Passages from “The First Tycoon”

The following are passages from the book The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles. The book is a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built a steamship and railroad empire in the mid-1800s.

More than that, it’s a history of the early corporation and the beginning of the era of modern business. This is the subject of the quotes below. While reading them, I was constantly reminded of recent (and ongoing) innovations in blockchain tokenization, corporate governance, and new financial mechanisms.

There are a ton of other interesting stories in the book — one epic business battle after another — so I highly recommend it.

On the birth of the corporate structure:

This was the birth of a kind of abstract thinking never before required in everyday life. It sparked a fierce resistance. On a daily basis, most Americans rarely interacted with corporations; they still lived in a society of farms, small businesses, and independent proprietors. Jacksonians viewed corporations in much the same way that the evangelists of the Second Great Awakening saw the Masons or popery: as a corrupt conspiracy, a mysterious encrustation on the beautiful simplicity of the true religion. As artificial beings, Gouge intoned, “corporations have neither bodies to be kicked, nor souls to be damned.”

If ever corporations were necessary, it was now, for railways were far more costly and far more complex than textile mills (almost all of which were owned by individual proprietors or partnerships).

On what stock/equity ownership represented:

They placed great emphasis on the “par value” of stock, usually set at $100 per share. This represented the original investment in a company; it was expected that the total value of all its shares would equal the cost of the physical capital—land, buildings, machinery, livestock. A stock certificate might be a slip of paper, but it was thought to represent something real, much as paper currency represented cold, hard gold that could be retrieved on demand from a bank’s vault.

On the intangible nature of corporations and the tokens that represent them:

Vanderbilt and Drew’s business careers, coming in the first half of the nineteenth century, were acts of imagination. In this age of the corporation’s infancy, they and their conspirators created a world of the mind, a world that would last into the twenty-first century. At a time when even many businessmen could not see beyond the physical, the tangible, they embraced abstractions never known before in daily life. They saw that a group of men sitting around a table could conjure “an artificial being, invisible, intangible,” that could outlive them all. They saw how stocks could be driven up or dropped in value, how they could be played like a flute to command more capital than the incorporators could muster on their own. They saw that everything in the economy could be further abstracted into a substanceless something that might be bought or sold, that a banknote or promissory note or the right to buy a share of stock at a certain price could all be traded at prices that varied from day to day. The subtle eye of the boorish boatman saw this invisible architecture, and grasped its innumerable possibilities. [. . .]

At fifty-four, Vanderbilt could look back on a career of breathtaking leaps of imagination. Steamboats and railroads, fare wars, market-division agreements, and corporations: all were virtually unknown in America when he mastered them. He understood the emerging invisible world far better than those who condescended to him. And this knowledge was about to serve him better than he could have dreamed. He was about to imagine a work of global significance—to create a channel of commerce that would help make the United States a truly continental nation. [. . .]

By 1859, he operated almost entirely through corporations; he proved himself an expert at using the stock market to concentrate capital or avenge himself on his enemies, and emerged as a master of corporate structure. He saw the corporation as just another type of business organization.

Vanderbilt split the stock of his company, doubling its par value (which was ~equivalent to equity value back then). This wasn’t accepted at the time as there was no concept of goodwill or intangibles. So Vanderbilt had someone re-value the assets to make the claim the stock dividend would still account for “real” value.

EVEN BEFORE THE COMMODORE assumed control of the New York Central, his historical legacy as a railroad king began to take shape. He would be no Leland Stanford, no James J. Hill, building transcontinental lines through thousands of miles of unsettled plains and mountains; rather, he would be a creator of the invisible world, a conjurer in the financial ether. What made him powerful—and controversial—was not his riches alone, but his mastery of the corporate golem.

For his first magic trick, he took what was one and made it two. On March 30, 1867, the Hudson River shareholders (himself foremost among them) approved his plan to nearly double the stock by issuing new shares worth $6,963,900 at par value. Called a stock dividend, it was similar to a stock split, an operation that would become common in the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, it sparked outrage. [. . .]

Stock that did not reflect construction costs was derided as “fictitious capital,” to use the formal term—or, more commonly, “watered stock,” which called up the image of livestock encouraged to gorge on water before weighing and sale at the market. By contrast, new stock was not seen as diluting share value if it reflected actual construction or additional real estate.

On Vanderbilt’s “invisible” world of abstractions of business, money, and markets. It can be hard to imagine what life was like before these abstractions, and how big of a change it truly was to have something as conceptual as a corporation controlling so much of the economy. Tokenization of these concepts created markets where they couldn’t exist before.

For such was the world that swallowed Billy Vanderbilt: a netherworld populated by those artificial persons called corporations that masked the real persons behind them; by paper money, that masked real gold and silver; by whispered rumors, that masked the manipulations of self-serving men. [. . .]

[Vanderbilt] may have left his most lasting mark in the invisible world, by creating an unseen architecture which later generations of Americans would take for granted. The modern economic mind began to emerge in Vanderbilt’s lifetime, amid fierce debate, confusion, and intense resistance. The imagined devices of commerce gradually abstracted the tangible into mere tokens, and then less than tokens. Money transformed from gold coin to gold-backed banknotes to legal-tender slips of paper and ledger entries of bank accounts. Property migrated from physical objects to the shares of partnerships to par-value stock to securities that fluctuated according to the market, that could be increased in number at will [emphasis mine]. Like a ghost, the business enterprise departed the body of the individual proprietor and became a being in itself, a corporation with its own identity, its own character, its own personhood.

[. . .] Vanderbilt lived out the history of this abstraction, the invention of this imagined world. More than that, he took it to a new level by pioneering the giant corporation. By consolidating his New York lines into the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, he constructed something larger than himself, not to mention virtually every other enterprise that had ever existed. It was a massive organization, one that served to depersonalize, to institutionalize, American business and life. It helped to lead the way to a future dominated by large enterprises possessing wealth and power that changed not only the economic landscape, but the political one as well.

A lot of parallels to our current situation.

Over the next 20 years — What effects will DeFi have on finance and markets? How much of the economy will be run by DAOs and how will this be exploited by the next Vanderbilts? How far can tokenization go and how will having a market in everything change our behavior?

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