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Mark Twain Predicts the New Deal

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One can only imagine the reception Mark Twain got for his comments at the Monday Evening Club in Hartford on March 22, 1886.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Twain praised the Knights of Labor as a new aristocracy in the paper he read to the group. He called it “The New Dynasty.”

“We need not fear this king,” Twain said. “This king is born the enemy of them that scheme and talk and do not work…He will see to it that there is fair play, fair wages, fair working hours.”

Mark Twain, Friend of Labor

The club members no doubt considered themselves the aristocracy, or at least a theocracy. The Monday Evening Club was founded by theologian Horace Bushnell, Biblical scholar Calvin Stowe and philologist James Hammond Trumbull in the 1860s. It comprised 20 of Hartford’s leading intellectuals who met in each other’s homes every other Monday from October to May.

The year 1886, when Twain presented his paper to the club, was a time of labor upheaval. American workers engaged in strikes, boycotts and protests to improve their standard of living. In 1885, the Knights of Labor scored a tremendous victory by organizing workers on Jay Gould’s southwestern railroads. The following year the Knights organized 500,000 workers. Twain praised them before the Monday Evening Club for admitting women, African Americans and farmers.

Mark Twain (Sam Clemens) at 15

Labor leaders praised Twain for his support of social justice. As an 18-year-old compositor in New York City he joined the International Typographical Union (today the Communications Workers of America). He remained a member his whole life.  He once wrote a letter to his mother from New York about the two free libraries the printer’s union made available to its members, assuring her he was spending his time reading rather than carousing.

In his 1883 memoir, Life on the Mississippi, Twain described how the river pilots cleverly forced the steamboat owners into meeting their wage demands, recognizing their union and hiring only union pilots. Twain clearly admired them.

The Mark Twain House in Hartford

The Mark Twain House in Hartford

Connecticut Yankee

He began writing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court the year he read his paper at the Monday Evening Club. In it, the main character Hank Morgan satirizes the Gilded Age. He does it with a description of Britain in the days of King Arthur:

I was become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all the dividends. It seemed to me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was a new deal.

Morgan predicted the wage earner ‘will rise up and take a hand at fixing his wage himself.’

Union members liked the book so much that labor leaders required sections of it to be read at union meetings and picnics.

Years later, Franklin Roosevelt ran for president of the United States promising a New Deal for American workers. His wife Eleanor said Connecticut Yankee was his favorite book by Mark Twain.

This story was updated in 2022.

1 comment

Molly Landrigan March 22, 2014 - 8:47 pm

I didn’t know this but am not surprised. He always seemed to identify with the working class.

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