The Stunning Failed Legacy of the Vanderbilts

By Bill High 5 years ago. Family LegacyGenerosity StrategyFamily GivingLegacy

My son goes to school at Lipscomb University in Nashville.

But right down the street is a far more famous university—Vanderbilt.  I’ve driven by it.  It’s impressive, and even by reputation the strength of the school seems to emit an aura of its own.

Hailing originally from the Netherlands, the Vanderbilt family had farming roots.  Cornelius Vanderbilt was born into a family of modest means on Staten Island, New York.  He left school at the age of 11 and began in the shipping business with a single boat.

Against all odds, he established his company in the wake of more established competitors.  Cornelius, by all accounts, was considered to be a hard-driving, rough character who molded an empire out of stone.

At the time of his death in 1877, he was considered the wealthiest man in America and left $1 million dollars to establish Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  The majority of his estate was left to his oldest son William who lived just 8 more years after his father’s death.

Although Cornelius had always lived a modest life, such was not the case with his children.  They became known for building huge mansions and living lavish lifestyles—at one point, they owned 10 mansions on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

By 1947, all 10 mansions had been torn down and the contents auctioned.  Within 30 years of his death, no member of the Vanderbilt family was listed as the richest in America.  And 48 years after his death, one of his grandchildren was said to have died penniless.

Aside from Vanderbilt University, few would recognize the legacy of Cornelius Vanderbilt other than a failed one.  But his life serves as the illustration that we all will leave a legacy, and we get to choose what kind of legacy it will be.

Bill High
Bill High Bill High is the founder of The Signatry and a national award-winning author & speaker on legacy, family, and philanthropy.

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