By Mark Twain, What So Proudly We Hail
Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens; 1835–1910), author and humorist, largely took an ironic view of the world around him, rarely missing an opportunity to poke fun at ceremony, solemnity, and moral self-satisfaction. Our sacred holidays were not immune to his wit. Here, for example, from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, is Twain’s entry for July 4th: “Statistics show that we lose more fools on this day than in all the other days of the year put together. This proves, by the number left in stock, that one Fourth of July per year is now inadequate, the country has grown so.” In this satirical jab at Fourth of July orations, Twain prepares his own Independence Day address, for a gathering of Americans in London, July 4, 1872.
What, if anything, can be said for this mocking speech and its content? Do we as Americans have a tendency for self-congratulation that deserves to be exposed and corrected, or even ridiculed? If so, is this the best way and the right occasion for pointing out the nation’s faults? Should we regret that Twain arranges it so that he was “not able” to give the speech? Does that count as appropriate self-censorship? Whose Fourth of July speech do you prefer, Twain’s or Daniel Webster’s (see above)? Why? Is there a role for self-mocking humor in our national calendar and in cultivating civic self-awareness and attachment? If so, what is it, and how can it best be accomplished?
Mr. Chairman and Ladies and Gentlemen,—
I thank you for the compliment which has just been tendered me, and to show my appreciation of it I will not afflict you with many words. It is pleasant to celebrate in this peaceful way, upon this old mother soil, the anniversary of an experiment which was born of war with this same land so long ago, and wrought out to a successful issue by the devotion of our ancestors. It has taken nearly a hundred years to bring the English and Americans into kindly and mutually appreciative relations, but I believe it has been accomplished at last. It was a great step when the two last misunderstandings were settled by arbitration instead of cannon. It is another great step when England adopts our sewing-machines without claiming the invention—as usual. It was another when they imported one of our sleeping-cars the other day. And it warmed my heart more than, I can tell, yesterday, when I witnessed the spectacle of an Englishman, ordering an American sherry cobbler of his own free will and accord—and not only that but with a great brain and a level head reminding the barkeeper not to forget the strawberries. With a common origin, a common language, a common literature, a common religion, and—common drinks, what is longer needful to the cementing of the two nations together in a permanent bond of brotherhood?
This is an age of progress, and ours is a progressive land. A great and glorious land, too—a land which has developed a Washington, a Franklin, a Wm. M. Tweed, a Longfellow, a Motley, a Jay Gould, a Samuel C. Pomeroy, a recent Congress which has never had its equal (in some respects), and a United States Army which conquered sixty Indians in eight months by tiring them out which is much better than uncivilized slaughter, God knows. We have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read. And I may observe that we have an insanity plea that would have saved Cain. I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.
Continue reading Speech on the Fourth of July, 1872