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Speaking Of Business

June 2024
9min read

A sampling of the wisdom of Americans from Ben Franklin to Cameron Crowe

All the perplexities, confusions, and distresses in America arise… from downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation.—John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, August 25, 1787


Nothing but money is sweeter than honey. —Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1735

The creditors are a superstitious sect, great observers of set days and times.—Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1737 [For all his advice about money, records of the Bank of North America in Philadelphia show that Franklin was overdrawn at least three times a week.]

A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing.—Alexander Hamilton, letter to Robert Morris, April 30, 1781 [One of the reasons the Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan supported a tax cut in testimony before the Senate Budget Committee on January 25 of this year was, he said, that he feared that continuing surpluses might actually erase the “national blessing.” If this happened, he worried, the government might involve itself in private enterprise by investing its newfound wealth in stocks and bonds. Hamilton also understood why eliminating the national debt (much larger in proportion to governmental revenues in his time than in ours) was so difficult: “To extinguish a debt which exists and to avoid contracting more are ideas almost always favored by public feeling and opinion; but to pay taxes for the one or the other purpose, which are the only means of avoiding the evil, is always more or less unpopular.”]

The selfish spirit of commerce knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain.—Thomas Jefferson, letter to Larkin Smith, 1809

Every monopoly and all exclusive privileges are granted at the expense of the public, which ought to receive a fair equivalent.—Andrew Jackson, vetoing the bill to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States, 1832 [The battle over whether to continue the bank pitted the populist Westerner against the privileged Easterners who ran the bank for the benefit of their own moneyed class—or at least Jackson managed to cast the issue in that way, and his veto propelled him to re-election.]

No nation was ever ruined by trade.—Benjamin Franklin, Thoughts on Commercial Subjects [A saying that could have been emblazoned upon the shields of those who battled for NAFTA.]

Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I will not sue you, for the law takes too long. I will ruin you.—Cornelius Vanderbilt, letter, 1854 [Vanderbilt, called the Commodore because he established himself in shipping before turning his attention to railroads, did not speak the same language as Thoreau, below. This letter was addressed to his associates Charles Morgan and Cornelius Garrison, who had planned to undermine a Vanderbilt transit company in order to replace it with one of their own.]

Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.—Henry David Thoreau, “Baker Farm,” in Waiden , 1854 [The thought is reminiscent of Wordsworth’s line, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” in The World Is Too Much With Us , 1807.]

The dealers in money have always, since the days of Moses, been the dangerous class.—Peter Cooper, c. 1875 [Cooper, whose many business accomplishments included building the first steam locomotive in America and introducing the Bessemer blast furnace in this country, is remembered best for founding the Cooper Union school in New York City. He used to say that his life fell into three parts: 30 years to get started, 30 years to gain a fortune, and 30 years to dispose of it wisely.]

The almighty dollar, that great object of universal devotion throughout our land…—Washington Irving, “The Creole Village,” in The New Yorker , November 12, 1836

Corporations will do what individuals would not dare do.—Peter C. Brooks, remark to Edward Everett, July 15, 1845 [Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., describes Brooks in The Age of Jackson as the wealthiest man in Boston. Everett, a one-time president of Harvard who held a multiplicity of political posts—U.S. representative, U.S. senator, governor, ambassador, Secretary of State—also was famous as a public speaker. He delivered what was intended as the principal address at the dedication, on November 19, 1863, of the cemetery on the Gettysburg battlefield and graciously admitted to the day’s other speaker, Abraham Lincoln, that “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” See also Henry Demarest Lloyd (page 108) and Ambrose Bierce (page 109).]

Credit is the vital air of the system of modern commerce.—Daniel Webster, speech in the U.S. Senate, March 18,1834 [Webster was speaking in support of the Bank of the United States.]

Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back. --Montgomery Ward & Co., catalogue, 1875 [This was the motto of the Montgomery Ward mail-order business, 1872–2001, RIP.]


Join the union, girls, and together say, “Equal pay for equal work.” —Susan B. Anthony, in The Revolution newspaper, March 18, 1869 [An early statement of a theme that remains familiar.]

The public be damned! I’m working for my stockholders. —William H. Vanderbilt, comment to a news reporter, October 2, 1882 [This impatient remark by the railroad tycoon, eldest son of the Commodore, was seized upon immediately as a summation of the attitude of the captains of industry toward the common people.]

You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.—William Jennings Bryan, “Cross of Gold” speech, Democratic National Convention, Chicago, July 8, 1896 [The convention was dominated by Midwestern and Western populists who opposed the exclusive gold standard for currency and favored free coinage of silver. Bryan’s powerful speech won him the presidential nomination on the fifth ballot. In the speech, Bryan also anticipated closely what supply-siders in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush referred to as the “trickle-down” theory of wealth distribution. In Bryan’s words: “There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, [is] that if you make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.” See also Franklin D. Roosevelt, on page 110.]

Buying and selling is essentially antisocial. —Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000-1887, 1888 [Bellamy’s Utopian novel depicted a socialistic commonwealth in which individuals led fulfilling lives because the state had eliminated inefficiencies and waste in the production and distribution of goods. This alternative vision to the unfettered private enterprise exemplified by Commodore Vanderbilt had great appeal. The book sold millions of copies and led to the formation of many Bellamy Clubs and a Nationalist Party advocating his ideas.]

October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks in. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.—Mark Twain, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, 1894 [Twain didn’t heed his own advice. He repeatedly invested in new ventures and repeatedly lost money, most notably in the case of a typesetting machine that never quite worked.]

Corporations have no souls, but they can love each other.—Henry Demarest Lloyd, Wealth Against Commonwealth, 1894 [The idea that nnrnnratinns are sniilless nredates considerably the modern era of downsizing, restructuring, and mass layoffs. Lloyd’s comment recalls Sir Edward Coke’s pronouncement in the early seventeenth century: “They (corporations) cannot commit treason, nor be outlawed nor excommunicated, for they have no souls” (from The Case of Button’s Hospital ). Another variant is the aphorism from the prolific Anonymous, “Corporations have neither bodies to be kicked, nor souls to be damned.”]


We demand that big business give people a square deal.—Theodore Roosevelt, 1901 [TR was referring to setting limits on U.S. Steel, the world’s first billiondollar corporation, assembled that year by J. P. Morgan when he bought out Andrew Carnegie’s steelworks. Right away U.S. Steel controlled 65 percent of the nation’s steel production. Roosevelt’s attitude toward businessmen continued to harden over time. After financiers blamed him for the Panic of 1907, he retaliated with a memorable line, suggesting in a speech given in Provincetown, Massachusetts, that the crisis had been brought on by “certain malefactors of great wealth,” who wished to discredit his policy of regulating the railroads.]

I believe the power to make money is a gift from God.… I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money; and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.—John D. Rockefeller, interview, 1905 [Finley Peter Dunne interpreted John D.’s divine mandate, in Mr. Dooley Says , 1910, in these terms: “He’s kind iv a society f’r the prevention of croolty to money. If he finds a man misusing his money he takes it away fr’m him an’ adopts it.”]


Nobody can live on one salary anymore.—Will Rogers, Daily Telegrams, October 18, 1929 [Note the humorist’s impeccable timing, just 11 days before the great stock market crash.]

[Wall Street:] A thoroughfare that begins in a graveyard and ends in a river.—Anonymous, traditional saying [For the benefit of non-New Yorkers: Trinity Church, with its graveyard, is at one end of Wall Street; the East River is at the other.]

Civilization and profits go hand in hand.—Calvin Coolidge. speech, New York City, November 27, 1920

Corporation, n . An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911

Most men are the servants of corporations.—Woodrow Wilson, The Old Order Changeth, in The New Freedom, 1913 [The complete sentence reads: “There was a time when corporations played a very minor part in our business affairs, but now most men are the servants of corporations.” This is the “New Freedom”?]

Money is like an arm or a leg— use it or lose it.—Henry Ford, interview in The New York Times, November 8, 1931 [Ford was nothing if not direct. This is the same man who was quoted in the Chicago Tribune of May 25, 1916, as saying, “History is more or less bunk.”]

With all their faults, trade-unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed.—Clarence Darrow, in The Railroad Trainman, 1909

The chief business of the American people is business.—Calvin Coolidge, speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D.C., January 17, 1925 [Coolidge complacently sums up the Roaring Twenties. But see Will Rogers, above.]

The first theory is that if we make the rich richer, somehow they will let a part of their prosperity trickle down to the rest of us. The second theory…was the theory that if we make the average of mankind comfortable and secure, their prosperity will rise upward… through the ranks.—Franklin D. Roosevelt, campaign speech in Detroit, October 2, 1932 [Another early statement of the “trickle-down” theory, and still the crucial issue in debates over whether and how to cut estate and income taxes. And see William Jennings Bryan, on page 108.]

It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; It’s a depression when you lose yours.—Anonymous [The line was used by at least two Presidents, Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan.]

For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa. The difference did not exist.—Charles E. Wilson, testimony, U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, January 15, 1953 [Often quoted, somewhat unfairly, in the vice versa form, “What is good for General Motors is good for the country.” “Engine Charlie,” as the GM chairman was known, to distinguish him from “Electric Charlie,” the Charles Wilson who headed General Electric, made this remark in the hearings on his nomination to be Secretary of Defense.]


You can’t mine coal without machine guns.—Richard B. Mellon, testimony, U.S. Congress, quoted in Time, June 14, 1937 [This was a year of great industrial turmoil, with hundreds of thousands of workers quitting their jobs or participating in illegal sit-down strikes.]

The trouble with the profit system has always been that it is highly unprofitable to most people.—E. B. White, 1944

The customer is always right.—Carl Sandburg, Good Morning, America, 1928 [The saying was in popular currency. It also was the motto of Selfridges, the London department store, founded by H. Gordon Selfridge, 1857–1947.]

My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it till now.—John F. Kennedy, private remark, evening of April 10, 1962 [The President was angry because he felt that he had been double-crossed. His administration had leaned on the steelworkers’ union to agree to a noninflationary wage increase, but the ink on the contract was hardly dry when the president of U.S. Steel came to the White House and handed JFK a mimeographed announcement that his company was increasing the price of steel anyway. The President’s private comment was all over the newspapers the next day. He later qualified the remark by saying that his father had been referring only to steel men. The administration pressured smaller steel companies to hold the line on prices, and within 72 hours U.S. Steel rescinded its increase.]

No one on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time on my business.”—Paul E. Tsongas, quoting a letter from a friend [The thought was expressed in a variety of ways in the 1980s. Senator Tsongas (D-Mass.) cited the letter when announcing that because of illness he would not finish his 1979–85 term. He ran for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, won by Bill Clinton, and died in 1997 of cancer-related pneumonia.]

Greed is good.—Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone, Wall Street, screenplay, 1987 [The full statement, as uttered at a stockholders’ meeting by Gordon Gekko (portrayed by Michael Douglas in an Oscar-winning performance), is: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” The Gekko character was modeled after the high-flying financier Ivan Boesky, who told students at the University of California Business School in Berkeley, in 1986, that “Greed is healthy.”]

The bottom line is in heaven.—Edwin Herbert Land, shareholders’ meeting, Polaroid Corporation, April 26, 1977

He’s a businessman. I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.—Mario Puzo, The Godfather, 1969 [The Godfather, Don Corleone, preparing to negotiate with a Hollywood producer.]


Show me the money!—Cameron Crowe, screenplay, Jerry Maguire, 1996 [This insistent demand by a pro football player (a role for which Cuba Gooding, Jr., won an Oscar) summed up the go-go 1990s—and also brings us back full circle to Benjamin Franklin’s observation of 1735.]

When a person with experience meets a person with money, the person with experience will get the money. And the person with the money will get some experience.—Leonard Lauder, February 1985 [Lauder was speaking of the early years of the Estée Lauder Company, founded by his mother.]

I just want to say one word to you—just one word… plastics.—Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, The Graduate, screenplay, 1967 [The line is not in the novel by Charles Webb on which the film was based.]

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