Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXXIII

The Grant Speech of 1879

If the lunar rainbow had any fortuitous significance, perhaps we may find it in the two speeches which Mark Twain made in November and December of that year. The first of these was delivered at Chicago, on the occasion of the reception of General Grant by the Army of the Tennessee, on the evening of November 73, 1879. Grant had just returned from his splendid tour of the world. His progress from San Francisco eastward had been such an ovation as is only accorded to sovereignty. Clemens received an invitation to the reunion, but, dreading the long railway journey, was at first moved to decline. He prepared a letter in which he made “business” his excuse, and expressed his regret that he would not be present to see and hear the veterans of the Army of the Tennessee at the moment when their old commander entered the room and rose in his place to speak.

“Besides,” he said, “I wanted to see the General again anyway and renew the acquaintance. He would remember me, because I was the person who did not ask him for an office.”

He did not send the letter. Reconsidering, it seemed to him that there was something strikingly picturesque in the idea of a Confederate soldier who had been chased for a fortnight in the rain through Ralls and Monroe counties, Missouri, now being invited to come and give welcome home to his old imaginary pursuer. It was in the nature of an imperative command, which he could not refuse to obey.

He accepted and agreed to speak. They had asked him to respond to the toast of “The Ladies,” but for him the subject was worn out. He had already responded to that toast at least twice. He telegraphed that there was one class of the community that had always been overlooked upon such occasions, and that if they would allow him to do so he would take that class for a toast: the babies. Necessarily they agreed, and he prepared himself accordingly.

He arrived in Chicago in time for the prodigious procession of welcome. Grant was to witness the march from a grand reviewing stand, which had been built out from the second story of the Palmer House. Clemens had not seen the General since the “embarrassing” introduction in Washington, twelve years before. Their meeting was characteristic enough. Carter Harrison, Mayor of Chicago, arriving with Grant, stepped over to Clemens, and asked him if he wouldn’t like to be presented. Grant also came forward, and a moment later Harrison was saying:

“General, let me present Mr. Clemens, a man almost as great as yourself.” They shook hands; there was a pause of a moment, then Grant said, looking at him gravely:

“Mr. Clemens, I am not embarrassed, are you?”

So he remembered that first, long-ago meeting. It was a conspicuous performance. The crowd could not hear the words, but they saw the greeting and the laugh, and cheered both men.

Following the procession, there were certain imposing ceremonies of welcome at Haverly’s Theater where long, laudatory eloquence was poured out upon the returning hero, who sat unmoved while the storm of music and cheers and oratory swept about him. Clemens, writing of it that evening to Mrs. Clemens, said:

I never sat elbow to elbow with so many historic names before. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Schofield, Pope, Logan, and so on.

What an iron man Grant is! He sat facing the house, with his right leg crossed over his left, his right boot sole tilted up at an angle, and his left hand and arm reposing on the arm of his chair. You note that position? Well, when glowing references were made to other grandees on the stage, those grandees always showed a trifle of nervous consciousness, and as these references came frequently the nervous changes of position and attitude were also frequent. But Grant! He was under a tremendous and ceaseless bombardment of praise and congratulation; but as true as I’m sitting here he never moved a muscle of his body for a single instant during thirty minutes! You could have played him on a stranger for an effigy. Perhaps he never would have moved, but at last a speaker made such a particularly ripping and blood-stirring remark about him that the audience rose and roared and yelled and stamped and clapped an entire minute — Grant sitting as serene as ever-when General Sherman stepped up to him, laid his hand affectionately on his shoulder, bent respectfully down, and whispered in his ear. Then Grant got up and bowed, and the storm of applause swelled into a hurricane.

But it was the next evening that the celebration rose to a climax. This was at the grand banquet at the Palmer House, where six hundred guests sat down to dinner and Grant himself spoke, and Logan and Hurlbut, and Vilas and Woodford and Pope, fifteen in all, including Robert G. Ingersoll and Mark Twain. Chicago has never known a greater event than that dinner, for there has never been a time since when those great soldiers and citizens could have been gathered there.

To Howells Clemens wrote:

Imagine what it was like to see a bullet-shredded old battle-flag reverently unfolded to the gaze of a thousand middle-aged soldiers, most of whom hadn’t seen it since they saw it advancing over victorious fields when they were in their prime. And imagine what it was like when Grant, their first commander, stepped into view while they were still going mad over the flag, and then right in the midst of it all somebody struck up “When we were marching through Georgia.” Well, you should have heard the thousand voices lift that chorus and seen the tears stream down. If I live a hundred years I sha’n’t ever forget these things, nor be able to talk about them. I sha’n’t ever forget that I saw Phil Sheridan, with martial cloak and plumed chapeau, riding his big black horse in the midst of his own cannon; by all odds the superbest figure of a soldier. I ever looked upon! Grand times, my boy, grand times!

Mark Twain declared afterward that he listened to four speeches that night which he would remember as long as he lived. One of them was by Emory Storrs, another by General Vilas, another by Logan, and the last and greatest by Robert Ingersoll, whose eloquence swept the house like a flame. The Howells letter continues:

I doubt if America has ever seen anything quite equal to it; I am well satisfied I shall not live to see its equal again. How pale those speeches are in print, but how radiant, how full of color, how blinding they were in the delivery! Bob Ingersoll’s music will sing through my memory always as the divinest that ever enchanted my ears. And I shall always see him, as he stood that night on a dinner-table, under the flash of lights and banners, in the midst of seven hundred frantic shouters, the most beautiful human creature that ever lived. “They fought, that a mother might own her child.” The words look like any other print, but, Lord bless me! he borrowed the very accent of the angel of mercy to say them in, and you should have seen that vast house rise to its feet; and you should have heard the hurricane that followed. That’s the only test! People may shout, clap their hands, stamp, wave their napkins, but none but the master can make them get up on their feet.

Clemens’s own speech came last. He had been placed at the end to hold the house. He was preceded by a dull speaker, and his heart sank, for it was two o’clock and the diners were weary and sleepy, and the dreary speech had made them unresponsive.

They gave him a round of applause when he stepped up upon the table in front of him — a tribute to his name. Then he began the opening words of that memorable, delightful fancy.

“We haven’t all had the good-fortune to be ladies; we haven’t all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies — we stand on common ground —”

The tired audience had listened in respectful silence through the first half of the sentence. He made one of his effective pauses on the word “babies,” and when he added, in that slow, rich measure of his, “we stand on common ground,” they let go a storm of applause. There was no weariness and inattention after that. At the end of each sentence, he had to stop to let the tornado roar itself out and sweep by. When he reached the beginning of the final paragraph, “Among the three or four million cradles now rocking in the land are some which this nation would preserve for ages as sacred things if we could know which ones they are,” the vast audience waited breathless for his conclusion. Step by step he led toward some unseen climax — some surprise, of course, for that would be his way. Then steadily, and almost without emphasis, he delivered the opening of his final sentence:

“And now in his cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious commander-in-chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind, at this moment, to trying to find out some way to get his own big toe into his mouth, an achievement which (meaning no disrespect) the illustrious guest of this evening also turned his attention to some fifty-six years ago.”

He paused, and the vast crowd had a chill of fear. After all, he seemed likely to overdo it to spoil everything with a cheap joke at the end. No one ever knew better than Mark Twain the value of a pause. He waited now long enough to let the silence become absolute, until the tension was painful, then wheeling to Grant himself he said, with all the dramatic power of which he was master:

“And if the child is but the father of the man, there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded!”

The house came down with a crash. The linking of their hero’s great military triumphs with that earliest of all conquests seemed to them so grand a figure that they went mad with the joy of it. Even Grant’s iron serenity broke; he rocked and laughed while the tears streamed down his cheeks.

They swept around the speaker with their congratulations, in their efforts to seize his hand. He was borne up and down the great dining-hall. Grant himself pressed up to make acknowledgments.

“It tore me all to pieces,” he said; and Sherman exclaimed, “Lord bless you, my boy! I don’t know how you do it!”

The little speech has been in “cold type” so many years since then that the reader of it to-day may find it hard to understand the flame of response it kindled so long ago. But that was another day — and another nation — and Mark Twain, like Robert Ingersoll, knew always his period and his people.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00