Mark Twain

Taxes and Morals

delivered 22 January 1906, New York

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I came here in the responsible capacity of policeman to watch Mr. Choate. This is an occasion of grave and serious importance, and it seems necessary for me to be present, so that if he tried to work off any statement that required correction, reduction, refutation, or exposure, there would be a tried friend of the public to protect the house.  He has not made one statement whose veracity fails to tally exactly with my own standard. I have never seen a person improve so. This makes me thankful  and proud of a country that can produce such men--two such men. And all in the same country.  We can't be with you always; we are passing away, and then--well, everything will have to stop, I reckon.  It is a sad thought.  But in spirit I shall still be with you.  Choate, too -- if he can.
 
Every born American among the eighty millions, let his creed or destitution of creed be what it may, is indisputably a Christian -- to this degree that his moral constitution is Christian.
 
There are two kinds of Christian morals, one private and the other public. These two are so distinct, so unrelated, that they are no more akin to each other than are archangels and politicians.  During three hundred and sixty-three days in the year the American citizen is true to his Christian private morals, and keeps undefiled the nation's character at its best and highest; then in the other two days of the year he leaves his Christian private morals at home and carries his Christian public morals to the tax office and the polls, and does the best he can to damage and undo his whole year's faithful and righteous work. Without a blush he will vote for an unclean boss if that boss is his party's Moses, without compunction he will vote against the best man in the whole land if he is on the other ticket.  Every year in a number of cities and States he helps put corrupt men in office, whereas if he would but throw away his Christian public morals, and carry his Christian private morals to the polls, he could promptly purify the public service and make the possession of office a high and honorable distinction.
 
Once a year he lays aside his Christian private morals and hires a ferry-boat and piles up his bonds in a warehouse in New Jersey for three days, and gets out his Christian public morals and goes to the tax office and holds up his hands and swears he wishes he may never -- never if he's got a cent in the world, so help him.  The next day the list appears in the papers--a column and a quarter of names, in fine print, and every man in the list a billionaire and member of a couple of churches. I know all those people. I have friendly, social, and criminal relations with the whole lot of them. They never miss a sermon when they are so's to be around, and they never miss swearing-off day, whether they are so's to be around or not.
 
I used to be an honest man.  I am crumbling. No -- I have crumbled.  When they assessed me at $75,000 a fortnight ago I went out and tried to borrow the money, and couldn't; then when I found they were letting a whole crop of millionaires live in New York at a third of the price they were charging me I was hurt, I was indignant, and said: "This is the last feather.  I am not going to run this town all by myself."  In that moment -- in that memorable moment -- I began to crumble.  In fifteen minutes the disintegration was complete.  In fifteen minutes I had become just a mere moral sand-pile; and I lifted up my hand along with those seasoned and experienced deacons and swore off every rag of personal property I've  got in the world, clear down to cork leg, glass eye, and what is left of my wig.
 
Those tax officers were moved; they were profoundly moved.  They had long been accustomed to seeing hardened old grafters act like that, and they could endure the spectacle; but they were expecting better things of me, a chartered, professional moralist, and they were saddened.
 
I fell visibly in their respect and esteem, and I should have fallen in my own, except that I had already struck bottom, and there wasn't any place to fall to. At Tuskegee they will jump to misleading conclusions from insufficient evidence, along with Doctor Parkhurst, and they will deceive the student with the superstition that no gentleman ever swears.
 
Look at those good millionaires; aren't they gentlemen?  Well, they swear.  Only once in a year, maybe, but there's enough bulk to it to make up for the lost time.  And do they lose anything by it?  No, they don't; they save enough in three minutes to support the family seven years. When they swear, do we shudder?  No -- unless they say "damn!"  Then we do. It shrivels us all up.  Yet we ought not to feel so about it, because we all swear -- everybody.  Including the ladies.  Including Doctor Parkhurst, that strong and brave and excellent citizen, but superficially educated.

For it is not the word that is the sin, it is the spirit back of the word.  When an irritated lady says "oh!" the spirit back of it is "damn!" and that is the way it is going to be recorded against her.  It always  makes me so sorry when I hear a lady swear like that.  But if she says "damn," and says it in an amiable, nice way, it isn't going to be recorded at all.
 
The idea that no gentleman ever swears is all wrong; he can swear and still be a gentleman if he does it in a nice and, benevolent and affectionate way.  The historian, John Fiske, whom I knew well and loved, was a spotless and most noble and upright Christian gentleman, and yet he swore once.  Not exactly that, maybe; still, he -- but I will tell you about it.
 
One day, when he was deeply immersed in his work, his wife came in, much moved and profoundly distressed, and said: "I am sorry to disturb you, John, but I must, for this is a serious matter, and needs to be attended to at once."

Then, lamenting, she brought a grave accusation against their little son. She said: "He has been saying his Aunt Mary is a fool and his Aunt Martha is a damned fool."  Mr. Fiske reflected upon the matter a minute, then said: "Oh, well, it's about the distinction I should make between them myself."
 
Mr. Washington, I beg you to convey these teachings to your great and prosperous and most beneficent educational institution, and add them to the prodigal mental and moral riches wherewith you equip your fortunate protégés for the struggle of life.


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