Happy Birthday, Mark Twain, You Old Anti-Imperialist!

Mark Twain born Samuel Clemens November 30, 1835

Hat tip today to Garrison Keillor, whose Writer’s Almanac reminded me that today (November 30) is the birthday of Samuel L. Clemens, aka Mark Twain (born 1835).

Garrison sent me in search of some Mark Twain quotes, of which there are of course many. Here are a few, mostly new to me, followed by a brief discussion of his views on imperialism, which are another reason I admire him.

A Few Mark Twain quotes:

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

“Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division.”

God created war so that Americans would learn geography

The absence of money is the root of all evil

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect

(To a missionary): You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, burning bushes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd and primitive stories, and you say that we are the ones that need help?

In his unfinished novel, The Mysterious Stranger, he wrote, “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination. No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is. Only the mad can be happy, and not many of those.”

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself

If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man

And for special attention:
I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

Twain’s anti-imperialist attitudes developed and took up much of his writing in the last decade of his  life, which overlapped with the U.S. government’s decision to join the club of imperial nations which was carving up the globe. The brief sketch of this period is taken from an article by a left-wing periodical, The Internationalist: “Mark Twain and the Onset of the Imperialist Period Imperialist Period’ (full text here):

Excerpts:

“Mark Twain faced the onset of European and American imperialism at the end of the 19th century with an acute understanding that white racism denied the very humanity of people of darker skin. He was aware that vile theories were then either being generated or revived by the educated hirelings of the European and American ruling classes, to justify their piratical conquests in Africa and Asia. These depraved bourgeois scientists posited that the single human race was actually comprised of several different “races,” and that these “races” could be ranked in a hierarchy based upon intelligence and culture. Not surprisingly, they placed their own “race”?—the “white race” at the top of the hierarchy and therefore deserving of world domination. . . .

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Mark Twain was living in Austria, and was only able to summon a fuzzy picture of its causes. He was painfully aware of the imperialism of the European powers, which were just then engaging in a frenzy of world conquest. Since sentiment in Austrian ruling circles ran in favor of Spain, Mark Twain initially supported the United States, which he thought might bring democracy to Cuba and the Philippines. However, he soon changed his views, as events revealed the true aims of the American rulers.

The war provoked by the McKinley administration was a one-sided slaughter designed to make the United States a world imperial power. The U.S. rulers found immediate cause for the war they wanted in the suspicious explosion of the U.S. warship Maine in Havana harbor on 15 February[1898].

The ill-fated U.S.S. Maine

Two hundred sixty-two sailors were killed, but while the navy’s own commission of inquiry found no evidence that Spain was culpable for the disaster, the jingoist newspapers, with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in the lead, took up the battle-cry, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” McKinley presented a list of demands to Spain, which quickly acceded to every one. The U.S. imperialists declared war anyway, and in a few short months destroyed Spain’s decrepit navy and seized much of its tottering empire, occupying Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Manila in the Philippines.

The U.S. now had an empire—almost. In anticipation, Senator Albert Beveridge triumphally declared:

“The Philippines are ours forever…. And just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.”
— quoted in Jim Zwick, Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (Syracuse University Press, 1992)

. . . Mark Twain arrived in New York in October 1900, and at once announced his anti-imperialism in several newspaper interviews, which were widely reprinted.

“I have read carefully the treaty of Paris [between the United States and Spain], and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem…. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
New York Herald, 15 October 1900

The author’s powerful statements at once came to the attention of the “Anti-Imperialist League” (1898-1920), a politically heterogeneous organization founded in Boston to oppose the American seizure of Spain’s empire. Its officers included former abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Mark Twain’s best friend, novelist and self-described socialist William Dean Howells; reformist labor leader Samuel Gompers, and capitalist Andrew Carnegie.

The league’s liberal founders sought to use the names of prominent Americans to influence the foreign policy of the McKinley administration; however, the organization soon burgeoned into a nationwide mass movement with a half-million members, and its literature included articles by socialists as well as African-American leaders such as Frederick Douglass Jr. and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois.

The League invited Mark Twain to become a vice-president in 1901; he accepted, and would hold this office for the remainder of his life. He consistently opposed any compromise with imperialism, an attitude not shared by many of the league’s leaders. . . .

In the February 1901 North American Review, Mark Twain published “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” perhaps his most popular and influential anti-imperialist essay. It was an acid indictment of the brutalities the British, French, German, Russian and American capitalist governments were committing all over the world. The “Person Sitting in Darkness” is Mark Twain’s ironic term, borrowed from the Gospel According to Matthew and used by the Christian missionaries when referring to the “savage,” “heathen,” “uncivilized” populations of the lands the imperialists were conquering. The author condemned the casual atrocities of Lord Kitchener’s British troops in South Africa, who routinely bayoneted unarmed surrendering Boers, as well as those committed by the American forces in the Philippines, which did the same to the Filipinos. He also pointed out that the Americans had openly proclaimed they were adopting “Kitchener’s Plan”—concentration camps–for their opponents. (Tens of thousands of Boer women and children and black Africans had perished in these camps.)

A concentration camp, invented and run by the British, in South Africa during the Boer Wars.

At the same time, Mark Twain denounced the multinational plundering and dismemberment of China, which had provoked the Boxer Rebellion–the mismatched attempt of the Chinese people to drive the imperialist murderers, who introduced mass opium production and trafficking, out of their country. (In a November 1900 speech he had already proclaimed “I am a Boxer.”) The author charged the American Board of Foreign Missions with looting pauper peasants in China, and condemned the missionaries as part of the “Blessings-of-Civilization-Trust,” that deals in “Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim guns and Hymn Books, and Trade Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion).” At the end of his essay, Mark Twain proposes a flag for the United States’ new “Philippine Province”: “we can just have our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

“To the Person Sitting in Darkness” attracted a good deal of attention, and eventually set off a storm of controversy. Even within the Anti-Imperialist League, reaction to Mark Twain’s essay was mixed. Though the League reprinted it as a pamphlet—it had the widest circulation of any League publication—League censors excised significant passages, included the author’s quotation from the New York Sun on the prevailing squalor in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, as well as his bitter condemnation of the activities of Christian missionaries in China. . . .

Mark Twain remained a “traitor” to imperialism for the rest of his life [he died in 1910], raising his voice and his pen to oppose American and European savagery frequently and with unwavering resolve. He was an open advocate of the overthrow of the Tsar in Russia, and took heart at Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. In the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” in January 1905 –the protest in which the Tsar’s troops massacred perhaps 500 peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg — the author published “The Tsar’s Soliloquy,” a powerful condemnation of the fatuous brutality of the regime of Nikolai II. . . .

Mark Twain struggled against powerful opponents on behalf of humanity and justice, as he understood them. He was not entirely consistent in the views he expressed— he remained mainly insensitive to the oppression of American Indians throughout his life and occasionally expressed discomfort at the rising tide of immigrant workers. Though his criticisms of American capitalism were often astute, he never seriously examined socialism. Nevertheless, in his regard for the humanity of the millions upon millions of Asians and Africans who were just then being victimized by imperialism, he eclipsed even most socialists of his day, owing in part to his profound understanding of racism in America. The brutal realities of colonial subjugation inevitably recalled for him the legacy of slavery in the United States.”

So Happy 184th birthday, Mark Twain, wherever you are (another of his quips: “Heaven for the climate, hell for the company . . . .”) We need more such voices of such clarity and wit today.

The essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Mark Twain, 1901 is online as a Full text FREE download from: Internet Archive, here.

3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Mark Twain, You Old Anti-Imperialist!”

  1. Read King Leopold’s Ghost or see the movie when it comes out. Twain was the main publicists for the removal of King Leopold from his person property called Congo Free State where half the people died during his rule from 1886 to 1908. This is called the first human rights campaign in history and was led by a British Quaker. Chuck, have you read the book?
    [Update] Wait — the book was published 20 years ago?? Where have I been???

    1. Dave, this is the first I’ve heard of the book. (I have heard of Leopold’s murderous rule in the Congo. Clearly I live in the boonies compared to you.) When is the film coming out?

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