Commodore | Edward J. Renehan Jr.

Summary of: Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
By: Edward J. Renehan Jr.


Step into the world of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, a man whose ambitions and relentless pursuit of wealth led to a life of extraordinary accomplishments in the world of shipping and railroads. Born in a humble family and driven by a hunger for profit, Vanderbilt became a skillful seaman and eventually built a powerhouse in the transportation industry by providing fast, reliable, and economical services. This summary of ‘Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt’ by Edward J. Renehan Jr. will shed light on Vanderbilt’s relentless battles against competitors and monopolies, his expansion into the railroad sector, and his remarkable personal life marked by horse racing, spiritualism, and a tumultuous family dynamic.

The Rise of Commodore Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt’s early life, endeavors, and family are detailed, highlighting his ambition, determination, and success in the shipping industry.

The future Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was born into a family of limited means, with his illiterate father working as a skilled seaman. However, Vanderbilt’s curiosity and drive were evident at an early age, as he showed a talent for horseback riding and sailing. After leaving school at age 11 due to his brother’s death, Vanderbilt began a life of hard work and labor, studying the ports, tides, and ships, and developing a reputation for seamanship, speed, and price-cutting.

Despite the dangers of stormy weather, Vanderbilt hungered for profit, taking risks that others avoided. He bought his own small boat at 16, and eventually purchased a 65-foot sloop that carried more cargo and passengers. Vanderbilt’s success in shipping allowed him to marry Sophia Johnson, whom he had known since childhood. Sophia was a hard-working, beautiful, and deferential wife, who bore Vanderbilt 13 children, only three of whom were boys.

Throughout his life, Vanderbilt equated his drive for success with a “mania” for money-making. His early struggles and dedication to his craft paved the way for his eventual rise to prominence as a leading figure in the American shipping industry. Even in old age, Vanderbilt fondly remembered the days of operating his first boat, which set him on the path to becoming the formidable Commodore.

Vanderbilt’s Rise to Steamboat Monopoly

In an era of self-interest and competitiveness, Cornelius Vanderbilt, known for his reliability in providing fast transport, made his fortune by competing with the powerful Livingston-Fulton cartel in the steamboat industry. Refusing to adhere to restrictions, he found success by partnering with Thomas Gibbons. They battled a monopoly in New York and eventually won, opening up competition among steamboat operators. Vanderbilt’s hunger for money led him to cut fares to zero, crushing his competitors. His thirst for ownership taught him the importance of being the boss, not an employee.

Vanderbilt’s Rise to Power

Cornelius Vanderbilt, driven by his thirst for wealth and power, used both conventional and unconventional methods to establish a shipping business that dominated the industry during the 19th century. He refused to settle for a comfortable life and put his family in a cramped tenement instead of a townhouse, allowing him to buy ships from William Gibbons’ fire sale and establish his Dispatch Line. Vanderbilt used all tactics available, including fixing prices, waging price wars, and being paid to stay out of certain markets to eliminate competitors while continuously expanding his fleet. He was hailed as an anti-monopolist by the Evening Post, and was eventually invited to join the Long Island Railroad after strategically investing in railroads. Although he failed to dominate horse racing as he did the waterways, Vanderbilt’s crude manners and refusal to perform charitable works kept him out of polite society. By relentlessly pursuing opportunities and taking risks, Vanderbilt had a personal worth of $1.2 million and an annual income of more than $30,000 by age 44.

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