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.
- 1891 October 28, The Advocate, Letter from John Livingston, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Topeka, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩