“The Public Be Damned”

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William Henry Vanderbilt (1821–85), president of the New York Central and numerous other railroads, was a quiet, honest, modest, and, above all else, moderate man. Although the most important railroader of his time, he would be almost wholly forgotten today were it not for four simple words he so uncharacteristically and incautiously uttered on October 8, 1882: “The public be damned.”

Within twenty-four hours of its escaping his lips, the phrase had become one of the great public relations disasters in American business history and appeared on the front page of hundreds of newspapers. It provoked editorials, sermons, cartoons, and political speeches by the thousands. Within two days the New York Herald was able confidently to predict that “after he dies posterity will regard it as his epitaph, regardless of what may be carved on his tombstone.” The Herald was right. William Henry Vanderbilt, who had not the slightest ambition to literary fame, is listed in Bartlett’s Quotations.

The reasons his words resounded around the country like a cannon shot are simple. The 1880s saw railroads reach the pinnacle of their power in the American economy, and they were the very epitome of big business. Nor were the railroads shy about using this power, often shortsightedly. Where a railroad possessed a monopoly on long-distance transportation—and most towns and small cities were served by only one railroad—it exacted the highest freight charges possible, while giving favored customers kickbacks. Needless to say, resentment against the railroads and their highhanded behavior was intense and growing. In 1887 it resulted in the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the first federal regulatory agency. Even before Vanderbilt said it, an increasing number of Americans had come to feel that “the public be damned” was the universal motto of the railroad industry.

 

To make matters even worse, Vanderbilt, who controlled the largest railroad empire on earth, was, by his own admission, the richest man in the world. “I am worth $194,000,000,” he told a friend not long before his death, and said he would not cross the street to make another million. Harper’s Weekly noted that Vanderbilt’s fortune exceeded the total value of all assessed property in Nebraska, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon combined. Vanderbilt admitted that England’s Duke of Westminster was worth $200,000,000 but pointed out that most of that was tied up in land and didn’t pay even 2 percent. Vanderbilt’s wealth was in government bonds and railroad securities and paid about 6 percent, giving him a take-home income of nearly a million dollars a month at a time when a thousand dollars a year was a decent wage. It is a measure of how large Vanderbilt loomed on the American landscape in the 1880s that when he suddenly died in December 1885, The New York Times carried no other news whatever on its front page the following day and the story was the lead for several days thereafter.

Vanderbilt, in a hopeless attempt at damage control, immediately denied that he had said such a thing at all, but there is little doubt that he did. What varies among accounts is the context in which he said it.

Vanderbilt was on his way to a tour of the West and was traveling in his private railroad car from Michigan City, Indiana, to Chicago. Clarence Dresser, a young free-lance reporter with a reputation as a journalistic agent provocateur, sought an interview. Dresser, according to Melville E. Stone, for many years the head of the Associated Press, “was one of the offensively aggressive types—one of those wrens who make prey where eagles dare not tread. Always importunate and usually impudent.” In his autobiography Stone wrote that Dresser had barged into Vanderbilt’s car on its arrival in Chicago and demanded his immediate attention. Vanderbilt said that he was in the middle of eating but, if Dresser would wait until he had finished, he would give him a minute.

“But it is late,” Dresser said, “and I will not reach the office in time. The public—”

“The public be damned,” Vanderbilt burst out. “You get out of here!”

According to Stone that was all there was to it. Dresser tried to sell the story to the Chicago Daily News, where Stone was then editor, but the night editor was not interested in words provoked from a man whose patience and privacy has been assaulted. Dresser, still according to Stone, then made his way to the Tribune and turned in a different story. The crucial part of the interview printed in the Tribune and reprinted everywhere went like this:

“Does your limited express [between New York and Chicago] pay?” Dresser asked.

“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 for our competitor keeping its train on.”

“But don’t you run it for the public benefit?”