“The Public Be Damned”

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“The public be damned. 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, not 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.”

Still a third version comes from Vanderbilt’s favorite nephew, Samuel Barton, who was traveling aboard the train with his uncle that day. He reported quite a different context a few years later to William A. Croffut, who published a biography of Vanderbilt in 1886.

“Why are you going to stop this fast mail-train?” Dresser asked in this version.

“Because it doesn’t pay. I can’t run a train as far as this permanently at a loss.”

“But the public find it very convenient and useful. You ought to accommodate them.”

“The public? How do you know they find it useful? How do you know, or how can I know, that they want it? If they want it, why don’t they patronize it and make it pay? That’s the only test I have of whether a thing is wanted—does it pay? If it doesn’t pay, I suppose it isn’t wanted.”

“Mr. Vanderbilt, are you working for the public or for your stockholders?”

“The public be damned! I am working for my stockholders! If the public want the train, why don’t they support it?”

None of these versions is likely to be wholly correct. Stone must be suspected of sour grapes, for he did, after all, let what turned out to be one of the biggest stories of the year slip through his fingers. Dresser wanted to be sure of selling his story at the Tribune, and Barton wanted to put his uncle’s fatal words in the best possible light. (And it can be safely assumed that all these men were perfectly willing to let historians he damned.”)

In a hopeless attempt at damage control, Vanderbilt denied he’d said such a thing, but there is little doubt that he did.

Dresser’s and Barton’s versions have enough elements in common to suggest a single origin in fact, even though one has Vanderbilt continuing to run a train and the other has him canceling it. A case could be made for either of the two accounts. Barton’s is more provocative, and certainly Vanderbilt would have had to be provoked into saying what he did, for he was not in the least an arrogant or stupid man but had in full measure the family’s quick temper.

Each version accurately expresses Vanderbilt’s ideas of business principles that he had learned from his father, the Commodore, a man William Henry held in the deepest respect and whose ideas regarding business behavior he followed faithfully. Both the Commodore and his son regarded themselves as fiduciaries for the stockholders, a claim that precious few railroad managers could honestly make in the nineteenth century.

Dresser’s version recalls testimony by the Commodore given to a committee of the New York State Assembly nearly twenty years earlier. “I have always served the public to the best of my ability. Why? Because, like every other man, it is my interest to do so, and to put them to as little inconvenience as possible. I don’t think there is a man in the world who would go further to serve the public than I.”

Barton’s version recalls another occasion when the Assembly asked the Commodore his system for running a railroad. “My system of railroading is … to take care of it just as careful as I would of my own household affairs, handle it just as though it was all mine; … and take good care of its income; that is my aim, you know, and give that to the stockholders.” The Commodore noted that while he was president of three railroads, he took no salary. His compensation, in other words, came only from stock dividends.

In both versions William Henry Vanderbilt’s purported words, while hard-nosed and certainly impolitic, are embedded in inescapable economic truth. Both father and son thought the key to success was to seek profits by giving the public good service, but both knew full well that companies that seek to serve the public rather than make a profit will not be around to do either for very long.

In history, as in so much of life, “you pays your money and you takes your choice,” and that is certainly the case here. But in either version of the most famous interview in American business history, William Henry Vanderbilt, however infelicitously he phrased it, was only repeating a truth first written by that master of economic felicity, Adam Smith.