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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/11549/mark-twains-radical-liberalism/

Mark Twain’s Radical Liberalism

January 27, 2010 by

The confusion over Mark Twain’s political outlook is due to terminology and the tendency of politics to corrupt the meaning of everything. As often as you see him called a liberal, he is called a conservative, and sometimes both in the same breath. FULL ARTICLE by Jeffrey Tucker


fundamentalist January 27, 2010 at 9:22 am

Mart Twain has always been my favorite American author. Now he is even more so. Thanks!

Patrick Barron January 27, 2010 at 10:25 am

Magnificent! Here’s my favorite Mark Twain quote (from memory, so it may not be quite exact):

“Although I consider myself among the most reasonable of men, it would not be wise to grant me unlimited power.”

MBrown January 27, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Interesting article.

I love the ‘definition’ of liberal/liberalism in the 3rd paragraph. Would be interesting to put that forth to people and say something along the lines of “if you want to call yourself a liberal, you must believe/accept ALL of the following. If you can’t, please don’t call yourself a liberal. Call yourself a socialist, fascist, progressive or what have your, but not a liberal.”

DW January 27, 2010 at 12:35 pm

What about “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”? If I recall, one of the first things the character set out to do (after acquiring so much power for himself) was to set up a Patent Office (among other things, as a government entity). I’m going to do get the book now and read it again, but before I do can anyone explain to me what Clemens’s real position was on IP regulation?


Jeffrey Tucker January 27, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I don’t know but please please look into this.

Steve January 27, 2010 at 5:15 pm

This was a nicely written article. I had a good laugh with these quotes:

“Talking of patriotism what humbug it is,” he wrote; “it is a word that always commemorates a robbery.”

“Patriotism is being carried to insane excess. I know men who do not love God because He is a foreigner.”

Russ January 27, 2010 at 6:46 pm

My favorite Twain quote is:

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

DW January 27, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Hey what do you know! There’s a government website that talks about what I just said!


Clemens had a total of three patents. For all his criticisms of governments stealing the property of others, he apparently felt IP protection was a legitimate function.

Oh well. It doesn’t mean I won’t read more of Mark Twain again.

Jeffrey Tucker January 28, 2010 at 7:54 am

It is very difficult to find sound writings on patents in the 19th century. There is some good material from 18th century England but very little in the U.S. – probably because it wasn’t that controversial, they lasted such a short time, patents were hard to enforce anyway, and innovation was relentless.

DW January 28, 2010 at 10:12 am

Aye, very true Mr. Tucker. The Patent system then was a different beast than the one now. I’m sure if Clemens were alive today, he’d be horrified.

Paul Nofs January 28, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Mr. Tucker, Great new perspective on Clemens. Clemens wrote the “Million Pound Banknote” perhaps foreshadowing the notion of a debtor nation?


Your article reminded me of this Rory Sutherland utube, also on subjective value:


Gene Berman January 29, 2010 at 12:39 am

Twain was pretty much what we’d call “classicly liberal” but he wasn’t in any way doctrinaire on the subject.

In “Life on the Mississippi,” he is enthusiastic about the system of pilots exchanging information on ever-changing conditions on the river and then the newly unionized pilots gaining the upper hand by acquiring the right to use the (U.S. post office) mailbox on the pier to leave messages for other (union only) pilots, so that soon, the lower accident rate among the union guys attracted attention from the insurors.

In one book, Twain criticizes the U.S. for sparseness
and frugality in the allowances and furnishings for its personnel (from ambassadors down) stationed abroad, expressing that we should appoint them and their accoutrements more lavishly–in keeping with European custom and expectations.

I don’t know what patents Twain held but they may have had something to do with the printing equipment in which he invested (and lost heavily).

One reason Twain was so anti-Catholic was that he had the brainstorm for writing one of the best-sellers of all time–a biography of the Pope. He wrote, published, and distributed it, including translations into many different languages, never reckoning with the fact that, at the time, over 95% of all Catholics could read; so the book and its promotion was a gigantic

Several years of his later life, Twain was the highest-paid entertainer (travelling the lecture-circuit) in the U.S. and, in one year, was reported to have had the highest earned income in the country (about a half-million, if I remember correctly).

Oddly enough, if Twain can be taken more or less literally, at his word, his is an important witness to a fundamental (and seemingly insoluble) question impinging on current and past hostilities involving the Israelis and Palestinians. In one of his “travel” books (“Innocents Abroad,” I think), he describes Palestine
(including what is now Israel) as, virtually, almost completely barren, desolate, and uninhabited–except for the few spots in which early Zionists (financed by charitable contributions, especially Rothschild’s) had settled, producing small, green garden spots. Such description supports a contention that present Palestinians were not, in fact, indigineous to the area, but were actually originally Egyptian (and other) Arabs who came to the area seeking employment in working for the newcomers.

We had a set of everything Twain wrote. By the time I was 12, I’m sure I’d read it all at least 5 times (and some many more). But I quit fiction when I was 12, so never became acquainted with things published after his death (Mysterious Stranger, etc.).

Twain liked practical jokes (and telling of them) and the first occurred in the story that made him famous–”The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”–which detailed how a sly trickster filled the frog with lead shot–and walked off with the wagers. He, himself, played an enormous one on the Eastern “literary establishment,” which tended to downgrade him as a countrified boor (read “redneck”).
He answered criticism (in a literary magazine or newspaper section–I forget which) from a Frenchman
named M. Paul Bourget and a series of back-and-forth
letters–all published–ensued, with Twain making some outrageously insulting comments reflecting on the chastity of French wives. A firestorm of adverse comments came in from American literati, after which Twain revealed that he and “M. Paul Bourget” were one and the same person. When many accused him of lying to save face, he ran an ad in the NYT offering
$10,000 to anyone who could prove him wrong.

Thomas January 29, 2010 at 6:05 am

Mark Twain was a strong supporter of intellectual property rights.


Thomas January 29, 2010 at 6:09 am
newson January 29, 2010 at 6:11 am

…as indeed are most beneficiaries of state monopolies!

Adrian Wrigley January 29, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Mark Twain was an enthusiastic Georgist.
This is a major part of his understanding and beliefs in Political Economy, and explains the “liberal”/”conservative” confusion. Although this is the most important part of his economic beliefs, it is completely absent in the article, AFAICT… what gives?

jeffrey January 29, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Maybe that is right and it wouldn’t entirely surprise me given George’s huge influence, but there does seem to be some question about the authenticity of the piece you linked. Reference to his Georgism is absent in my piece because this is the first I’ve heard of it. In any case, Georgists were and are all over the map, so I’m not sure adding that point really adds enormous value to the analysis.

Jock Coats April 22, 2010 at 1:44 pm

He is reported to have been a Georgist *activist* though – selling tickets to George’s lectures and so on. Certainly Georgists have always claimed him! But then it’s hardly surprising – it seems to me that it is only well into the twentieth century that this mechanism of redressing the historical and current imbalances in land ownership was eclipsed in libertarian circles. Nock was a fan of HG as well.

“The earth belongs to the people. I believe in the gospel of the Single Tax” is reputed to be Twain’s.

DixieFlatline April 22, 2010 at 2:02 pm

I am constantly amazed with the fascination of left libertarians, be they Mutualists, Georgists or otherwise, with redressing historical imbalances, when it is impossible to do so, given that the parties wronged no longer exist, and there is no possible way to determine what the just outcomes would have yielded.

It’s like they read history regressively, not progressively.

Jock Coats April 22, 2010 at 5:04 pm

So why does Rothbard spend so long discussing it in Ethics of Liberty then?

DixieFlatline April 22, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Are you appealing to Rothbard as an authority?

Vanmind January 29, 2010 at 11:00 pm

One of the greatest Americans of all time.

Matt Robare January 31, 2010 at 10:47 am

No wonder state schools hate Mark Twain and keep trying to get his books banned on every ridiculuous criticism they can come up with.

Sherlock February 1, 2010 at 11:53 am

A valuable contribution. Thanks Jeff.
Re: Twain’s political philosophy, as reading his biography reveals, he was an avid reader but not formally educated. His “political” beliefs changed somewhat over time, partly due to his improved financial status. He married into a wealthy Rochester NY family and eventually numbered Wall St. barrons among his close associates and friends.

While his classical liberal/libertarian views were mostly derived from hard experience and intelligent ccommon sense, he did change over time. He was intially impressed with Teddy Rooseveldt but later came to revile him as an imperialist warmonger.

He was pro-market but much of his view of the IP issue was formed by his later life efforts to become a technological innovator like Edison. Most of his fortune was lost in a hugely expensive failed typesetting machine startup and also to some extent by the national recessions of his era.

He was probably more “populist” than most classical liberals, though he habored deep suspicisions about labor “agitators” and violent revolutionaries.

He certainly remains one of the most libertarian of our country’s successful creative artists.

Ben Lear February 1, 2010 at 7:02 pm

The last paragraph of this piece contains something missing from the American publics conscious. The French and German citizens life is not bad at all and the Americans life is not as good as we seem to think. A show called Euromaxx on DW-TV shows that the Europeans don’t have the kind of problems we have (lack of health care, homelessness, fear of crime), at least not to the same extreme. Americans seem to think they are so much better than others but they never take the time to educate themselves about how things really are in this world.

Turtle February 2, 2010 at 7:23 pm

All so grand. The best quote is “Huck can and went as he pleased”. That says it all.

A Liberal in Lakeview November 1, 2010 at 9:04 pm

If only Twain had said that the flag should be for the USA. Change black back to blue, fix the canton so that it spans seven stripes, not eight stripes, and there it is. The blackness of the USA is addressed well enough with the skull and crossbones.

In fact, why not have the canton span nine stripes? We’d get a little con law, namely the 7th article of the Constitution, suggested there, not to mention irony, given the motto of the ninth state to ratify.

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