order to arrest the mayor. On July 4 and again on the 8th, the conflict drew in the city's leading gangs, the Irish Dead Rabbits and the nativist Bowery Boys, the first fighting for the Municipals, the latter for the Metropolitans. Finally the state militia marched into the city to suppress what appeared to be an insurrection.38

Scarcely had this mayhem died away than the nation fell into the greatest financial crisis in twenty years—the Panic of 1857. In retrospect, the warnings of a collapse look all too clear. There was railroad overexpansion: of the twenty thousand miles of line built in the 1850s (tripling the total length of track), 2,500 were constructed in 1857 alone. There was the end of the Crimean War: Russian wheat now flooded the international market, hurting American exports. There was France's need for money: French banks borrowed from those in England, which raised English interest rates, which led British investors to sell off their American securities and invest at home, which undercut stock prices in the United States. And there was the heady effect of nearly nine years of California gold, which had fed speculation and inflated credit. Since the start of the gold rush, the number of banks in America had doubled, to more than 1,500. The monetary expansion reached a peak in early August. “And then there came on a sharp money market,” Vanderbilt recalled, “and everything broke down.”39

On August 24, the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company announced that it could no longer pay its bills. “The high credit enjoyed by that concern, and the fact that its solvency had hardly been questioned, made the failure a matter of… importance,” the New York Herald reported. It “opened the first great seal of the revulsion.” Constantly borrowing and lending in New York's intricate web of banks and investment houses, it ripped the financial lattice apart when it failed.40

On September 2, Vanderbilt welcomed his wife back from Europe. It would be the only happy event for many weeks to come, as banks and merchants collapsed. On the 18th, word spread through the city that the U.S. Mail steamship Central America (formerly the George Law) had sunk in a storm on its return from Panama. It was a terrible blow for Vanderbilt's troubled friend and ally Marshall Roberts, who was president of the corporation; already the North River Bank, of which Roberts owned half the stock, had failed and gone into liquidation. Even worse, the Central America carried down $1.6 million in gold from California, desperately needed in New York's constricted money market. In the afternoon, Vanderbilt went in person to the U.S. Mail office and asked for the details of the disaster. “He expressed his deep sympathy for the passengers on the ill-fated steamer,” the New York Times reported, “and commiserated with the Company [i.e., Roberts] for the heavy pecuniary loss entailed upon them by her loss.”41

“All confidence is lost, for the present, in the solvency of our merchant princes—and with good reason,” Strong wrote in his diary on September 27. “It is probable that every last one of them has been operating and gambling in stocks and railroad bonds.” Perhaps because he was a Wall Street lawyer, the financial catastrophe brought out the poet in his soul. “O Posterity, Posterity you can't think how bothered, bedeviled, careworn, and weary were your enlightened ancestors in their counting-rooms and offices and bank parlors during these bright days of September, A.D. 1857,” he wrote, two days later.

They are fighting hard for a grand, ugly house in the Fifth Avenue; for the gold and damask sofas and curtains that are ever shrouded in dingy coverings, save on the one night of every third year when they are unveiled to adorn the social martyrdom of five hundred perspiring friends. They are agonizing with unavailable securities, and pleading vainly for discount with stony-hearted directors and inflexible cashiers, lest they forfeit the privilege of inviting Joe Kernochan and Dan Fearing [two of the most prestigious leaders of elite society] to gorge and prose and stupefy over the barbaric splendors of an unwholesome dinner; that they may still yawn through the Trovatore in their own opera boxes; that they may be plagued with their own carriage horses and swindled by their own coachman instead of hiring a comfortable hack when they want a ride.

The Times echoed Strong's thoughts—in fact, it singled out Vanderbilt as a prime exemplar of what had brought the economy so low. “Commodore Vanderbilt, in his steam-yacht excursion, was just a type of the general Yankee who spends his money liberally and is as magnificent as his means will allow, and sometimes a good deal more so. That this extravagance can be carried much too far… a great many people have learned from their own experience.”42

Vanderbilt survived the great disaster with no sign of suffering. He must have felt some pain, for he could not levitate entirely above the great river of credit that carried the economy along. Yet it appears that he possessed deep cash reserves, and never failed to pay a bill or debt even in the worst of the storm. In early 1858, when the Mercantile Agency reported on the Allaire Works—a corporation that operated virtually as an extension of Vanderbilt's personal business—it observed, “They are [said] to be in [good] condition & to [have paid] all thro the panic. Have done & are [doing] a [good] bus. & are sold to freely.” No doubt all of his other agents, clerks, and companies also paid debts on time and in full.43

As the panic purged the city, Vanderbilt went to work each day as usual, down to his office on Bowling Green, behind the ticket desk to his private chamber in the rear, where he put on his reading glasses and reviewed letters and invoices and worried the cigar he kept clamped between his teeth. Sometime in September, Allan Campbell, the Harlem's president, came in to see him. The railroad could not pay its bills. Its own debtors refused to pay it, and its creditors would only take its acceptances (its corporate promissory notes) at the ruinous rate of 5 percent interest per month. “Commodore,” he pleaded, “how will we get along?”44

At the time, the railroad had large short-term notes coming due, endorsed by Daniel Drew. With the panic at full force, Drew refused to endorse a renewal of the notes. If he didn't sign, the creditors would refuse to extend the time for repayment. “He won't?” Vanderbilt asked Campbell. The railroad president said no. “He will!” the Commodore declared. “Go away, and mind your business, and I will send you the bonds.”

Twelve years later, Vanderbilt, with great relish, told a committee of the state legislature the story of what happened next. First, the board of directors put him in charge of managing the railroad's financial crisis.45 Then he called Drew in for a meeting, one that resulted in the Harlem's salvation—and that exposed the stark difference in temperament between these longtime partners and friends.

“I sent for Drew and he came to the office,” he recalled, “and I was signing these acceptances… and he says, ‘Commodore!’”

“Mr. Drew,” Vanderbilt replied, “how are you? Sit down there and sign these acceptances.” Drew was to be the primary endorser, Vanderbilt the secondary.

“Not one of 'em! Not one of 'em!”

“You will sign them all!” Vanderbilt insisted.

“Not one of them!” Drew proclaimed. “Are you crazy?”

“And [he] went on in that kind of strain, you know,” Vanderbilt recalled, “and I says, ‘No, I am not crazy, Mr. Drew!’”

“My God!” said the distraught Drew. “What are you going to do?”

“I am going to sign all these things, and you are too.”

“Where is the money to come from to pay it?”

“You and I will pay, if nobody else will,” Vanderbilt said. “Didn't you agree to? You have got one-half percent on the $400,000 that you have already signed. You have had that money, hain't you?”

“Yes,” Drew replied.

“I am going to do it, if it takes the coat off my back,” Vanderbilt said. “I am going to live up to it.” It was a moment that said everything about the Commodore at this stage of his life. His strict code of honor in business mattered more to him now than ever as he attained eminence among New York's merchants. He had promised to support the Harlem's credit, and so he would—and he would browbeat Drew into doing the same. As for Drew, he was a curious fellow: bold when he had every advantage, timid at all other times, he was the sort of financier who tried to run ahead of the changing wind rather than fight it. “I worked him up so that he signed them,” Vanderbilt recalled. “The old fellow was almost crying all the while.”

“Mr. Drew,” Vanderbilt said, when they were done, “you are one of the best receivers I ever knew, but about as bad a payer as I ever knew.” In return for Drew's half-percent commission, he offered to indemnify Drew completely and take on himself all responsibility for paying, should the railroad fail. Drew agreed. “He did not dare cheat me!” Vanderbilt recalled.46

The combined names of Drew and Vanderbilt on the company's notes reassured its nervous creditors. The Commodore began to work on a plan to restructure the large floating debt of about $750,000, to allow the Harlem to put its finances in order, and bought a majority of $1 million in third-mortgage bonds (at a 50 percent discount). On February 10, 1858, the directors would pass a resolution, declaring “that the thanks of the Board are due and are hereby tendered to Cornelius Vanderbilt Esq. for the liberal aid afforded by him in the disposition of the new loans of the company”47

Vanderbilt carried the Harlem through the Panic of 1857 with the liquid power of his wealth, his formidable reputation, and his ability to coerce Drew. But he was a man of foresight. Most likely he had no specific plans in mind, but he could sense that the time was coming when he would make a great deal more out of the railroad than one-half of 1 percent.

“THANKSGIVING,” a columnist for Harper's Weekly exclaimed on November 21, 1857. “The very word sounds like a blessing. The whole week seems to be covered with plums, and the smell of roast turkey and pumpkin pie. The boys have visions of snow and sliding, or coasting. The parents open their homes and hearts to the long absent. Business stops suddenly on a weekday.” It was a traditional holiday, not a legal one, having spread across the country from New England in the 1820s and ′30s. In hard-pressed New York, it offered a welcome respite from the Panic.48

This week, like most weeks, Vanderbilt went to his two-story brown-stone stables at 21 and 23 West Fourth Street, at the rear of the block occupied by his double-wide mansion. Approached from Fourth Street, there was a door to the harness room on the right, and on the left a large arched carriage entrance, which led into a cobblestone passage equipped with hydrants for washing the horses and carriages. Passing through, he would enter an enormous room—a “hippodrome,” as one newspaper called it—filling the building and rising to the roof, lit by sunshine from the great skylights above. Carriages, wagons, and sleighs were parked in a group in the center; young boys walked the horses around an oblong track on the outside of the room, on sawdust strewn across the cobblestones. Then the Commodore would descend a gradual winding stairway, designed with the horses in mind, to the well-ventilated stalls below, where his prize trotters were brushed and fed.49

This week, like most weeks, Vanderbilt ordered a pair of his fastest horses harnessed to a light, open-air racing rig, then climbed aboard, took the reins in hand, and smartly whipped his team down the cobblestone passage into West Fourth Street. A left turn, then another left onto Broadway, and uptown he went, past aristocratic Grace Church, past Union Square, out of the city to where Broadway became Bloomingdale Road. There “sporting men” liked to challenge each other amid the trees and pastures of upper Manhattan. On this day, as usual, they gathered at Jones's tavern, hoping to set up a race, when they saw Vanderbilt drive up behind his famously swift horses.

“Knowing, as all the sporting men do, that Commodore Vanderbilt likes a good brush, it is a very widespread ambition to pass him on the road,” Harper's Weekly remarked. “But this is not very easily done.” On this occasion, as so often, Vanderbilt came with his friend and broker Frank Work, who rattled alongside in his own rig. They pulled up in front of the tavern, but “everybody seemed to hold back. No one cared to lead off.” Disappointed, the Commodore and Work whipped their horses onto the road and headed back toward the city.

Immediately ten to fifteen men grabbed their horses' reins and set out after them, hoping to pass them. “If there wasn't some trotting done at that time I never did see any,” the correspondent wrote. “There was only one drawback—there were too many in the race, they kept too closely together, and the road was not wide enough.” With dozens of horses sprinting down the lane, the spinning wheels cracked against each other, and three wagons were smashed to pieces, “and all tumbled together. The Commodore came out all right.” Municipal policemen rushed to the scene from Mayor Wood's nearby home, but no one was hurt.50

In the year ahead, Vanderbilt would need all his coolness, dexterity, and speed in the race for the Nicaragua transit. Walker's landing at Greytown disrupted everything. Not that he remained for long: Commodore Hiram Paulding of the U.S. Navy rushed to the scene and forced Walker to surrender on December 8. Paulding's action caused outrage among Walker's Southern supporters; debate over whether to censure or congratulate Paulding tied up the Senate for weeks.51

Popular or not, Walker doomed all attempts to reopen the transit route with his latest foray. Nicaragua and Costa Rica abruptly settled their differences in order to present a united front against the filibusters. Fear of North Americans in general pervaded Nicaragua's national consciousness. “There is in all this country a deep-seated terror,” wrote the U.S. minister, Mirabeau B. Lamar, “that, when the Americans are admitted into it, the natives will be thrust aside—their nationality lost—their religion destroyed—and the common classes be converted into hewers of wood and drawers of water.” The most that Daniel Allen could do upon his arrival there was to file a protest over Yrisarri's contract with White's company. Not that he needed to: there was little danger that the Nicaraguans would open their borders ever again.52

As usual, it was White's bluster, not his deeds, that plagued Vanderbilt. White loudly proclamed that his new line would start up on February 20, 1858, which led Pacific Mail to stop paying its monthly subsidy to Vanderbilt (who now pocketed the money, since he had taken possession of the steamships at issue). The Commodore, knowing that White was penniless, viewed this as a breach of their noncompetition agreement. In retaliation, he announced an opposition line via Panama, in partnership with none other than Cornelius K. Garrison. He made just one voyage before Pacific Mail surrendered, raising its payment from $40,000 to $56,000 per month. It could afford the increase: it paid 30 percent dividends in 1857 (that is, $30 per share), even while paying off Vanderbilt. Monopolies were lucrative.53

Vanderbilt's short-lived line was an early sign of a comprehensive reconciliation that he reached with Morgan and Garrison. The deal, which they finalized in April, required Vanderbilt to buy Morgan's share in Garrison's steamers on the Pacific, the Orizaba and the Sierra Nevada, and to buy a very large new steamship that Morgan was building in New York, the Ocean Queen. Morgan purchased Vanderbilt's Gulf Coast line, and he and Garrison promised to never again compete in the California trade. On April 20, Garrison wrote to Joseph Scott at Punta Arenas, ordering him to transfer all transit property to Vanderbilt's control. It seems that once Morgan and Garrison admitted defeat, the Commodore forgave their treachery. He even saved Garrison from the ongoing lawsuit that Accessory Transit had filed against him. The two sides agreed to William K. Thorn, Vanderbilt's son-in-law, as referee in the case. In September, Thorn would rule that Garrison owed nothing.54

Truly April was the weirdest month. On the 15th, the Commodore welcomed to his office Joseph White. A fortune had passed through White's hands since he first had met Vanderbilt. “What he has made has been within the past 6 yrs.,” the Mercantile Agency reported at the end of 1853. “Was not [worth] much when he came here [to New York].” At his height, he had accumulated as much as $200,000, purchased a fine house on Madison Square for $40,000, bought the farm of novelist James Fenimore Cooper, kept a private box at the opera house, and rode “in a handsome carriage.” But all that had come to an end. Ruined in the fall of Accessory Transit, he held on to the hope that he could convert the canal company's shaky transit contract with Yrisarri into a new pile. In the meantime, he had come to the end of all his resources. And so he asked his sworn enemy for a ninety-day loan of perhaps $10,000—offering as collateral twenty-five shares of the canal company, ostensibly worth $1,000 each. In all likelihood, White could find no one else with money to lend during the ongoing panic.55

Vanderbilt agreed. He certainly doubted that White would be able to repay him. And he couldn't have placed much value on the canal shares. But by lending the money he obtained inside information on White's finances and the state of the company. Perhaps he also took satisfaction in holding the debt over someone who had exuded arrogance for so long.

Another enemy succumbed in April as well. The Collins Line finally collapsed and sold off its last steamers—the Atlantic, the Baltic, and the Adriatic (larger than any ship except the newly launched English leviathan, Great Eastern). The New York Timesblamed Vanderbilt for “driving too sharp a competition.” That brought an anonymous friend to his defense. “I know him well, and am well satisfied that he asks the sympathy of no nation and of no man, beyond that to which his merit may justly entitle him,” the advocate wrote. “I have always found him bold, energetic, upright, and honorable.”56

Perhaps he was—but he could never claim to be omnipotent. His grand Nicaragua venture, the single most original enterprise of his long career, slipped irretrievably beyond his grasp. First, he lost control of the Accessory Transit Company. A lawsuit by the Pennsylvania Coal Company, one of many unpaid creditors, resulted in the appointment of a receiver, David Colden Murray, on May 31. Murray prepared to sue the Commodore over the steamships he had taken from the company, for a total of $261,541.30.57Next, “the inevitable W. R. C. Webster” (as the New York Times called the confidence man) arrived in New York, bearing yet another transit contract that he claimed to have negotiated in Nicaragua on Vanderbilt's behalf. Vanderbilt spurned him, but his claims led the Commodore to make one last grasp for the prize.58

In the middle of June he sent Daniel Allen to Nicaragua with a final proposal and $80,000 in gold. On arriving in Greytown, Allen encountered Joseph Scott, who still guarded the Accessory Transit ruins on Punta Arenas, refusing to let go until he was repaid his advances of years before. Scott was fierce: when one of White's agents had tried to seize a steamboat, he had forced him off. “Webster afterwards attempted to take possession,” Scott recalled. “I prevented him by threatening to shoot him, and he retreated.” He threatened to shoot Allen too, but Allen merely asked for a lift in one of the few functioning steamers. On his arrival at Managua, the new capital, President Tomás Martínez exploded any notion of reopening the transit. Allen returned home with the gold and without a contract.59

PRESIDENT BUCHANAN SENT WORD to Congressman Horace Clark that he would like to see him at the White House. Clark's political senses had been honed in a decade of infighting in New York's treacherous Democratic Party; surely he knew that the president wished to speak to him about Lecompton.

In the political jargon of 1858, “Lecompton” stood for the proposed constitution for Kansas, now petitioning to join the Union as a slave state. It was in the town of Lecompton that a convention of delegates had written the document, which had been submitted to the voters for ratification. The election of delegates had been “rigged,” however, as historian James M. McPherson writes, to ensure a pro-slavery majority; and the referendum on the constitution had seen thousands of illegal pro-slavery ballots. Free-soil voters (who were a majority) had boycotted both elections, and Lecompton had passed, against the will of the electorate. Outrage swept the North. Senator Stephen Douglas, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, railed against Lecompton as a rape of democracy. Even Kansas's governor Walker, a Southerner himself, denounced the constitution and its so-called ratification as “a vile fraud.”

President Buchanan chose to make Lecompton a test of party loyalty. Southern Democrats insisted that Kansas be admitted as a slave state, and he believed that the survival of the Union might well depend upon appeasing them. On February 2, 1858, he asked Congress to accept Lecompton and admit Kansas as a slave state.60

Clark loudly opposed him. So he answered the president's call and endured the full weight of Buchanan's displeasure. In his high, thin voice, the president warned “that it would be impossible for Mr. Clark to be reelected if the federal patronage in his District were arrayed against him,” it was later reported. Clark replied that he “was not a professional politician; that he was an independent man, not hoping for anything from place or patronage; and that therefore, if his Excellency wished to obtain his support, he… must use arguments more pertinent to the merits of the measure.”61

Clark's principled stand made him one of a handful of influential “antiLecompton Democrats” who blocked Kansas's admission as a slave state. But his claim to care nothing for patronage did not ring true. He stood at the center of an interwoven lattice of business and politics that trembled with every decision in Washington. Clark's rival in New York's Democratic Party, Congressman Daniel E. Sickles, wrote to Buchanan that Vanderbilt—in defiance of the president's wishes—wanted the Nicaragua transit to remain closed in order to retain the subsidy paid by Pacific Mail. “This interest is represented by his son-in-law H. F. Clark, one of my colleagues,” he added.62

Clark's defiance also compromised his close friend and ally, Collector of the Port Augustus Schell. Schell steadily worked his way into Vanderbilt's circle (which already included his brother Richard), and was seen socializing with the Commodore at Saratoga Springs. The collector had allowed Clark to name many of the officers at the Custom House, which gave him a valuable patronage network. In the storm over Lecompton, though, Schell had to save himself from Buchanan's wrath, which required “the sacrifice of Horace F. Clark and his numerous appointees in the Custom House,” the Times reported.63

Clark's alienation from the administration gravely complicated his father-in-law's life. Until this dispute, his political position and connections had been immensely useful to the Commodore. Vanderbilt's vast interests constantly intersected government affairs; he needed friendly relations with policy makers, but he also tried to remain above partisan politics. He took no part, for example, in Fernando Wood's fall from power in 1857, when Tammany Hall rejected him as a gang-connected rabble-rouser and replaced him with Daniel F. Tiemann. Yet Vanderbilt also called on the aid of the police in August 1858 to bring nonunion men onto his steamships.64

As if Vanderbilt's relationship with government were not delicate enough, his brother Jacob dragged him indirectly into a gruesome incident known as the Quarantine War. For years, the people of Staten Island had resented the presence of a hospital, near Vanderbilt's Landing, where sick immigrants were quarantined. In January, William H. Vanderbilt had served on a committee that petitioned for the Quarantine's removal. An outbreak of yellow fever on the island proved to be the final provocation. On the nights of September 1 and 2, a large body of Staten Island's most distinguished citizens—led by Jacob Vanderbilt, among others—burned the hospital to the ground. Jacob was arrested, and William and his father came to the jail to bail him out. Augustus Schell secured the services of one hundred U.S. Marines to stand guard on the island; Governor John A. King declared Richmond County to be in a state of insurrection, and dispatched militia to the scene. But no aspersions were cast on the Commodore; he was far too important a businessman for politicians to slight. When the governor began to look for a new location for the Quarantine, he asked for Vanderbilt's advice.65

For all his efforts, Buchanan would not be rid of Clark. Clark won reelection in 1858 as an independent, anti-Lecompton Democrat.66 In time, the president would realize that he could not afford a grudge against Clark's father-in-law—not when the Commodore was needed to protect the strategic interests of the United States.

“TEN YEARS AGO,” the New York Herald asked in 1859, “who would have said that San Francisco, when but seven years old, would on the score of tonnage rank as the fourth city of this Union?” With a population of nearly 57,000, San Francisco had grown into a true metropolis, thanks to the gold that poured out of California's mountains to the value of tens of millions of dollars each year. Loaded onto steamers at the city's piers, the precious metal flowed down to Panama and up to Manhattan, where it helped power the American economy and reinforce New York's dominance over the financial nation.

Vanderbilt had done much to build up both New York and San Francisco, but he had never attained the lucrative postal contract to California. That contract finally would expire on September 30, 1859. On April 7, Postmaster General John Holt announced that he would accept bids for a new, temporary contract, lasting only nine months. The federal subsidy was in play again at last.67

Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, he was barred from the bidding for it by his noncompetition agreement with Pacific Mail and U.S. Mail, which paid him $56,000 per month to keep his ships at their moorings. But the siren call of Nicaragua obsessed both President Buchanan and Joseph White, and that would force Vanderbilt to enter the business for the last time.

After all his calumnies and lies, White had finally started his Nicaragua line under the Yrisarri contract. On November 6, 1858, he had dispatched a creaking old steamship from New York for Greytown. Vanderbilt knew that it was just another fraud. For one thing, White was broke; he had never repaid Vanderbilt's loan, and he would never pay for the lease of the ship. For another, the Nicaraguans would never reopen the transit as long as Walker remained free to plot a fresh invasion. Most of all, they had learned to detest White. President Martínez told Alexander Dimitry, the latest U.S. minister, “that the government could not entertain any proposition from the ‘White… company’” Dimitry reported “that Nicaragua had been hum bugueado—the word is his—humbugged by them.” Nothing could say more about the Nicaraguans' experience with White than their adoption of the slang verb “humbug”—to swindle. When his steamship arrived, they refused to let the passengers land.68

But Pacific Mail saw White's latest gambit as a reason to stop paying $56,000 per month to Vanderbilt. The Commodore disagreed; indeed, the dispute went to arbitration, resulting in an award to Vanderbilt of $30,000. But this time there would be no renewal of the subsidy. Rather, in March 1859, Vanderbilt launched his final war for the steamship traffic to California. In partnership with Cornelius Garrison, he dispatched the Northern Light for Aspinwall and readied the ships not otherwise occupied on the line to Europe: the North Star, the Daniel Webster, the Uncle Sam, the Orizaba, the Sierra Nevada, and the Cortez. He also ordered the first iron steamship ever built in the United States, the fittingly named Champion. The London Times saw “every prospect of the contest, owing to the wealth and tenacity of Mr. Vanderbilt, being carried to a most damaging extent.” This war would not end until one side accepted the other's terms for good.69

By midsummer Vanderbilt's California line was operating at full capacity Together with Marshall Roberts, Moses Taylor, sons-in-law James Cross and Daniel Allen, and his old enemy Charles Morgan, he incorporated the Atlantic & Pacific Steamship Company to conduct the business. The Panama Railroad happily sold tickets to his passengers, but it joined with Pacific Mail to form the North Atlantic Steamship Company to run against him on the Atlantic. Both sides slashed fares; despite a dramatic rise in the number of passengers, both sides lost money. But Vanderbilt lived up to his reputation for controlling costs, economizing in everything from coal consumption to amenities for the passengers. He lost less.70

White's gambit, then, drove Vanderbilt back into the California steam ship trade just in time to compete for the postal contract. His beleaguered friend Roberts planned to shut down U.S. Mail upon the expiration of the old contract, so the Commodore put in his own bid—though he found himself at a disadvantage. With Nicaragua closed, his only means of crossing the isthmus was the Panama Railroad, but it shared many stockholders and directors with Pacific Mail and the railroad's directors refused to speak to him. Instead the railroad and Pacific Mail made a joint bid of their own.

In the end, the decisive factor in awarding this rich prize was Buchanan's intense desire to break the Panama monopoly. On May 9, to everyone's surprise, Postmaster General Holt gave the contract to Daniel H. Johnson, primarily because he claimed to possess a transit grant from Nicaragua. But who was Johnson? He owned no steamers and had no experience in shipping. And how did he get this supposed grant?

Vanderbilt quickly learned that Johnson was a dummy—the last dummy in the dummy-filled history of the California mail—of Joseph White. The Commodore must have found White's maniacal persistence infuriating; on a human level, though, it was pathetic. Nicaragua had given White his only real taste of wealth and importance. In a meteoric flash of success, he had enjoyed the confidence of ambassadors, cabinet secretaries, and presidents as he indulged in luxury, only to fall into irrelevance, poverty and disrepute. And so he came back to Nicaragua again and again, long past the point of plausibility. For this latest ploy he formed a new company, the U.S. & Central America Transit, hoping that the mail contract (which Johnson duly assigned to him) would give him the credit he needed to obtain ships to restart the transit route, and trusting that his ties to Yrisarri would assuage President Martínez.71

Vanderbilt quietly explained all this to Holt, hoping to convince him that Johnson should not be allowed to flip the contract to White. His words carried great weight with the postmaster general. For one thing, the Commodore already had agreed to carry the mail to Europe, from April to November, for no more compensation than the sea and inland postage. (Not that the business was very lucrative: in June, Vanderbilt offered to sell his Atlantic steamships—the Vanderbilt for $800,000, the Ocean Queen for $500,000, and the Ariel for $300,000.)72 And Vanderbilt enjoyed a direct connection to the White House. He negotiated personally with Buchanan, writing of “my willingness and desire to carry out your views as to opening Nicaragua,” and blaming White for “keeping this much desired route closed.”73

Vanderbilt knew that it would remain closed, of course, but he managed to get a conditional contract: if Johnson could not come up with ships of his own by October 5, then Vanderbilt would carry the mail instead. Encouraged, he bought Garrison's interest in the Pacific steamers for $450,000 and spent another $50,000 repairing them. In September, the Champion steamed to New York from the Delaware River, where it had been built. The great iron sidewheeler measured 1,850 tons and 250 feet in length, and could carry 738 passengers. Vanderbilt claimed that it could be run as cheaply as any other ship afloat. The Pacific Mail directors began to reveal their anxiety by spreading patently false rumors on Wall Street. They claimed to be making a profit, while Vanderbilt lost money, and said they would carry the mail after all on October 5.74

On the fated day, the Post Office loaded the mail onto Vanderbilt's Northern Light. White was left sputtering about “a certain damned old sea pirate” who had taken away the contract “by some hocus pocus.” Vanderbilt would receive $187,500 for his nine months of postal service. And Pacific Mail continued to lose money75

ON DECEMBER 18, 1858, Mrs. Nancy Dobley asked Harper's Weekly “to say a word to the ladies exclusively… [in] reference to the mud—to walking in the mud and slush—to crossing the streets in the mud and slush.… Are we aware, ladies, that we have a habit, in these days, of lifting our skirts very high indeed when we cross the street?” All this flashing of ankles was unseemly. “To watch a well dressed and careful woman wade across Broadway is a favorite occupation of men whose admiration is not flattering.”76 Of course, such extreme concern for modesty in public only masked Americans' sexuality. On October 17, 1859, the New York Herald reported on the prosecution of importers of “indecent stereoscopes” that showed men and women in various states of nudity. “The sale of these articles is immense, and New York bids fair to vie with France in the manufacture of this description of artistic invention.”77

Like those hidden stereoscopes, a vivid, three-dimensional world of passion and appetites certainly played out in Vanderbilt's private, unseen spaces. The inner lives of his wife and daughters in particular remain invisible to us, as hidden as a respectable lady's knees. His girls were wives and mothers now. They often gathered at 10 Washington Place, spending hours in parlors and dining rooms, waited upon by servants. They attended concerts and went to the theater; they visited Saratoga and Staten Island; they talked, they joked, they laughed; but they did not commit their experiences to paper.

What discussions went into the construction of a family vault in the Moravian churchyard on Staten Island in 1857, with its Corinthian columns, marble statue of “Grief,” and a twenty-foot shaft inscribed “VANDERBILT”? Did the women debate the likelihood of secession, should the Republicans win the White House in 1860, or did they gossip about Robert Schuyler and his wife? Did they order a driver to take them through Central Park, now rapidly approaching completion? Did they go out in the “close-quarter carriage,” each costing $1,000 or more, so favored by wealthy women? Or did they prefer an open-air coupé or barouche, recently introduced from France? (“They are made large and luxuriant, as lounging carriages,” the Herald wrote of barouches, “and seem to be all but indispensable in the present style of ladies' dresses.”)78

The carriage was the great recreational institution of New York's rich. Any afternoon would see expensive affairs pulled by fancy horses, carrying William B. Astor, Hamilton Fish, Watts Sherman, or even Daniel Drew through “the pleasant drives of the Central Park,” as the Heraldremarked on December 5, 1859. Vanderbilt, of course, was one of the “fast men” who held his own reins and hungered for speed. For decades, harness racing had been the plebeian alternative to the aristocratic sport of Thoroughbreds; but Vanderbilt led a rising elite, lacking any social pedigree, that championed trotters in both formal races at dedicated tracks and informal contests on the road. To garner respectability for the sport, he helped organize the Elm Park Pleasure Ground Association, a club “of many of the best people in the city,” to race on or near Bloomingdale Road above Ninetieth Street. Four hundred men belonged, with a combined investment of nearly $i million in horseflesh.

The Commodore's great rival was Robert Bonner, editor of the Ledger. He rarely beat the skillful Bonner—but it was Vanderbilt who drew the admiration of onlookers. “What fine looking man is that,” the Herald rhetorically asked,

with a segar in his mouth, who is passing all those roadsters on the right? He dashes past everybody but Bonner. His bays must be well trained; he handles the ribbons as though he was used to it. That gentleman with a white cravat on, you mean? Yes, sir. That is Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who has four of the best horses that appear on the road, every one of them exceedingly fast. He never gives up to anyone but Bonner; is always in good spirits, and takes great comfort in his $10,000 worth of horse flesh; is one of the coolest drivers on the road.79

August Belmont and William Aspinwall created a stir in 1859 by opening the first private art galleries New York had ever seen—large, specially designed spaces for paintings by Europe's old masters, including Velázquez and van Dyck. By contrast, Vanderbilt's only notable work of art was a bust of himself.80

But there was another New York that arose in the 1850s—the New York of tenements and day-to-day earnings, of pushcarts and workshops and strikes and police batons. In 1857, Harper's looked back fifty years and remarked, “What was then a decent and orderly town of moderate size has been converted into a huge semi-barbarous metropolis—one half as luxurious and artistic as Paris, the other half as savage as Cairo or Constantinople.” This polarization angered and depressed Herman Melville, who criticized it in Pierre, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” and the self-explanatory “Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs.” In the aftermath of the Panic of 1857, as many as 100,000 went jobless in New York and Brooklyn; in November of that year, thousands demonstrated at Tompkins Square, the city hall, and the Merchants' Exchange, sometimes in the face of hundreds of police and troops. In the winter of 1857–8, at least 41,000 went homeless in Manhattan.81

As majority shareholder of a shipyard, machine works, and a fleet of steamers, Vanderbilt played a direct role in shaping this second city. He earned his reputation for keeping costs low in part by paying his workers as little as possible. In August 1858, for example, he cut the monthly wages of his firemen and coal passers from $25 to $20 and $20 to $17, respectively. (Even at the higher wage, a fireman on the Vanderbilt earned in an entire year only 3 percent of what the Commodore spent on a team of horses.) When they went on strike, Vanderbilt called on the police to bring in nonunion men. In successive battles on the slips, the police beat back the strikers.82

Vanderbilt never acknowledged that conditions had changed since he had lifted himself up—that it was more difficult to attain self-sufficiency, let alone wealth, in this emerging new world. He expected everyone to make his own way, including Billy. As recently as 1856, Vanderbilt had derided his son as a “sucker.” He knew that Billy had borrowed heavily to develop his farm, taking $5,000 from Daniel Allen alone. Jacob Van Pelt recalled how, when he had praised Billy's “splendid farm,” the Commodore had reacted angrily. “Yes,” he replied, “but he can't make a living off it. He has it mortgaged to a damned——. He ought to come to me. I've got plenty of money to put out on mortgages.”83 But the dutiful son built up his farm successfully. He supplied great quantities of hay to the city's draft animals, and made independent investments. In 1860, for example, he became a director of the nearly complete Staten Island Railroad, and took over as its treasurer. He had emerged as a leader of Richmond County.84

Whether Vanderbilt's other sons would succeed remained an unanswered question. George was still at West Point. During the summer, he went on military maneuvers. “The boys are taught to sleep under the canopy of heaven, to dispense with all the luxuries and comforts of civilization, and to accustom themselves to the privations of actual warfare,” wrote Harper's Weekly on September 3, 1859. “The strictness of West Point discipline has long been proverbial; during ‘the encampment’ it is severe indeed.” In his leisure hours, he would have attended the frequent “hops” or dances organized by such cadets as Adelbert Ames, Wesley Merritt, and Horace Porter. But demerits or low grades hurt George's standing; as he neared graduation, he was ranked next to last in his class.85

Vanderbilt remained immensely fond of the clan Corneil had married into. In early 1860, the Commodore wrote to Corneil's father-in-law, Oliver Williams, promising to visit “your sweet home.” In some of the most telling lines he would ever write, he added, “Your famally is the only one on earth that I ever say a word to on paper. I much dislike to write & never do out side of business matters.”86

ON THE NIGHT OF OCTOBER 16, 1859, John Brown led eighteen men into the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. A veteran of the fighting against border ruffians in Kansas, he now hoped to spark an uprising by slaves in the South. Instead, Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart arrived on the scene with a force of U.S. Marines, who stormed the arsenal on October 18, captured Brown and sixteen of his men, and killed two in the process. The abolitionist stood trial and died on the gallows on December 2. “His name may be a word of power for the next half-century,” George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary. The Wall Street lawyer had no sympathy for the antislavery movement, but “Old Brown's demeanor” moved him. “His simplicity and consistency, the absence of fuss, parade, and bravado, the strength and clearness of his letters, all indicate a depth of conviction that one does not expect in an Abolitionist,” he wrote. “Slavery has received no such blow in my time as his strangulation.”87

John Brown's raid confirmed the worst suspicions among “fire-eaters” in the South. When the newly elected House of Representatives tried to choose a speaker in December, Southern Democrats and Know-Nothings blocked the Republican plurality from naming John Sherman, the moderate brother of William T. Sherman. But they could not elect their own man because Horace Clark and a handful of other anti-Lecompton Democrats stood in their way—though Clark refused to vote for Sherman. “Common report attributes the conduct of [Clark] more to the influence of his father-in-law, Mr. Vanderbilt, than any other,” the Chicago Tribune reported. “Mr. V's mail steamship interests are too valuable to be sacrificed by a single vote for Speaker.”88

Certainly the Commodore did not wish to alienate the Democratic administration. At the moment, though, both Clark and Vanderbilt were deeply enmeshed in an even more complicated negotiation. William Aspinwall—the merchant prince, the founder of the Pacific Mail and Panama Railroad companies, the man who had given his name to a city in Panama—had decided to give up. He had opened secret talks with Vanderbilt, and on November 25 he presented the Pacific Mail board with the results: a tentative agreement to shut down the North Atlantic Steamship Company, sell to Vanderbilt Pacific Mail's seven ships on the Pacific for $2 million, distribute the proceeds to the stockholders, and terminate the corporation. Despite some dissent, the board empowered Aspinwall to conclude the negotiations. Vanderbilt prevailed on Clark to remain in New York to finalize the talks alongside Marshall Roberts, despite Clark's eagerness to go to Washington.

At nine in the evening on November 29, Clark sent a one-line note to Vanderbilt: “I am quite satisfied that the proposed arrangement is wholly impracticable.” The problem was that Clark and Roberts insisted on a guarantee that the directors of Pacific Mail would not go on to compete against Vanderbilt's company as individual proprietors, newly enriched with the Commodore's money. They insisted that Aspinwall give his personal word of honor that there would be no competition—which he “peremptorily declines to give,” Clark and Roberts wrote on November 30. Aspinwall replied that this demand was a “new feature,” that he could not possibly speak for the stockholders as individuals. “It is a great pity,” Vanderbilt concluded.89

This argument reveals the culture of American business in a moment of transition. On the eve of 1860, after decades of experience with—indeed, mastery of—the abstractions of the new economy, Vanderbilt and his ring still saw little distinction between the corporation and its stockholders. Theirs was not an elaborately worked-out philosophical position; rather, it was the product of a long tradition of controlling competition with formal and informal agreements—as well as raw self-interest. Yet it demonstrates how even the most sophisticated businessmen held to a tangible understanding of the world of commerce. The financial columnist for the New York Herald found it astonishing that Aspinwall and his fellow directors refused the demands of Vanderbilt's representatives. “Without such a guarantee, in fact, Mr. Vanderbilt would have made the worst of bargains,” the newspaper observed. “In ordinary cases, it is the vendor who guarantees his purchaser against competition; in this case the vendor was the Pacific Mail Company, which was going into liquidation and out of existence on the consummation of the bargain; the guarantee, therefore, was naturally sought from the individual directors, from whom alone opposition was to be expected.”90

In January 1860, Joseph Scott, the guardian of the machine works and steamboats at Punta Arenas, walked into Vanderbilt's office on Bowling Green. “I had always expected there would be a line there [in Nicaragua], and that probably he would run it, and if I could sell the things then, I could receive enough to pay my services,” he later testified. But the line never reopened, and the property fell into ruin. “I went to Mr. Vanderbilt for a settlement,” Scott reported, “to see if he would take the things off my hands.” Instead, he went to work for Vanderbilt as agent of the Atlantic & Pacific Steamship Company in Aspinwall, Panama.91

Pacific Mail felt the pain of continued competition. It lost a reported $100,000 in the last quarter of 1859 alone, and its prospects looked grim. In January, Vanderbilt's iron-hulled Champion arrived in San Francisco, and greatly impressed the city's cynical residents. “As far as we can ascertain by full inquiry the Commodore shows no symptoms of yielding,” the New York Tribune remarked. The newspaper was correct. When Samuel L. M. Barlow, a key figure in Pacific Mail, suggested the possibility of a compromise to Horace Clark, Clark offered no encouragement. “The Commodore was here [in Washington] yesterday and I endeavoured to sound him [out] on the subject. He is more indifferent than I hoped to find him,” Clark wrote on January 16. “Let me suggest to you that you go right straight to him and talk to him yourself.”92

Clark's letter was a warning of Vanderbilt's determination, but also an invitation to further talks. Once again, Aspinwall and Barlow began to meet secretly with the Commodore. They soon arrived at a new agreement, one that obviated the need for guarantees of any kind. They would divide the business in half, Pacific Mail retreating to its eponymous ocean and Vanderbilt's Atlantic & Pacific Steamship Company restricting itself to the Atlantic. (This was the same basic agreement they had made in 1856, before Walker had disrupted everything.) Vanderbilt was to bring his new Champion back around Cape Horn, receive $50,000 to pay for the voyage, and sell the other, much older ships based in San Francisco to Pacific Mail for five thousand shares of stock and $250,000 in cash, to be paid in ten monthly installments. He would not be allowed to trade the shares for two years. (Vanderbilt owned the ships, so he took this payment himself.) The North Atlantic Steamship Company would be shut down. The two parties would split fares and postal payments according to mileage (giving Vanderbilt 30 percent). The plan would establish a new, more stable monopoly93

There was only one problem: the Panama Railroad did not want a settlement with Vanderbilt. It profited enormously by carrying passengers for both sides, and it had enjoyed a record business during the fare war. A number of the railroad's directors sat on the Pacific Mail board, and they were certain to resist the agreement. So Aspinwall played a trick. He invited those directors to take a junket with him to Panama. He boarded the steamship in New York with his trunks, along with his guests; then, moments before the ship sailed, he announced that pressing business would keep him at home. When the directors returned from Panama, they discovered to their irritation that the treaty with Vanderbilt had been signed and ratified in their absence.94

As the 1860s began, Vanderbilt attained wealth and influence never before imagined for a private American citizen—“almost kingly power,” as the Chicago Tribune said. He controlled American steamship traffic on the Atlantic Ocean, and stood as the largest shareholder in Pacific Mail.95(In 1860, Daniel Allen took a seat on the company's board of directors to represent his father-in-law's interests.) Vanderbilt arranged a lasting rise in fares (though not to their previous heights), and along the way prevented his friend Roberts from starting a rival line without paying him a penny. When the California postal contract expired after Congress adjourned without making arrangements for a new one, Vanderbilt refused to carry any more mail. This edict threatened to add weeks to communication between the two coasts by forcing the mail to be carried overland. The Commodore relented only after President Buchanan begged him to reconsider and promised to ask Congress to pay him retroactively. Vanderbilt expanded his role in New York's railroads as well. Already a director of Harlem, he helped Drew restructure the bankrupt Erie's debt (for a very large fee), and joined him on the Erie's board of directors.96

One by one, Vanderbilt's enemies lost, surrendered, or met with a violent death. Law had given up; Collins had failed; Morgan, Garrison, Aspinwall, and even Joseph Scott had accepted his terms. Others were less wise, or less fortunate. On August 14, 1859, an uprising in Costa Rica overthrew President Mora. He was executed on September 30, 1860. Even the irrepressible William Walker reached the end of his piratical career. The British captured him on his latest filibustering expedition, and handed him over to the Hondurans, the nearest Central American authorities. They unceremoniously shot him to death on September 12, 1860.97

And then there was Joseph White, who had plagued Vanderbilt from the beginning of the gold rush. In January 1861 White returned to Nicaragua, this time to buy exclusive rights to harvest rubber. As he swung in a hammock on the porch of a hotel, he began to talk with another American, Jonathan Gavitt. “It appears that this conversation was not of a very pleasant character, as Mr. Gavitt had been several months in Nicaragua on business of a similar nature to that of Mr. White's, and the former thought the latter was trespassing on his ground,” the New York Times reported. Gavitt sent his servant to retrieve his revolver, then shot White in the leg. After seven days in tremendous pain, White died.98

ON NOVEMBER 4, 1859, VANDERBILT sued Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times, for libel. The article in question—a patently false report that Vanderbilt had supported Walker's last expedition—was hardly the issue. After all, journalists of the day relied heavily on rumor and innuendo; newspaper reporting was inaccurate on a regular basis. The point, Vanderbilt argued in his legal complaint, was “that the said article in the Times is the result either of personal ill-will toward him or interest averse to his, which leads to the said newspaper being impelled to assail and if possible injure him.” Personal ill will indeed. Raymond responded with insults the very next day. “We are at some little loss to understand the meaning of this sudden floundering of the Commodore—this explosion of blubber at the prick of a newspaper paragraph,” he wrote. “We don't know whether it indicates that he is growing old and touchy, or that he is becoming ambitious of notoriety.”99

But this attack was also a matter of politics. During the late 1850s, even into 1860, the New York Times waged a crusade against Vanderbilt. On February 9, 1859, Raymond published perhaps his most memorable assault, “Your Money or Your Line,” berating Vanderbilt for forcing Pacific Mail to pay his monthly subsidy under the threat of his renewed competition. In this piece, Raymond crafted a lasting metaphor in American culture: the robber baron.

Like those old German barons who, from their eyries along the Rhine, swooped down upon the commerce of the noble river and wrung tribute from every passenger that floated by, Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt, with all the steamers of the Accessory Transit held in his leash, has insisted that the Pacific Company should pay him toll, taken of all America that had business with California and the South Sea, and the Pacific Company have submitted to his demand.… He has… devoted himself to the study of the steam navigation of his country—not with the object of extending its development, but for the purpose of making every prosperous enterprise of the kind in turn his tributary or his victim.

Though Raymond never used the exact phrase “robber baron,” it entered the American lexicon as a term for an industrialist who wields his power unscrupulously, to the harm of others. Yet it is essential to note how the metaphor originated. Raymond criticized Vanderbilt for preying uponmonopolists. He attacked him for, as he wrote elsewhere, “driving too sharp a competition.”100 In “Your Money or Your Line,” Raymond derided “competition for competition's sake; competition which crowds out legitimate enterprises… or imposes tribute upon them.” On July 13, 1860, he called on “our mercantile community to look the curse of competition fully in the face.”

To later generations of Americans, Raymond's critique would make no sense. Vanderbilt was a robber baron because he was excessively competitive? Vanderbilt's enterprises were not “legitimate,” even though they were more successful than those that supposedly were? Was competition supposed to have no winners or losers? And wasn't it Pacific Mail that was the monopolistic force that restrained trade by buying off competitors (a policy that made it immensely profitable)?

Raymond's arguments reflected a deep and persistent strain of Whig philosophy. The editor himself was a “reliably orthodox” Whig, and his newspaper was founded by “Whig bankers,” as two historians write.101When he tried to express his loathing for Vanderbilt, he drew on a political vocabulary, a political mind-set, now decades old, crafted in a younger America with limited capital and few large enterprises. The Whigs had strongly believed in economic development, and had championed legal devices such as corporations to assist wealthy men in concentrating capital for useful purposes. Pacific Mail, which originated in a federal plan to guarantee mail service to the Pacific coast, offered a perfect example of their ideals; more than that, the elite status of its incorporators appealed to social prejudices that lingered among old New York Whigs. Raymond even depicted corporations as fragile creations. In “Your Money or Your Line,” he made the argument that “no joint-stock company… can ever be a match for a single man” who possessed a large sum of money. Raymond gave voice to a certain strand of Whig thinking that had always condemned the destructive tendency of free competition, casting it as piracy that annihilated capital.

“The idea of depicting Vanderbilt as a corsair because he establishes rival lines to successful steamboat companies is not consistent with experience or common sense,” argued Harper's Weekly, in a direct counterblast to the Times's famous editorial. “It is because competition is free—because it is encouraged in every branch of trade and enterprise—that this country has become rich and prosperous.”102 On March 5, 1859, Harpers published an adulatory profile of the Commodore in which it continued this argument. “It has been much the fashion to regard these contests as attempts on his part to levy black-mail on successful enterprises.… He must be judged by the results; and the results, in every case, of the establishment of opposition lines by Vanderbilt has been the permanent reduction of fares.” It added, in a much-quoted line, “This great boon—cheap travel—the community owes mainly to Cornelius Vanderbilt.”

This defense of the Commodore sounds more logical to the mind-set of later centuries, but it, too, drew upon an earlier generation's political rhetoric—that of Jacksonian Democrats. Harpers argued that he had championed the fight against the aristocratic elite, against those artificial monsters the Whigs loved so much: “powerful corporations, who enjoyed a monopoly of the traffic, and whose wealth and obvious soullessness were a terror to steamboat men.” It praised Vanderbilt, on the other hand, specifically as an individual, in battle against such devils. “We have heard it said that no man in this country gives employment directly or indirectly to so many persons,” the Herald wrote. “He began life by working to live, he now lives to work.”103

The truth is that neither Andrew Jackson nor Daniel Webster, nor anyone else who had helped to create the Democratic and Whig parties, had imagined a man like Vanderbilt. Few previously had accumulated so much wealth, in either absolute or relative terms; and there was probably no one who had ever possessed such sway over public affairs—over the survival of a railroad, or a government, or over the great corridor to California. Nor did he exist in some kind of polar opposition with corporations and monopolies. By 1859, he operated almost entirely through corporations; he proved himself an expert at using the stock market to concentrate capital or avenge himself on his enemies, and emerged as a master of corporate structure. He saw the corporation as just another type of business organization. For many old Whigs and Democrats, on the other hand, the corporation remained a political animal. Whigs had approved of it as a means of harnessing private enterprise for the public good; since corporations remained few in number, they may not have imagined that they one day would become commonplace. On the other side, Democrats who praised Vanderbilt's competition failed to grasp that he was using the corporate form to create enterprises on an unprecedented scale, gaining control over vast channels of commerce. He represented a new creature on the American scene, and political language and logic had not yet come to terms with him.

Vanderbilt was clearly an unsurpassed competitor, and the good he thereby wrought was well described by Harper's Weekly. He was a fighter by nature, a cunning and proud warrior. He always felt that he could take care of himself, under any circumstances. He seems to have believed the Jacksonian rhetoric he so often repeated, a creed of laissez-faire individualism, a vision of a world in which any man might get ahead by his natural gifts rather than government favors. And yet, in pursuing his private interests wherever they took him, he felt no obligation to act in the public interest; when competition had served its purpose, he freely sold out or constructed new monopolies. As he operated on a vast new scale, he brought to a head the contradiction inherent in the private ownership of public works—a paradox that would grow starker when he moved from steamships into railroads in the climactic phase of his life.

Raymond's attack on Vanderbilt, for all its incoherence, spoke to a budding sense that this increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of one man posed a challenge to democratic, egalitarian society. Unions could not restrain Vanderbilt from slashing wages and firing strikers; no federal or state laws prohibited his inside trading on Wall Street; few taxes touched his wealth; no regulatory agencies examined his vast affairs or rendered them transparent. It is true that Vanderbilt created tremendous wealth in this environment; it is also true that the limited government deliberately crafted by the Jacksonians—staffed by political appointees, without any kind of professional civil service—lacked the means to check any abuse of his power. And his power would grow dramatically in the next decade and a half. But before Vanderbilt died, a new political matrix would begin to emerge.104

So much for the meaning; but there remains the man himself. In December 1859, a fierce Atlantic storm smashed the Ariel, threatening it with destruction. Its captain, a man named Ludlow, went out on deck to direct the construction of a drag, or emergency sea anchor, to save the ship. “A tremendous sea broke upon her forward deck,” the Times reported. Ten feet of water swept over Ludlow, and “the heavy drag, composed of plank and timbers, struck him on the side.” He lived long enough to gasp, “Tell the Commodore I died at the post of duty.”105

Those words deserve to be the last about the Commodore as commodore. They call to mind Tolstoy's observation in The Sebastopol Sketches, a soldier's view of the Crimean War. Discipline and obedience, he wrote, ultimately depend upon “the subordinate's recognition that those placed in authority over him are possessed of a higher degree of experience, military prowess, or—not to beat around the bush—moral development.”106 But a superior who lacks real ability—or character—draws only scorn. In a quasi-military (or, more properly, quasi-naval) culture such as that of the merchant marine, a commander need not be sweet-tempered to be admired; rather, he had to be skilled, knowledgeable, fair, and preferably tough.

Beyond all analysis of Vanderbilt's historical role, it is worth remembering that men willingly followed this difficult, profane titan, even at the risk of their own lives. It was not because he was generous or kind, but because he was a man of genuine prowess. No one, they knew, understood steamships better; no one, they knew, was more willing to face personal danger; no one, they knew, was truer to his word. Vanderbilt was many things, not all of them admirable, but he was never a phony. Hated, revered, resented, he always commanded respect, even from his enemies.

* A Basque name, Yrisarri is also spelled with an initial I in Castillian Spanish. I am following the most common contemporary spelling, which followed the Basque custom.

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