Sunday, 2 October 2016


(From the London Standard.)

From the way in which America seems disposed to greet the news of the death of Mr. W. H. Vanderbilt, it might be imagined some great potentate had left us. And in his own line, he was among earth's mighty ones. To possess property reputedly worth forty or fifty millions sterling and yielding an immense revenue, must endow a man with power of a kind. His income alone represented the total earnings of thousands of men at a hundred a year, and the capital of the dead man's fortune, unless highly magnified in amount, almost rivalled a year's savings of the entire United States. Putting power, then, on its lowest, most sordid basis, William Vanderbilt was a man high above his fellows in the command he had over the fruits of men's labour. None in his own country equalled him in this respect, and in other attributes his match could hardly be found among the great Rulers of Europe. As a mere mortgagee of human industry, he was no mean man, and as the greatest of railroad kings he was a man of mark. In this country it is now almost impossible to understand what a railway "king" is. We have corporations which may be despotic in their control of trade but they are not, ostensibly at least, in the grasp of individuals. Power is hidden and subdivided, so that the greatest railway ruler in England is forced to be in some degree circumspect in his attitude towards the people. No such necessity lay upon Mr. Vanderbilt. When it became a question of which should prevail—his personal interest or that of the people at large—he fought for his own hand, and won. In that land of monopolies—the United States he often; in his struggles for self-aggrandisement, became the monopoly devourer, and ever since he, some eight or nine years ago, assumed full control of his railways on the death of his rough, shrewd, ignorant father, his life has been spent in active conflict. Combination after combination has been formed against him by interests whom he weighed upon and threatened to ruin, or by speculators who thought they might profit by the quarrels of greater rivals ; but again and again he has routed his foes. His last great campaign was fought against the New York, West Shore, and Buffalo Railway Company, and a long bitter campaign it was. But it ended, as others had done in victory for the Vanderbilt interest, and ere he died Mr. Vanderbilt had the satisfaction at least of knowing that his family remain arbiters of the destinies of the only Trunk Railway running directly into New York city, and so in some respects of that city's fate.

A less romantic career than Vanderbilt's could hardly be imagined. In all its aspects it appears sordid and mean. The din and smoke of the stock-dealing pandemonium which attended every step in the wealth-accumulating career of the Vanderbilt family form a poor substitute, to those of a sentimental turn, for the clang of battle and the flow of blood by which the men-enslavers of old gained their ends. Sordid as they may be, however, the life and the position of the Vanderbilt family have an intense interest for the United States people, and are not without significance even in countries like our own. That family to-day either owns or holds a controlling interest in some 10,000 miles of railway—counting double tracks in the American fashion—stretching from New York city to the borders of Wyoming. Their hands are upon the traffic of Northern Canada, and according to their pleasure, for half the year at least, the farmers of the great grain growing and cattle-rearing half of the Central and North-Western States find their occupations profitable or not. In some essential ways they hold the trade of New York in the hollow of their hand, and no business worth the name can be started anywhere along the railways they command without their support and sanction. They can, within limits, bring the meat exporter into great fortune or strip him bare. It is much a matter of favour whether a man flourishes or becomes bankrupt. As we have said, possessors of a great monopoly themselves, the Vanderbilts can become, and often have been, the devourers of other monopolies. The struggles of successful rebellion alone modify their yoke, but hitherto rebellion has never been successful for more than a few months. In the last great conflict, the New York Central Company got more severely handled than ever it had been since its consolidation, but no one could doubt how the fight would end. The man whose income, was reckoned by millions a year, and who, besides, had had the prudence and foresight to divest himself of the stock of his great company to an extent which made its last dividends of no moment to him, must, in the long run, be too much for any group of capitalists that could be formed against him. While the waste and devastation of the conflict lasted producers might rejoice, farmers live, and brokers and exporters do a merry trade, and snatch at fortune with a trembling hand, for the space of a few months all comers might be welcome to railway facilities on terms ridiculously low or unusually equitable; but the rebel once vanquished, and the ranks of the great monopoly companies closed up under the Vanderbilt lead, the man who had abetted rebellion, and who had not the means to propitiate the tyrants, or the ear of their underlings, would fare worse, probably, than he had ever done in his life. The American railroad tyrant goes a step further than the English one in the remote days of his power ever dreamt of doing, and says, not merely what place but what man shall prosper or wither. There is something strange, grotesque, yet fascinating in the power which a democratic country, always glorying in its freedom, thus delegates, apparently voluntarily, to an individual, or group of individuals, less responsible for their acts than the greatest autocrat Russia ever saw.

The late Mr Vanderbilt, in short, was the most marvellous example of the tyranny of capital it is possible to imagine and the reign of men like him is by no means over yet in North America. There seems to be every probability, indeed, that notwithstanding the death of Mr Vanderbilt, his monopolies will survive. The president of the New York Central Railroad, who his been appointed a trustee of the estate, is a clever man of business, and the interests of the young heir—with a fortune of forty millions sterling to begin life with—are not likely to suffer in his hands. In point of fact the Union promises to be a monopoly-driven country for many a day, and while it is so there will always be some supremely rich monopolist to attract the wonder, control the commerce, and absorb the wealth of the multitude. All the political economy of the Union is directed to the furtherance of the growth of this kind of social phenomenon rather than to the wide dissemination of wealth among the community, and there might be reasons to fear that some day the men thus bred and cherished might turn round upon the people and deprive them of their political liberties were it not that, with all their submission to the inevitable in a pecuniary sense, Americans tenaciously cling to their political independence. The late Mr Vanderbilt was wont to boast that he could buy up State Legislatures, and there may have been truth in the boast, although his power over than was insufficient to pioneer the passing of law intended to protect his property from competition. But he could not buy the electorate, or any sensible proportion of it. Nothing even of the influence which clings, even in these democratic times, to a great English landlord was ever exercised by Mr Vanderbilt, or by any of his class, for one hour. To the crowd he was a man with a vote like the rest of them—nothing more. His immense wealth might make him supreme over many men's fortunes but it brought him no respect—no social influence. An arch patron more lavish than the late Joseph Gillott, or Birmingham, he was yet in no sense the friend and companion of artists. Outside the Steel Markets he was nobody. Look at the career of such a man on what side you please, and you find it, if not absolutely a failure, at least destitute of a vestige of a germ of that moral and social power over men's minds which might make inordinate wealth a danger to the State. That, however, is about the only comforting and agreeable inference which can be drawn from the contemplation of such a life. As a mere man of money, Mr Vanderbilt was an object of pity rather than of admiration. His wealth was so immeasurably beyond his power either to spend or to enjoy that the worries of its possession may well have hastened his end.

Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), Monday 25 January 1886, page 4

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