A Tale of Today: Mark Twain on Impeachment

With articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump passed by the United States House of Representatives in December 2019, political gridlock has prompted Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to deliberate how and when to send the articles to the Senate to begin the subsequent trial. 

Impeachment intrigue gripped and enraptured Washington’s attention previously during the administration of President Bill Clinton, who was impeached in 1998, and President Andrew Johnson, who was impeached in 1868. 

As a Washington City correspondent covering parts of the 1st and 2nd sessions of the 40th Congress Mark Twain penned thousands of pointed words analyzing the machinations of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats within the charged social and political atmosphere of the nation’s capital surrounding Johnson’s impeachment

During the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, the New York Times cited Twain’s observations of President Johnson’s impeachment:

“A Tennessee Democrat, President Johnson had been Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 on a ‘National Union’ ticket but had run afoul of the radical Republicans since succeeding Lincoln. He fought them often over their efforts to harshly punish the South. Congress repeatedly sought to strip him of power and radical Republicans tried several times to impeach him. The climactic battle came when the President fired his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, in the face of a law designed to give Congress control over Cabinet officers’ tenure.

Twain was working that winter as a journalist, filing dispatches from Washington to newspapers around the country, when Andrew Johnson’s enemies in Congress finally found ammunition they thought would remove the President from office.”

“Word for Word / Samuel L. Clemens, Journalist; When Congress Last Rose to Impeach, Mark Twain Rose to the Occasion.” New York Times. December 20, 1998.

Washington Weather as a Forecaster of Impeachment Sentiments 

Arriving in Washington in late November 1867 to serve as a private secretary for Nevada Senator William Stewart, Twain maintained his byline for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise and Daily Alta California as a Washington Letter writer. He also contributed original reportage to local papers in Washington, and riffed about life in the District of Columbia for papers in Chicago and New York. 

A conspicuous presence in Washington, from receptions to the press galleries, Twain could quickly assume a provincial perspective, directing his disdain towards the city’s tempestuous environment and its commentary on the incessant impeachment chatter. 

Comparing the political climate with the apparently schizophrenic thermometer of Washington, with a date line of December 4, 1867, Twain wrote to the Territorial Enterprise

“I have been here a matter of ten days, but I do not know much about the place yet. There is too much weather. There is too much of it, and yet that is not the principal trouble. It is the quality rather than the quantity of it that I complain of; and more than against its quantity and its quality combined am I embittered against its character. It is tricky, it is changeable, it is to the last degree unreliable. It has catered for a political atmosphere so long that it has come at last to be thoroughly imbued with the political nature. 

As politics go, so goes the weather. It trims to suit every phase of sentiment, and is always ready. To-day it is a Democrat, to-morrow a Radical, the next day neither one thing nor the other. If a Johnson man goes over to the other side, it rains; if a Radical deserts to the Administration, it snows; if New York goes Democratic, it blows—naturally enough; if Grant expresses an opinion between two whiffs of smoke, it spits a little sleet uneasily; if all is quiet on the Potomac of politics, one sees only the soft haze of Indian summer from the Capitol windows; if the President is quiet, the sun comes out; if he touches the tender gold market, it turns up cold and freezes out the speculators; if he hints at foreign troubles, it hails; if he threatens Congress, it thunders; if treason and impeachment are broached, lo, there is an earthquake!

If you are posted on politics, you are posted on the weather.”

Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, December 22, 1867. Letter is dated December 4, 1867.

Twain on Patronage

Twain observed the machinery of Washington as an embedded capital correspondent, as well as a reluctant office-seeker and half-hearted lobbyist for his older brother Orion. In February 1868 Twain described how the atmosphere of uncertain impeachment impacted the established spoils system for readers of James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, one of the country’s most widely distributed newspapers.

Twain’s “Washington Gossip” column described the adversarial attitude towards President Johnson replete within Washington’s government departments. He wrote:

“A Cabinet may dispense patronage. The one we have at Washington does this on a small scale, but more to the President’s injury than benefit. Nearly all the government employés are in sympathy with Congress. They used to furnish Sumner with all his petitions for “manhood suffrage,” “civil rights,” “republican forms of government,” &c., and now they supply aid and comfort to the radicals in New Hampshire. Except from the evidence of their personal assurances the President has no knowledge that his constitutional advisers entertain views corresponding with his own.

A coinciding tendency of opinion has, under the accepted rules or partisan constancy, heretofore been exemplified by an appropriation of the benefits of patronage. It is proper to say that the President has not at any time exhibited a proscriptive spirit, nor has he exacted of the heads of departments a transfer of patronage from his enemies to his friends. 

At this time the departments are filled with radicals who have openly clamored for the impeachment of the President, and contributed of their sympathy and substance to uphold and perpetuate the Congressional policy. Not one man has ever been removed for vigorously abusing the President, nor has there been any discrimination against applicants who were recommended by influences in hostility to the administration. 

Furthermore, the President’s recommendation of an applicant, in former times, was equivalent to an appointment. Now it is otherwise. His endorsement of an application amounts to no more than that of any other man. If there is a vacancy, he may get it or he may not. Positive men are now the most successful. An uncompromising radical or an out and out democrat can succeed where a conservative would hardly get courteous attention. This is not a fancy of my own. I heard the same opinion expressed by a conservative Senator, who gave utterance to it under the force of a somewhat unpleasant experience.”

“Washington Gossip.” New York Herald. February 8, 1868.

The Movement towards Impeachment 

Chronicling the crescendo-ing political engineering of the impeachment movement by Radical Republicans in the House, Twain contributed a letter to the Chicago Republican with a biblical sub-head: “LAZARUS IMPEACHMENT, COME FORTH!”

With a date line of Monday, February, 24, 1868, in the immediate aftermath of President Johnson’s dismissal of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Twain wrote of the resurrective spirit of impeachment.

The past few days have been filled with startling interest. On Friday the nation was electrified by the President’s last and boldest effort to dislodge Mr. Stanton. The wild excitement that pervaded the capital that night, has not had its parallel here since the murder of Mr Lincoln.

The air was thick with rumors of dreadful import. Every tranquil brain, thrown from its balance by the colossal surprise, magnified the creations of its crazed fancy into the phantoms of anarchy, rebellion, bloody revolution! Assassinations were prophesied; murders, robberies, and conflagrations; cannon were to thunder, drums to beat, and the pavements to echo to the tread of armed men! 

The Senate sat at night, and the unusual spectacle of the illuminated Capitol attracted every eye, and impressed every mind with something like an assurance that its bodings and prophecies were well founded. And out of the midst of the political gloom, impeachment, that dead corpse, rose up and walked forth again!”

“Mark Twain’s Letter.” The Chicago Republican, March 1, 1868.

Capturing the scene overnight as Friday, February 21 turned into Saturday, February 22, 1868, Twain observed life inside and outside the grounds of the United States Capitol. Defying previous custom, Congress convened on the birthday of the country’s first president, George Washington. 

Twain wrote,

“The Senate sat at night, and multitudes flocked to the Capitol to stare and listen. The House resolved to make Saturday a working day for once, and both bodies decreed that for the first time since Washington’s death Congress should transact business on the anniversary of his birthday.”

Territorial Enterprise, March 13, 1868. Mark Twain’s Letters from Washington, No. 10.

Elbowing his way into the Capitol past onlookers, lobbyists, office-seekers, doorkeepers and fellow scribes, Twain took his seat Saturday morning from the vantage point of the press gallery. 

He noted,

“By 9 o’clock – full three hours before the sitting of Congress, long processions of men and women were wending their way toward the Capitol in the nipping winter air, and all vacant spaces about the doors were packed with people waiting to get in. 

When I reached there at noon, it was difficult to make one’s way through the wide lobbies and passages, so great was the throng. There was not a vacant seat in the galleries, and all the doorways leading to them were full of tiptoeing men and women, with a swarm of anxious citizens at their backs, eagerly watching for such scanty crumbs of comfort as chance opportunities of glancing between their shoulders or under their arms. 

I went immediately to the reporters’ gallery – it was about full, too, and excited doorkeepers and sentinels were challenging all comers and manfully resisting an assaulting party of men, women and children who were the fathers, brothers, wives, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, schoolmates, admirers of editors, correspondents, reporters, members of Congress, Cabinet officers and the President of the United States – and consequently they demanded to know why they couldn’t go into the reporters’ gallery!”

Territorial Enterprise, March 13, 1868.

Covering the scene for the Chicago Republican, Twain observed,

“A strong interest was depicted in every countenance — even in the countenances of the members of the floor — inasmuch that these latter earnestly conversed in groups and couples, instead of looking listless and writing private letters, as is their custom. The multitude of strangers were waiting for impeachment.

They did not know what impeachment was, exactly, but they had a general idea that it would come in the form of an avalanche, or a thunder clap, or that maybe the roof would fall in. Bye and bye a member rose up solemnly, and every soul prepared to stand from under. But it was a vain delusion — he only had a speech to make about a degraded cooking stove patent. The people were justly incensed.”

The Chicago Republican, March 1, 1868.

In the Territorial Enterprise, he added,

“It was a relief to the galleries, who somehow seemed to look upon this trifling about cooking stoves as a fraud upon themselves, and a sort of affront, as well, thrust forward, as it was, at a time when any idiot ought to know that impeachment was the order of the day!

No committee yet. Something must be done. Motion to adjourn, ‘in honor of Washington.’ Amendment – to read Washington’s Farewell Address. Both were voted down. Ayes and nays called on both, and the long, tedious, monotonous calling of names and answering followed. The vote was no – everybody knew what it would be before. 

Before the roll call was finished, Boutwell came in [sensation]; afterwards, at intervals, Bingham [sensation], Paine [sensation], several other committee men, and finally Thad. Stevens himself. [Super-extraordinary sensation!]”

Territorial Enterprise, March 13, 1868. Mark Twain’s Letters from Washington, No. 10.

After the “hour of irksome suspense rolled away,” Twain reported, “the one man the audience found out they must look for, entered — Thaddeus Stevens.”

Scholars of Twain are likely familiar with the notations and colorful observations he recorded of members of Congress in his journals upon his preliminary sittings in the House reporter’s gallery.

With descriptive rhetoric inartful by today’s norms,Twain took special notice of Stevens, the long-serving congressman from Pennsylvania, who was born in 1792 and would ultimately pass later that year.

The haggard, cadaverous old man dragged himself to his place and sat down. There was a soul in his sunken eyes, but otherwise he was a corpse that was ready for the shroud. He held his precious impeachment papers in his hand, signed at last! 

In the eleventh hour his coveted triumph had come. Richelieu was not nearer the grave, Richelieu was not stirred up by a sterner pride, when he came from his bed of death to crown himself with his final victory.

The buzzing and whispering died out, and an impressive silence reigned in its stead. The Speaker addressed the galleries in a clear voice that reached the farthest recesses of the house, and warned the great concourse that the slightest manifestation of approbation or disapprobation of anything about to be said, would be followed by the instant expulsion of the offending person from the galleries; he read the rules, at some length, upon the subject, and charged the Sergeant-at-Arms and his subordinates to perform their duty without hesitation or favor. 

Then Mr. Stevens rose up and in a voice which was feeble but yet distinctly audible because of the breathless stillness that hung over the great audience like a spell, he read the resolution that was make plain the way for the impeachment of the President of the United States!

The words that foreshadowed so mighty an event sent a thrill through the assemblage, but there was no manifestation of the emotion save in the sudden lighting of their countenances. They ventured upon no applause, nor upon any expression of dissent. Mr. Brooks of New York took the floor, and in a frenzied speech protested against impeachment, and threatened civil war if the measure carried.”

Territorial Enterprise, March 13, 1868.

Twain Predicts Johnson’s Acquittal 

Possibly reading into the latest weather front to settle over the nation’s capital, in his final Washington Letter for the Territorial Enterprise,Twain gave a less than optimistic forecast for impeachment.

“A few days ago, everybody was entirely satisfied that the President would be impeached and removed with all possible dispatch. To-day nobody has a settled opinion about the matter. The Democrats do not howl about impeachment much now, a fact that awakens suspicion. Maybe they are satisfied that to martyr the President would make a vast amount of Democratic capital for the next election. Martyrdom is the coveted thing, now, by everybody.

The Republicans show a disposition to quit talking about the impeaching of a President on stern principle for a contemptuous violation of law and his oath of office; they show a disposition to drop the high moral ground that such a precedent must not be sent down to hamper posterity, and they already openly talk about the “impolicy” of impeaching. It would be curious to hear a Court talking of the “impolicy” of convicting a man for murder in the first degree.

This everlasting compelling of honesty, morality, justice and the law to bend the knee to policy, is the rottenest thing in a republican form of government. It is cowardly, degraded and mischievous; and in its own good time it will bring destruction upon this broad-shouldered fabric of ours. 

I believe the Prince of Darkness could start a branch hell in the District of Columbia (if he has not already done it), and carry it on unimpeached by the Congress of the United States, even though the Constitution were bristling with articles forbidding hells in this country. And if there were moneyed offices in it, Congress would take stock in the concern, too, and in less than three weeks Fessenden and Washburne would fill it full of their poor relations. 

What a rotten, rotten, and unspeakable nasty concern this nest of departments is, with its brainless battalions of Congressional poor-relation-clerks and their book-keeping, pencil-sharpening strumpets.”

Territorial Enterprise, April 7, 1868. MARK TWAIN’S LETTERS FROM WASHINGTON.

Sensing the result of a pending impeachment acquittal against Johnson two months in advance of its actuality in May 1868, Twain wrote, “It is dead for good, now, I suppose. It promised so fairly, two months ago, that everybody boldly turned prophet and said it would certainly succeed. But it didn’t. Nobody’s prophecies concerning Washington matters ever come out right. Isaiah himself would be a failure here.”

Despite describing Congressman Stevens as pallid and with one foot in the grave, Twain wrote, 

Hon. Thad. Stevens, the bravest old ironclad in the Capitol, fought hard for impeachment, even when he saw that it could not succeed. He is not choice in his language when he speaks on this subject, concerning his fellow-committeemen and Congress generally. He simply says the whole tribe of them are ‘Damned Cowards.’ It is the finest word painting any Congressional topic has produced this session.”

Territorial Enterprise, March 7, 1868. MARK TWAIN’S LETTERS FROM WASHINGTON.

Twain Leaves Washington City 

Seemingly unmoved by the opportunity to cover the ensuing impeachment trial in the Senate, Twain wrote to his mother February 21, 1868 of his growing discontent with Washington,

“I couldn’t accept the Postoffice—the book contract was in the way—I could not go behind that—& besides, I did not wantthe office. I might want such a thing under the next administration, & if it shall so happen, it will be in my favor that I did not serve under this one.”

Samuel L. Clemens to Jane L. Clemens & Family. February 21, 1868.

On Monday, March 9, 1868 the Evening Star noted, “Mark Twain”—Clemens—has left Washington for California to make arrangements for the publication of his work.”

The Innocents Abroad would eventually be published in 1869 as one of Twain’s most popular works during his life and one of the best-selling English language travel books of all time. Although his life as a Washington letter writer was short-lived, Twain’s observations about our nation’s capital and the fervor of impeachment more than one hundred and fifty years ago prove to be prescient.

John Muller is author of Mark Twain in Washington D.C. (The History Press, 2013) and Frederick Douglass in Washington D.C. (The History Press, 2012). He is an Associate Librarian in the Washingtonia Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, part of the DC Public Library system. He regularly writes and speaks about the history of Washington, D.C.