[Editor’s note: This week the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History was awarded to T. J. Stiles for “Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America.” One of America’s most accomplished independent scholars, Stiles won the 2009 National Book Award in Nonfiction and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.” In this previously published Readex Report article, he discusses his use of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set—the single most important series of American government publications—for biographical research.]
Commodore Vanderbilt: Patriot or War Profiteer?
By T.J. Stiles, author of Custer’s Trials, The First Tycoon, and Jessie James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
[Note: On April 7, 2011, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as part of its 87th annual competition, awarded a Fellowship to T.J. Stiles based on impressive prior achievement and exceptional promise for future accomplishment. This article by T.J. Stiles appeared in the February 2010 issue of The Readex Report. Here he discusses his use of the Readex digital edition of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set in researching The First Tycoon, which won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.]
I was ready to indict and convict Vanderbilt of war profiteering, if that’s where the evidence led me. Instead, it convinced me that the Commodore deserved his gold medal. Vanderbilt has often been treated with cynicism by historians, who are ready to believe the worst of a staggeringly rich, secretive, and combative man. Certainly I did not set out to rehabilitate his reputation. But I couldn’t ignore the evidence—evidence provided in breathtaking abundance by Congress in its Serial Set, now more accessible than ever thanks to digitization.