The Radical Politics of Mark Twain

Posted by Pete on Nov 30th 2020

There is more to Mark Twain than Huckleberry Finn…

"Who are the oppressors? The few. Who are the oppressed? The many."

Countless American writers have had a radical side in politics, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to John Steinbeck, but few more so than Mark Twain (1835-1910). 

Born 'Samuel Langhorne Clemens' in Missouri – 185 years ago today – Twain had one foot in radical politics from a young age.

Mark Twain was considered brave even among progressive radicals

Twain's Radical Roots 

When he found work as a printer in the 1850s, moving across the States from New York City out to St Louis, Twain joined the International Typographical Union.

He was a union man from then on to the end of his days, supporting the Knights of Labor and painting labor unionism in a wondrous light in Life on the Mississippi. 

Through his marriage to the liberal activist, Olivia Langdon, Twain came into close contact with a wider range of radical circles: "socialists, principled atheists and activists for women’s rights and social equality" is how he described them. 

Twain linked up with the abolitionist movement, coming to know characters like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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A Connecticut Yankee with a Passion for Activism 

Twain was Beecher Stowe’s neighbor in Connecticut for several years, where he wrote classics like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee, and Huckleberry Finn. 

Twain’s activism for racial equality was sustained over the late-19th and early-20th century.

He once wrote, movingly, of the Emancipation Proclamation that, "Lincoln’s Proclamation not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also."

In his later years, Twain got the Connecticut state legislature to vote a pension to the radical, de-segregationist educator, Prudence Crandall.

He also condemned racism towards Chinese laborers in the US. 

Twain was a long-time advocate of votes for women in the US.

In a famous 1901 speech supporting the suffrage movement, he said: "for twenty-five years I’ve been a woman’s rights man… I should like to see the time come when women shall help to make the laws. I should like to see that whiplash, the ballot, in the hands of women.”

With a bravery rare even among progressive radicals in the US, Mark Twain also spoke out against aggressive US foreign policy in his later years. 

He became a passionate critic of US imperialism in the context of America’s brutal war of repression in the Philippines (1899-1902).

Confessing his earlier support of US expansion, Twain wrote in late-1900 that,  "I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific. Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? But I have thought some more, since then, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.” 

Rowing against the tide of war fever in the American press, Twain wrote a moving text, The War Prayer, in which he denounced war as contrary to the fundamental tenets of Christian morality – no one would publish it. 

Sixty years later, with the US government again on the march in Asia, the movement against the Vietnam War dug up Twain’s War Prayer and republished it. 

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As well as a literary giant, Mark Twain was doubtless one of the most politically passionate and radically progressive public figures in modern American history – an inspiration for us all. 

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