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Cornelius VanderbilttEnlarge Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877)

Prosperity never smoothed the rough edges that came with Cornelius Vanderbilt's impoverished upbringing and scant education, nor did it ever diminish his acquisitive instincts. Having begun his career as an assistant in his father's small shipping business on Staten Island, he presided over an extensive steam-shipping empire by 1850 and was already one of the richest men in New York City. But that accomplishment only spurred him on to other endeavors, and he became increasingly preoccupied with expanding his holdings in railroads. By the early 1870s he controlled one of the largest rail networks in America, and his personal fortune was approaching the then-unprecedented figure of $100 million.

Never one to pay too much heed to the fine points of law in his drive to best his competitors, Vanderbilt had few scruples when it came to bribing public officials or manipulating stocks. "What do I care about the law?" he is said to have remarked on one occasion. "Hain't I got the power?"



Nathaniel Jocelyn (1796-1881)
Oil on canvas, 1846
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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