On Friday I visited Virginia City, Nevada with an old friend. The town is one of those old western towns, and its most famous resident happened to be Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain. Thus, there is a bar and casino named after him and there are historical exhibits about his brief time there as a journalist. I also learned something about him. His early views on slavery and the Confederacy were…controversial.
Twain was born in Missouri, a slave state, and his family had for a time owned a slave. He grew up with some loyalties to the institution, and as the Civil War was approaching, he internally debated as to whether he should join the Know Nothing or Constitutional Union Party. He ultimately voted for the Constitutional Union ticket, which was for preserving the union and slavery. On the outbreak of the Civil War, he briefly joined a Confederate militia, the Marion Rangers. They lasted for a total of two weeks. Twain didn’t feel particularly strongly about the war itself, and traveled to Virginia City, Nevada. The town was rather perfect for him, as its people were evenly divided in their sympathies. He had mixed feelings about the Civil War, as he believed that we could both have a union and slavery. After a short time as a journalist, giving himself multiple pen names including Mark Twain, a dueling prank backfired and he was forced to leave for California.
While Twain’s views on these subjects changed with the Civil War’s end, it is rather interesting in this day and age to look back on commonly celebrated American figures and see where they stood on these issues. For many who are super-conscious on issues of group-based equality, it is far more often a disappointing exercise than not. But is it really that surprising that Twain felt the way he did in his early years given his upbringing and the common sentiment existing in his state of birth? Although Missouri stayed in the US as a slave state, many Missourians fought for the Confederacy, including two of Harry S. Truman’s ancestors. Truman himself, in spite of being the first Democratic president to press for a civil rights agenda, was to his dying day a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and proud of his family heritage.
Overall, although Twain was known as the quintessential American novelist, wit, and satirist, he held a number of views that today are regarded as unacceptable. It is important for us to judge historical figures by the time they lived in. Most assuredly there will be some things we do today that will be condemned by future generations. Perhaps some of these things we have a feeling will be condemned by them, and some of them may take us by surprise. Simply put, hindsight is 20/20.
Glionna, J.M. (20 May 2014). Mark Twain: Inexcusable racist or man of his time? Los Angeles Times.
Nix, E. (2 December 2014). 8 Things You May Not Know About Mark Twain. History.com.