TO THE philosophically inclined, the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is primarily interesting as a choice example of the working of laissez faire in a young and rowdy democracy. The Commodore’s first commandment was: Get On. His second: Honestly If You Can, was like unto it because he fully realized that the one was the intelligent corollary of the other. In the final analysis, what fifty-year plan could have secured so many benefits for the people as the half century of rampant individualism of this unscrupulous, brutal, and useful buccaneer? He got things done, no holds barred, and the hundred million dollars paid him was a bargain for the public.
It is an excellent story and Mr. Lane tells it in plain business terms without sentiment or malice or even appeal to the Moral Law. What a comfort is a cash-book-and-ledger style after the mordacities of moralistic historians: the censoriousness of a Beard, or the belaboring of a Myers! Mr. Lane is not a writer of finish but he is an expert accountant. He balances the Commodore’s books with neat and scrupulous fairness, following his hero through a life as adventurous as business annals can boast. Every episode is in sharp detail: the sink-or-swim boyhood, competing for passengers in his ‘periauger’; the terrifying battles of the Hudson River war; the righteous passion for competition when the Commodore was ‘out,’ for monopoly when he was ‘in’; the brutishness of his family manners; the destruction of his enemies in the struggle for transit across Nicaragua during the Gold Rush; the consolidation of the New York Central; the pulverization of Daniel Drew; the epic battle of Erie.
Courage, energy, and judgment are public virtues much more than unselfishness, almost as much as honesty. Commodore Vanderbilt may have been a bad man but he lived a good life, and Mr. Lane’s record of it is permanent.