Vanderbilt led one of the longest and most important careers in the annals of American business, but organizing a book about his life was surprisingly easy. He had, in a sense, three careers. Within each of those three, he engaged in a series of set-piece battles. So I arranged the book into three parts, each with six chapters that largely correlate with his business conflicts. I also tried to shape the chapters around the themes that ran through each period of his life. I added an epilogue, acknowledgments, bibliographical essay, endnotes, and a primary-source bibliography, plus six maps and thirty-two pages of illustrations.
Part 1: Captain: 1794–1847 covers the longest period of his life, though it is the shortest segment of the book. During those years, Vanderbilt went from master of a sailboat ferry and small general merchant to become the nation's leading steamboat entrepreneur, during the era of the "transportation revolution." As I show, Vanderbilt also played a major role in New England's early railroads, a largely overlooked aspect of his life. Perhaps most important, he helped shape American economic culture, and inserted himself and his business battles into the debates between Jacksonian Democrats and the Whig Party, in often surprising ways.
Part 2: Commodore: 1858–1860 covers his years as master of oceangoing steamship lines. He operated a transatlantic line to Britain and France, but his most important operations involved gold-rush traffic to California. Most travel and commerce between the two coasts went by ship, connecting by a land crossing over Panama. Vanderbilt attempted to build a canal across Nicaragua (he failed), and started a rival steamship line and transit across that republic. This eventually led him into a conflict with an American "filibuster," or freelance military adventurer, named William Walker, who seized control of Nicaragua in 1855. I offer a new account of this tale, based on sources never cited by historians before. During this era, Vanderbilt became a major player on Wall Street, cooperated closely with successive presidents, and became a major cultural icon.
Part 3: King, 1861–1877 covers the most famous and perhaps most momentous period of his life: his reign as America's railroad monarch. I begin with a fresh look at his role in the Civil War, then offer a new account of his creation of a railroad empire. I look not only at the inner workings of his corporations and business battles (including a fresh version of the infamous Erie War of 1868), but also at how Vanderbilt played an important role in the making of modern economic thinking, and his influence on the new political matrix that emerged with the rise of the corporation and the growth of government power during the Civil War.
Along the way, I try to paint a portrait of Vanderbilt's fascinating private life, including the intrigue among his children and sons-in-law, his complicated relationships with his wives, and the truth about his friendship with Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin.
Whatever else Commodore Vanderbilt was, he was never boring.