The name Mark Twain evokes
fond memories in many Americans, primarily for stories most of us read
as teenagers. But Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) not only wrote
far more than we commonly read today; he was at one time the most
famous living American. And he gained and maintained much of his fame
and following through his humorous reflections about government.
If those reflections could be said to have a motto, it
would have been, in Twain's own words, "Irreverence is the champion of
liberty and its one sure defense
Consider some of the things Twain had to say about
politics and legislatures. It will help defuse some of the
contributions political candidates’ hot air will be adding to global
"...when you are in politics you are in a wasp’s nest
with a short shirt-tail..."
"When politics enter . . . government,
nothing resulting there from in the way of crimes and infamies is then
incredible. It actually enables one to accept and believe the
"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
"The government of my country snubs honest simplicity,
but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into
a very capable pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a
year or two."
"Right here in this heart and home and fountain-head
of law 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."
"What is the difference between a taxidermist and a
tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin."
"History has tried to teach us that we can't have good
government under politicians. Now, to go and stick one at the
very head of government couldn’t be wise."
"Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a
member of Congress. But I repeat myself."
"In my experience, only third-rate intelligence is
sent to Legislatures to make laws, because the first-rate article will
not leave important private interests go unwatched to go and serve the
"Few men of first class ability can afford to let
their affairs go to ruin while they fool away their time in
Legislatures. . . . But your chattering, one-horse village lawyer likes
it, and your solemn ass from the cow countries, who don't know the
Constitution from the Lord's Prayer, enjoys it, and these you always
find in the Assembly."
"Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a
"All Congresses and Parliaments have a kindly feeling
for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal
experience and heredity."
". . . 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."
"If you are a member of Congress (no offense) and one
of your constituents who doesn’t know anything, and does not want to go
into the bother of learning something, and has no money, and no
employment, and can't earn a living, comes besieging you for help . . .
you throw him on his country. He is his country's child, let
his country support him. There is something good and motherly
about Washington, the grand old benevolent Asylum for the Helpless."
"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 to the pension 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."
"I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have
some legislatures that bring in higher prices than any in the world."
"Senator: Person who makes laws in Washington when not
"To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low,
mean, premature Congressman."
"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. . . . What a rotten, rotten, and unspeakable nasty
concern this nest of departments is, with its brainless battalions of
Congressional poor-relation-clerks and their book-keeping,
"No one's life, liberty, or property is safe while the
legislature is in session."
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."
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, including the manner in which he may seek
future admission to paradise.
Mark Twain wrote long ago. But he seems at
least as insightful about the government abuses we experience today as
he was of 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
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at
Pepperdine University. Send him MAIL, and
see his Mises.org Articles Archive. See also Twainquotes.com.
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