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 It 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.:
- Get the House and Senate journals printed; and,
- 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.
April 28, 2008