Nothing Changes, 1879 Edition

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Twain wrote the following piece the year previous to the tumultuous and critical election year for President of 1880. Only 15 years after the Civil War had ended. The incumbent, Rutherford B. Hayes, had run in 1876 with the promise that he would not seek re-election – a promise he kept… astonishingly to our modern sensibilities. As a result the election was highly contested.

Recall, for perspective, that the country had already weathered the initial vagaries of Reconstruction, the various eruptions of corruption that marred the chances for a more peaceful process of reconciliation between the north and south, or for the assimilation of African-Americans, now fully established as citizens with rights (albeit what these were, and their extent continued to be contested). It had weathered the chaotic and tumultuous administration of Andrew Johnson, the martyred Lincoln’s successor, and as a great exponent of exploiting his office for purposes of politically biassed exercise of power. It had weathered the previously unrivaled level of corruption revealed in the administration of President Grant, sullying the reputations of all but the General himself.

The election was precedent-setting for several reasons. Unlike today, there was, in practical terms, virtually total engagement of the electorate. More people voted, as a percentage of the whole population in the 1880 election than had ever occurred previously in the United States. The vote could hardly have been more evenly split. The winner, James Garfield (who ran with Chester A. Arthur as Vice President, later to succeed him to the highest office) garnered a majority of the popular vote over his rival,  Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democratic Party candidate. The vote was split by a difference, in the final tally, of less than 2,000 votes nationally. But in electoral terms, although each candidate won an equal number of states (19 to each), Garfield’s electoral votes were entirely from the more densely populated, urbanized and industrialized north, including Oregon in the enclave of Pacific and Mountain states that existed in a kind of civic isolation from the rest of the country, separated by what was then still the territories (and therefore non-voting) of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. This band of not-yet-enfranchised territory included the contiguous Dakota territory, not yet divided, and that of Montana. Importantly, the Democrat Hancock’s victory in the entirety of what had been the formerly secessionist southern states, plus Texas, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, set the precedent that persisted for decades, of a solidly Democratic south. Until the the first third of the ensuing century the liberal banner was carried by the Republican Party – the classic notion of the “party of Lincoln” as the nucleus of progressive ideas, a notion now obviously defunct. Curiously, and consistent with the bizarre unpredictability of the American electorate, the one state Hancock did not manage to carry, and whose allotment of electoral votes would nearly have reversed the outcome (as opposed to ensuring the landslide that was Garfield’s) was Pennsylvania… still a contested state and, today, a potential game changer if President Trump does not manage to retain his advantage there in 2016. For perspective, if Hancock had won Pennsylvania, he would have lost the Presidency by a very slim two electoral votes.

In any event, whatever the actual political reality and the culture that inspired Twain to write this piece as he did, he does seem to have captured, as he did so often, what it turns out is an enduring, perhaps, in a sense, a genetic, characteristic of the peculiar and continuously unpredictable condition of what the electorate will find not just tolerable, but acceptable about its would-be representatives.

The “moral crimes” of Twain’s imaginary contestant for the office, qualified to run sufficiently by his own lights (the only ones that count, as apparently has long been the case in our country, if not from the beginning) despite his peccadilloes, may seem mild by comparison to what passes for business as usual in Washington or what is considered a candidate’s “private business” and of no bearing in fitness for office. But those were gentler times, and we and the politicians, have had just over 140 years since then to invent far more ingenious ways of interpolating tolerance for depravity into our perception of normal behavior, and the same amount of time to have our sense of outrage ground down, possibly to only a trace presence in our consciences.

“An Open Letter to My Countrymen”

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850.

I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have someone else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home.

My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency?

The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why would I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit, also, that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the Cannibal Islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausage.”

These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

—Mark Twain
“Let’s Look at the Record”
Harper’s Magazine, July 1954
Reprinted from the
Kansas City Journal, June 15, 1879

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4 thoughts on “
Nothing Changes, 1879 Edition

    • For a long time it’s been a source of Herzschmerz realizing the utter lack of interest Americans have in their own history – never mind the larger life lesson of learning from any knowledge of the course of civilization for a considerably larger span than the paltry 400 years of our country. I don’t know enough any longer about the curricula in other countries (usually the shameful comparison was us to any one of dozens of European countries and the UK), but I do end up wondering, especially given the slow (and accelerating) right-hand swerve of so many countries these days into nationalistic ideologies on the ascendant. The last 60 years (if you go back as far as the 60s in Hungary), subsuming so much clamorous upheaval in various forms in various countries: the Velvet Revolution, Solidarity, prove one thing, well two things. Active oppression is a much better provocation to the ultimately liberating act of mass rebellion, though the durability of continuing vigilance for the preservation of our freedoms is short-lived, once the tanks pull out. Memory, alas, appears to be even more short-lived.

  1. I assume he was referring to Fiji, not the Cannibal Island in Lake Winnipeg, Canada…

    Even the most biting political satirists today, doing their worst – nothing they come up with, can be more extreme and evil than what the actual Administration members devise…and today they are much more cruel in their attempts at humor…

    • I assumed the same, especially since MT spent so much time (and wrote at length early in his career) about the South Pacific. When I read this, I had those vague stirrings of memory of having heard the allusion before and knowing what he meant. Fact is, the first stories, probably starting with Captain Cook (or who knows when?) coming from early explorations were about the more savage alleged folkways and culture of the natives.

      Well, I already acquitted myself on the birthday of Fra Tomas Torquemada about the antecedents to the likes of Stephen Miller, who has to be the paradigm of the particular kind of evil soul that seems to congregate (and intensify, after almost four years of the more moderate benighted souls who worked there at the beginning bailing on the depths of malign chaos… there are no limits apparently to the depravity we humans are willing to enable by silent assent and complicity by simply acquiescing, and which we rationalize via the self-delusion of assigning ourselves the vainglorious role of a moderating influence).

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