Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

America’s Barony

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) is often portrayed as a “Robber Baron.” This term, however, didn’t come into use until the Progressive Era [1890-1920] after Vanderbilt’s death. Cornelius Vanderbilt, often called “the Commodore” was America’s first centi-millionaire. The Chicago Tribune described the Commodore for having an “almost kingly power;” amassing wealth and influence never imagined of a private citizen[1]. He was, however, according to biographer TJ Styles not welcome in the inner sanctum of patrician wealth.

Told by biographer T. J. Styles, the old mercantile aristocracy treated the Commodore as a “worthy business partner but a bit of a vulgarian.”[2]  If the Commodore had committed a social crime, it was as a member of a new “industrial bourgeoise” who traded in the abstract world of stocks and bonds that had begun to supplant old family firms. This, perhaps, was a greater crime than having “the stately appearance of a prince” and the “uncouth grammar and manners of a longshoreman”[3]. Gentrification, like wealth, is often three generations in the making.

When the Commodore died his estate of ninety-five million dollars was more than held in the United States Treasury.[4] In the years leading up to the Progressive era, bequeathing of fortunes of America’s early titans was likened to the baronial lord endowments of the Middle Ages.  William H. Vanderbilt (1821-1885) inherited the bulk of his father’s fortune and doubled it in under a decade before his own death.

Concerned about moves by the New York Legislature to apply ruinous taxes on the railroad, William H. sold down his majority interest in New York Central Railroad to English investors through the third-generation banker J. Pierpont Morgan. The sale, as did the breakup of Standard Oil for the Rockefellers, enhanced the Vanderbilt’s family’s fortune greatly. William H.’s wealth, at $194 million in 1883, was reported in the Whitehall Review to be greater than that of any member of English nobility. He could “buy up all the Rothschilds and still remain richer than any duke.”[5] When William H. died his wealth was split between two sons.

Socially, the Vanderbilt family history provides a historical example of society’s unease with ultra-wealth. With no hereditary titles, the upper reaches of America’s moneyed society are very fluid. The book Fortune’s Children, written by a Vanderbilt descendant, provides a chronology of heirs whose social ambitions were greater than their business ambitions. The demise of many family fortunes over the last century suggests that they were not alone, and is told well in the Book Old Money, by Nelson W. Aldrich, and Money and Class in America, by Lewis H. Clapham; both of whom are fourth-generation descendants of American wealth.

To the perennial dismay of America’s “old families, whose prestige is based principally upon their inherited wealth (or what remains of it)” the new rich zealously seek admission to the “fashionable class” by “imitating manners and customs and entertaining on the grandest scale of all.”[6] None did it better than the Vanderbilt grandchildren whose remaining estates are a source of fascination to their many visitors each year.

In the words of America’s National Park Service “The children of William Henry Vanderbilt – at one time the wealthiest man in America – were the most prolific home builders of their era.”[7]


[1] Stiles, T. J. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. New York: Vintage Books, (2010), 326.

[2] Stiles, T. J. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. New York: Vintage Books, (2010), 354.

[3] John K. Winkler, Morgan the Magnificent: The Life of J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1931), 65

[4] Arthur T. Vanderbilt, Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt, (New York, Morrow, 2013), 54.

[5] Arthur T. Vanderbilt, Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt, (New York, Morrow, 2013), 81.

[6] Arthur T. Vanderbilt, Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt, (New York, Morrow, 2013), 86.

[7] “Vanderbilt Mansion (U.S. National Park Service).” https://www.nps.gov/places/vanderbilt-mansion.htm.