I Never Argue with a Man Who Buys Ink by the Barrel

Roger Branigin? Mark Twain? Charles Brownson? Irving Leibowitz? William I. Greener Jr.? H. L. Mencken? Benjamin Franklin?

Dear Quote Investigator: If a newspaper editor or publisher dislikes a viewpoint you are advocating then you may have to endure a long series of negative articles. The following three statements express this notion:

  • Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel
  • I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.
  • Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.

Many famous wordsmiths have been credited with this saying, e.g., Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and H. L. Mencken. I become very suspicious when so many luminaries receive credit. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest citation located by QI appeared in “The Indianapolis News” of Indiana in 1962. Attorney Roger Branigin delivered a speech to more than 600 listeners at a conference. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Branigin, active for years in Democratic politics and an aspirant for the nomination for governor in 1955, said in referring to newspaper publishers, “I never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

Branigin’s policy of avoiding arguments with news people may have helped him. He became the governor of Indiana a few years later in 1965, and he served for one four-year term. Currently, Branigin is the leading candidate for creator of this saying although there is evidence that others used it in roughly the same timeframe.

Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and H. L. Mencken had all died before 1962; there is no substantive evidence that they employed the saying.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The notion of buying “ink by the barrel” appeared considerably earlier. Here is a humorous example from a Tremont, Pennsylvania newspaper in 1885: 2

“I’ve got a son in Chicago,” said an old gentleman on the train, proudly, “and he’s doing so much business he has to buy his ink by the barrel.

“What! Ink by the barrel! Well, he must be doing a most enormous business. What business is he in?”

“Why, he runs a printing office.”—Chicago Ledger.

In 1916 “The Indianapolis News” used the phrase “spilled printer’s ink by the barrel” to describe the political advocacy of a newspaper editor named Frank E. Babcock: 3

Frank has fought the battles of the Democrats in this county for years. He put up his money and spilled printer’s ink by the barrel, and never asked for anything in the way of an appointment until he thought he would like to be postmaster.

In 1962 Roger Branigin received credit for the saying under examination in the pages of an Indianapolis newspaper as noted previously.

In 1964 the book “My Indiana” by columnist Irving Leibowitz described newspaper magnate Eugene C. Pulliam who owned several papers including “The Indianapolis Star” and “The Arizona Republic”: 4

Pulliam’s power lies in the relentless, scorching heat of his newspapers. Few protest. The politicians are too timid and the people are too cowed.

The politician Charles Brownson minimized altercations with Pulliam, and Leibowitz credited the saying to him: 5

Former Congressman Charles Brownson, Indianapolis Republican, used to say, “I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

The citation above appeared in the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press. 6

In 1965 “Fortune” magazine published an advertising section for the state of Indiana which included the following: 7

A former congressman from Indianapolis is reputed to have said of Pulliam: “I never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

In 1966 a sports columnist in Indiana described the fraught relationship between baseball slugger Roger Maris and journalists: 8

Maris and the press soon formed a mutual un-admiration society. And he finally tripped over the old rule of politics: never argue with a man who buys his ink by the barrel.

In 1968 when Governor of Indiana Roger Branigin neared the end of his term he attended a farewell tribute party. Pulliam delivered a speech and Branigin responded: 9

The governor for the most part replied in verse. To Pulliam, who was master of ceremonies, Branigin said:

I shall not argue in this carol
With one who buys ink by the barrel.

In 1978 “The Official Rules” by Paul Dickson labeled the saying “Greener’s Law” after the publicist William I. Greener Jr. The acknowledgement notation “AO” meant that Dickson acquired the rule and ascription from columnist Alan Otten: 10

Greener’s Law. Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel. (Bill Greener. AO.)

In 1980 a newspaper in Gaffney, South Carolina printed an opinion piece which reassigned the saying to Mark Twain: 11

I do not intend to get into a confrontation with the news media for as Mark Twain once said, “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

In 1983 a columnist in the “Detroit Free Press” reassigned the saying to prominent commentator H. L. Mencken: 12

I recently read a quote by H. L. Mencken that said you should never argue with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.

In 1998 an opinion piece in a newspaper of Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada reassigned the saying to statesman Benjamin Franklin 13

In the end, I am reminded of what Benjamin Franklin once said: “Never argue with anyone who buys the ink by the barrel.”

In conclusion, QI tentatively credits this expression to Roger Branigin although Charles Brownson is also a good candidate. Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and Benjamin Franklin are unlikely coiners of this saying because their ascriptions appeared quite late.

Image Notes: Illustration of printing press; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Mark Twain circa 1890 painted by James Carroll Beckwith; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to wonderful author Vic DiGenti whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Barry Popik for his valuable research on this topic. Popik pointed to the 1964 citation. Also, thanks to Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, Fred R. Shapiro, and Nigel Rees for their helpful work recorded in the references: “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”, “The Yale Book of Quotations”, and “Brewer’s Famous Quotations”. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake who accessed “My Indiana” via the University of North Carolina library system.)

Update History: On April 27, 2018 the 1964 citation was updated to reflect its verification, and the short excerpt about Pulliam was added to the article. On April 29, 2018 the 1965 “Fortune” citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1962 January 15, The Indianapolis News, Economy, Precision Urged on Pressmen, Quote Page 17, Column 7 and 8, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1885 March 7, West Schuylkill Press, Stray Bits of Humor, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Tremont, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1916 January 4, The Indianapolis News, Power of Machine Seen in the Tenth, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1964, My Indiana by Irving Leibowitz, Chapter 3: Indianapolis, Quote Page 76, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans; thanks to the University of North Carolina library system)
  5. 1964, My Indiana by Irving Leibowitz, Chapter 3: Indianapolis, Quote Page 76, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans; thanks to the University of North Carolina library system)
  6. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 64, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1965 January, Fortune, Advertising Section: Indiana, Start Page 55, Quote Page 74, Column 1, Time Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans from archive.org)
  8. 1966 December 14, The Indianapolis Star, Sports Over Lightly by Bob Collins (Sports Editor), Quote Page 39, Column 1, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1968 November 19, The Terre Haute Tribune, Pay Farewell Tribute to Gov. Branigin (Associated Press), Quote Page 9, Column 1, Terre Haute, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1978, The Official Rules by Paul Dickson, Quote Page 74, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1980 November 21, The Gaffney Ledger, Section: Opinion Page, School Board Chairman Explains Policy Stand by James C. ‘Jim’ Ramsey (Chairman, Board of Trustees, Cherokee County Schools), Quote Page 4A, Column 4, Gaffney, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1983 May 25, Detroit Free Press, Terrible Jean: Every family has its cross to bear, even if unbearable by Jean Fitzgerald, Quote Page 14D, Column 1, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1998 July 8, Nanaimo Daily News, Chamber acted on the information it had by Michael C Blumel (President of Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce), Quote Page A8, Column 2, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com)