Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXVII

Mark Twain in Politics

There was a campaign for the mayoralty of New York City that fall, with Seth Low on the Fusion ticket against Edward M. Shepard as the Tammany candidate. Mark Twain entered the arena to try to defeat Tammany Hall. He wrote and he spoke in favor of clean city government and police reform. He was savagely in earnest and openly denounced the clan of Croker, individually and collectively. He joined a society called ‘The Acorns’; and on the 17th of October, at a dinner given by the order at the Waldorf-Astoria, delivered a fierce arraignment, in which he characterized Croker as the Warren Hastings of New York. His speech was really a set of extracts from Edmund Burke’s great impeachment of Hastings, substituting always the name of Croker, and paralleling his career with that of the ancient boss of the East India Company.

It was not a humorous speech. It was too denunciatory for that. It probably contained less comic phrasing than any former effort. There is hardly even a suggestion of humor from beginning to end. It concluded with this paraphrase of Burke’s impeachment:

I impeach Richard Croker of high crimes and misdemeanors. I impeach him in the name of the people, whose trust he has betrayed.

I impeach him in the name of all the people of America, whose national character he has dishonored.

I impeach him in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated.

I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed, in both sexes, in every age, rank, situation, and condition of life.

The Acorn speech was greatly relied upon for damage to the Tammany ranks, and hundreds of thousands of copies of it were printed and circulated. — [The “Edmund Burke on Croker and Tammany” speech had originally been written as an article for the North American Review.]

Clemens was really heart and soul in the campaign. He even joined a procession that marched up Broadway, and he made a speech to a great assemblage at Broadway and Leonard Street, when, as he said, he had been sick abed two days and, according to the doctor, should be in bed then.

But I would not stay at home for a nursery disease, and that’s what I’ve got. Now, don’t let this leak out all over town, but I’ve been doing some indiscreet eating — that’s all. It wasn’t drinking. If it had been I shouldn’t have said anything about it.

I ate a banana. I bought it just to clinch the Italian vote for fusion, but I got hold of a Tammany banana by mistake. Just one little nub of it on the end was nice and white. That was the Shepard end. The other nine-tenths were rotten. Now that little white end won’t make the rest of the banana good. The nine-tenths will make that little nub rotten, too.

We must get rid of the whole banana, and our Acorn Society is going to do its share, for it is pledged to nothing but the support of good government all over the United States. We will elect the President next time.

It won’t be I, for I have ruined my chances by joining the Acorns, and there can be no office-holders among us.

There was a movement which Clemens early nipped in the bud — to name a political party after him.

“I should be far from willing to have a political party named after me,” he wrote, “and I would not be willing to belong to a party which allowed its members to have political aspirations or push friends forward for political preferment.”

In other words, he was a knight-errant; his sole purpose for being in politics at all — something he always detested — was to do what he could for the betterment of his people.

He had his reward, for when Election Day came, and the returns were in, the Fusion ticket had triumphed and Tammany had fallen. Clemens received his share of the credit. One paper celebrated him in verse:

Who killed Croker? I, said Mark Twain, I killed Croker, I, the jolly joker!

Among Samuel Clemens’s literary remains there is an outline plan for a “Casting-Vote party,” whose main object was “to compel the two great parties to nominate their best man always.” It was to be an organization of an infinite number of clubs throughout the nation, no member of which should seek or accept a nomination for office in any political appointment, but in each case should cast its vote as a unit for the candidate of one of the two great political parties, requiring that the man be of clean record and honest purpose.

From constable up to President [runs his final clause] there is no office for which the two great parties cannot furnish able, clean, and acceptable men. Whenever the balance of power shall be lodged in a permanent third party, with no candidate of its own and no function but to cast its whole vote for the best man put forward by the Republicans and Democrats, these two parties will select the best man they have in their ranks. Good and clean government will follow, let its party complexion be what it may, and the country will be quite content.

It was a Utopian idea, very likely, as human nature is made; full of that native optimism which was always overflowing and drowning his gloomier logic. Clearly he forgot his despair of humanity when he formulated that document, and there is a world of unselfish hope in these closing lines:

If in the hands of men who regard their citizenship as a high trust this scheme shall fail upon trial a better must be sought, a better must be invented; for it cannot be well or safe to let the present political conditions continue indefinitely. They can be improved, and American citizenship should arouse up from its disheartenment and see that it is done.

Had this document been put into type and circulated it might have founded a true Mark Twain party.

Clemens made not many more speeches that autumn, closing the year at last with the “Founder’s Night” speech at The Players, the short address which, ending on the stroke of midnight, dedicates each passing year to the memory of Edwin Booth, and pledges each new year in a loving-cup passed in his honor.

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