Mark Twain on Federal Meddling

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Mark Twain is one of my all-time favorite authors. His biting wit
entertains and illuminates the human condition at the same time.
His journalistic honesty spares no one, including himself, from
critical scrutiny.

Twains' book, Roughing
is an entertaining account of his journey out west with
his brother, who was appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory
in 1861. Twain describes his many adventures as a greenhorn in the
wild frontier with his usual self-depreciating humor and keen eye
for irony.

In Chapter 25, Mark Twain castigates the Federal government’s meddling
with the Nevada territory economics regarding currency and market
value. Reading his remarks, one cannot help but think he and Ron
Paul are cut from the same Libertarian cloth. Below is an edited
excerpt from the chapter.


At this time the population of the Territory was about twelve or
fifteen thousand, and rapidly increasing. Silver mines were being
vigorously developed and silver mills erected. Business of all kinds
was active and prosperous and growing more so day by day.

The people were glad to have a legitimately constituted government,
but did not particularly enjoy having strangers from distant States
put in authority over them – a sentiment that was natural enough.
They thought the officials should have been chosen from among themselves
from among prominent citizens who had earned a right to such promotion,
and who would be in sympathy with the populace and likewise thoroughly
acquainted with the needs of the Territory. They were right in viewing
the matter thus, without doubt. The new officers were “emigrants,”
and that was no title to anybody’s affection or admiration either.

The new government was received with considerable coolness. It
was not only a foreign intruder, but a poor one. It was not even
worth plucking – except by the smallest of small fry office-seekers
and such. Everybody knew that Congress had appropriated only twenty
thousand dollars a year in greenbacks for its support – about
money enough to run a quartz mill a month. And everybody knew, also,
that the first year’s money was still in Washington, and that the
getting hold of it would be a tedious and difficult process. Carson
City was too wary and too wise to open up a credit account with
the imported bantling with anything like indecent haste.

There is something solemnly funny about the struggles of a new-born
Territorial government to get a start in this world. Ours had a
trying time of it. The Organic Act and the “instructions” from the
State Department commanded that a legislature should be elected
at such-and-such a time, and its sittings inaugurated at such-and-such
a date. It was easy to get legislators, even at three dollars a
day, although board was four dollars and fifty cents, for distinction
has its charm in Nevada as well as elsewhere, and there were plenty
of patriotic souls out of employment; but to get a legislative hall
for them to meet in was another matter altogether. Carson blandly
declined to give a room rent-free, or let one to the government
on credit.

But when Curry heard of the difficulty, he came forward, solitary
and alone, and shouldered the Ship of State over the bar and got
her afloat again. I refer to “Curry – Old Curry –
Old Abe Curry.” But for him the legislature would have been
obliged to sit in the desert. He offered his large stone building
just outside the capital limits, rent-free, and it was gladly accepted.
Then he built a horse-railroad from town to the capitol, and carried
the legislators gratis.

He also furnished pine benches and chairs for the legislature,
and covered the floors with clean saw-dust by way of carpet and
spittoon combined. But for Curry the government would have died
in its tender infancy. A canvas partition to separate the Senate
from the House of Representatives was put up by the Secretary, at
a cost of three dollars and forty cents, but the United States declined
to pay for it. Upon being reminded that the “instructions”
permitted the payment of a liberal rent for a legislative hall,
and that that money was saved to the country by Mr. Curry’s generosity,
the United States said that did not alter the matter, and the three
dollars and forty cents would be subtracted from the Secretary’s
eighteen hundred dollar salary – and it was!

The matter of printing was from the beginning an interesting feature
of the new government’s difficulties. The Secretary was sworn to
obey his volume of written “instructions,” and these commanded him
to do two certain things without fail, viz.:

  1. Get the House and Senate journals printed; and,
  2. For this work, pay one dollar and fifty cents per “thousand”
    for composition, and one dollar and fifty cents per “token” for
    press-work, in greenbacks.

It was easy to swear to do these two things, but it was entirely
impossible to do more than one of them. When greenbacks
had gone down to forty cents on the dollar, the prices regularly
charged everybody by printing establishments were one dollar and
fifty cents per “thousand” and one dollar and fifty
cents per “token,” in gold.
The “instructions” commanded that the Secretary regard a paper dollar
issued by the government as equal to any other dollar issued by
the government. Hence the printing of the journals was discontinued.
Then the United States sternly rebuked the Secretary for disregarding
the “instructions,” and warned him to correct his ways. Wherefore
he got some printing done, forwarded the bill to Washington with
full exhibits of the high prices of things in the Territory, and
called attention to a printed market report wherein it would be
observed that even hay was two hundred and fifty dollars a ton.
The United States responded by subtracting the printing-bill from
the Secretary’s suffering salary – and moreover remarked with
dense gravity that he would find nothing in his “instructions” requiring
him to purchase hay!

Nothing in this world is palled in such impenetrable obscurity
as a U.S. Treasury Comptroller’s understanding. The very fires of
the hereafter could get up nothing more than a fitful glimmer in
it. In the days I speak of he never could be made to comprehend
why it was that twenty thousand dollars would not go as far in Nevada,
where all commodities ranged at an enormous figure, as it would
in the other Territories, where exceeding cheapness was the rule.
He was an officer who looked out for the little expenses all the
time. The Secretary of the Territory kept his office in his bedroom,
as I before remarked; and he charged the United States no rent,
although his “instructions” provided for that item and he could
have justly taken advantage of it (a thing which I would have done
with more than lightning promptness if I had been Secretary myself).
But the United States never applauded this devotion. Indeed, I think
my country was ashamed to have so improvident a person in its employ.

Those “instructions” (we used to read a chapter from them every
morning, as intellectual gymnastics, and a couple of chapters in
Sunday school every Sabbath, for they treated of all subjects under
the sun and had much valuable religious matter in them along with
the other statistics) those “instructions” commanded that pen-knives,
envelopes, pens and writing-paper be furnished the members of the
legislature. So the Secretary made the purchase and the distribution.
The knives cost three dollars apiece. There was one too many, and
the Secretary gave it to the Clerk of the House of Representatives.
The United States said the Clerk of the House was not a “member”
of the legislature, and took that three dollars out of the Secretary’s
salary, as usual.

White men charged three or four dollars a “load” for sawing up
stove-wood. The Secretary was sagacious enough to know that the
United States would never pay any such price as that; so he got
an Indian to saw up a load of office wood at one dollar and a half.
He made out the usual voucher, but signed no name to it – simply
appended a note explaining that an Indian had done the work, and
had done it in a very capable and satisfactory way, but could not
sign the voucher owing to lack of ability in the necessary direction.
The Secretary had to pay that dollar and a half. He thought the
United States would admire both his economy and his honesty in getting
the work done at half price and not putting a pretended Indian’s
signature to the voucher, but the United States did not see it in
that light.

The United States was too much accustomed to employing dollar-and-a-half
thieves in all manner of official capacities to regard his explanation
of the voucher as having any foundation in fact.

The government of my country snubs honest simplicity but fondles
artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very
capable pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a year
or two.

28, 2008

Shirtz [send him mail] is
a transplanted Californian teaching Graphic Communications in Northern
(Not “Upstate”) New York. His hobbies include arranging deck chairs
on sinking ships, tilting at windmills, and being fashionably late.

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