Jay Gould? John Livingston? Delmore Schwartz? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: In the 19th-century a class of powerful industrialists were accused of unethical business practices, and the critical epithet “robber baron” appeared in journals and newspapers. The following incendiary remark has been attributed to the wealthy railroad magnate Jay Gould:
I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.
Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?
Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent citation located by QI appeared in a letter from an agrarian organizer that was published in October 1891 in a Topeka, Kansas newspaper. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The truth of Jay Gould’s assertion that he “could buy the vote of a farmer member of the legislature for the price of a bull calf, about seven dollars and a half,” was clearly disproved at Topeka last January, where not a single People’s party member of the Kansas House could be bought at any price.
It is my prayer to God that all farmers and other toilers will now unite in one solid phalanx, so that the other characteristic remark of the same gentleman, that he “could hire one-half the farmers to shoot the other half to death,” shall also show him to have overestimated the power of his money, supplemented though it may be by Satanic cunning,
President New York State Farmers’ Alliance.
Campville, Tioga Co., N.Y., Oct 21, 1891.
Gould died shortly afterward in 1892. This early instance of the quotation referred to “farmers” instead of the “working class”. The modern version evolved over time.
Livingston employed the phrase “characteristic remark” which signaled he had not heard the remark directly. Also, Livingston was clearly a forceful political adversary of Gould.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In November 1891 the “Kansas Agitator” of Garnett, Kansas printed a short piece that included a slightly different version of the quotation: 2
JAY GOULD says he “can buy the vote of a farmer member of the legislature for the price of a bull calf.” Again he says, “I can hire one-half the farmers of the United States to shoot the other half to death.”
In 1897 an article in the “Kansas Agitator” about army recruitment referred to the saying attributed to Gould. The word “people” was used instead of “farmers”, and “kill” replaced “shoot”: 3
With so many men out of employment, it is an easy matter for Uncle Sam to get all the soldiers he wants. True, these men receive but a pittance as soldiers, but they prefer that to starvation. It is thus that the Goulds and their ilk are enabled to hire one-half of the people to kill the other half.
In 1899 “The Progressive Farmer” of Raleigh, North Carolina ascribed to Gould a modified combination of the two quotes from 1891: 4
It seems to me that if a convention of farmers should in this manner declare to the world that they, themselves, are unfit to hold office, they would prove that Jay Gould was right when he said he could hire one half of the fool farmers to kill the other half, with the price of a yearling calf.
The version with “people” instead of “farmers” continued to circulate in 1910 when it appeared in a Benton, Missouri newspaper: 5
“I can hire one-half of the people to kill the other half,” said Jay Gould. Well, the capitalists couldn’t do this if they were not able to deceive and mislead the people.
In 1938 the prominent poet Delmore Schwartz crafted the work “Pleasure” which included an instance of the saying with “working class” instead of “farmers” or “people”. Also, “fight” appeared instead of “shoot” or “kill”: 6
“I can hire half the working class to fight the other half.” So said Jay Gould . . .
Another instance using “working class” was spoken in October 1939 by George Moorad who was the city editor of the “Santa Cruz Sentinel” during a talk about the history of propaganda: 7
“When Jay Gould said, many years ago, that he could hire one half of the working class to kill the other half, he undoubtedly was boasting of the power of propaganda as opposed to mass thinking.”
In 1961 the “Chicago Daily Tribune” printed a guest editorial that provided an anonymous ascription for a version using the word “destroy”: 8
About a century ago, a buccaneer railroad tycoon bragged that he could hire half the working class to destroy the other half.
In 1964 a columnist in “The Cincinnati Enquirer” asserted that Gould employed an instance with “working class” in 1886. QI has not found support for this claim: 9
JAY GOULD bragged in 1886, that he could hire “one-half of the working class to kill the other half,” and he proved he was right in the first strikes of the Knights of Labor.
The quotation has continued to circulate in modern times. For example, in 2014 a letter to the editor published in a Woodstock, Illinois newspaper said the following: 10
The Gilded Ages’ most reprehensible tycoon, Jay Gould, once said, “I can hire one-half the working class to kill the other half.”
In conclusion, there is some evidence that Jay Gould made the statement in the October 1891 citation. But the quotation was presented by a bitter opponent who did not hear the words directly. Thus, the evidence was not strong, and the accuracy of the quotation remains unclear.
In addition, the wording evolved over time. The term “farmers” was replaced by “people” and “working class”. Also, “shoot” was replaced by “kill”, “destroy”, and “fight”.
Image Notes: Portrait of Jay Gould from the Bain News Service held by the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. U.S. Army Infantry insignia showing crossed firearms. Images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been resized, retouched, and cropped.
(Great thanks to Jeff Ewener and Fred Shapiro whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1891 October 28, The Advocate, Letter from John Livingston, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Topeka, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1891 November 17, Kansas Agitator, Untitled article, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Garnett, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1897 May 21, Kansas Agitator, Plenty of Men for the Army, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Garnett, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1899 July 11, The Progressive Farmer, Opposes Bro. Barnes Amendment, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1910 July 16, Scott County Kicker, What Does It Mean?, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Benton, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2006, The Oxford Book of American Poetry, Chosen and Edited by David Lehman, Poet: Delmore Schwartz, Poem: Pleasure, Date: 1938, Start Page 594, Quote Page 594, Oxford University Press, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1939 October 19, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Propaganda Methods Told In Talk To 20-30 Clubbers, Quote Page 5, Column 2 and 3, Santa Cruz, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1961 April 13, Chicago Daily Tribune, Guest Editorials: Unbrotherly Unions (Federation News), Quote Page 12, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1964 June 29, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Big Fight Looms Over Zoning Change For Sears by Ed Wimmer, Quote Page 3, Column 7 and 8, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2014 April 29, Northwest Herald, Section: It’s Your Write, Letter to the editor from Nicholas C. Kockler of Woodstock, Quote Page A5, Column 2, Woodstock, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩