“Bring me my spectacles,” Mark Twain scribbled on a scrap of paper, as he lay in bed too sick to speak. It was the last sentence he ever wrote. He died a few hours later, on April 21, 1910, a hundred years ago this month. He was 74. He wanted his spectacles so he could read a book—Thomas Carlyle’s classic history The French Revolution, which he’d already read several times. America’s most famous novelist and humorist was an avid student of history whose understanding of the past informed his skeptical and caustic accounts of his own times.
“The future historian of America will find your works as indispensable to him as a French historian finds the political tracts of Voltaire,” George Bernard Shaw once told Twain. Shaw was prophetic: Today, Twain’s writings are a primary source for anyone writing about 19th-century America. The reason is simple: He experienced so much history and wrote so well about it.
Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Missouri in 1835, Twain lived from the age of Andrew Jackson to the presidency of William Howard Taft. He traveled all over the world, worked as a printer, riverboat pilot, prospector, reporter, lecturer and businessman and hobnobbed with most of the famous Americans of his day, from Frederick Douglass to Teddy Roosevelt. Best of all, he wrote about almost everything he saw. In millions of words in novels, memoirs, essays and letters, he described, praised and criticized his America as well as anyone else—and, of course, funnier than anyone else.
Now, we present a tiny sliver of Twain’s observations on the events, characters and issues of American history. While reading it, keep in mind another of Twain’s observations: “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”
LISTENING TO GHOST STORIES, A MOTHERLESS CHILD’S SONG AND FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Twain’s father, a Missouri shopkeeper, owned several slaves and his uncle, a prosperous farmer, owned more. Twain grew up playing with slave children and enjoying the ghost stories told by an old slave called Uncle Dan’l, who later became the model for Jim in Huckleberry Finn. “In my schoolboy days, I had no aversion to slavery,” Twain wrote in his autobiography. “I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it; that it was a holy thing…if the slaves themselves had any aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.”
But the evidence of his eyes contradicted the conventional wisdom. “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen,” he later wrote. “I remember that once when a white man killed a negro man for a trifling little offence, everybody seemed indifferent about it—as regarded the slave—though considerable sympathy was felt for the slave’s owner, who had been bereft of valuable property by a worthless person who was not able to pay for it.”
One incident seared into his memory. His family rented a slave boy named Sandy who’d been sold away from his family in Maryland. Sandy sang so incessantly that Twain begged his mother to shut him up.
“The tears came to her eyes,” Twain wrote, “and she said something like this: ‘Poor thing, when he sings it shows he is not remembering and that comforts me; but when he is still I am afraid he is thinking and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it.’”
After that, Twain wrote, “Sandy’s noise was not a trouble to me any more.”
Decades later, after all the slaves in America were emancipated, Twain met Frederick Douglass, and the great abolitionist recounted how his daughter had been expelled from “Miss Tracy’s school” in Rochester, N.Y. “Miss Tracy said the pupils did not want a colored child among them—which he did not believe & challenged the proof,” Twain wrote in a letter to his fiancée. “She put it at once to a vote of the school, and asked ‘How many of you are willing to have this colored child with you?’ And they all held up their hands! Douglass added: ‘The children’s hearts were right.’ There was pathos in the way he said it. I would like to hear him make a speech. Has a grand face.”
In 1885 Twain agreed to pay the tuition of Warner T. McGuin, one of the first black students at Yale Law School. He explained why in a letter to the school’s dean: “We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it.” McGuin later became a prominent Baltimore attorney and a mentor to Thurgood Marshall, America’s first black Supreme Court justice.
OBSERVING MORMON POLYGAMISTS, ROWDY PROSPECTORS AND NAKED HEATHENS HANGING 10 IN HAWAII
Twain was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi when the Civil War broke out. Although he was ambivalent about secession, at age 25 he joined the Marion Rangers, a ragtag Missouri Confederate militia. Untrained and undisciplined, the Rangers spent the summer of 1861 arguing, griping, marching to and fro, and retreating whenever they heard a rumor of the enemy.
“I knew more about retreating than the man who invented retreating,” Twain wrote in A Private History of a Campaign That Failed, his memoir of the boring and terrifying weeks he spent as a soldier before he deserted and went home to his mother.
If Twain had remained a Rebel soldier, he might have written the great American Civil War novel—or he might have been blown to bits. Instead, he went to Nevada with his brother, Orion Clemens, who’d been appointed secretary to the governor of the new Nevada Territory.
Traveling west, the brothers saw a rider for the legendary Pony Express gallop past their stagecoach—“man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!”
Later, they encountered some raggedy Gosiute Indians— “the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen,” Twain called them, “small, lean, scrawny creatures…having no higher ambition than to kill and eat jackass rabbits, crickets and grasshoppers.”
Twain found the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City far more civilized than the typical American metropolis. “We strolled everywhere through the broad, straight, level streets, and enjoyed the pleasant strangeness of a city of fifteen thousand inhabitants with no loafers perceptible in it; and no visible drunkards or noisy people.”
But he called the Mormons’ multiple wives “pathetically homely” women. “The man who marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind,” he wrote, “and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of openhanded generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.”
While his brother settled into his cushy sinecure, Twain set out to make his fortune prospecting in Nevada’s silver boom. “It was a wild, free, disorderly, grotesque society! Men—only swarming hosts of stalwart men—nothing juvenile, nothing feminine visible anywhere!…They fairly reveled in gold, whisky, fights and fandangos, and were unspeakably happy.”
When prospecting failed to make Twain rich, he drifted into an easier trade—journalism. He wrote first for a newspaper in Virginia City, then moved to San Francisco to cover the crime beat for the Morning Call. “One Sunday afternoon, I saw some hoodlums chasing and stoning a Chinaman who was heavily laden with the weekly wash of his Christian customers, and I noticed that a policeman was observing this performance with amused interest— nothing more. He did not interfere. I wrote up the incident with considerable warmth and holy indignation.”
But Twain’s irate attack on what we’d now call a hate crime was killed by the editor, who explained that the Call was the paper of the poor Irish, who hated the Chinese. “Such an assault as I had attempted,” Twain wrote, “could rouse the whole Irish hive and seriously damage the paper.”
In 1866 the Sacramento Union sent Twain further west, to the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii, where he became the first American reporter to describe the sport of surfing: “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages,” he wrote. “Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself on the board, and here he would come, whizzing by like a bombshell!”
LAMPOONING D.C. WHIPPERSNAPPERS, A FARCICAL IMPEACHMENT TRIAL AND SHAMELESS ROBBER BARONS
In 1867 Twain, then 32, worked as a secretary to a Nevada senator while covering Congress as a journalist—a conflict of interest that didn’t bother people in those days. Washington was “the maddest Vanity Fair one could conceive,” Twain wrote. “Everybody attached to himself an exaggerated importance,” and the politicians were “a mob of empty headed whipper-snappers that had only come to Congress to make incessant motions, propose eternal amendments and rise to everlasting points of order.”
Some things never change.
Twain had a ringside seat at the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, who was on trial for replacing a Cabinet member without congressional approval. He described the moment when Thaddeus Stevens, the wizened, clubfooted congressman who led the impeachment effort, introduced the resolution in the House:
“When he came to where it was resolved that ‘The President of the United States be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors,’ the prodigious words had something so solemn and awe-inspiring about them that the people seemed inclined to think that the expected thunderclap was about to crash above the painted ceiling!”
Later, Twain observed the embattled president at a White House reception: “He looked so like a plain, simple, good-natured old farmer that it was hard to conceive that this was the imperious ‘tyrant’ whose deeds had been stirring the sluggish blood of thirty millions of people. He was uneasy and restless; the smile that came and went upon his face had distress in it; when he shook hands with a guest he looked wistfully into the person’s face, as if he sought a friendly interest there, and yet hardly hoped to find it….I never saw a man who seemed as friendless and forsaken, and I never felt for any man so much.”
Ultimately, the Senate acquitted Johnson by one vote. Twain drew on his Washington experiences for The Gilded Age, a satirical novel that gave a name to the post–Civil War era of corrupt politics and cutthroat robber baron capitalism.
In 1876, the year he published Tom Sawyer, Twain campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, who promised to end the corrupt patronage system through civil service reform.
Twain entertained a campaign rally with a comic riff on patronage: “We serenely fill great numbers of our minor public offices with ignoramuses. We put the vast business of a Custom House in the hands of a flathead who does not know a bill of lading from a transit of Venus, never having heard of either of them before. Under a treasury appointment, we pour oceans of money and accompanying statistics through the hands and brain of an ignorant villager who never before could wrestle with a two-weeks wash bill without getting thrown.”
Twain also ripped into the robber barons. When crooked financier Jay Gould died in 1892, Twain wrote a caustic eulogy for Gould and the era he embodied: “The gospel left behind by Jay Gould is doing giant work in our days. Its message is ‘Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must.’”
When John D. Rockefeller, the ruthless oil baron, was reported to be teaching Sunday school in his hometown of Cleveland, Twain announced that this news was beyond satire. “He can’t be burlesqued— he is himself a burlesque.”
LEVELING SCORN ON TEDDY ROOSEVELT, U.S. IMPERIALISM AND WATERBOARDING
When the United States declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898, Twain was elated that his country was fighting to liberate Spain’s colonies—Cuba and the Philippines: “It is a worthy thing to fight for one’s own freedom; it is another sight finer to fight for another man’s.”
But soon, the United States colonized the Philippines and began a long, brutal war against Filipino guerrillas. Mortified that his country had become a colonial power, Twain repeatedly denounced the war in essays and interviews. “When the United States sent word to Spain that the Cuban atrocities must end, she occupied the highest moral position ever taken by a nation,” he said. “But when she snatched the Philippines, she stained the flag.”
In 1901 Yale University honored both Twain and President Theodore Roosevelt, who was an avid proponent of armed annexation of the Philippines. Hearing the students cheer Twain, Roosevelt muttered that he’d like to see the author skinned alive. Twain heard the comment but did not respond—at least not then. He got even later, in his autobiography: “I think the President is clearly insane in several ways, and insanest upon war and its supreme glories. I think he longs for a big war wherein he can spectacularly perform as chief general and chief admiral…. 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 an audience.”
In 1905 Roosevelt invited Twain to the White House and the two American legends somehow managed to share a meal without coming to blows.
Teddy Roosevelt was not the last president Twain encountered. In 1910 he met future president Woodrow Wilson in Bermuda, and the two men spent an afternoon playing, believe it or not, miniature golf.
Unfortunately, Twain did not write anything about Wilson—or about miniature golf. Perhaps he didn’t have time. He died a few months later.
Since then, we’ve been bereft of his sly wit and singular wisdom about life in America. What would he say about George W. Bush and Barack Obama? About the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? About the financial meltdown or reality TV or waterboarding?
We can only guess—except in the case of waterboarding. As it happens, American troops used waterboarding when they interrogated Filipino guerrillas.
“To make them confess—what?” Twain asked. “Truth? Or lies? How can one know which it is they are telling? For under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless.”
Dead for a century, Mark Twain still speaks to us—and he doesn’t mince words.
Peter Carlson, who writes our “Encounter” column, is the author of K Blows Top: A Cold War Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.