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.
It is almost conventional wisdom to assert that the many, many thousands of private citizens’ petitions and memorials submitted to Congress and printed in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set give us in almost each case a window into the mind of the common man. These men, and often also women, were exercising their right granted by the First Amendment “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” which often meant redress of damages, for claims of one kind or another—pensions in thousands of cases, and sometimes on behalf of a concern for more general issues beyond the needs of their particular cases, such as a plea for social justice. An example of that latter class is the brief memorial from a man named Sherlock Gregory, a citizen of Sand Lake in Rensselaer County, New York State, in 1838.