A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from July 19, 2019
“Ants on a log, floating down the river to the waterfall” (bureaucracy)

"Ants on a log, floating down the river (to the waterfall), and each ant thinking he was steering” is an old political saying/metaphor. This was printed in The Daily Gazette (Lawrence, KS) on May 3, 1906:

“Fred Vandegrif was looking on at the state convention. ‘These delegates remind me of a story an old logging friend of mine used to tell,’ he remarked, and everybody stopped to listen as they always do when Vandegrif begins a story. ‘He said that every spring when his logs came down the river, every log was covered with ants, and every ant thought he was steering the log.’”

Illinois businessman, politician and author J. Howard Jayne (who died at age 75 in 1944) wrote under the pen name of “Mose Allen.” This Mose Allen saying was printed in the Cook County Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), on August 27, 1915:

“When politicians gather at the State House they remind me of a bunch of red ants on a log floating down the river:—every one thinks he is steering it.”

“These bureaucrats in Washington remind me of a bunch of ants on a log floating down a stream. Every one of the ants thinks he is steering the log” was printed in the El Paso (TX) Times on August 25, 1943. Washington (DC) political columnist Peter Edson wrote this for his syndicated newspaper column on March 24, 1951:

“Air Force Undersecretary John A. McCone has a story about how important everybody in Washington thinks he is. ‘They’re all like ants caught on a log that’s floating down the river.’ When asked to explain, McCone says, ‘Every one of those ants thinks he’s steering that log.’”

The “ants on a log” saying is sometimes credited to American author and humorist Mark Twain (1835-1910), but there is no evidence that Twain ever said it.

The food term “ants on a log” consists of raisin “ants” and peanut butter on a celery stalk “log.”

[This entry was assisted by research from the Quote Investigator.]


3 May 1906, The Daily Gazette (Lawrence, KS), pg. 2, col. 2: 
Fred Vandegrif was looking on at the state convention. “These delegates remind me of a story an old logging friend of mine used to tell,” he remarked, and everybody stopped to listen as they always do when Vandegrif begins a story. “He said that every spring when his logs came down the river, every log was covered with ants, and every ant thought he was steering the log.”

4 May 1906, Atchison (KS) Daily Globe, “News and Comment,” pg. 3, col. 8:
James E. Hurley, general manager of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, told the following story at the convention: “These fellows remind me of the time I lived on the Mississippi River. A great many saw logs came down the stream every spring. One day I was watching the procession of logs and an Irish friend of mine who sat by me, said: ‘Jim, do you mind the number of sawing that come down every spring?” I said I did, and he asked: ‘Do you notice that there are about a thousand red ants on each log?’ It old him that I had noticed that fact, and he added: ‘And Jim, every little red ant thinks he is steering the log.’”

10 May 1906, The Weekly Kansas Chief (Troy, KS), “The Weekly Kansas Chief” by H. J. Calnan, pg. 4, col. 5:
James E. Hurley, general manager of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, told the following story at the convention: “These fellows remind me of the time when I lived on the Mississippi river. A great many saw logs came down the stream every spring. One day I was watching the procession of logs and an Irish friend of mine who sat by me, said: ‘Jim, do you mind the number of sawlogs that come down every spring?’ I said I did, and he asked: ‘Do you notice that there are about a thousand red ants on each log?” I told him that I had noticed that fact, and he added: ‘And Jim, every little red ant thinks he is steering the log.’”

OCLC WorldCat record
Some people
Author: Mose Allen; J H Jayne
Publisher: Monmouth, Ill. : Howard Jane, 1915.
Edition/Format: Print book : English

27 August 1915, Cook County Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), pg. 6, col. 6: 
27 August 1915, DuPage County Register (Wheaton, IL), pg. 1, col. 6:
FOR SECRETARY OF STATE.
Howard Jayne Writes Under the Name of Mose Allen—Here Are a Few of His Proverbs.
(...)
When politicians gather at the State House they remind me of a bunch of red ants on a log floating down the river:—every one thinks he is steering it.

25 August 1943, El Paso (TX) Times, “Everyday Events” by W. J. Hooten, pg. 4, col. 2:
DID you hear the latest definition of bureaucracy?

Two Valley farmers were talking. One said:

“These bureaucrats in Washington remind me of a bunch of ants on a log floating down a stream. Every one of the ants thinks he is steering the log.”

5 March 1947, Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, ‘Father Schwab Urges Union Against Atheism At Catholic-Jewish Youth Inter-Faith Meet,” pg. 8, col. 2:
(Rev. Leo Schwab of Our Lady of Lourdes Church.—ed.)
To emphasize the urgency of internal accord in this country Father Schwab cited a cartoon which showed a belligerent colony of ants on a log floating towards a water fall. The ants were so busy fighting among themselves that they were unaware of the tragedy toward which they progressed.

24 March 1951, Coshocton (OH) Tribune, “Washington Column” by Peter Edson (NEA), pg. 5, col. 4:
Air Force Undersecretary John A. McCone has a story about how important everybody in Washington thinks he is. “They’re all like ants caught on a log that’s floating down the river.” When asked to explain, McCone says, “Every one of those ants thinks he’s steering that log.”

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
31 January 1956, Daily Sentinel (Rome, NY), “Washington Merry-Go-Round” by Drew Pearson, pg. 6, col. 8:
“It reminds me of a log jam up in the Northwest when spring comes and the logs break up and start tumbling down the river,” he (Meyer Kestnbaum, head of Hart, Schaffner and Marx—ed.) said.

“There are ten thousand ants on each log and each ant thinks he’s steering,”

Google Books
Ohio Cities and Villages
Volumes 5-6
1957
Pg. 334:
This reminds me of an old farmer down in Southern Ohio where I was born and raised, who was watching a group of ants on a log floating down the river. The ants were swarming all over the log. The Congressman from that district walked up the farmer and said, “Why are you watching those ants?” The farmer replied, ‘They remind me of all you officials in Washington, scurrying all over the place, each one thinking he’s steering the log.”

Google Books
The New Republic
Volume 146
1962
Pg. 40:
And he compared the Pentagon to “a log going down the river with 25,000 ants on it, each thinking he’s steering the log.”

17 December 1978, Sunday Newhall SIgnal (Newhall, CA), pg. 8, col. 1:
Anatomy Of A Supervisor
(Pardon My Incision)

Like a thousand ants
adrift on a log
lost in a mist
of administrative fog.

Finally drifting ashore
they all shouted and cheered
each ant was convinced
that he really had steered.
John A. Milewski, Canyon Country

30 December 1978, Tampa (FL) Times, “Indochina still seethes with brutality” by Nick Thimmesch (Los Angeles Times), pg. 4A, col. 5:
Popular TV and print versions today depict the United States as the villain. Actually, as it was once remarked, the U.S>, in terms of influencing the region, was like one of 10,000 ants floating on a log, each of whom thought it alone was steering.

Google Books
Project Management for Executives
By Harold Kerzner
New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold
1982
Pg. 268:
It’s like ants on a log in a river and each one thinks he’s steering- when none of them are.

Google Books
Command of the Seas
By John F. Lehman
New York, NY: C. Scribner’s Sons
1988
Pg. 421:
It is the classic allegory of the ninety thousand ants on a log floating down the Mississippi, with each one thinking he is steering.

Google Books
Modern American Indian Tribal Government and Politics
By Howard L. Meredith
Tsaile, AZ: Navajo Community College Press
1993
Pg. 143:
It is sometimes useful to remember Mark Twain’s definition of the nation’s bureaucracy — fifty thousand ants on a log floating down the Mississippi River, with everyone of them thinking they are running it.

31 January 1999, Detroit (MI) News, “Quote-Acrostic,” comics sec., pg. ?, col. 7:
When I think of bureaucracy, I think of Mark Twain’s definition. ‘Bureaucracy, he aid, if fifty thousand ants on a log floating down the Mississippi River and every one of them thinking they’re running it.’

Google Books
Guerrilla USA:
The George Jackson Brigade and the Anticapitalist Underground of the 1970s

By Daniel Burton-Rose
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
2010
Pg. 181:
“These hard-core crazies are like ten thousand ants on a log floating down the river. They all form their little cells, and their little groups, and each cell thinks it controls wherever the log goes. But these crazies are not the people, and they are not going to have any impact where the log goes. The log will follow the river, no matter what the ants do.”
(Spoken by Police Chief Robert Hanson.—ed.)

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • Friday, July 19, 2019 • Permalink