History

Mark Twain's Politics

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Jeffrey Tucker has written a nice appreciation of Mark Twain's classical liberal politics:

"I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolt."

Twain was born as Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, when the meaning of liberalism was less ambiguous. To be liberal was to favor free enterprise and property rights, oppose slavery, reject old-world caste systems, loathe war, be generally disposed toward free trade and cosmopolitanism, favor the social advance of women, favor technological progress—and to possess a grave skepticism toward government management of anything.

The tradition of thought extends from Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson through 20th-century Misesians and Hayekians. This outlook on the world might be nearly extinguished from politics today (two flavors of statism), but it was the one embraced by Clemens….

[H]e was a Manchesterite, a liberal of the old school, which, in today's terms, would probably cause him to be classified as a laissez-faire radical or libertarian. He clung to the Whiggism of his family and youth, felt a stronger draw toward Jefferson Davis than Lincoln (but famously and rightly deserted the centrally organized Confederate Army), and championed hard money. He later supported Cleveland in the presidential election of 1884, in part for his support of the gold standard.

Along with Twain's classical liberalism came a strong antiwar position, one which was rooted in Lockean-style love of liberty and opposition to government, not a Leninist-style analysis of the imperialism of finance capitalism.

While this arguably understates the evolution of Twain's views over his lifetime, it's a reasonable summary of the writer's core outlook. There follows a series of illustrations from Twain's books, including a fun diversion into the monetary economics of Tom Sawyer. Tucker also notes that Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn "describe the affairs of a society that is in evolution apart from the state. The state has only one role in the novels and it is entirely negative: it makes and enforces the fugitive slave laws. It is this fact alone that turns Huckleberry and Jim into outlaws fleeing down the Mississippi to find freedom."

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  1. “Along with Twain’s classical liberalism came a strong antiwar position, one which was rooted in Lockean-style love of liberty and opposition to government, not a Leninist-style analysis of the imperialism of finance capitalism.”

    Since 1941, this crucial piece of the American character has been lost so completely that few remember it was ever there. How do we get it back?

    1. You probably don’t want to know my theory.

  2. I think it was Twain’s Life On the Mississippi that was about his experience as a river boat pilot. One of the best books I have ever read. The learning curve for an apprentice was almost vertical and the river changed every time you traveled it. It gave me a profound respect for Twain’s intellect.

    1. Twain was absolutely brilliant. People don’t read enough of his stuff. His travel books are great, too.

      1. The Library of America is releasing a new reprint of A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator and some of his other later travel writing in one volume in April. I’m scheduled to review it and am looking forward to rereading that stuff again.

        1. “rereading again”
          …and to being less redundant.

          1. Have you reread it once before? If so, then you rereading it again makes sense to me. Of course, that’s just me.

        2. One of the funniest things I’ll ever remember:

          On a 12 hr. bus ride across Sulawesi in 1993, a German couple was howling in laughter. I looked over and saw that they were reading, A Tramp Abroad.

  3. Connecticut Yankee can be read as a tidy indictment of imperialism, which was mostly European in Twain’s day, but was subsequently adopted by the US.

  4. No one can read enough Mark Twain.

    The War Prayer

    by Mark Twain

    It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

    Sunday morning came — next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams — visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

    *God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest! Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!*
    Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —

    An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

    The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

    “I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think.

    “God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

    “You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. the *whole* of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory–*must* follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

    “O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

    (*After a pause.*) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!”

    It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

    1. I know what I am concentrating on when I go to my favorite used book store next week. Thank you Warty for that excerpt. I mean that most sincerely.

    2. I think this is one of Twain’s best works. I’m going to quote from it next week on the website.

      Unfortunately most people have not read it.

      http://twitter.com/twaintoday

      1. Well, I just found something new to put on my Google Reader.

    3. Looks like the source for Monty Python’s ‘holy hand-grenade’ prayer.

  5. Twain still speaks to us. The war prayer is very appropriate today, after the State of the Union last night.

    I still am amazed at how people of different political persuasions all find inspiration from Mark Twain.

    He is quoted by both preachers and atheists, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and the rest of the World.

    He is truly an American Original, still a hundred years after his passing.

    Gene Bowker aka TwainToday
    http://twaintoday.com/

  6. Sorry, but I can’t let this howler of a sentence go unnoticed:

    “Tucker also notes that Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn “describe the affairs of a society that is in evolution apart from the state. The state has only one role in the novels and it is entirely negative: it makes and enforces the fugitive slave laws.”

    Only makes and enforces fugitive slave laws? Did Tucker even read Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn?

    How did he miss the full chapter devoted to Muff Potter’s murder trial? The legal wrangling over the Widder Douglas’ efforts to adopt Huck? Both of these examples involved the local courts and law enforcement.

    And then there’s Old Man Finn’s rant about how free blacks can’t be enslaved unless they have lived in the state at least 6 months. Despite his objections the local sheriff refused to break the law and arrest the wealthy black man from Ohio whose presence caused Finn to vow to never vote again.

    If the term “the state” refers to federal governments, then yes, there is very little of Big Brother in Twain’s novels.

    But if Tucker is asserting there was no benign laws or essential government agencies in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, then he’s sorely mistaken.

    1. I don’t think Tucker was claiming Twain was an anarchist.

      1. Okay, I’ll stop being pedantic…;)

  7. I have always wondered what Mark Twain and George Orwell would have discussed over dinner. Of course, the latter wasn’t quite seven when the former passed away, so there was no way it could have ever happened “in real life.” But then, as Twain wrote, “…there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream – a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought – a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”

    1. Uh huh….
      You know, I have always loved Twain’s writing – he’s probably my favorite author – but apparently it never occured to him that to have thought there must first be that which thinks. That’s a little something I figured out on my own by the time I was 14 – without any help from Rene, I might add. 😉

  8. My favorite motto is Twain’s “Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only defense.”

    I even have a 6 foot poster of it in my office. I’m slightly immoderate.

  9. This could not be a more timely post. I head into next semester with four section of an American Lit survey course to teach, and Twain is in the lineup. I cannot wait to introduce, or reintroduce him, to my students.

    One of the best material gifts my father ever gave me was a cloth-bound anthology of Twain’s entire collected writings. He gave it to me when I was very young – nine years old – and helped me get through some of the easier stories. When I was older, Twain became a source of great inspiration to me.

    I love my parents for so many reason, happily, but my love of literature and liberalism stems from their support of my independent education and ideation in spite of prevalent paradigms. I sometimes think I teach just so I can ferret out the students who share my outlook on many things. Perhaps the use of some of Twain’s lesser known writings will help my quest.

    1. Try the collection entitled “Letters From Earth.”

  10. not to distract from the lofty aspirations of this thread (and by all means continue)

    But in your opinion, which of the major political parties in the United States in the nineteenth century was closest to liberalism?

    1. The Yankee versions of Team D.

    2. Oh, of the major parties it is by far the Libertarian Party. Unless you mean the Republicrats and Demublicans. If so, than niether.

    3. Or did I understand your question right?

  11. Anybody here heard of Henry Clapp, publisher of the short-lived New York Saturday Press circa 1858?
    I’m reading a new book about “America’s first Bohemians,” and Clapp, a leader of that New York literary circle, in many ways seems to be an 1850s version of Mencken.
    I’d never stumbled across him before.

  12. Thank you so very much for linking this. In some way, this paper is really just a beginning. It samples only a bit of material, but I felt that I had to cut it off at some point. In any case, I’m grateful for the attention you gave this.

    By the way, this was really by way of promoting a huge collection – essays far more competent than mine – in a book we’ve just published by Paul Cantor. It is called Literature and Economic Liberty.

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