Samuel Langhorne Clemens began publishing short pieces under the name Mark Twain when he was 27 years old and living in Virginia City, Nevada. Writing for local newspapers and later for national audiences, he quickly gained a reputation for a certain brand of ornery cynicism—but few attracted his sarcasm more easily than elected officials. Toward the end of his life, Twain summed up his views on politics: “The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet”—and over the course of his career he gladly filled the role of maître d’.
Mark Twain’s views on politics are well known even today, largely because of the many one-liners he uttered on the subject (as well as the many quotes he never said that are incorrectly attributed to him). What’s less known is that he was a congressional aide to not one but two U.S. Senators. It did not go well. “During the whole time that I was connected with the government it seemed as if I could not do anything in an official capacity without getting myself into trouble,” he admitted after he was relieved of his second position.
When Clemens was a personal secretary to Nevada senator William Stewart, he responded to a request from a mining camp without showing it to his boss:
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; and, besides, such letters as ought to pass through, with money in them, for other localities, would not be likely to get through. . . . No, don’t bother about a post office in your camp. I have your best interests at heart, and feel that it would only be an ornamental folly. What you want is a nice jail. . . .
When the other senator from the state, James Nye, received a request to help incorporate the Episcopal Church in Nevada, Clemens responded bluntly, “Congress doesn’t know anything about religion.”
It isn’t a surprise, then, that Mark Twain would conjure up a story about how a bunch of snowbound train passengers became cannibalistic Congressmen in order to survive.