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The Gilded Politics Of Mark Twain

Anyone hoping to hammer into a coherent ideology Mark Twain’s robustly critical admonitions on politics and politicians is bound to be disappointed.

Here is Twain on the Congress of his day: “An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.” That is taken from A Tramp Abroad, written in Hartford, Connecticut. Twain wrote most of his important novels in Hartford, including The Adventures of Tom SawyerThe Prince and the PauperLife on the MississippiAdventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Towards the end of his life, tragedy became the uninvited guest at Twain’s table. He lost his beloved wife, both a spiritual anchor and a literary censor. Twain did not believe writers should self-censor. Olivia Clemons was concerned about her husband’s place in the world, as all good wives should be, and worked to keep his combustible politics from bursting into flame – at least publically -- and singeing the politicians of his day and ours.

The following dictation note is taken from the Autobiography of Mark Twain: “Look at the tyranny of party -- at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty -- a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes -- and which turns voters into chattels, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.” Twain left instructions that his uncensored autobiography, a  product of his political “pen dipped in Hell,” should not be let loose on the general public until a century had passed after his death.

This from A letter to Helene Picard, in 1902: “Yes, you are right -- I am a moralist in disguise; it gets me into heaps of trouble when I go thrashing around in political questions.” Helen Picard was the French member of Twain’s private “Juggernaut Club.”

Here is Twain’s note to Helen, published in the Lady’s Home Journal posthumously, as was much of his writing on politics: “I have a Club, a private Club, which is all my own. I appoint the Members myself, and they can't help themselves, because I don't allow them to vote on their own appointment and I don't allow them to resign! They are all friends whom I have never seen (save one), but who have written friendly letters to me. By the laws of my Club there can be only one Member in each country, and there can be no male Member but myself. Someday I may admit males, but I don't know -- they are capricious and inharmonious, and their ways provoke me a good deal. It is a matter which the Club shall decide.”


Twain died on April 21, 1910 of a heart attack in Redding Connecticut, where he had moved to escape certain ghosts. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the death of those he most loved liberated him. Following his near bankruptcy, the premature death of his daughter Susy of spinal meningitis at age 24 in 1896 and the passing of his wife Olivia in 1904, Twain went “thrashing around in political questions.”

Was Twain serious in his political writings? Indeed, is it possible to take seriously any humorist? He was deadly serious, and his writings did get him into no end of trouble with his political targets, among them President Teddy Roosevelt. Twain thought Roosevelt a rare political showman and a preposterous fraud. Roosevelt, for his part, wanted to strangle Twain – and said so.

But the question is an important and serious one: can someone with a comic turn of mind say anything useful about politics in the widest sense of the word? For a broad thinker like Aristotle, politics was anything and everything having to do with the polis, the nation state of his day. The family, for instance, was, in Aristotle’s view, a primary political unit.  What we know of Socrates we have gleaned from two sources: Plato, whom everyone takes seriously, and Aristophanes, the most famous Greek comic playwright of his day and a contemporary of Socrates.

One day, someone, possibly a political flunky whose patron Aristophanes had raked over the coals in one of his nuclear tipped theatrical satires, approached him in the street and demanded to know, “Don’t you take anything seriously?” to which Aristophanes replied, “Of course, I take comedy seriously.” Very Twainian that response.

Was Twain serious when he said of Teddy Roosevelt in a letter to Joseph Twichel in 1905, “We are insane, each in our own way, and with insanity goes irresponsibility. Theodore the man is sane; in fairness we ought to keep in mind that Theodore, as statesman and politician, is insane and irresponsible.” A year earlier, Olivia Clemons had died in Florence, Italy.

Olivia was six years gone when the following item written by Twain appeared in The Ottowa Free Trader in 1911. William Howard Taft, a conservative Republican and a great disappointment to Roosevelt, had just been sworn in as President: “Astronomers assure us that the attraction of gravitation on the surface of the sun is twenty-eight times as powerful as is the force at the surface of the earth, that an object which weighs 217 pounds elsewhere would weigh 6,000 pounds there. For seven years this country has lain smothering under a burden like that, an incubus representing in the person of President Roosevelt, the difference between 217 pounds and 6,000.

“Thanks be we got rid of this disastrous burden day before yesterday, at last -- forever, probably not. Probably for only a brief breathing spell, wherein under Mr. Taft, we may hope to get back some of our health. Four years from now we may expect to have Mr. Roosevelt sitting on us again, with his twenty-eight times the weight of any other Presidential burden that a hostile Providence could impose upon us for our sins.

“Our people have adored this showy charlatan as perhaps no impostor of his brood has been adored since the golden calf; so it is to be expected that the nation will want him back again after he is done hunting other wild animals heroically in Africa, with the safeguards and advertising equipment of a park of artillery and a brass band.”

And indeed, Roosevelt, frustrated with the non-progressive policies of Taft, did make a showy comeback a year later as a “Bull-Moose” candidate for president. William McKinley’s Vice President, Roosevelt became president following McKinley’s assassination, was elected to a full term in 1904 and vigorously promoted a progressive agenda. The person Roosevelt groomed for president, Taft, is now heralded as a conservative, politically pretty much Roosevelt’s opposite number. Frustrated with Taft, Roosevelt sought the Republican endorsement for president in 1912, failed in his effort and, storming out of the Republican convention, founded the progressive “Bull Moose” party, ultimately throwing the presidency to Woodrow Wilson, a progressive Democrat.

Twain would have witnessed some of this drama in his rear view mirror, and his reaction to Roosevelt was both splenetic and humorously titillating. Three years before he died, Twain dictated the following assessment for his autobiography: “Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination, the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off and he would go to hell for a whole one.”

Perhaps the most read modern biography of Roosevelt is Theodore Rex, written by Edmund Morris. Two paragraphs in the book mention Twain, who is quoted disparaging Roosevelt mildly only once: “Twain was never-the-less moved to express the misgivings of not a few thoughtful observers who wondered if a Roosevelt unrestrained might not become a Roosevelt moving too fast for his own good.” Morris embeds a Twain quote here: “’He [Roosevelt] flies from one thing to another with incredible dispatch… each act of his, and each opinion expressed, is likely to abolish or controvert some previous act or expressed opinion.’” This is a wordy way of saying that Twain thought Roosevelt a hypocrite; his real feelings about Roosevelt were much fiercer than that. In any case, Twain’s anti-Roosevelt vituperation is under-displayed in Morris’ book.

A Gilded Twain

Roosevelt was a type that challenged Twain’s temperamental disposition. H. L. Mencken approached the truth about Twain reverently when he wrote: “Instead of being a mere entertainer of the mob, he [Twain] was in fact a literary artist of the very highest skill and sophistication… he was a destructive satirist of the utmost pungency and relentlessness, and the most bitter critic of American platitude and delusion, whether social, political or religious, that ever lived.”  Of course, Mencken’s appreciation is tinged with his own Nietzschean prejudices. Writers tend to regard as saintly other writers whose views can be forced into their own Procrustean beds.

Mencken notes that Twain’s comic mask had publically been thrown off after Harpers Magazine had published The Mysterious Stranger and What Is Man? 

Mencken lifts a quote from Twain’s preface: “The ideas in it are very simple, and reduced to elementals, two in number. The first is that man, save for a trace of volition that grows smaller and smaller the more it is analyzed, is a living machine — that nine-tenths of his acts are purely reflex, and that moral responsibility, and with it religion, are thus mere delusions. The second is that the only genuine human motive, like the only genuine dog motive or fish motive or protoplasm motive is self-interest — that altruism, for all its seeming potency in human concerns, is no more than a specious appearance — that the one unbroken effort of the organism is to promote its own comfort, welfare and survival…”

These determinist ideas, aggressively promoted by Thomas Huxley, sometimes called “Darwin’s Bulldog,” were throbbing in the public pulse during Twain’s own day. We do not know – and perhaps cannot know – whether Twain’s sentiments, as expressed above, are simply a “thought experiment” placed in the mind of a fictitious character or, more ominously, whether this dark vision of God and man represents Twain’s own world view. Nietzsche, we now know, read and liked Twain. But Twain came by Nietzsche indirectly, through a back door.  George Bernard Shaw, a more rigorous Zarathustrian, yoked together both Twain and Nietzsche in a review of two translations of Nietzsche titled “Giving the Devil His Due,” only to dismiss Twain later, in a preface to Three Plays for Puritans, as a member of the Diabolonian Junior Varsity team.

Twain professed disinterest in Nietzsche, or indeed in any other philosopher. He drew his own philosophy, Twain insisted, “from the fountainhead… that is to say, the human race… Every man is in his person the whole human race … in myself I find in big or little proportion every quality and every defect that is findable in the mass of the race.”

Comparisons between Twain and Nietzsche lead, more often than not, into a philosophical snake pit. Aspiration is a  more certain architect of character, and Twain’s aspirations mirror those of the Gilded Age and the Manchester School, a 19th century movement that began in Manchester, England whose most prominent proponents were Richard Cobden and John Bright. The school has more in common with modern conservativism than either modern liberalism or progressivism. The Manchester School carried into politics the theories of economic liberalism popularized by Adam Smith and Davin Hume:  free trade, laissez-faire, pacifism, anti-slavery, freedom of the press, separation of church and state, and anti-colonialism.

No one can doubt that Twain was a fierce anti-colonialist.  The Spanish-American war was a large stone in his shoe, and he was, one might say, instinctively wary of strong-man politicians, possibly because he was, like some important writers of his day, a superb psychologist who drew his perceptions, as did Dostoyevsky and Dickens, from a deep private well. The most important note of Manchester liberalism is its belief in free – non-government regulated – consensual relations of all groups at every level. Henry David Thoreau was shouting from the Manchurian rooftops when he said -- that government governs best which govern not at all.

It may be best to adopt a historical view of Twain and anchor him, as one sets a stone in its setting, in his own time. Twain wrote and rose to public prominence near the end of the La Belle Époque, roughly the Victorian age in Europe (1837-1901). In America, this period was called The Gilded Age, and it was Mark Twain himself who named the age in a lesser known book he wrote along with Charles Dudley Warner, published in 1873 and titled “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.”

Warner came from Puritan Massachusetts stock, practiced law in Chicago from 1856-1860, was assistant editor then editor of the Hartford Press, which later became the Hartford Courant, and also an editor for Harper’s Magazine.

The Gilded Age marked the period of rapid economic growth in America following the Civil War up to the turn of the century. And what a boom it was! The United States had come into its own. Millionaires were popping up on every street corner. And for the first time, the United States economically was outpacing Europe, torn as usual by its historic divisions. The rise of the progressive movement in the United States marked the end of the Gilded Age.

In 1884 so-called Bourbon Democrats elected Grover Cleveland to the presidency. It was the first time since 1856 that a Democrat had sat in the White House. The Bourbon Democrats, often contrasted with Republican Mugwumps, were very close in spirit to modem conservatives. Bourbon Democrats supported low tariffs, reductions in government spending and, most importantly, a laissez-faire government. Tarrifs, they argued, increased the cost of goods and subsidized government supported monopolies. They fiercely denounced imperialism and an expansionary overseas policy. Remind you of anyone?

“The mania for giving the Government power to meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens is likely to cause endless trouble,” Twain wrote in a letter to Enterprise in 1866. “And there is great danger that our people will lose that independence of thought and action which is the cause of much of our greatness, and sink into the helplessness of the Frenchman or German who expects his government to feed him when hungry, clothe him when naked … and, in time, to regulate every act of humanity from the cradle to the tomb, including the manner in which he may seek future admission to paradise.”

Republicans, on the other hand, felt national prosperity depended upon an economy that produced high wages; they feared a flood of low  priced goods from Europe would depress both wages and the burgeoning economy. The tariff , they thought, should be used as tool necessary to prevent the impending catastrophe.

The Gilded Age was brought to a stop by Progressivism, which began as a Prairie Populist movement shortly after the Civil War and flooded Teddy Roosevelt’s ambitious and fertile mind with dreams of glory. Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill, was the first important progressive president. And Twain, who fulminated against the Gilded Age in the book he wrote with Warner, intensely disliked Roosevelt, the Spanish America War, US expansionist policies in the  Philippines, monarchs of every shape and hue – most venomously, the Czar of Russia.

When Roosevelt, rejected by Republicans in favor of Howard Taft, now embraced as a conservative by modern American conservatives, went off to Africa on a safari – TR liked to kill things and share stuffed carcasses among his friends – Twain wrote that Zarathustra-on-the-hunt had gone off to Africa to “kill cows.” Roosevelt, hunting water buffaloes at the time, was not amused.

Progressives And Libertarians

Twain was a laissez faire child of the Gilded Age and – most importantly – an acerbic social critic and humorist. Fredric Bastiat, the father of libertarianism, also was a Manchester School liberal who, like Twain, was a suburb dialectician. In the modern period, Twain would be a libertarian and, as he was in his own day, a virulent opponent of what then was called, approvingly, muscular Christianity.  It was from muscular Christianity that the progressive movement in America arose. The very notion of missionary Christianity was abhorrent to Twain, because he was an apostle of liberty as it pertains to individuals.  Equally abhorrent was politics as a missionary activity.

Here is Bastiat on law officers before and after elections:

“When it is time to vote, apparently the voter is not to be asked for any guarantee of his wisdom. His will and capacity to choose wisely are taken for granted. Can the people be mistaken? Are we not living in an age of enlightenment? What! are the people always to be kept on leashes? Have they not won their rights by great effort and sacrifice? Have they not given ample proof of their intelligence and wisdom? Are they not adults? Are they not capable of judging for themselves? Do they not know what is best for themselves? Is there a class or a man who would be so bold as to set himself above the people, and judge and act for them? No, no, the people are and should be free. They desire to manage their own affairs, and they shall do so.

“But when the legislator is finally elected — ah! then indeed does the tone of his speech undergo a radical change. The people are returned to passiveness, inertness, and unconsciousness; the legislator enters into omnipotence. Now it is for him to initiate, to direct, to propel, and to organize. Mankind has only to submit; the hour of despotism has struck. We now observe this fatal idea: The people who, during the election, were so wise, so moral, and so perfect, now have no tendencies whatever; or if they have any, they are tendencies that lead downward into degradation.”

And Twain: “No country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more.”

And here is Twain in the Galaxy Magazine telling what Huck Finn once styled one of Twain’s stretchers:I shall not often meddle with politics, because we have a political Editor who is already excellent and only needs to serve a term or two in the penitentiary to be perfect.”

Twain did meddle with politics, and it did get him into trouble. But isn’t trouble the theatre in which a comic talent like Twain performs? The question remains: To what extent should we take comedy seriously? Does the comic lose authority by speaking behind a mask of humor?

On Christmas Eve 1909, Twain had returned four days earlier from Bermuda to his Redding home, “Stormfield.” Hours earlier, Twain’s youngest daughter Jean had drowned in a bathtub from a heart attack that may have been related to her epilepsy.

On Christmas Eve, Twain wrote the following eulogy:

“I lost Susy thirteen years ago; I lost her mother–her incomparable mother!–five and a half years ago; Clara has gone away to live in Europe; and now I have lost Jean. How poor I am, who was once so rich! Seven months ago Mr. Roger died–one of the best friends I ever had, and the nearest perfect, as man and gentleman, I have yet met among my race; within the last six weeks Gilder has passed away, and Laffan–old, old friends of mine. Jean lies yonder, I sit here; we are strangers under our own roof; we kissed hands good-by at this door last night–and it was forever, we never suspecting it. She lies there, and I sit here–writing, busying myself, to keep my heart from breaking. How dazzlingly the sunshine is flooding the hills around! It is like a mockery.”

Let others say Twain was not to be taken seriously. I will not say it.


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