Mark Twain, Internationalist

Travel writer and diplomat wannabe waxes satirically on envoys, imperialism


Rhoda Newman <>

Copyright © 1997 Rhoda Newman. This story may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

This article originally appeared in the Foreign Service Journal, February 1996, pp. 18-23. This electronic text is from TwainWeb, the web service of the Mark Twain Forum.

Mark Twain, that man of many contradictions, that quintessential American, chose to uproot himself for more than one-third of his 74 years to live abroad and lecture around the world. At various times he even claimed, not entirely in jest, to have been offered the posts of U.S. minister to China and U.S. minister to Vienna, and U.S. consul at Johannesburg. Instead, his diplomatic career was limited, as he wrote in 1898, to self-appointed ambassador at large of the U.S. of America--without salary.1

Twain's first experience outside his native shores came in March 1866 when, at age 30, the sometime riverboat pilot, prospector and newspaperman persuaded the editors of the Sacramento Union to send him to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). The four months he spent there were to change his life.

More than 20 years later, he still remembered Hawaii's beauty; "its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud rack."2

The dispatches to the Sacramento Union demonstrated not only his gift for vivid description, but also his satirist's eye. The islands' exotic mix came alive to readers from portraits of missionaries, whaling captains and jaded expatriates. To these, he added irreverent comments on the local legislature and the pragmatist's view of investment possibilities. The descriptive talents he developed laid the groundwork for a lifetime of travel writing. Twain subsequently extolled the value of travel for his countrymen as "fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."3 Again and again, the old prospector tapped into his mother lode of reminiscences. The Sandwich Islands dispatches, for example, were later recycled into chapters of Twain's Roughing It and Following the Equator.

On returning to San Francisco, Twain found his dispatches had made him an instant celebrity, serving as a springboard for yet another successful career: sure-fire draw on the lecture circuit. For the rest of his life, lecturing was the lucrative bailout he turned to whenever he faced financial problems.

While in the Sandwich Islands, the provincial Western newspaperman further broadened his horizons by a chance meeting with Anson Burlingame, U.S. minister to China. Burlingame admired Twain's writing, and the two men immediately struck up a warm friendship, even though Burlingame was 15 years Twain's senior. During Burlingame's tenure as minister to China, 1861-68, he developed great respect for the Chinese, and had, in turn, won their confidence, so much so that when, in 1867, he announced his intention to resign his diplomatic position, he accepted an appointment as a member of a three-man Chinese delegation to the Western powers. He was probably the only envoy to serve as both his country's representative to a foreign nation and as the foreign nation's representative to his own country. With the backing of Secretary of State William H. Seward, Burlingame had enlisted the cooperation of the diplomatic community in Peking in promoting noninterference with the Chinese government and in redefining trade concessions to foreign powers. On July 28,1868, Burlingame and Seward signed the treaty between the United States and China, which later became known as the Burlingame Treaty.

A curious aspect of Twain's friendship with Burlingame was the author's repeated boast that he had been urged by Sen. John Conness (R-Calif.) to take the post of United States minister to China upon Burlingame's announcement of his resignation. He wrote to his mother and sister in February 1868:

They want to send me abroad, as a consul or a minister. I said I didn't want any of the pie. God knows I am mean enough [and] lazy enough now; without being a foreign consul.4

Although he publicly railed at political patronage throughout his life, Twain was not above pulling strings for his own advantage. He wrote to Burlingame in 1868: "Don't neglect or refuse to keep a gorgeous secretaryship or a high interpretership for me in your great embassy'. . . . I would like to go with your embassy as a dignitary of some kind or other. . . . I want to be a mild sort of dignitary . . . Pray save me a place."5

Twain was not named minister to Peking. Instead the appointment went to John Ross Browne, a writer Twain had known in his San Francisco days. But he did not abandon his dream of a cushy China posting. He wrote in a column in the Alta California that Browne "has kindly invited me to take a lucrative position on his staff in case he goes to China, and I have accepted, with the promptnes[s] which so distinguishes me when I see a chance to serve my country without damaging my health by working too hard."6

In the end, Twain never did visit China, but he always remembered his friendship with Burlingame and recalled the advice he had given him: "Avoid inferiors. Seek your comradeships among your superiors in intellect and character; always climb."7

Twain's first extensive journey overseas came between June and November 1867, when he accompanied what was to become a classic American tour group on a trip to Europe and the Holy Land via the steamer Quaker City. The trip was originally planned by the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher to afford newly financially independent citizens a broadening cultural and pietistic experience. Twain, covering the trip as a correspondent for the Alta California, and later for the New York Herald and the New York Tribune, at once identified with the unsophisticated travelers and, at the same time, spoofed their awe-struck willingness to depend on guides rather than on their own common-sense observations. His perceptive characterizations of American tour groups still ring true today. Once again, Twain's travel dispatches proved a huge popular success. After returning home, he expanded the articles into what was to become his first published book, The Innocents Abroad, an immediate best seller, both here and abroad.

By the 1870s, Twain's brand of brash Western humor enjoyed an enormous vogue at all levels of European society. He first visited England in 1872. So taken was he with the English way of life, that he wrote, "I would rather live in England than America--which is treason." He had concluded that a civilized government run by a gentlemanly elite was preferable to a crude democracy. He returned home to write a bitter condemnation of the corruption he felt had overtaken America in his first novel, The Gilded Age (coauthored with his friend, Charles Dudley Warner).

Meanwhile, he fled to England and the Continent whenever he could. Wherever he went, he was celebrated as a brilliant lecturer, feted by the literary Pantheon (among others, Browning, Turgenev, Trollope, Hardy and Kipling), and sought after by the crowned heads of Europe. When his Anglomania abated, he became enamored of the Germans. "What paradise this land is," he wrote. "What clean clothes, what good faces, what tranquil contentment, what prosperity; what genuine freedom, what superb government!"8 With only occasional bouts of homesickness, he and his family lived in Europe from 1878-79, travelling extensively throughout Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the Low Countries, being entertained along the way by the American diplomatic community. His social triumphs left little time for writing. His major work during this period was A Tramp Abroad, a digressionary account of an idyllic ramble with an old friend through the Black Forest, down the Neckar River, and into the Swiss Alps.

Despite being, for the most part, enamored of the Europeans, Twain showed his vindictive side in his vicious antipathy toward the French, whom he characterized as "the connecting link between monkey & human being." He noted: "Scratch a F[renchman and] you find a savage . . . a F[renchwoman and] you find a harlot." Even the French language did not escape his scorn, which he called "the language for lying compliment, for illicit love [and] for the conveying of exquisitely nice shades of meaning in bright graceful [and] trivial conversations . . . especially of double-meanings."9

After returning to the States in 1879, Twain became increasingly pre-occupied with a variety of business ventures, including the establishment of a publishing house. The initial publishing success with the bestselling Personal Memoirs of General Grant, led to a series of ever more risky, speculative ventures during a time when the country was in a period of boom and bust. In June 1891, Twain again went abroad, hoping to recoup his financial losses with another travel book and more lecture tours. He was to be gone for more than eight of the next nine years, crisscrossing the Atlantic repeatedly in a futile effort to somehow redeem the money he had gambled on a variety of unsuccessful projects.

Twain himself went bankrupt in 1894. Determined to pay off his creditors and clear his good name, he embarked the following year on a round-the-world lecture tour that was to take him to Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, India and South Africa. Following the Equator, his account of the tour, was published in 1897. A diplomatic footnote to this journey: While in South Africa, Twain learned that the post of American consul in Johannesburg was vacant. Excited by the opportunities he saw in the diamond fields, the old prospector considered applying for the post, but the idea was vetoed by his devoted wife, Livy.

At the end of his triumphant tour; he was indeed able to pay off his debts. With this burden lifted, some of his old lightheartedness returned. While living in Vienna in 1898-99, he "took up statesmanship as a pastime," after having "stopped trying to understand baseball." He first turned his attention to the plight of the underpaid U.S. diplomat: "A foreign representative, to be valuable to his country, must be on good terms with the officials of the capital and with the rest of the influential folk. . . . He must attend the dinners, banquets, suppers, balls, receptions and must return those hospitalities. . . . Have we ever had a minister or an ambassador who could do this on his salary? No not once, from [Benjamin] Franklin's time to ours."

In 1899, U.S. ambassadors to the major European capitals were paid $17,500 a year; less than half what their European counterparts were paid, while, in the States, insurance company presidents and railway company lawyers were earning $50,000 a year. Twain described the ambassadors as doing "the best they could with their limited purse. In return for champagne they furnished lemonade; in return for game they furnished ham; in return for whale they furnished sardines; in return for liquors they furnished condensed milk." He likened the United States and its foreign representatives to "a billionaire in a paper collar; a king in a breech-clout, an archangel in a tin halo."10

At the time of the 1899 appointment of Addison Harris as the new minister to Vienna, an appointment Twain claimed half-jokingly to have coveted, he described the nine requirements of the job as: "a private income of $40,000; experience of swell society life in the European capitals; easy adaptability to unfamiliar customs, [and] common sense enough to respect them; the gift of reserve--upon occasion; the gift of talk [and] the tact to know when to exercise it; personal dignity; native courtesy [and] trained good manners; the hospitable instinct [and] the disposition to give it liberal scope; familiarity with the French [and] German languages; the genius to know [and] keep in mind that the minister is the United States of America on exhibition [and] under criticism--not his private self."11 Harris, he added, did not fulfill a single one of the requirements.

As much as Twain enjoyed hobnobbing with the rich and the famous, there was always a side of him tuned to the sufferings of the oppressed. While still a young reporter in Nevada and San Francisco, he was outraged to see Chinese immigrants subjected to so much brutality and to find newspapers unwilling to print that story.

He hoped a provision in the Burlingame Treaty allowing appointment of consuls representing the Chinese in the United States would redress these wrongs. Years later, as a privileged cosmopolitan circling the globe in 1895-96, he expressed the same kind of compassion for the down-trodden native peoples of Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand and South Africa. In Following the Equator, he described colonialism sardonically as a combination of "robbery, humiliation and slow, slow murder, through poverty and the white man's whisky. . . . There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages."12

The injustices he saw in the British Empire awakened him to what he considered the exploitation of helpless natives in the colonies of Germany, Russia and Belgium. "This lust has rotted these nations," he later wrote. "It has made them hard, sordid, ungentle, dishonest, oppressive.13 He began to fear his own country might get caught up in the colonial frenzy.

Twain returned to the United States from his "everlasting exile" in October 1900, to a hero's welcome. So strongly had his political opinions developed by then that he told a reporter on the day of his arrival, "I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."14

At first, Twain supported the United States in the Spanish-American War, feeling the fight for Cuban freedom a noble one. However, as he became more aware of the United States' role as occupier in the Philippines in 1901, he reconsidered this support: "when the United States sent word that the Cuban atrocities must end, she occupied the highest moral position ever taken by a nation since the Almighty made the Earth. But when she snatched the Philippines and butchered a poverty-stricken, priest-ridden nation of children, she stained the flag."15

While Twain was continually distressed by his government's policy in the Philippines, he did not publish all of his attacks during his lifetime. One exception was the case of the capture of the Philippine leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, whom Twain considered a hero. When Gen. Frederick Funston, who had captured Aguinaldo by a ruse, returned home to be proclaimed a popular hero, Twain was so outraged that he published a violent attack in the North American Review of May 1902, sarcastically entitled, "Defense of General Funston," in which he not only condemned the duplicity involved in Aguinaldo's capture, but also graphically described the torture of captured prisoners by American troops.

The American Anti-Imperialist League had been founded in 1898 to protest the Spanish-American War. Twain joined the League after returning to the States, and even permitted his name to be used as one of its vice presidents. In the ensuing years, he was to employ all of the satirical weapons at his command--sarcasm, irony and mordant humor--in the cause of anti-imperialism. The tone was set in a salutation speech from the 19th century to the 20th century, published in the New York Herald of Dec. 30, 1900. He wrote, "I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored from pirate raids in Kiao-Chou, Manchuria, South Africa [and] the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass."

In a bitter article in the North American Review in early 1901, Twain assailed the role played by missionaries, whom he referred to as "the Blessings-of-Civilization Trust" in furthering international imperialism.

While the article was hailed by champions of anti-imperialism, it infuriated the opposition. They questioned the qualifications of "a professional funny man" to discuss serious matters, and accused him of having lived so long abroad that he had lost touch "with things American."

Twain's most widely circulated anti-imperialist writings were "The Czar's Soliloquy," published in the North American Review in 1905, condemning Czar Nicholas II for the slaughter of 1,500 subjects in Moscow on "Bloody Sunday" - Jan. 22, 1905, and his pamphlet, "King Leopold's Soliloquy," attacking King Leopold for atrocities in the Belgian Congo.

Although by 1906, Twain defined himself by telling a reporter, "I am a revolutionist--by birth, breeding, principle, and everything else,"16 this was only one side of his paradoxical character. At times he was an idealist, at others a cynical pessimist, most often a pragmatist. His passions, often superficial and erratic, were never long sustained for any single cause. While capable of heartfelt compassion, there was also a side of him given to virulent diatribe. And though repeatedly attacking the corrupting influence of "money lust," he always lived extravagantly and gloried in close personal friendships with the robber barons of his day.

Twain was to shed the moralist's mantle when he chose to ignore that these friends profited handsomely from the exploitation of the Congo. His explanation for being reluctant to become more involved with the Congo Reform Association was: "My instincts and interests are merely literary; they rise no higher; and I scatter from one interest to another, lingering nowhere. I am not a bee, I am a lightning bug."17

George Bernard Shaw wrote Twain after they met: "I am persuaded that the future historian of America will find your works as indispensable to him as a French historian finds the political tracts of Voltaire."18

Yet, in the end, the lightning bug was much more revered than the bee. Twain's international legacy was best summed up by the London Times in 1907, when he left England for the last time, after triumphantly accepting the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Oxford University: "Mark Twain has . . . done more for the cause of the world's peace than will be accomplished by the Hague Conference. He has made the world laugh again.19

Rhoda Newman, a freelance writer in Ocean Grove, N.J., is a former librarian for the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress.


1. Mark Twain Project, University of California,Berkeley. Unpublished note, May, 1898. (This previously unpublished note by Mark Twain is copyright © 1996 by Chemical Bank as Trustee of the Mark Twain Foundation, which reserves all reproduction or dramatization rights in every medium. It is published with the permission of the University of California Press and Robert H. Hirst, General Editor, Mark Twain Project).

2. Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, ed. Frederick Anderson et al., V. 1, p. 105, headnote.

3. Writings of Mark Twain. Author's National Edition. N.Y. 1913, v.11., p. 444 (Cited Scott, Arthur L. Mark Twain at Large, p. 69, footnote 125).

4. Mark Twain's Letters, Vol. 1, 1853-1866. Vol. 2, 1867-1868. Vol. 3, 1869. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1988-1992, V. 2, p. 179-180.

5. Ibid, v. 2, p. 186-188.

6. Ibid, v. 2, p. 230-231.

7. Mark Twain's Autobiography, op. cit., V. 2, p. 125.

8. Smith, Henry N. and William M. Gibson, eds., Mark Twain-Howells Letters, 2v. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1960, p. 227.

9. Twain, Mark. Notebook 18, p. 318-325, February-September 1879.

10. Twain, Mark, "Diplomatic Pay and Clothes," Forum, March 1899, p. 24-32.

11. Mark Twain Project, University of California, Berkeley, Unpublished notes, 1899. (This previously unpublished note by Mark Twain is copyright © 1996 by Chemical Bank as Trustee of the Mark Twain Foundation, which reserves all reproduction or dramatization rights in every medium. It is published with the permission of the University of California Press and Robert H. Hirst, General Editor, Mark Twain Project).

12. The Writings of Mark Twain, Author's National Edition. N.Y., Harper & Brothers, 1913, v.5, Following the Equator, p. 192.

13. Mark Twain's Letters, ed. Albert B. Paine. N.Y. 1917, v.11, p. 770, letter to Twichell (cited Scott, Arthur L. Mark Twain at Large, p. 268, footnote 31)

14. Cited Foner, Philip S. Mark Twain: Social Critic. NY, International Publishers, 2nd ed. 1966, p. 239)

15. Cited Foner, p. 256.

16. Cited Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. NY, Simon and Schuster, 1966, p. 368.

17. MT letter to Dr. Thomas B. Barbour, January 8, 1906. New York Public Library, Berg collection. (Cited Kaplan, p. 366.)

18. "My dear Mark Twain," G.B. Shaw to Twain, July 1, 1907, London, (MTP). Letter is in Paine,, p. 1398. Cited Kaplan, p. 382.

19. Paine, Albert B. Mark Twain: A Biography. N.Y. 1912, v.111., p. 1403. (Cited Scott, p. 294)