Moral Low Ground


‘On This Day’ 1835: Mark Twain, Literary Giant & Eloquent Anti-Imperialist, Born

A true giant of literature and social justice.

Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835, is arguably the greatest author this country has ever produced. Works like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn have been enjoyed not only stateside but by readers the world over for more than a century.

A lesser-known fact about Twain is that he was a champion for social justice and an ardent anti-imperialist who grew increasingly vocal about his opposition to American expansionism as he grew older and Washington grew bolder, culminating in outright colonial conquest in the Spanish-American War.

Twain’s passion for social justice was already evident when, as a San Francisco newspaper reporter barely into his 30s, he wrote about police brutality against the city’s Chinese population. He openly associated with black friends, much to the chagrin of San Francisco high society. Later, while living in Europe, he disapprovingly noted the racism and colonialism inherent in the mad scramble to conquer distant lands and their dark-skinned inhabitants by the continent’s leading imperial powers.

By the end of the 19th century, there was no doubt that the United States had itself become an imperial power. Victory in the Spanish-American war resulted in the acquisition of America’s first significant overseas colonies. The indigenous inhabitants of the Philippines fiercely resisted American occupation and tens of thousands of innocent Filipinos and thousands of US troops died trying to subdue the insurgency. Twain was shocked by the barbarism, and on October 15, 1900 these wise words of his were published in the New York Herald:

“I left these shores, at Vancouver, a red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific. It seemed tiresome and tame for it to content itself with the Rockies. Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself? And I thought it would be a real good thing to do.

I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves.

But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, 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.

We have also pledged the power of this country to maintain and protect the abominable system established in the Philippines by the Friars.

It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

By this time, Twain’s anti-imperial views were widely known and he was invited to become the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, which counted such giants as the industrialist Andrew Carnegie and labor leader Samuel Gompers among its members. Twain accepted and remained at the post for the rest of his life.

In 1901, Twain published To the Person Sitting in Darkness, a rousing indictment of American and European imperialism. As great of a living American icon as he was, Twain’s anti-imperialist views predictably resulted in his being labeled a crazy old man, or worse, a traitor. Just as right-wing voices like Fox News do today, conservative critics accused Twain of providing aid and comfort to the “enemy” insurgents in the Philippines. Some called for his head. But Mark Twain was unmoved. He remained a steadfast supporter of social justice and a fierce foe of imperialism until the day he died in 1910.

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