Mark Twain and America's 'Worst President'

I read the daily news differently from how I did five years ago. Back then I had begun researching a book on Mark Twain, and early on came across an opinion that America's great humorist set down in 1906 about the then president, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, Twain wrote, was "far and away the worst president we have ever had." Why did Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, feel that way about an immensely popular occupant of the White House to whom history has been very kind? Of our 44 presidents, professional historians generally rank Roosevelt in the top five or six. And the sixty-foot-high visage of that same Roosevelt gazes out from Mount Rushmore alongside three at the pinnacle of our pantheon: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.

Mark Twain's dissent from such widespread approval was hardly unique; politicians make enemies. But Clemens was progressively minded like Roosevelt, and like Roosevelt a Republican, yet expressed his distaste for our 26th president with remarkable force. "It would grieve me deeply," he wrote on another occasion, "to be obliged to believe that any very large number of sane and thinking and intelligent Republicans privately admire Mr. Roosevelt and do not despise him."

I would find out why the author of Huckleberry Finn felt as he did, intending along the way to learn about a period in American history with which I was only casually acquaintained--a period, to tell the truth, that I'd always thought was maybe a little bit dull, from 1890, say, to 1910, when Mark Twain died.

Of course those two decades turned out to be not dull at all once I got into them. The age was filled with much more than barbershop quartets and tobacco-store Indians, spittoons and Gibson girls. In fact, modern America was formed in those 20 years, with Edison's electric lights coming in, the Wright brothers' flying machine getting airborne, Henry Ford's Model T trundling off the assembly line in sufficient numbers to supply the masses at a price they could afford, and The Great Train Robbery setting photographs in motion, inaugurating a new form of drama by aiming a pistol straight at the startled audience and firing.

I had been startled myself, by how many issues and seemingly unresolvable problems of our own times were alive, well, and in full cry throughout the two formative decades around the turn of that earlier century. The Civil War and transcontinental railroads had replaced an agrarian Union of sovereign states with an industrialized, corporate Nation; so that even then, those hundred and more years ago, such new issues had surfaced as whether the federal government had grown too big. Could the president go around Congress by issuing an executive order, as President Roosevelt did in 1903 to create Pelican Island as a wildlife sanctuary to save from extinction the snowy egret, slain for plumes to adorn ladies' hats across the land? Did Roosevelt have any right to set aside millions of acres of mineral-rich mountains and timberlands--our acres!-as national parks and forests for future generations? Mining and lumber interests shouted No! Get government out of the way. And were corporations people? The Supreme Court appeared to be saying so as early as 1886. Some of those same corporations had grown into trusts, huge conglomerations of wealth--Rockefeller's oil trust, Carnegie's steel trust, Armour's beef trust--so that disparities in wealth were widening on a scale never seen before: a few very, very rich and growing numbers of poor, as immigrants flooded in who didn't look like earlier Americans: all those new Italians, Slavs, Jews, and Japanese. "There are those"--the Democrat William Jennings Bryan is referring to Republicans--"who believe that, if you will legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them."

Change "leak" to "trickle," and Bryan's words from 1896 sound as current as last night's news. That's why I listen to all these fresh problems we're having differently from how I used to. As for Mark Twain's quarrel with Roosevelt, what five years of research turned up is a bit too ample, alas, to fit into one op-ed piece, but it had much to do with what Clemens called the "quagmire" our government had got us into overseas.