The Timeless Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclination, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” –John Adams (1770)
As I wrote earlier this week, because your Patriot team endures long hours on the frontlines defending American Liberty against relentless assaults from the Left, I require that our editors take a week of leave in August for some respite with their families. This is especially important as most of our crew have children to prepare for the coming school year – whatever that is going to look like this fall. A few of our key folks, Doug Andrews and Christy Chesterton, remain on watch with me during the break, as do our IT and administrative staff.
On Tuesday afternoons, the day I research and write a first draft of my column, I always have a list of compelling topics, and choosing one is often a challenge.
This week, I decided on a subject that would be more enjoyable to pull together a collection of observations from my favorite of the most sagacious satirists and curmudgeons: Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), who is often cited in The Patriot. But given the brilliance and breadth of his work, narrowing down my favorite quotes was an enormous challenge.
In his 75 years on earth (November 30, 1835, to April 21, 1910), Missouri native Clemens wrote an extraordinary body of work, mostly under his Twain pseudonym. He was an entrepreneur and a lecturer, but he was, of course, remembered most as a writer and publisher. Only those from the most failed of government education systems would not know his name, or that of his two most famous novels, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876) and the sequel, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884).
Those novels were inspired by Clemens’ formative years in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River. I visited his boyhood home and all things Twain in that small town recently.
He wrote of his early years in “Life on the Mississippi,” and declared among his peers, “there was but one permanent ambition” and that was to be a steamboatman. He gained his river experience under the wing of steamboat pilot Horace Bixby. He received his pilot’s license two years later – and adopted his pseudonym from a steamboat leadsman’s call of “by the mark twain,” a reference to the safe navigable depth of two fathoms (12 feet) for a steamboat, lest the rocks beneath the water would “tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated.” His nom de plume had previously been used by Captain Isaiah Sellers, who died in 1863 when Clemens adopted it, noting that because Sellers “no longer need that signature, I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor’s remains.”
During a remarkable writer’s life, Twain also produced “Roughing It” (1872), “The Gilded Age” (1873), “The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins” (1894), “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889), “Following the Equator” (1897), and, finally, the “Autobiography of Mark Twain,” an incomplete version of which was published in 1959 by Charles Neider, and a more exhaustive version of which was published to great fanfare in 2010.
Beyond the Mississippi River, Twain’s travels took him from coast to coast and around the world. He spent much of his life in Connecticut and New York, where he married his wife of 34 years, Olivia Langdon, and where they raised three daughters.
After many hours of consideration, then, what follows is a sampling of Mark Twain’s authenticated observations, which have every ounce of credence today as when he first penned them. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed pulling them together.
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
“Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.”
“When in doubt, tell the truth.”
“Often, the surest way to convey information is to tell the strict truth.”
“Truth is stranger than fiction – to some people, but I am measurably familiar with it.”
“In the beginning of a change the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”
“True patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation ALL the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”
“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.”
“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
“In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination.”
“You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
“The glory which is built upon a lie soon becomes a most unpleasant incumbrance. … How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!”
“Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.”
“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.”
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
“Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been.”
“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.”
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
“Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”
“Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”
“Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more.”
“Whenever you find you are on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
“Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.”
“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”
“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”
“Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.”
“Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.”
“Honesty is the best policy – when there is money in it.”
“It is easier to stay out than get out.”
“Do not put off until tomorrow what can be put off till day-after-tomorrow just as well.”
“Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”
“It is our nature to conform; it is a force which not many people can successfully resist. What is its seat? The inborn requirement of self-approval.”
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
“The heart is the real fountain of youth.”
And finally, a relevant note to the difficulty producing our brief Daily Digest analysis: “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”
Twain’s observations about the press were and remain, applicable. His observations about the media make clear that bias and deception are nothing new, but the degree of press influence in his day was far less than that of the Demo/MSM propagandists today.
In his 1873 “License of the Press” speech, Twain said: “It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people–who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations–do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.”… “That awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse.”
In his essay “The American Press,” Mark Twain, a newspaper reporter early in his career, wrote, “There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press. … It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm.”
Much as we coined the word “Leftmedia,” The Patriot also coined the word “Pollaganda” to describe how the media uses polls as propaganda. Pollaganda depends on outcome-based opinion samples (polling instruments designed to generate a preferential outcome), which in large measure, reflects prior-opinion indoctrination or cultivation by the same media conducting the poll. Then the media uses poll results to proselytize further by treating the results as “news,” which, in turn, induces “bandwagon” psychology – the human tendency of those who do not have a strong ideological foundation to aspire to the side perceived to be in the majority – and thus further drives public opinion toward the original media bias, ad infinitum.
On the subject of how data can be manipulated, Twain turned the following popular phrase: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” He quipped, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” On opinions, he added: “We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it we get an aggregation which we consider a boon. Its name is public opinion. It is held in reverence. Some think it the voice of God.”
Regarding errors in the press, Twain once famously declared, after press reports confused him with a cousin who had taken ill and died, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” That quote has a special resonance with me. After the death of a Great Aunt decades ago, whose husband Mark died before I was born, and in honor of whom I was given my first name, the estate lawyers distributed documents to all of her most distant relatives, indicating that I had died. That was picked up by the local press, and my siblings had a field day with that error.
But the timeless endurance of Twain’s wit and wisdom is certainly no exaggeration. A testament to that endurance is how often his century-old remarks are reprinted because of their applicability in the present. But his interest in piloting steamboats was motivated much more out of a desire for adventure than a trade, and his exceptional intellect and wanderlust would ultimately take him around the world.
Mark Twain was a Presbyterian, but he was no less a critic of organized religion as of other organized social structures, particularly the Catholic Church, noting that he was “educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic.” In his disregard for the corrupt side of conventional institutional religion, he declared, “If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be – a Christian.” He observed, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”
As his health failed in 1909, he wrote: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”
When news of Twain’s death reached President William Howard Taft, he said: “Mark Twain gave pleasure – real intellectual enjoyment – to millions, and his works will continue to give such pleasure to millions yet to come. … His humor was American, but he was nearly as much appreciated by Englishmen and people of other countries as by his own countrymen. He has made an enduring part of American literature.”
Mississippi writer and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner called Twain “the father of American literature.”
P.S.: As if he were speaking to my own editors, Twain once declared, “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.” But he also wrote, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776
Join us in prayer for our Patriots in uniform and their families — Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen — standing in harm’s way, and for our nation’s First Responders. We also ask prayer for your Patriot team, that our mission would seed and encourage the Spirit of Liberty in the hearts and minds of our countrymen.