Vanderbilt: "The public be damned" (1882)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Mon Mar 7 22:01:37 UTC 2005

Fred Shapiro asked about the earliest occurrence of "the public be damned"
in the Boston Globe and Atlanta Constitution, and Bill Mullins supplied
cites from 1886 and 1889, attributed to William Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilt
quote first circulated in October 1882, though the word "damned" was often
excised.  Here is the original New York Times report of Vanderbilt's
comments to a correspondent in Chicago:

New York Times, Oct 9, 1882, p. 1
Chicago, Oct. 8 -- Mr. William H. Vanderbilt and party arrived in Chicago
this afternoon direct from New-York. To a reporter Mr. Vanderbilt said:
"Does your limited express pay?"
"No; not a bit of it. We only run it because we are forced to do so by the
action of the Pennsylvania Road. It doesn't pay expenses. We would abandon
it if it was not four our competitor keeping its train on."
"But don't you run it for the public benefit?"
"The public be -----. What does the public care for the railroads except
to get as much out of them for as small a consideration as possible. I
don't take any stock in this silly nonsense about working for anybody's
good, but our own because we are not. When we make a move we do it because
it is our interest to do so, no because we expect to do somebody else some
good. Of course we like to do everything possible for the benefit of
humanity in general, but when we do we first see that we are benefiting
ourselves. Railroads are not run on sentiment, but on business principles
and to pay, and I don't mean to be egotistic when I say that the roads
which I have had anything to do with have generally paid pretty well."

Four days later, the Times ran a letter from Vanderbilt disowning the
published comments, followed by a note from the correspondent standing by
the article:

New York Times, Oct 13, 1882, p. 5
To the Editor of the New-York Times:
My attention has been called to an interview said to have been had with me
at Chicago, and published in The New-York Times and other Eastern papers
of Oct. 9. I conversed with several reporters at Chicago on Sunday last,
and, while I am not able now to give from memory all the particulars, I
know that the published statement differs materially from what I said. I
do not, and never have, entertained any such opinions as are attributed to
me. I did not use the language reported as to the public, the
Anti-Monopoly politicians, or the Nickle Plated Road, and both my words
and ideas are misreported and misrepresented in the report. I have
frequently been interviewed by the New-York press, and every one knows I
never use language or expressions as attributed to me by the reporter.
--William H. Vanderbilt. Denver, Col., Thursday, Oct. 12, 1882.

[Note. -- Our Chicago correspondent who was requested to meet the issue of
fact raised by Mr. Vanderbilt, does so as follows:]
The two reporters who met Mr. Vanderbilt were John D. Sherman of the
Tribune, and Clarence P. Dresser of the Metropolitan Press Bureau. These
gentlemen conducted the interview together, and every word which Mr.
Vanderbilt said was overheard by both and the main points noted. When he
referred to the Anti-Monopolists, he certainly did say that he considered
them to be, for the most part, fools and black-mailers. Also, he certainly
did say "the public be -----," when reference was made to whether he ran
his limited express for its benefit.

Despite Vanderbilt's protests, the comments circulated widely in the
following days and weeks, often serving as fodder for editorial writers.
Some newspapers supplied the entire unexpurgated quote:

Washington Post, Oct 14, 1882, p. 2
The public gracefully declines to accept Mr. Vanderbilt's kind permission
to "be damned" for not liking his stingy management of railroads and the
fatal results of his "economy."
Atlanta Constitution, Oct 18, 1882, p. 4
This, however, but faintly represents Mr. Vanderbilt's frankness. "The
public be -----!" he exclaimed. [...] Mr. Vanderbilt may damn the public
as long as his vulgar breath lasts, but the public will finally get even
with him -- of this he may rest assured.
Washington Post, Oct 19, 1882, p. 2
Hoever willing Mr. Vanderbilt may be for the public to "be damned," he is
in no hurry to arrive at the final judgment in his own proper person.
Boston Globe, Oct 25, 1882, p. 2
The rumor now is that Vanderbilt only said "The public be blessed." But is
he taking any pains to bless it? Well, not this season.
New York Times, Oct 30, 1882, p. 4
In his famous interview with a Chicago reporter, in which Mr. Vanderbilt
was represented as saying, "The public be blanked," or words to that
effect, the great man also gave his views concerning the so-called "Nickel
Plate" Railroad.

--Ben Zimmer

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