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 and QI will be glad to research this saying. The image above is part of a railroad bond that features his portrait. There is no evidence that Huntington 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.