Sunday, November 16, 2014


I decided to post some portions of a speech by Mark Twain this week. I think I found part of it a year or two ago in looking for the source of his famous saying concerning "loyalty to petrified opinion" and have since acquired the entire speech in a used collection of Twain material.  There are many sites online that publish quotes, but most of them give no authority for them (when, where it was said or written) and many a famous phrase turns out not to have actually been said by the attributed person or even during their life. For some reason, there are tons of quotes, sayings or speeches wrongly attributed to Shakespeare, Franklin, Jefferson, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and George Carlin.  Why? I don't know. I guess its fun for people to get their words published and have some attention paid to it just  because one of those guys supposedly said it. Wikiquote actually has tons of information on wrongly or falsely attributed quotes. 

In any event, that Twain quote is one of my absolute favorites, and, I wanted to make sure that he, you know, said it - unlike "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco," which at least no one can find where he might have said it, if ever. 

I have always meant to write a post on things we think people said that they probably didn't or maybe someone said it or first, anyway. At some point you do start saying to yourself, did anyone actually say anything?  It can be disappointing to find out that someone you always thought said something brilliant merely lifted it from a magazine he read that month or another writer, but, it happens all the time.

Anyway, as far as I know (I wasn't born for another 80 plus years) Twain actually did write and say the quote about petrified opinion and I tracked it down to a speech he made in 1887. If anyone can find where he might have said it earlier on - or someone else - let me know.

Why do I bother to re-print it here (I may have printed part of it once before)? For one thing, Twain at or near his best is wonderful to read. Some of his best stuff is only found in speeches or little sketches he wrote.  This one is about about Mugwumps, at least in part. To the degree that this means an independent or even a fence-sitter, then I am a Mugwump. I will give you some of the speech and then explain a little more.

From a paper entitled “Consistency,” read by him to The Monday Evening Club.

. . .

What is the most rigorous law of our being? Growth. No smallest atom of our moral, mental, or physical structure can stand still a year. In other words, we change -- and must change, constantly, and keep on changing as long as we live. What, then, is the true gospel of consistency? Change. Who is the really consistent man? The man who changes. Since change is the law of his being, he cannot be consistent if he stick in a rut.

Yet, as the quoted facts show, there are those who would misteach us that to stick in a rut is consistency--and a virtue; and that to climb out of the rut is inconsistency--and a virtue; and that to climb out of the rut is inconsistency--and a vice.

They will grant you certain things, without murmur or dissent--as things which go without saying; truisms. They will grant that in time the crawling baby walks and must not be required to go on crawling . . . that a child's knowledge is becoming and proper to the child only so they grant him a school and teach  him, so that he may change and grow; they grant you that he must keep on learning--through youth and manhood and straight on--he must not be allowed to suppose that the knowledge of thirty can be proper equipment for his fiftieth year; they will grant you a young man's opinions about mankind and the universe are crude, and sometimes foolish, and they would not dream of requiring him to stick to them the rest of his life, lest by changing them he bring down upon himself the reproach of inconsistency. They will grant you these, and everything else you can think of, in the line of progress and change, until you get down to politics and religion; there they draw the line. These must suffer no change. Once a Presbyterian, always a Presbyterian, or you are inconsistent and a traitor; once a Democrat, always a Democrat, or you are inconsistent and a traitor--a turncoat.

It is a curious logic. Is there but one kind of treason? No man remains the same sort of Presbyterian he was at first--the thing is impossible; time and various influences modify his Presbyterianism; it narrows or it broadens, grows deeper or shallower, but does not stand still. In some cases . . . nothing is really left of it but the name, and perhaps an inconsequential rag of the original substance, the bulk being now Baptist or Buddhist or something. Well, if he go over to the Buddhists, he is a traitor. To whom? To what? No man can answer those questions rationally. Now if he does not go over what is he? Plainly a traitor to himself, a traitor to the best and the highest and the honestest that is in  him. Which of these treasons is the blackest one--and the shamefulest? Which is the real and right consistency? To be consistent to a sham and an empty name, or consistent to the law of one's being, which is change, and in this case requires him to move forward and keep abreast of his best mental and moral progress, his highest convictions of the right and the true. Suppose this treason to the name of a church should carry clear outside of all churches. . . . So long as he is loyal to his best self, what should he care for other loyalties. It seems to me that a man should secure the Well done, faithful servant, of his own conscience first and foremost, and let all other loyalties go.

. . . I have referred to the fact that when a man retires from his political party he is a traitor — that he is so pronounced in plain language. That is bold; so bold as to deceive many into the fancy that it is true. Desertion, treason — these are the terms applied. Their military form reveals the thought in the man’s mind who uses them: to him a political party is an army. Well, is it? Are the two things identical? Do they even resemble each other? Necessarily a political party is not an army of conscripts, for they are in the ranks by compulsion. Then it must be a regular army or an army of volunteers. Is it a regular army? No, for these enlist for a specified and well-understood term, and can retire without reproach when the term is up. Is it an army of volunteers who have enlisted for the war, and may righteously be shot if they leave before the war is finished? No, it is not even an army in that sense. Those fine military terms are high-sounding, empty lies, and are no more rationally applicable to a political party than they would be to an oyster-bed. The volunteer soldier comes to the recruiting office and strips himself and proves that he is so many feet high, and has sufficiently good teeth, and no fingers gone, and is sufficiently sound in body generally; he is accepted; but not until he has sworn a deep oath or made other solemn form of promise to march under, that flag until that war is done or his term of enlistment completed. What is the process when a voter joins a party? Must he prove that he is sound in any way, mind or body? Must he prove that he knows anything — is capable of anything — whatever? Does he take an oath or make a promise of any sort?— or doesn’t he leave himself entirely free? If he were informed by the political boss that if he join, it must be forever; that he must be that party’s chattel and wear its brass collar the rest of his days — would not that insult him? It goes without saying. He would say some rude, unprintable thing, and turn his back on that preposterous organization. But the political boss puts no conditions upon him at all; and this volunteer makes no promises, enlists for no stated term. He has in no sense become a part of an army; he is in no way restrained of his freedom. Yet he will presently find that his bosses and his newspapers have assumed just the reverse of that: that they have blandly arrogated to themselves an ironclad military authority over him; and within twelve months, if he is an average man, he will have surrendered his liberty, and will actually be silly enough to believe that he cannot leave that party, for any cause whatever, without being a shameful traitor, a deserter, a legitimately dishonored man.

There you have the just measure of that freedom of conscience, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech and action which we hear so much inflated foolishness about as being the precious possession of the republic. Whereas, in truth, the surest way for a man to make of himself a target for almost universal scorn, obloquy, slander, and insult is to stop twaddling about these priceless independencies and attempt to exercise one of them. If he is a preacher half his congregation will clamor for his expulsion — and will expel him, except they find it will injure real estate in the neighborhood; if he is a doctor his own dead will turn against him.

I repeat that the new party-member who supposed himself independent will presently find that the party have somehow got a mortgage on his soul, and that within a year he will recognize the mortgage, deliver up his liberty, and actually believe he cannot retire from that party from any motive howsoever high and right in his own eyes without shame and dishonor.

Is it possible for human wickedness to invent a doctrine more infernal and poisonous than this? Is there imaginable a baser servitude than it imposes? What slave is so degraded as the slave that is proud that he is a slave? What is the essential difference between a lifelong democrat and any other kind of lifelong slave? Is it less humiliating to dance to the lash of one master than another?

This infamous doctrine of allegiance to party plays directly into the hands of politicians of the baser sort — and doubtless for that it was borrowed — or stolen — from the monarchial system. It enables them to foist upon the country officials whom no self-respecting man would vote for if he could but come to understand that loyalty to himself is his first and highest duty, not loyalty to any party name.

Shall you say the best good of the country demands allegiance to party? Shall you also say that it demands that a man kick his truth and his conscience into the gutter and become a mouthing lunatic besides? Oh no, you say; it does not demand that. But what if it produce that in spite of you? There is no obligation upon a man to do things which he ought not to do when drunk, but most men will do them just the same; and so we hear no arguments about obligations in the matter — we only hear men warned to avoid the habit of drinking; get rid of the thing that can betray men into such things.

This is a funny business all around. The same men who enthusiastically preach loyal consistency to church and party are always ready and willing and anxious to persuade a Chinaman or an Indian or a Kanaka to desert his church or a fellow-American to desert his party. The man who deserts to them is all that is high and pure and beautiful — apparently; the man who deserts from them is all that is foul and despicable. This is Consistency — with a capital C.

With the daintiest and self-complacentest sarcasm the lifelong loyalist scoffs at the Independent — or as he calls him, with cutting irony, the Mugwump; makes himself too killingly funny for anything in this world about him. But — the Mugwump can stand it, for there is a great history at his back; stretching down the centuries, and he comes of a mighty ancestry. He knows that in the whole history of the race of men no single great and high and beneficent thing was ever done for the souls and bodies, the hearts and the brains of the children of this world, but a Mugwump started it and Mugwumps carried it to victory: And their names are the stateliest in history: Washington, Garrison, Galileo, Luther, Christ. Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world-end never will.

Historically, Mugwumps were  Republicans who did not like their party's 1888 candidate and voted for Grover Cleveland (whose first name, by the way, was not Grover, but Stephen - one of my favorite pieces of presidential trivia).  It is hard for some to get around the fact now that in 1888 being a Democrat meant that he was the more conservative candidate. Mugwump was a derogatory name stuck on the turncoats  by a political opponent (a journalist). Mugwump was derived from an Indian name that meant, at least sometimes, some kind of big shot. Historically, some writers claim the Mugwumps were members of the economic elite class out to protect their own interests and others that they were classical 19th century liberals (that is, closer to modern day libertarians). I can't say I am exactly a Mugwump because I have no party to leave for another, but I am a fence-sitter, an independent and I lean at least a little bit libertarian - which ideologues despise almost more than their direct opponents. E.g., nowadays both liberals and conservatives frequently assail libertarians as having no values, and characterize independents as being phonies (of course, some are) and fence-sitters unable to make up their minds, which is kind of right, although, I don't see what's so wrong about it. Why is it better to pick a wrong idea than to say I don't know - good points on both sides?

If you are a Mugwump, Twain's words are very inspirational. No, it's not that you think of yourself as a Washington, Christ or Galileo, etc., but, he's right that when I read about someone who rebels against his own group because of behavior that he thinks wrong or unjust, I do feel a kinship and excitement and admiration - even if there are often aspects of the persons that I find despicable. Luther, just as example, was, despite his own heresy to the Catholic Church, comfortable with the killing of those he saw as heretical (and that is not true of all at his time and place) and Washington, who claimed to and probably in the abstract deplored slavery, had many slaves all the same and was determined to keep them at least through his and his wife's lifetimes (and that too, was not true of all at his time and place).  I have, in fact, spent some significant time studying four of those five examples, and at least a little time on Galileo.  Stories of courage are inspirational enough, but couple it with an attempt to expand religious or intellectual tolerance or personal independence and it does something for me. There is a long history of it which has directed my attention, if not exclusively, then constantly for many years now.

I have to admit that my own experiences have not been too traumatic. When young I was politically a liberal (it was all I knew, having been raised without ever hearing another opinion from anyone I wasn't told was a criminal or bad person) although I was also very ignorant about politics in general.  But, I was in many ways, not just politically,  always also an independent and that part of me has remained in the large part throughout my life, and I have long shed my partisan attachments. And if never threatened with death (just a beating, once) for my opinions, certainly there were times when I was subject to some form of ostracization or it made life a little frustrating or uncomfortable. I won't complain too much because I do believe by sheer luck I have been born amongst the luckiest people in the history of the world in terms of freedom, access to knowledge and comfort so that I have never had my independence seriously contested such as would make me a martyr.  I could tell you stories, but, at the end of the day, there was merely disapproval or ridicule from others and I know I can bear that. Though some people think I like to be disagreeable or "different" and that explains my opinions; I suppose it just makes it more comfortable for them to think so.

Believe me, I am well aware that having people who agree with you is much more pleasant than having them disagree.  Yet, I can't conceive of being attracted to being a member of a club or group for the sake of getting along or having people approve of my opinions. For a long time when I was younger, in fact, I did not feel like an American at all until I understood what it should mean. I can tell you, my allegiance to this country is not based on the accident of my having been born here, but to my attraction to its principles, however imperfectly performed. Even to this day the patriotism thing and group conciliation does not warm my heart. Mores so I admire devotion to the values (of course, those values with which which I agree), personal sacrifice and courage in the face of conventional thinking and much of my reading in life is about those who sacrificed their comfort and lives so that we have it (here, anyway) so easy today.

Would I have the courage of a Washington, Luther, Christ, Garrison or Galileo (or many other examples) were I so tested?  Who  knows? It is easy to sit in an easy chair and think or hope so, and, I know under the pressure of public disapproval I am willing to "take it," but that's easy compared to when you are facing a mob that is lighting a fire, or picking up some rope or nails.

Twain's examples are people who underwent true tests of their character. Where I live anyway, these are less violent times, though we know in other parts of the world some would slit your throat, or if you are lucky, just jail you, rather than put up with any dissent or apostasy. But, the principles he states are as true to today as they were then. We change our opinions as we grow older, experience and learn new things. I find many don't even like to admit that even to themselves, so strong is the aversion to being called a traitor or admitting they changed their mind or were wrong. And still, few politicians are so hated as he or she who switches their political party.

But, as Twain said, the Mugwump can take it. And reading about these great men and sometimes women, helps. And great speeches - Thank you, Mark Twain.


  1. Book Bear11:39 AM

    Love the Twain. Hilarious sense of humor, one of the best users of adjectives I've ever read. Interesting the way you tied your own outlook on things to the main point of his essay. Do agree that his speeches and short writings contain most of his best stuff, but his novels ain't bad either.Well, now that you blogged about him, I'm going to have to wait awhile so you don't break my chops about stealing your ideas. Harumph.

  2. Fiddle faddle. I didn't think I discovered Mark Twain. Enjoy yourself.

  3. I wonder if muckety -muck, also meaning king of a big shot comes from that also?
    And in a piece of Twain trivial I am sure you did not know- he is alive and well and living in the Adirondacks writing under various pseudonyms.

    1. I will refer it to my staff of crack etymologists. Thanks.

  4. The Mugwumps was also the name a precursor band to the mamas and papas.

    1. Don - rock n' roll historian.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .