Skip to main content

1882 One Hundred Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

Of the three great pronouncements uttered by “malefactors of great wealth” in the latter half of the nineteenth century, William H. Vanderbilt’s “The public be damned” is surely the most famous. It lacks the insouciance of Boss Tweed’s “Well, what are you going to do about it?” and the moral grandeur of Jim Fisk’s “Nothing is lost save honor”—but it encapsulated, neatly, what was generally feared to be the attitude of the great capitalists of the day.

Vanderbilt was traveling west in three private railroad cars to inspect his lines, which crossed the country. As the train halted at Michigan City, two newspapermen came aboard; John Sherman of the Chicago Tribune and Clarence Dresser, a free-lancer. Vanderbilt agreed to talk to them. They asked him, among other things, about the new train he had instituted to cut the New York-Chicago run to twenty-four hours. “Does it pay?”

“No, not a bit of it,” came the answer. “We only run the limited because forced to by the action of the Pennsylvania Railroad.”

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

“The public be damned. What does the public care for the railroads except to get as much out of them for as little consideration as possible!”

His words were quoted all over the United States within a few days. “I never said it,” growled Vanderbilt to New York reporters at the end of his trip: “It’s a malign misrepresentation.” But he had indeed said it, in front of witnesses who heard him very clearly.

November 6 —English actress Lily Langtry made her American debut in As You Like It at the Fifth Avenue Theater in New York. Oscar Wilde infuriated all by saying he would rather have discovered Miss Langtry than America.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "October/November 1982"

Authored by: Robert Friedman

The Supreme Court says the First Amendment gives newspapers the right to denounce the government, advocate revolution, attack public figures, and even be wrong. This may not be nice—but those who understand the strengths of a republic wouldn’t have it any other way.

Authored by: Michael Gartner

Americans don’t hesitate to say anything they please about a public performance. But the right to do so wasn’t established until the Cherry Sisters sued a critic who didn’t like their appalling vaudeville act.

Authored by: Michael Gartner

… is today’s newspaper. Here the executive editor of the Washington ‘Post’ takes us on a spirited dash through the minefields that await reporters and editors who gather and disseminate a most valuable commodity.

Authored by: Paul Lancaster

If the facts were dull, the story didn’t get printed. So reporters made up the facts. It’s only recently that newspapers have even tried to tell the truth .

Authored by: The Editors

What do you do if there’s no photographer around when Valentino meets Caruso in Heaven?

Authored by: John N. Cole

… you could battle for clean government, champion virtue, improve the public school, defend the consumer, arbitrate taste, and write lean, telling prose. Or at least that was the author’s dream. Here’s the reality.

Authored by: David Davidson

It exposed corruption. It hired drunks. Good writing was rewarded. No wonder every newspaperman wanted to work there.

The author recalls two generations of “Cliffie” life—hers and her mother’s—in the years when male and female education took place on opposite sides of the Cambridge Common and women were expected to wear hats in Harvard Square

Authored by: The Editors

Charles Hopkins received the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry at the battle of Gaines’ Mill, but his toughest fight was trying to survive at the Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp. He left this never-before-published record.

Authored by: Roy Jenkins

Fifty years after FDR first took office, a British statesman and historian evaluates the President’s role in the twentieth century’s most important partnership

Featured Articles

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.