The period of American and world history from 1894-1904 marks, in a very real sense, either the anomalous beginnings of American imperialism, if you don’t think the US has remained particularly imperialistic, or the America’s debut on the world stage, a spotlighted position we have yet to repudiate or give up, if you rather think we haven’t given it up at all. Mark Zwonitzer chooses to examine that wonderfully contested history by focusing on two men, John Hay and Samuel Clemens. Hay and Clemens were about the same age, and came from similar backgrounds; small towns lining the banks of the Mississippi. They both arose to prominence and wealth from humble beginnings, and were deeply devoted to their wives and children. Both men lost children, and were prostrated by grief. Both emerge, in Zwonitzer’s narrative, as admirable men. And they remained friends, cordial, though infrequent correspondents. But as Hay once wrote: “No man, no party, can fight with any hope of a final success against a cosmic tendency; no cleverness, no popularity, avails against the spirit of the age.” As Zwonitzer puts it: “John Hay had learned this lesson early, and accepted it as an article of faith. He was not a man to fight a ‘cosmic tendency,’ and this served him well. Sam Clemens was less sure of this lesson. He learned it the hard way, and as you will see in the story that follows, kept unlearning it.”
John Hay was one of two personal secretaries to Abraham Lincoln, along with his close friend John Nicolay. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hay and Nicolay wrote the first biography of Lincoln, a multi-volume work that established the pattern for subsequent Lincoln biographies. Hay also was a poet of some distinction, especially known for a collection called Pike County Ballads; humorous verse written in dialect. Hay made his fortune the old fashioned way; he married into it. This gave him the freedom to pursue a career in government, and he eventually became US Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and finally, US Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He was, in short, the Secretary of State during the Spanish-American War, and the diplomat who laid the political framework for the building of the Panama Canal.
Sam Clemens, of course, was primarily known, both in his lifetime and today, by his pseudonym, Mark Twain. As the book begins, Clemens was embarked on a desperate quest to salvage his family finances, a world-spanning lecture tour. This is the Mark Twain of the popular imagination; the cigar-smoking, white-suited contrarian, the witty, somewhat cynical humorist. He was, in 1894, dead-broke, having blown a sizeable fortune on an ill-conceived printing device. He insisted, as a point of honor, on clearing the entire debt himself, without resorting to bankruptcy proceedings. But proceeds from the tour were disappointing, as were sales from his published account of the voyage. (Although he did finally pay off his creditors, he never really did learn his lesson; he was still making bad investments practically on his deathbed).
Zwonitzer’s book cuts back and forth between the two men over the last ten years of Hay’s life, during that period when Hay was accommodating and enabling and administering the colonialist impulses of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Hay was an able administrator, in part because he was almost ego-less about it. His job was to serve as an extension of the President, and it was a job he devoted himself to, even at the cost of his health. And so Hay made himself indispensable, as the United States intervened in Cuba, appropriated Puerto Rico, swallowed Hawaii whole, captured Guam and Samoa, and ignored the democratic wishes of the freed Philippines, waging a savage war of conquest, so as to Christianize a nation full of Christians, and to govern a people too stubborn to realize they were ungovernable. And that’s without mentioning the US actions in Panama, actions applauded, at the time, as lacking even the tiniest vestige of legality.
John Hay was surely one of the most able men ever to serve as Secretary of State. He was certainly one of the most consequential diplomats in US history. And I wouldn’t say that Zwonitzer’s book demonizes him; quite the contrary. At the same time, his legacy is a troubling one. Teddy Roosevelt was an extraordinary man and a remarkably impactful President. He also believed in (and wrote books arguing for) the inherent racial superiority of Anglo-Saxon peoples, and the God-given requirement that that superiority gave white men: to govern. One of the saddest chapters in the book describes the Filipino diplomat, Felipe Agocillo, who came to Washington desperate for some kind of recognition of the capable, functioning government established by his boss, Emilio Aquinaldo, and hoping for some Filipino representation, at least, on the commission that would decide his country’s fate and future. He was never so much as allowed to present a letter to that effect to John Hay. His people were incapable of self-governance. Too brown of skin. Period. The Philippines would be administered from Washington.
And Sam Clemens, as he traveled with his ailing family from Italian villa to English country estate to US rental property, kept in touch with world events. And though he couched his criticisms in bitter irony, Mark Twain’s writings reveal how heartsick and furious he was with it all. Twain knew better than to publish all his writings from that period–in any event, he’d promised his beloved wife, Livy, that he would exercise some restraint. Even so, it’s remarkable, to see how willing Clemens was to take on the ruling ideology of his own age, how furious he was with the hypocrisy of American Christians and the complacent American acceptance of the most heinous war atrocities committed by our troops.
When most Americans think of the Spanish-American war, we generally think of two things, if we even give that particularly obscure conflict any attention at all. First, we may be able to dredge some memory of the phrase ‘Remember the Maine,’ though we likely don’t remember what that was about. And second, we might remember Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders capturing San Juan Hill. We don’t choose to think about our utterly unjustified invasion of the Philippines, or the brutal savagery of our war against the subsequent insurgency. We don’t think about water boarding, or the way US commanders justified the slaughter of eleven-year-olds, or our massacres of women and children.
Mark Twain was there. He was horrified and appalled on our behalf. Here’s what he wrote about it, in The War Prayer:
O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.
We’ve forgotten John Hay, and though we still remember Mark Twain, we’ve generally forgotten the lonely, righteous anger of Sam Clemens. Mark Zwonitzer reminds us of them both, and the ways in which they were connected. And the specific points on which they differed, as friends. What a splendid achievement.