Congress’ ironic tribute to Mark Twain

Mark Twain may have been bemused at a congressional honor given his contempt for politicians. Inquirer archive
Mark Twain may have been bemused at a congressional honor given his contempt for politicians. Inquirer archive
Posted: April 27, 2012

The House’s passage last week of the Mark Twain Commemorative Coin Act might have provoked scathing mockery from Twain himself that we can only imagine. Beyond his likely bemusement at the tribute, Twain probably would have scorned its enactment by a Congress so broken by partisanship as to be unable to address more serious matters.

Twain — who once suggested that coins should read “Within certain judicious limitations, we trust in God” — would have been tickled to see his face engraved on currency. In 1894, after a series of bad business decisions, he went broke, prompting a worldwide tour that would replenish his assets and cement his status as America’s greatest humorist.

While members of Congress liberally sprinkle their speeches with Twain’s witticisms, it is lost on them that Twain loathed politicians. He once postulated that Congress is the only “distinctly native American criminal class.” In his autobiography, he savaged the “tyranny of party” and of “what is called party allegiance, party loyalty.”

Twain was writing about the corruption of Tammany Hall and other post-Civil War political machines, but his words are applicable today. Since Republicans retook the House and came closer to parity in the Senate in 2010, Congress has been historically unproductive; it’s on track to pass no major initiatives this year. While this congressional inactivity isn’t new, it has reached a pitiful nadir at which the nation’s real economic problems are seldom discussed, much less addressed.

The rigid enforcement of party loyalty, especially on the Republican side, stings far more than the reeds used to punish Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This corrosive partisanship was on display days before the House passed the coin bill — which would fund historic sites through sales of commemorative currency — when Senate Republicans united to block debate over the “Buffett Rule,” a modest proposal to establish a 30 percent minimum tax rate for the nation’s highest earners.

Twain used many of his books and articles to lampoon authority figures and government, but his most enduring contribution to political criticism was his 1873 novel The Gilded Age, a satire about Washington. The book’s title would come to be applied to the era that spanned the late 19th and early 20th century, when American materialism and wealth inequality exploded.

As the gap between the superrich and everyone else has expanded over the last generation — with the top 1 percent’s share of pretax income slightly higher today than it was nearly a century ago — some have called this a second Gilded Age.

Twain’s views of wealth were nuanced. He championed the working class but was critical of federal involvement in private enterprise. In The Prince and the Pauper, he disparaged inherited wealth, but he also supported property rights and capitalism in general. One of his closest friends, Henry H. Rogers, was a Standard Oil executive who helped the author recover from bankruptcy.

The differences between Twain’s time and today are revealing. Despite the exploitive behavior of the Robber Barons, the Carnegies, Hills, and Rockefellers who helped pave the way for America’s industrial rise were often deeply philanthropic. It was an era of dueling greed and technological advancement that Twain both disdained and praised. By contrast, many of our modern financial titans build fortunes for their own sake, with no higher national purpose.

While Twain’s views on wealth are difficult to apply to our age, his contempt for our political institutions would be a given, particularly as Congress busies itself with resolutions congratulating sports teams and minting commemorative gold and silver pieces. Were he wielding his acid pen in 2012, Twain’s response to the legislation in his honor might resemble the complaints of Huck Finn’s alcoholic Pap, who angrily exclaimed: “Call this a govment! Why, just look at it and see what it’s like.”

Mark Greenbaum is a Washington-based freelance writer. He can be reached at markgreenbaum@gmail.com.

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