Whatever is Not Nailed Down is Mine and Whatever I Can Pry Loose is Not Nailed Down

Collis Huntington? Richard Ballinger? David Starr Jordan? Upton Sinclair?

Dear Quote Investigator: Collis Huntington was one of the top railroad tycoons in the 1800s. His business skills helped to build the first transcontinental railroad in the United States and many other rail links. But his detractors considered him ruthless and greedy. These negative traits are displayed in an extraordinary saying that he supposedly pronounced:

Whatever is not nailed down is mine. What I can pry loose is not nailed down.

Is Huntington really responsible for this colorful expression? I have found some books that claim with varying degrees of certainty that he said it. However, I have not found any direct evidence. Could you look into this question?

Quote Investigator: Collis Huntington was one of the Big Four railroad barons in the 1800s. QI has found no substantive evidence that he said this controversial quotation. He died in 1900 and the words were popularized starting in 1910 by David Starr Jordan who was the president of Stanford University.

Jordan applied the phrase to several individuals and groups of people whose conduct earned his disapproval. He said the words were the “motto of the exploiter”.  Yet, Jordan never put the saying directly into the mouth of any individual that he criticized. Instead, he said that the phrase was a guiding principle or motto of those he disliked. Indeed, a commentator in 1914 stated that Jordan himself had coined the saying, and it had thenceforth achieved nationwide circulation.

In 1922 Jordan disparagingly said that Collis Huntington used the quotation as his “code of ethics.” The prominent muckraking commentator Upton Sinclair echoed Jordan’s statement about Huntington in one of his books in 1923. Over a period of time the facts were garbled and by the 1960s and 1970s some writers claimed that Huntington himself spoke the quotation. Thus, the words of a severe critic of Huntington were reassigned to Huntington himself.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

The first two cites located by QI are in 1910 and both are due to David Starr Jordan the President of Stanford University. In the book “The Call of the Nation: A Plea For Taking Politics Out of Politics” Jordan presented the quotation as two separate maxims, and he did not attribute the words to any specific person. Instead Jordan envisioned a generalized figure that he labeled “the exploiter.” This figure was linked to the maxims in the following excerpt [CHDJ]:

“Whatever is not nailed down is mine.” This is the motto of the exploiter. “Whatever can be pried loose is not nailed down.” This is the second maxim in a country where people are rich, caring little in their present prosperity what shall become of the future. To give national property away creates a vested right in the expectation of receiving further concessions.

In the early days, and in the East, the states and the nation gave everything away. Land, forests, coal, water power, all were had for the asking. This created wealth, not wealth by industry, but wealth through luck and skill, wealth through the chances of gambling and adventure. All this was granted in the interest of the rapid filling up of a scantily populated country. The nation grew at the cost of a waste without parallel in the history of the world.

This waste was in a large degree necessary under the circumstances, but the time has come when we are no longer forced to continue it. The time is here when those who receive public aid must be held to render a corresponding public service.

In July of 1910 the New York Times published an interview with David Starr Jordan in which he connected the quotation to a specific set of people. Starr said that the United States Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger “and his associates have been living on the theory that ‘whatever is not nailed down is mine, and whatever can be pried loose is not nailed down.’”

Ballinger opened some tracts of federal land to commercial use, and Jordan disagreed with this policy. Note that Jordan did not claim that Ballinger or his associates actually said the quotation. Jordan used the phrase pejoratively as a concise and informal statement of a philosophy of resource development that he disliked.

Ballinger was the Secretary of the Interior under President William Taft who succeeded President Theodore Roosevelt. Ballinger controversially reversed some of the land management decisions that were made by the administration of Roosevelt. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times interview with Jordan [NYDJ]:

“I think the Administration will move rapidly toward the so-called Roosevelt policies, which are nothing more than the natural growth of the desires of the people. It must have been a great shock to Mr. Ballinger and his friends to see the storm that broke over them on the issue of conservation. He and his associates have been living on the theory that ‘whatever is not nailed down is mine, and whatever can be pried loose is not nailed down.’ Now and forever the people are coming to the notion that it is not good for men to make money out of the unearned increment when that increment belongs to the rest of us.

In 1914 the periodical “The World’s Work” ran a profile of David Starr Jordan that mentioned a version of the quotation. The author claimed that Jordan coined the phrase and it achieved some popularity nationwide. This excerpt shows that the saying was not attributed to a specific individual [WDJ]:

And, speaking for a wider audience, he coined a phrase that has had nationwide currency, when he described the opponents of the Conservation policy as men who believe that “all is mine which is not nailed down and nothing is nailed down that can be pried loose.”

In 1915 Jordan deployed the saying once again. This time he claimed that the phrase was a “sentiment found in the Northwest sometimes”. He used the quotation when he was giving a talk at a meeting of the American Fisheries Society about his work to achieve a legal framework to protect fish that migrated between the United States and Canada [CJS]:

A few representatives of the Alaska Packers’ Association are here, and even if they were not present, I should like to make an exception of them, because they have striven very earnestly to work for the long future, as well as for any immediate profits to the companies themselves. I have not felt that was always true of all the companies operating in Alaska. There is a sentiment found in the Northwest sometimes, that ‘whatever is not nailed down, is mine, and whatever I can pry loose is not nailed down,’ and that idea contributes sometimes to the detriment of all kinds of fishes and animals.

In 1918 Jordan used the saying again in a similar context during a “Semicentenary Celebration of the Founding of the University of California”. He was discussing international law and the need to protect salmon and other fish from overfishing. Jordan said the phrase encapsulated a principle that guided some of the “men in the State of Washington” [FDJ]:

While working on that law I discovered an interesting principle guiding the men in the State of Washington who were engaged in killing the fish that spawned in Canada and then came to the United States. It was very simple: “Whatever is not nailed down is mine; whatever can be pried off is not nailed down.”

The first linkage between the quotation and Collis Huntington that QI has located occurred in 1922 in a book written by David Starr Jordan who was hostile toward Huntington. As noted above, Jordan was the President of Stanford University, and Leland Stanford and his wife were the founders of the University.

Collis Huntington and Stanford were both railroad tycoons, and initially they worked together. However, they became antagonists and Huntington ousted Stanford from their partnership. Jordan believed that the actions of Huntington endangered the financial legacy of the University. Jordan did not claim that Huntington ever uttered the quotation. Instead, Jordan asserted that the phrase represented Huntington’s “code of ethics” [HCE]:

Huntington, as is well known, maintained a rigid code of ethics of his own framing. It was, however, a code of power, currently described about as follows: “Whatever is not nailed down is mine. Whatever I can pry loose is not nailed down.”

In 1923 the legendary Pulitzer-Prize-winning muckraker Upton Sinclair used the saying in reference to Huntington. Sinclair reported that Huntington used an underhanded method to obtain control of the Central Pacific railroad and remove Stanford from the Presidency. Sinclair then repeated Jordan’s declaration that the quotation essentially represented the motto of Huntington. In the following excerpt the “he” in the first sentence refers to Huntington [USH]:

Some years previously he had proposed that in order to determine the value of the Central Pacific stock, each of the four holders should put some of it on the market; this was done, and Huntington secretly bought it all, and then turned Stanford out and had himself made president of the road. Dr. Jordan described Huntington’s motto as : “Anything is mine that is not nailed down, and nothing is nailed that I can pry loose.”

In 1968 Atlantic magazine ran a review of a book titled “To Hell in a Day Coach” by Peter Lyon that discussed the railroad industry and its development. When the topic of Collis Huntington arose the reviewer presented the quotation and claimed that the words were attributed to Huntington [AMCH]:

Collis P. Huntington Mr. Lyon salutes as the biggest of the Four: “ruthless, grim, cold, crafty,” whom someone neatly described as “scrupulously dishonest,” though I personally prefer a remark, which Mr. Lyon fails to quote, attributed to Huntington himself: “Whatever is not nailed down is mine. Whatever I can pry loose is not nailed down.”

In 1974 New York magazine ran an article about a major auction house,  Parke Bernet, and the author referred to the quotation. The maxim was ascribed to Huntington [NYCH]:

Theirs are the usual morals of the marketplace–if no better, perhaps no worse–but one longs in vain for the candor of Collis P. Huntington’s “Whatever is not nailed down is mine. Whatever I can pry loose is not nailed down.”

Using Google search today on the internet will lead to websites such as QuotationsBook where the saying assigned to Collis Huntingdon [QBCH]:

Whatever is not nailed down is mine. What I can pry loose is not nailed down.
Huntingdon, Collis P.

In conclusion, evidence indicates that the quotation was popularized by David Starr Jordan after the death of Collis Huntington. Indeed, Jordan may have coined the expression, and there is no documentation that Huntington ever used it to describe his own behavior.

Jordan used the phrase in his criticism of Richard Ballinger, Collis Huntington, and others. He stated that the quotation was a guiding principle or motto of the people he admonished. Later writers apparently misunderstood or jumbled Jordan’s statement about Huntington. This type of distortion can occur through a chain of writers that paraphrase one another. In modern times the words are often attributed to Huntington.

QI thanks you for your question and hopes that the items you care about will not be pried up and taken away.

(This question was inspired by a enquiry from “Youngtrummy” in the comments section at the weblog of Freakonomics: Quotes Uncovered.)

[CHJD] 1910, “The Call of the Nation: A Plea For Taking Politics Out of Politics” by David Starr Jordan,  Pages 32-33, American Unitarian Association, Boston. (Google Book full view) link

[NYDJ] 1910 July 24, New York Times, Calls Insurgency Our Moral Growth, New York. (New York Times online archive) link

[WDJ] 1914 April, The World’s Work, “David Starr Jordan” by Isaac Russell, Page 654, Column 1, Volume 27, Number 6, Doubleday, Page & Company, Garden City, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[CJS] 1916 March, Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, Proceedings of the Forty Fifth Annual Meeting: September 1-4, 1915, Address of Dr. Jordan, Page 106, American Fisheries Society, New York, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[FDJ] 1919 [Conference held 1918 March], The Semicentenary Celebration of the Founding of the University of California with an Account of the Conference on International Relations, Botanical Information Which We Should Be Seeking by T.C. Frye, Discussion Section: Remarks by David Starr Jordan, Page 476, Berkeley, California. (Google Books full view) link

[HCE] 1922, “The Days of a Man: Being Memories of a Naturalist, Teacher, and Minor Prophet of Democracy” by David Starr Jordan, Page 479, World Book Company, Yonkers-on-Hudson, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[USH] 1970 [Reprint of 1923 edition], The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education, Chapter 32, The Story of Stanford, Page 153, AMS Press, New York. (Google snippet; Verified on paper in a 1970 reprint of 1923 book) link

[AMCH] 1968 July, The Atlantic magazine, “Who Shot the Iron Horse?” by Louis Kronenberger, Page 86, Volume 222, Number 1, The Atlantic Monthly Company, New York. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper) link

[NYCH] 1974 July 8, New York Magazine, “How to Avoid Getting Stung at Parke Bernet” by Leon Harris, Page 60, New York Media, LLC, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[QBCH] QuotationsBook website, Quote attributed to Collis P. Huntingdon,  “Whatever is not nailed down is mine …”, Accessed 2010 November 26. link

4 replies on “Whatever is Not Nailed Down is Mine and Whatever I Can Pry Loose is Not Nailed Down”

  1. Thank you. I am pleased that my long ago inquiry triggered some knowledgeable research. I have tried to verify this one for years. I once got hold of a railroad historian whose two-volume biography of the Union Pacific Railroad did not contain the quote. He told me if he had come across that quote he would have used it. A further inquiry to the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, which attributes the saying to Huntington, also got no reply, so I was happy to Google the phrase and Huntington yet one more time (November 2011) and find this posting. Good work!


  2. Youngtrummy: Thanks for visiting the website and thanks for posing the original question. I am glad I was able to help you to learn about this intriguing and inflammatory quotation. Your compliment is appreciated, and your interest in determining the accurate provenance of quotations is admirable.

    The Yale Book of Quotations does contain an attribution to Huntington for this saying. But the citation is dated 1985. This late date is actually a signal that there is a substantial probability that the ascription is dubious because the editors, Fred Shapiro and his team, have carefully conducted intensive and groundbreaking searches for each quotation. YBQ is a wonderful and entertaining reference and has my highest recommendation.

  3. Thanks for your note. Here’s another one that I would love to have the specific cite on: “The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” which I have seen attributed to Charles DeGaulle, and seemingly a good fit with a mordant Gallic world view. Ralph Keyes’s “The Quote Verfier” offers a baker’s dozen of alternative attributions as far-flung as Churchil and Rick Santorum, only to conclude “an old saying.” No mention in the Yale or other major quote sources in my local library.

  4. Youngtrummy: The quotation about graveyards and indispensable men is intriguing. I performed an exploration on this topic and the results are now available here.

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