Mark Twain weighs in from beyond the grave

I stumbled on these excerpts from a collection of Mark Twain’s previously censored (by his estate) works. The collection’s editor, Bernard DeVoto, alludes to the subject of these stand-alone parts of an unfinished whole as Twain’s criticisms of Theodore Roosevelt’s war in the Philippines, but they seem chillingly prophetic to the situation of today and the last ten years. I could sum up and paraphrase it all, but honestly, it would not do to try and distill the words of a literary genius. Besides, it is seeing the words of a man from over a hundred years ago that really hit the mark.

From his Letters of the Adam Family:

“…[I]t was impossible to save the Great Republic. She was rotten to the heart. Lust of conquest had long ago done its work; trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home; multitudes who had applauded the crushing of other people’s liberties, lived to suffer for their mistake in their own persons. The government was irrevocably in the hands of the prodigiously rich and their hangers-on; the suffrage was become a mere machine, which they used as they chose. There was no principle but commercialism, no patriotism but of the pocket. From showily and sumptuously entertaining neighboring titled aristocracies, and from trading their daughters to them, the plutocrats came in the course of time to hunger for titles and heredities themselves. The drift toward monarchy, in some form or other, began; it was spoken of in whispers at first, later in a bolder voice.

It was now that the portent called “the Prodigy” rose in the far south. Army after army, sovereignty after sovereignty went down under the mighty tread of the shoemaker [Theodore Roosevelt?], and still he held his conquering way – north, always north. The sleeping Republic awoke at last, but too late. It drove the money-chargers from the temple, and put the government into clean hands – but all to no purpose. To keep the power in their own hands, the money-changers had long before bought up half the country with soldier-pensions and turned a measure which had originally been a righteous one into a machine for the manufacture of bond-slaves –  a machine which was at the same time an irremovable instrument of tyranny – for every pensioner had a vote, and every man and woman who had ever been acquainted with a soldier was a pensioner; pensions were dated back to the Fall, and hordes of men who had never handled a weapon in their lives came forward and drew three hundred years’ back pay. The country’s conquests, so far from being profitable to the treasury, had been an intolerable burden from the beginning. The pensions, the conquests, and corruption together had brought bankruptcy in spite of the maddest taxation; the government’s credit was gone, the arsenals were empty, the country unprepared for war. The military and naval schools, and all commissioned offices in the army and navy, were the preserve of the money-changers; and the standing army – the creation of the conquest days – was their property.

The army and navy refused to serve the new Congress and the new Administration, and said ironically, “What are you going to do about it?” A difficult question to answer. Landsmen manned such ships as were not abroad watching the conquests – and sunk them all, in honest attempts [to] do their duty. A civilian army, officered by civilians, rose brimming with the patriotism of an old forgotten day and rushed multitudinously to the front, armed with sporting guns and pitchforks – and the standing army swept it into space. For the money-changers had privately sold out to the shoemaker. He conferred titles of nobility upon the money-chargers, and mounted the Republic’s throne without firing a shot.”

Excerpt 2:

“[…] I pray you to pause and consider. Against our traditions we are now entering upon an unjust and trivial war, a war against a helpless people, and for a base object – robbery. At first our citizens spoke out against this thing, by an impulse natural to their training. Today they have turned, and their voice is the other way. What caused the change? Merely a politician’s trick – a high-sounding phrase, a blood-stirring phrase which turned their uncritical heads: Our Country, right or wrong! An empty phrase, a silly phrase. It was shouted by every newspaper, it was thundered from the pulpit, the Superintendent of Public Instruction placarded it in every schoolhouse in the land, the War Department inscribed it upon the flag. And every man who failed to shout it or who was silent, was proclaimed a traitor – none but those others were patriots. To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, “Our Country, right or wrong,” and urge on the little war. Have you not perceived that that is an insult to the nation?

For in a republic, who is “the Country”? Is it the government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, 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. Who, then, is “the Country?” Is it the newspaper? Is it the pulpit? Is it the school superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in the thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged; they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.

Who are the thousand – that is to say, who are “the Country”? In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country – hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of.

Only when a republic’s life is in danger should a man uphold his government when it is in the wrong. There is no other time.

This Republic’s life is not in peril. The nation has sold its honor for a phrase. It has swung itself loose from its safe anchorage and is drifting, its helm is in pirate hands. The stupid phrase needed help, and it got another one: “Even if the war be wrong we are in it and must fight it out: we cannot retire from it without dishonor.” Why, not even a burglar could have said it better. We cannot withdraw from this sordid raid because to grant peace to those little people upon their terms – independence – would dishonor us. You have flung away Adam’s phrase – you should take it up and examine it again. He said, “An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war.”

You have planted a seed, and it will grow.”

– Twain, Mark. Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings. Ed. Bernard DeVoto. New York: Harper & Row, 1991. pp. 107-111

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