Mr. Twain Went to Washington

By Rhoda Newman

This electronic text is from TwainWeb, the web service of the Mark Twain Forum

The article was originally published in the Washington Post, 8 January 1995, p. C2

As new Republican aides swarm over Capitol Hill, let's look back at the career of an earlier Senate staffer on the Republican side, Mark Twain. None of today's crop, we hope, will manage to antagonize as many people as did Twain, from his boss on down to his constituents and landlady.

In November 1867, Mark Twain was hired by William M. Stewart, first Senator from Nevada, as his personal secretary. The salary was six dollars a day. Twain, no stranger to political perks, thought the appointment could be made "one of the best paying berths in Washington."

In his Reminiscences, published forty years later, Stewart described Twain's first visit :

I was seated at my window one morning when a very disreputable-looking person slouched into the room. He was arrayed in a seedy suit, which hung upon his lean frame in bunches with no style worth mentioning. A sheaf of scraggy black hair leaked out of a battered slouch hat, like stuffing from an ancient Colonial sofa, and an evil-smelling cigar butt, very much frazzled, protruded from the corner of his mouth. He had a very sinister appearance.

The two had first met in the Nevada Territory in 1861. Twain's brother, Orion, had been named Secretary of the Territory by his old friend, Edward Bates, Lincoln's Attorney General. Twain became a sometime prospector and a reporter on the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. His wit also gained him some much needed income from the highly paid lecture circuit. The posters he designed read "The Doors Open at 7:00; the Trouble Begins at 8:00."

When he came to Washington in the fall of 1867, Twain was broke and looking for a place to stay while he worked on a book. He had spent five months as a correspondent satirizing a group of pious, middle-class tourists traveling throughout Europe and the Holy Land on the steamship Quaker City. His hilarious newspaper accounts of the excursion had been enthusiastically received. When he returned, he found several offers to expand his columns into book form. This compilation, which did not appear until 1869, was to become his first published book, Innocents Abroad.

Stewart considered Twain's material "bully," and proposed, "I'll appoint you my clerk at the Senate, and you can live on the salary." At the time, Stewart was living in a rooming house at 224 F St, at the corner of 14th St., opposite the old Ebbitt House, while his family was in Paris. He invited Twain to make himself at home: "There's a little hall bedroom across the way where you can sleep, and you can write your book in here. Help yourself to the whiskey and cigars, and wade in."

Twain took the Senator at his word but soon alienated him by tormenting their genteel Southern landlady, lurching around pretending to be drunk, and smoking cigars in bed. Certain that the house would burn down, she appealed to Stewart. He warned Twain, "If you don't stop annoying this little lady, I'll give you a sound thrashing -- I'll wait till that book's finished. I don't want to interfere with literature -- I'll thrash you after it's finished."

Twain persisted in teasing the landlady. When Stewart protested again, he promised, 'I'll give up my amusements, but I'll get even with you.' Stewart added, "He did. When he wrote Roughing It, he said I had cheated him out of some mining stock ...and that he had given me a sound thrashing."

Twain did not last long as Stewart's secretary. By December 16, 1867, he notified readers of the Virginia City Enterprise that "E.A. Pretois...was Senator Stewart's private secretary, now."

Just what did Mark Twain do during his tenure at the Senate? There are only the briefest indications in letters he wrote during this period. On December 5, 1867, he wrote to Frank Fuller, who was trying to manage his appearances on the lecture circuit: "I can frank letters, now, very well, with that signature; yesterday I drew my first stationery, and did it without detection; in ten days more I hope to be able to collect little dabs of mileage on it, & such things." One envelope has been found franked with Stewart's name in Mark Twain's handwriting, addressed to his sister Pamela, Mrs. William A. Moffett. [See Illustration]

Some months later he wrote an article for Galaxy, entitled "My Late Senatorial Secretaryship," in which he spoofed the kinds of letters staffers were, and still are, supposed to answer. When the Senator handed him a constituent request for the establishment of a post office, Twain replied:

What the mischief do you suppose you want with a post office at Baldwin's Ranch? It would not do you any good. If any letters came there, you couldn't read them, you know...What you want is a nice jail...

Another request came asking that a bill be introduced in Congress incorporating the Episcopal Church of the State of Nevada. The Senator asked that he reply that this is more properly under the jurisdiction of the State Legislature. Twain's response says in part:

You will have to go the State Legislature about this little speculation of yours -- Congress don't know anything about religion. But don't you try to go there, either; because this thing you propose to do out in that new country isn't expedient -- in fact, it is simply ridiculous. Your religious people there are too feeble, in intellect, in morality, in piety -- in everything pretty much. You had better drop this -- you can't make it work...You ought not to do anything that is calculated to bring a sacred thing into disrepute. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves -- that is what I think about it. You close your petition with the words: 'And we will ever pray.' I think you had better -- you need to do it.

After several other such letters, the Senator shouted, "Leave the house! Leave it forever and forever, too." Twain concluded, "I regarded that as a sort of covert intimation that my services could be dispensed with, and so I resigned. I never will be a private secretary to a senator again."

He never did work on the Hill again. Which is not to say that he did not try to pull strings during the few remaining months he spent in Washington.

Even back in his days in the Nevada Territory, Twain understood the lobbying process. In his Autobiography, he describes how as a legislative correspondent for the Virginia City Enterprise, he was able to help his brother, Orion:

Orion was...very popular with the members of the legislature...He easily held the belt for honesty in that country but it didn't do him any good in a pecuniary way because he had no talent for either persuading or scaring legislators. But I was differently situated. I was there every day in the legislature to distribute compliment and censure...and spread the same over half a page of the Enterprise every morning; consequently I was an influence. I got the Legislature to pass a law requiring every corporation doing business in the Territory to record its charter in full, without skipping a word, in a record to be kept by the Secretary of the Territory -- my brother. All the charters were framed in exactly the same words. For this record service he was authorized to charge forty cents a folio of one hundred words for making the record; five dollars for furnishing a certificate of each reacord, and so on...Very well, we prospered. The record service paid an average of one thousand dollars a month in gold.

In Washington, in 1867, Twain was still trying to help his brother, this time, without success, to be appointed Commissioner of Patents.

Together with another journalist, William Swinton, Twain claimed to have been the founder of the syndicated column:

We had twelve journals on our list; they were all weeklies, all obscure and poor and all scattered far away among the back settlements. It was a proud thing for these little newspapers to have a Washington correspondent and a fortunate thing for us that they felt in that way about it. Each of the twelve took two letters a week from us, at a dollar per letter; each of us wrote one letter per week and sent off six duplicates of it to these benefactors, thus acquiring twenty- four dollars a week to live on, which was all we needed in our cheap and humble quarters. Twenty-four dollars a week would really have been riches to us if we hadn't had to support that jug [Swinton's fondness for Scotch]; because of the jug we were always sailing pretty close to the wind...

Twain lobbied hard to get himself appointed Postmaster of San Francisco, thinking that "in case I got it I could perform its duties by Deputy, & then, in receipt of a large salary & perquisites, I could give myself up exclusively to scribbling." He secured the backing of the California, Nevada, and Oregon delegations as well as that of Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field.. When he discovered simultaneously that the job would not only be time consuming but also paid only $4,000 a year, he backed down.

Another scheme Twain thought of was going to China as part of a diplomatic mission. He wrote his friend, Anson Burlingame, former U.S. Ambassador to China: "Don't neglect or refuse to keep a gorgeous secretaryship or a high interpretership for me in your great embassy..."

At last, Twain realized that what he really wanted to do was to devote more time to writing his book. So he cut back on journalism and patronage, asked his publisher for a $1,000 advance, and left Washington, "this city of shabby furniture and shabby food," in March 1868, without a regret. Some years later, in his first novel, The Gilded Age, co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner, he remembered Washington this way:

Everybody attached to himself an exaggerated importance, from the fact of being at the national capital, the center of political influence, the fountain of patronage, preferment, jobs, and opportunities...There was always some exciting topic at the Capitol, or some huge slander was rising up like a miasmatic exhalation from the Potomac, threatening to settle no one knew exactly where.

He carried with him a lasting contempt for all politicians, especially the Congressman, "the trivialest distinction for fullgrown man." In spite of Twain's unkind remarks about legislators -- "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress" -- Sen. William Stewart remembered his wayward staffer in a more kindly fashion: "I was confident that he would come to no good end, but I have heard of him from time to time since then, and I understand that he has settled down and become respectable."

Rhoda Newman, a freelance writer, worked for the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress for 23 years.