Cornelius Vanderbilt

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Cornelius Vanderbilt (27 May 1794–4 January 1877), American shipping and railroad magnate who acquired a personal fortune of more than $100,000,000.[1]

In business

The great steamship entrepreneur Cornelius Vanderbilt competed with government-subsidized political entrepreneurs for much of his career. In fact, he got his start in business by competing — illegally — against a state-sanctioned steamship monopoly operated by Robert Fulton. In 1807, the New York state legislature had granted Fulton a legal, thirty-year monopoly on steamboat traffic in New York — a classic example of mercantilism. In 1817, however, a young Cornelius Vanderbilt was hired by New Jersey businessman Thomas Gibbons to defy the monopoly and run steamboats in New York. Vanderbilt worked in direct competition with Fulton, charging lower rates as his boats raced from Elizabeth, New Jersey, to New York City; to underscore the challenge to Fulton's monopoly, Vanderbilt flew a flag on his boats that read NEW JERSEY MUST BE FREE. Slowly he was breaking down the Fulton monopoly, which the US Supreme Court finally ended in 1824, ruling in Gibbons v. Ogden that only the federal government, not the states, could regulate interstate trade under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

As the cost of steamboat traffic plummeted because of deregulation, the volume of traffic increased significantly and the industry took off. Vanderbilt became the leading market entrepreneur in the industry, but he would continue to face government-subsidized competitors. For example, steamship operator Edward K. Collins convinced Congress that it needed to subsidize the transatlantic steamship business to compete with the Europeans and to create a military fleet in case of war. In 1847 Congress awarded Collins $3 million, plus $385,000 per year. Sitting on these subsidies, Collins had little incentive to build his ships efficiently or to watch his costs once they were built. Instead of focusing on making his business more efficient, Collins spent lavishly on lobbying, including wining and dining President Millard Fillmore, his entire cabinet, and many congressmen.

Like James J. Hill in the railroad industry, Vanderbilt did not shy away from competing against his heavily subsidized rivals. Not surprisingly, these government-supported rivals ultimately could not keep up with Vanderbilt, in large part because the stifling regulations that were inevitably attached to the government subsidies made these steamship lines remarkably inefficient. By 1858, Collins's line had become so inefficient that Congress ended his subsidy, and he promptly went bankrupt. He could not compete with Vanderbilt on an equal basis.[2]


  1. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. "Cornelius Vanderbilt", Referenced 2013-04-05.
  2. Thomas J. DiLorenzo. "The Truth About the "Robber Barons"", excerpted from chapter 7 of How Capitalism Saved America. Referenced 2013-04-11.