MARK TWAIN'S LETTERS FROM WASHINGTON.
[SPECIAL CORRESPONDENCE OF THE ENTERPRISE.]
WASHINGTON, February, 1868
Right here in this heart and home and fountain-head of law - in this great factory where are forged those rules that create good order and compel virtue and honesty in the other communities of the land, rascality achieves its highest perfection. Here rewards are conferred for conniving at dishonesty, but never for exposing it. I know several cases that come under this head; persons who have lived here longer and are better acquainted, know of a great many. I meet a man in the Avenue, sometimes, whose history most residents of the city are acquainted with. He was a clerk of high grade in one of the Departments; but he was a stranger and had no rules of action for his guidance except some effete maxims of integrity picked up in Sunday school - that snare to the feet of the unsophisticated! - and some unpractical moral wisdom instilled into him by his mother, who meant well, poor soul,, but whose teachings were morally bound to train up her boy for the poor-house. Well, nobody told this stranger how he ought to conduct himself, and so he went on following up those old maxims of his, and acting so strangely in consequence, that the other clerks began to whisper and nod, and exchange glances of commiseration - for they thought that his mind was not right - that his brain had been touched by sorrow, or hard fortune, or something. They observed that he never stole anything; by and by they noticed that people who came to bribe him went away with an expression of disappointment in their faces; finally it became apparent that he worked very hard, and performed his tasks well, and never "shirked." Then they grew a little afraid of him. They said he was very quiet and peaceable, but then there was no telling when a lunatic was going to get one of those spells on him and scalp somebody. Finally the young man caught the high grand sachem of a great bureau perpetrating a flagrant swindle on the Government! What did he do? - call for a division of the proceeds, like an intelligent being? No! He went, like an ignorant, besotted ass, and told the Secretary of the Department! The Secretary of the Department said he would look into the matter; and added, "By the way, what business is it of yours?" And the next thing the foolish young man knew, he found himself discharged and the intelligent sachem promoted. Then he went and told the Senators from the State all about it and asked them to get him another place, and they told him very properly that he had ruined himself, and that the official doors would all be closed against him now. He soon found out that that was the truth. He soon found out that you can't educate a boy in a Sunday school so as to make him useful to his country. That young man is idle to this day. Nobody has tried harder to get employment than he, but they all know his story; and they always refuse him. Everybody shuns him because everybody knows he is afflicted with a loathsome leprosy - the strange, foreign leprosy of honesty - and they are afraid they might catch it. There isn't any danger, maybe, but then they don't like to take any chances.
Why, no one would ever imagine the absurdities that imbecile was guilty of before he discovered what a mistake his education had been. When he found out that they admit bad women into private rooms in one of the Departments at all hours of the night he went and told people about it, as if he had discovered some great thing. He was always carrying around some old stale piece of news like that. And when he found out that in the basement of another Department they feed and lodge and pay salaries to 120 New York election sharps who do nothing in the world, and that their names are set down in the record books, not as Michael O'Flaherty, Dennis O"Flannigan, Patrick O'Dougherty, and so on, but always simply as "FIRE AND LIGHTS," he went and told that also. And when he learned that one of the heads of the Printing Bureau hires bindery girls with especial reference to their unchastity, and that it was proved by Government investigation and duly published in a book that he sometimes sleeps with two of them at a time and has the free run of his harem to choose from, and that he flourishes around Washington, now, the best dressed and gallantest officer the Government has, he even thought that trifle a matter of sufficient importance to run around and talk about. Why, when the Tice meter was covertly foisted upon the public by the Government, and every distiller in America peremptorily commanded to come forward and buy one at from $600 to $1,500, when a better machine could have been furnished for just half the money, he said he believed there was a ten million dollar swindle behind all that, and that certain high officials were privy to it and reaping a vast profit from it - which was no doubt true as gospel, but where is the wisdom in talking about these dangerous topics?
I stopped in at a fine boarding-house last night to see a friend, and the landlady came in to collect her bill. She mentioned the fact that she had two handsomely furnished apartments which she would like to rent to some one. I said I knew of several Senators and Congressmen who would be glad to have them. She said she would not venture to risk that kind of people! I thought she was jesting, but she was not. Ana gent of a Senator had called and engaged those rooms for him two months before he was to arrive - with the understanding that he was to occupy them during the whole session. He came, and said they were perfectly satisfactory. After a while he wanted some more furniture added - which was done, at a cost of two hundred dollars. He staid two months, said he was still perfectly satisfied with the apartments, and could have no desire to leave them, but for the fact that some friends had taken up their residence in another part of the town, and he wished to be near them - so he was going to move. He did not deny that the agent's contract was duly authorized, but he said, "Have you any writing to show for it?" She hadn't. He said, "Well" - and left. The law does not permit members of Congress to be sued. So there was no redress. The breached contract had to remain breached.
She rented the rooms to a Territorial delegate, but refused to let him have them unless he would take them for the remainder of the session, because she had a chance at the moment to rent them to a gentleman for a month or two, and she would rather have a gentleman than a Congressman because Congressmen kept such late hours and burned so much fuel and gas. He occupied the rooms twenty-four hours, expressed himself entirely pleased with them, but had found lodgings which were cheaper and would do him as well. And he moved. He moved first, when nobody was watching, and said that afterward. He did not deny his contract either, but refused to fulfill it or give any redress. The law cannot touch the delegate. Isn't this a curious state of things/ Isn't it refreshing to see men break laws so coolly whose sole business is law-making? I wonder if all the Congressmen are so unreliable? If they are, I think I could subscribe to this landlady's suggestive remark that it is pleasanter to have a "gentleman" around than a Congressman.
I said I would be glad to have her general opinion of Washington probity; and she said her opinion was that it did not exist in a very great degree. She believe that the whole city was polluted with peculation and all other forms of rascality - debauched and demoralized by the wholesale dishonesty that prevails in every single department of the Washington Government, great and small. She said that false weights were used in the market, the grocery stores, the butcher shops and all such places. The meat a butcher sells you for seven pounds can never persuaded to weight more than five and a half in your kitchen scales at home; a grocer's pound of butter usually weights only three-quarters in scales that are unconscious and have no motive to deceive. They paint rocks and add them to your coal; they put sand in your sugar; lime in your flour; water in your milk; turpentine in your whisky; clothespins in your sausages; turnips in your canned peaches; they will rather cheat you out of ten cents than make a dollar out of you by honest dealing. That was her opinion. What little I have seen of Washington in the short time I have been here, leads me to think it must be correct.
Senator Nye is absent, temporarily. I see by the telegrams that he was to be one of the speakers at a grand Grant mass meeting at Cooper Institute, a night or two ago. Mr. Ashley is attending to his duties as usual in the House. Senator Stewart is working hard, on Nevada matters of various kinds, particularly, and on everything of importance that comes before the Senate, in a general way. He is about he hardest working man in Congress I believe. Mr. Stewart has just reported back from committee a bill to straighten out all public land entanglements in Nevada, which will place Nevada's lands in such a shape that she can handle them with facility instead of finding her hands constantly tied by disabling rulings of the Interior Department. Stewart's School of Mines has received high commendations from all persons interested in mining interests, and there appears to be no opposition to it of consequence in Congress. It is very likely to pass, shortly. Somebody got up a counter bill to establish a Bureau of Mines in Washington, instead, and put it under the control of that poor, decrepit, bald-headed, played-out, antediluvian Old Red Sandstone formation which they call the Smithsonian Institute. What the mischief would that drowsing old National Ass do with as live a thing as a mining interest? Just as usual, it would go after the "palezoic formation," and if it found that there wasn't any palezoic formation about first class mines, it wouldn't ever care a cent about those mines. It is a cussed old palezoic formation itself, and has no business going around her in its shroud among living men at this day of the world. Its Bureau of Mines died early.
Mines! The idea of the Smithsonian Institute meddling with mines; and with shafts and tunnels and whims; and with swarms of workmen; and with the stir and bustle and blasphemy of teamsters; and with steam engines and the clatter and crash of desperate forty-stamp mills! The idea of a toothless old grandmother going to war! Read what it is that this venerable Palezoic Formation is worrying itself about now - from its last annual report:
"QUESTIONS IN ISSUE - 1. What classifications may be adopted for the discoveries made in Belgium and neighboring countries of objects anterior to the Carlovingian era?
"2. Is the ogival style to be considered as the natural and complete development of the Roman style?
"3. What is conclusively known respecting the different kinds of horseshoes found in Gallo-Roman mines, and the manner of using them?
"4. Should churches be made to front toward the east?
"5. To determine the age of objects in allex from their degree of elaboration."
If they gave the dreaming Institute supervision of our mines out there, it would spend the first twenty-five years prospecting for Gallo-Roman horseshoes, and the next twenty-five trying to find out how the Gallo-Romans of the rabbit-skin robe and the grasshopper diet used such jackass shoes as they might come across in abandoned shafts on the Divide. Let her stick to her palezoic formation. That is her best hold.
The question on the admission of Mr. Thomas, of Maryland, to a seat in the Senate, has been the main subject of debate for some time, now, next to reconstruction. Thomas was always a rebel in opinion and sympathy, but as he couldn't go into the field himself, he gave his son a hundred dollars and started him to the Confederacy to join its armies. These things will in all probability send him back to his constituents minus his Senatorial seat. Mr. Steward has made two good speeches on the question. An extract from his last will not be out of place here:
Mr. President, I do not wish to detain the Senate or to prolong this debate; but I desire to make a single remark. I wish to ask the Senate how this gentleman would appear if he were defending his property from a suit in the South for confiscation? They confiscated in the South the property of men who were loyal to this Government.
Not let me see where he would stand before a rebel Court in such a case; or before a rebel Congress, if he were applying there for admission to a seat. Suppose he had moved over there, and was elected to their Congress, and they had a rule preventing any one who had been faithful to this Government from taking a seat with them. What kind of a plea could he make then? Could he not remind them of the fact that when the war commenced he took his position with Jeff Davis, with Cobb, with Toombs, and the rest of them, that there was no power in this Government to sustain itself, and so declared in a letter in which he resigned an important office, so as to give his indorsement to the movement they were about to inaugurate! Could he not say, "I associated with your patriotic leaders; I was a friend in the darkest hour of the rebellion of Jefferson Davis; I, too, resigned a high office under the Government of the United States to give aid and countenance to your movement?" Could he not say that after the rebellion had been inaugurated, after he had resigned this high office, he went to Maryland and there associated with rebels; that he gave them his moral support; that he denied any sympathy or aid to the Union men of this State; that he refused even t vote under the Yankee Government; that he refused to take any of their oaths of loyalty; that he refused to recognize the late United States in any form? Could he not say further, "I do more than that. Being myself past the age to do military duty, I furnish my only son to aid you in gaining your independence; although poor, I gave him $100 - all the money I could raise - to send him, my only son, to you to aid you in achieving your independence. Will you, therefore, take from me my property? Was I disloyal to you? Have I not aided you?" Would not the argument be answerable?
But it is said by the Senator from Pennsylvania that we must tolerate differences of opinion. Sir, there are some differences of opinion that we cannot tolerate and will not tolerate. We will not tolerate any man in the opinion that this Government has no power to maintain its own existence. We will not tolerate the opinion that the Union ought to be dissolved. We will not tolerate secession. We will not tolerate the opinion that secession is a constitution right. We fought against this doctrine, and we fought against those who acted upon it. The verdict of the war has established, if it has established any fact, that no such opinion shall exist in this country.
That candidate for the Postmastership in San Francisco I spoke of in my last, has "tied his horse up at Gadsby's." Well, I thought he would.
It is dead for good, now, I suppose. It promised so fairly, two months ago, that everybody boldly turned prophet and said it would certainly succeed. But it didn't. Nobody's prophecies concerning Washington matters ever come out right. Isaiah himself would be a failure here. Hon. Thad. Stevens, the bravest old ironclad in the Capitol, fought hard for impeachment, even when he saw that it could not succeed. He is not choice in his language when he speaks on this subject, concerning his fellow-committeemen and Congress generally. He simply says the whole tribe of them are "Damned Cowards." It is the finest word painting any Congressional topic has produced this session.
The Sandwich Islands Reciprocity treaty, having been reported back favorably from the Committee on Foreign Relations, remains now to be acted upon by the Senate. General McCook has visited every Senator and talked with him, and almost all of them have expressed themselves satisfied with the treaty and willing to vote for it. As he has done all the can possibly do for the treaty, and as he is necessarily tired of Washington by this time, General McCook proposes to leave for San Francisco and the Islands in the steamer of March 1.
The man who is here contesting Hon. Mr. Hooper's seat as delegate from Utah, is a Mr. McGrorty, who was run for delegate as a practical joke. McGrorty got 105 votes, and Hooper got a little over 15,000. This small discrepancy don't worry McGrorty, however. He says the 15,000 would have voted for him but were afraid of the bishops of the church. The fact is, the contest will never come off. One hates to make a positive statement about Washington affairs, but I venture to make that one because: McGrorty did not serve a notice of contest on Hooper within 30 days after the election, stating the grounds of the contest. United States law makes this imperative. Congress will hardly go behind its own acts. Therefore, I have ventured to say that the contesting in Congress of this seat is a thing that will hardly get further than an inquiry by a committee and die.
HAY. - Hay is somewhat cheaper than a week or two ago. It is now retailed at five cents per pound and is to be had by the wagon load in this city at about $75 or $80 per ton. Several loads of hay of an excellent quality arrived here yesterday from St. Clair's Station on the Overland route. - Territorial Enterprise.
In my time, hay items were a great moral stand-by. I thought you might make some use of this one. I have known Dan de Quille to follow a hay-wagon all over town, and write a new lie about it on every corner - and make twelve distinct items about the same wagon, and fetch it from every locality in the Territory of Nevada from which a hay-wagon could by any possibility hail from. The driver's name might be stated correctly enough, in the first one, to be Smith, but the eleven aliases that marched their disastrous course through the succeeding ones, infallibly caused that driver to be looked upon with the gravest suspicion forever after.
WOOD. - Firewood is as present rather scarce. It sells in this city at $25 per cord for Washoe, and $30 for nut pine. It is a little cheaper - so business men say - to buy of the Chinese wood peddlers. - Territorial Enterprise
In my time, also, when the morning inquest failed, and other matters were scarce, it was considered good jurisprudence to fall back on wood. Wood is a subject that is able to stir the souls of any community. Wood is a thing that can always be safely elaborated. If I had all the wood-piles of my conscience, that I stole from Daggett and Tom Fitch with no other object than that Dan might discourse learnedly to the public about the damnable quality of the wood that was being imposed upon an outraged public by the satrips of Washoe Valley, I would be a happier man than I am. I do not know what satraps is, and I do not suppose that Dan knew what satraps was, either, but he always considered it to be a crusher, anyway. He always regarded it as a word to be resorted to only in the extremest emergencies.
ROUGH. - Several large quartz wagons upset yesterday on the road leading from this city to Gold Hill, but we heard of no accident to life or limb nor serious damage to any of the wagons. - Territorial Enterprise.
I am just as well satisfied as I am of anything, that that disaster never occurred. In my time it was never looked upon as any trick at all to turn over a lot of quartz wagons on the Divide to fill out a local column with. To find a petrified man, or break a stranger's leg, or cave an imaginary mine, or discover some dead Indians in a Gold Hill tunnel, or massacre a family at Dutch Nick's, were feats and calamities that we never hesitated about devising when the public needed matters of thrilling interest for breakfast. The seemingly tranquil ENTERPRISE office was a ghastly factory of slaughter, mutilation and general destruction in those days.
These old ENTERPRISE fabrications about wood and hay and suffering quartz wagons, read more pleasantly to me, now, than any amount of poetry. And when I come across items about Jack Perry, and Birdsall, and Steve Gillis, and those other highway robbers who practice upon unoffending traveling showmen on the Divide, they are full of interest to me, especially if it appears that the parties have got into any trouble. I do not see their names often, now - which encourages me to think they have pretty much all got into the Penitentiary at last, may be.
I was at a banquet given to the honorable "Society of Good Fellows," last night, and it was a particularly cheerful affair. I mention this subject more particularly, because I wish to introduce in this connection what I consider to be a genuine uncompromising and unmitigated "first-rate notice." Let the Washington Express be your model in matters of this kind hereafter. The question being on the fourth regular toast:
"All honor to woman, the sweetheart, the wife;
The delight of the fireside by night and by day.
Who never does anything wrong in her life,
Except when permitted to have her own way."
"To this toast the renowned humorist and writist, Mark Twain, responded and it is superfluous to say that while he stood upon the floor declaiming for the fair divinities, all that banqueting crew laid down with laughter. His sliding scene; his trials and tribulations; those he had paid for - and not; his valentine; his sublime inspirations and humorous deductions set the very table in a roar. He's a phunny fellow and no mistake, and blessed, indeed, were the G.F.'s with the honor of his company."
There isn't anything very mild about that, is there? I hadn't a just appreciation of how infernally funny I had been in that speech until I read that notice. I had an idea that the New York Herald and the Tribune had complimented me fully up to my deserts several times, but I guess not - I like the wild enthusiasm of the Express better.
It was a very, very jolly entertainment throughout. I observe one thing on this side that is as it should be. At such banquets as I have attended here and in New York. I noticed that among the regular toasts they always had a couple for "The Pacific Coast" and "The Press of the Pacific," and that they give them prominence. To the one last named Lord Fairfax of the New Orleans Picayune responded in the happiest terms last night.
[photocopy available in Mark Twain Papers, University of California, Berkeley, CA]
return to Enterprise index