Mark Twain

Banquet for a Senator (by Mark Twain)

In the middle of the afternoon day before yesterday, a particular friend of mine whom I will call Jones for this day and train only, telephoned and said he would like to call for me at half past seven and take me to a dinner at the Union League Club.  He said he would send me home as early as I pleased, he being aware I am declining all invitations this year – and for the rest of my life – that make it necessary for me to go out at night, at least to places where speeches are made and the sessions last past ten o’clock.  But Jones is a very particular friend of mine and therefore it caused me no discomfort to transgress my rule and accept his invitation; no, I am in error – it did cost me a pang, a decided pang, for although he said the dinner was a private one with only ten persons invited, he mentioned Senator Clark of Montana as one of the ten.  I am a person of elevated tone and of morals that can bear scrutiny and I am much above associating with animals of Mr. Clark’s breed.

I am sorry to be vain – at least I am sorry to expose the fact that I am vain – but I do confess it and expose it; I cannot help being vain of myself for giving such a large proof of my friendship for Jones as is involved in accepting an invitation to break bread with such a person as Clark of Montana.  It is not because he is a United States Senator – it is at least not wholly because he occupies that doubtful position – for there are many Senators whom I hold in a certain respect and would not think of declining to meet them socially, if I believed it was the will of God.  We have lately sent a United States Senator to the penitentiary, but I am quite well aware that of those who have escaped this promotion there are several who are in some regards guiltless of crime – not guiltless of all crimes, for that cannot be said of any United States Senator, I think, but guiltless of some kinds of crime.  They all rob the Treasury for iniquitous pension bills in order to keep on good terms with the Grand Army of the Republic, and with the Grand Army of the Republic, Jr., and with the Grand Army of the Republic, Jr., Jr. and other great-grandchildren of the war – and these bills distinctly represent crime and violated senatorial oaths.

However, I am willing to waive moral rank and associate with the moderately criminal among the Senators – even including Platt and Chauncey Depew – I have to draw the line at Clark of Montana.  He is said to have bought legislatures and judges as other men buy food and raiment.  By his example he has so excused and so sweetened corruption that in Montana it no longer has an offensive smell.  His history is known to everybody; he is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a chain and ball on his legs.  To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the Republic has produced since Tweed’s time.

I went to the dinner, which was served in a small private room at the club with the usual piano and fiddlers present to make conversation difficult and comfort impossible.  I found that the Montana citizen was not merely a guest but that the dinner was given in his honor.  While the feeding was going on two of my elbow neighbors supplied me with information concerning the reasons for this tribute of respect to Mr. Clark.  Mr. Clark had lately lend to the Union League Club, which is the most powerful political club in America and perhaps its richest, a million dollars’ worth of European pictures for exhibition.  It was quite plain that my informant regarded this as an act of almost superhuman generosity.  One of my informants said, under his breath and with awe and admiration, that if you should put together all of Mr. Clark’s several generosities to the club, including this gaudy one, the cost to Mr. Clark first and last would doubtless amount to a hundred thousand dollars.  I saw that I was expected to exclaim, applaud, and adore, but I was not tempted to do it, because I had been informed five minutes earlier that Clark’s income, as stated under the worshiping informant’s breath, was thirty million dollars a year.

Human beings have no sense of proportion.  A benefaction of a hundred thousand dollars subtracted from an income of thirty million dollars is not a matter to go into hysterics of admiration and adulation about.  If I should contribute ten thousand dollars to a cause, it would be one-ninth of my past year’s income, and I could feel it; as matter for admiration and wonder and astonishment and gratitude, it would far and away outrank a contribution of twenty-five million dollars from the Montana jailbird, who would still have a hundred thousand dollars a week left over from his year’s income to subsist on.

It reminded me of the only instance of benevolence exploded upon the world by the late Jay Gould that I have ever heard of.  When that first and most infamous corrupter of American commercial morals was wallowing in uncountable stolen millions, he contributed five thousand dollars for the relief of the stricken population of Memphis, Tennessee, at a time when an epidemic of yellow fever was raging in that city.  Mr. Gould’s contribution cost him no sacrifice; it was only the income of the hour which he daily spent in prayer–for he was a most godly man–yet the storm of worshiping gratitude which welcomed it all over the United States in the newspaper, the pulpit, and in the private circle might have persuaded a stranger that for a millionaire American to give five thousand dollars to the dead and dying poor–when he could have bought a circuit judge with it–was the noblest thing in American history, and the holiest.

In time, the president of the art committee of the club rose and began with that aged and long-ago discredited remark that there were not to be any speeches on this occasion but only friendly and chatty conversation; then he went on, in the ancient and long-ago discredited fashion, and made a speech himself–a speech which was well calculated to make any sober hearer ashamed of the human race.  If a stranger had come in at that time he might have supposed that this was a divine service and that the Divinity was present.  He would have gathered that Mr. Clark was about the noblest human being the great republic had yet produced and the most magnanimous, the most self-sacrificing, the most limitlessly and squanderingly prodigal benefactor of good causes living in any land today.  And it never occurred to this worshiper of money, and money’s possessor, that in effect Mr. Clark had merely dropped a dime into the League’s hat.  Mr. Clark couldn’t miss his benefaction any more than he could miss ten cents.

When this wearisome orator had finished his devotions, the president of the Union League got up and continued the service in the same vein, vomiting adulations upon that jailbird which, estimated by any right standard of values, were the coarsest sarcasms, although the speaker was not aware of that.  Both of these orators had been applauded all along but the present one ultimately came out with a remark that I judged would fetch a cold silence, a very chilly chill; he revealed the fact that the expenses of the club’s loan exhibition of the Senator’s pictures had exceeded the income from the tickets of admission; then he paused–as speakers always do when they are going to spring a grand effect–and said that at that crucial time Senator Clark stepped forward of his own motion and put his hand in his pocket and handed out fifteen hundred dollars wherewith to pay half of the insurance on the pictures, and thus the club’s pocket was saved whole.  I wish I may never die if the worshipers present at this religious service did not break out in grateful applause at that astonishing statement; and I wish I may never prematurely die, if the jailbird didn’t smile all over his face and look as radiantly happy as he will look some day when Satan gives him a Sunday vacation in the cold storage vault.

Finally, while I was still alive, the president of the club finished his dreary and fatiguing marketing of juvenile commonplaces, and introduced Clark, and sat down.  Clark rose to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner”–no, it was “God Save the King,” frantically sawed and thumped by the fiddlers and the piano, and this was followed by “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” sung by the whole strength of the happy worshipers.  A miracle followed.  I have always maintained that no man could make a speech with nothing but a compliment for a text but I know now that a reptile can.  Senator Clark twaddled and twaddled and twaddled along for a full half hour with no text but those praises which had been lavished upon his trifling generosities; and he not only accepted at par all these silly phrases but added to them a pile–praising his own so-called generosities and magnanimities which such intensity and color that he took the pigment all out of those other men’s compliments and made them look pallid and shadowy.  With forty years’ experience of human assfulness and vanity at banquets, I have never seen anything of the sort that could remotely approach the assfulness and complacency of this coarse and vulgar and incomparably ignorant peasant’s glorification of himself.

I shall always be grateful to Jones for giving me the opportunity to be present at these sacred orgies.   I had believed that in my time I had seen at banquets all the different kinds of people that go to make our population, but it was a mistake.  This was the first time I had ever seen men get down in the gutter and frankly worship dollars and their possessors.  Of course I was familiar with such things through our newspapers, but I had never before heard men worship the dollar with their mouth or seen them on their knees in the act.

– Dictated by Twain in 1907


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