History is, in a very compelling sense, biography. So opined one of my newsletter’s most interested and interesting subscribers some time ago, when he asked if I might recommend four biographies which he could read over the course of a year, and which would sum to an economic history of the United States through a few of its most important actors.
After due reflection, I told him I thought I could do it in five great books – not just biographies but literature of a very high order – beginning in 1794 and running continuously up to the present day.
On the wild chance that other readers might wish to spend an inexpressibly rich year on this same economic/historical vision quest, these five magisterial biographies are:
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles. At his death in 1877, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s fortune of some hundred million dollars was equal to one in every twenty dollars then in circulation, including demand deposits. He was not just America’s first centimillionaire; he was the richest man who ever lived in this country, scaled to money in circulation. He did it first in shipping and later in railroads, and his story is quite literally that of the continent itself.