We Need Some of Mark Twain's Humor Right Now
Even though huge issues are still in doubt, Americans have largely survived an election full of serious ill will, hypocrisy, and ominous implications. However, in the process, we have accumulated a deficit of self-reflection and humor.
That provides an excellent excuse to turn to someone many Americans have fond memories of—Mark Twain. After all, not only was he once the most famous living American, he garnered much of his fame through both his serious and humorous reflections about politics and government. Perhaps as important, as Twain himself put it, “Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its one sure defense.”
His credentials for the task include the fact that, according to Brian Hoey in “The Politics of Mark Twain,” “his combination of beliefs is not currently represented by either major American political party,” but is “in many ways a pitch perfect, almost radical version of classical liberalism.” Or as Jeff Tucker put it in his “Mark Twain’s Radical Liberalism,” “Biographers and critics have had difficulty figuring out how the same person could champion the interests of the Newport capitalist class while founding the Anti-Imperialist League. He loved America’s attachment to property and commerce but emerged as the country’s most severe critic of the warfare state.” Further, his November 30 birthday provides an excuse.
- When you are in politics you are in a wasp’s nest with a short shirt-tail.
- When politics enter…government, nothing resulting therefrom in the way of crimes and infamies is then incredible.
- In…politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.
- The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy.
- In this great factory where are forged those rules that create good order and compel virtue and honesty in the other communities of the land, rascality achieves its highest perfection.
- History has tried to teach us that we can’t have good government under politicians.
- Our Congress….In their private life they are true to every obligation of honor; yet in every session they violate them all, and do it without shame….In private life those men would bitterly resent—and justly—any insinuation that it would not be safe to leave unwatched money within their reach; yet you could not wound their feelings by reminding them that every time they vote ten dollars [in] appropriation, nine of it is stolen money and they the marauders.
- It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.
- One of the first achievements of the legislature was to institute a ten-thousand-dollar agricultural fair to show off forty dollars’ worth of pumpkins in.
- I believe the Prince of Darkness could start a branch hell in the District of Columbia (if he has not already done it), and carry it on unimpeached by the Congress of the United States, even though the Constitution were bristling with articles forbidding hells in this country.
- No one’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.
- Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.
- If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.
- There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.
- Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.
- Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
- The government is merely a servant—merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them.
- Patriotism…always commemorates a robbery.
- No party holds the privilege of dictating to me how I shall vote.
- 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.
- A man’s first duty is to his own conscience and honor—the party or the country come second to that, and never first.
- Judges have the Constitution for their guidance; they have no right to any politics save the politics of rigid right and justice when they are sitting in judgment upon the great matters that come before them.
- Vast power and wealth corrupt a nation. It incites dangerous ambitions and can bring the republic down. It can pack the Supreme Court with members friendly to its purposes, run down the Congress and crush the people’s voice.
- Only when a republic’s life is in danger should a man uphold his government when it is wrong. There is no other time.
- To lodge all power in one party and keep it there is to insure bad government and the sure and gradual deterioration of the public morals.
- Men think they think upon the great political questions…but they think with their party, not independently.
- No public interest is anything other or nobler than a massed accumulation of private interests.
- The candidates re-arrange the facts to suit themselves and keep the lies and half-truths spinning in the air while the great gullible public cheers and shouts and stomps its approval.
Mark Twain’s view of the reality of government seems to be summed up by his modification of Abraham Lincoln, that “Wherefore being all of one mind, we do highly resolve that government of the grafted by the grafter for the grafter shall not perish from the earth.” Or as Louis Budd more seriously described it, “his work does posit that the essential job of developing civilization toward an ideal is to be undertaken by private individuals in their social and economic lives, and not by some mythical institution called the state or an ideology that contradicts the practical experience of people in their communities.”
And he saw problems with that reality for a nation founded in liberty:
The mania for giving the Government power to meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens is likely to cause endless trouble…and there is great danger that our people will lose our independence of thought and action…and sink into the helplessness of [one] who expects his government to feed him when hungry, clothe him when naked, to prescribe when his child may be born and when he may die, and, in fine, to regulate every act of humanity from the cradle to the tomb.
Mark Twain wrote long ago. But he seems at least as insightful about the government we experience today as those he observed directly. And the defense of liberty in modern America, with a government that has ballooned far beyond anything he could have anticipated, would certainly benefit from a healthy new dose of the same patriotic irreverence that animated Twain.