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Mark Twain

By Vivian Y. Ohtake-Gonzalez
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), about 1907
Mark Twain in about 1907 (Library of Congress)

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Mark Twain was an American writer known for satire and humor when dealing with social and political topics. He was also the vice-president of the Anti-imperialist League from 1901-1910.


Samuel Langhorn Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, was born in Florida, Missouri in 1835.  He spent most of his boyhood years in Hannibal, Missouri, a port on the Mississippi River which later became the setting for some of his most famous stories.

At the age of twelve, Clemens was apprenticed to two Hannibal printers after the death of his father.  This training led to his employment as a printer  in cities such as New York City and Philadelphia.  Later he worked as a steamboat  pilot on the Mississippi until the American Civil War caused travel on the river to cease.  He then volunteered as a soldier for a short period of time in the Confederate cavalry in 1861.

In 1862 Clemens became a reporter on the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada after giving up on silver mining.  The following year, he began using the pen name, "Mark Twain" which was a phrase that he picked up off the Mississippi River meaning “two fathoms deep.”  Twain married Olivia Langdon in 1870.  The couple lived in Buffalo, New York but later moved to Hartford, Connecticut.

Twain’s books were often influenced by his own personal travels and experiences.  His travels to Europe and Palestine were later depicted in The Innocents Abroad which he wrote in 1869.  Roughing It, written in 1872, described his life as a miner and journalist. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer delivers us to his childhood town on the Mississippi.  Readers travel with him on the Mississippi River in Life on the Mississippi ( 1883) as Clemens relives his life as a pilot when he returns to the river ten years later and discovers the changes that occurred while he was away.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written in 1884, displayed the cruelty and hypocrisy of people and their ideas from the eyes of a young boy helping a runaway slave get to freedom.

Besides the publication of Huckleberry Finn, 1884 was also marked with Twain’s formation of the Charles L. Webster and Company that would publish his and other writer’s work.  Unfortunately due to bad investments, the firm went bankrupt in 1894 leaving Twain in debt.  The Anti-Imperialist League did not come into being until November 1889.  The group was organized as an oppositional response to the seemingly overriding principles of imperialism in international affairs concerning Cuba and the Philippines.  Their strongest weapons at the time were the "Declaration of Independence" and Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address" which obviously condemned the actions of imperialism as contradictory to the ideals for which America’s independence was fought.

At beginning of the Spanish-American War, Twain was residing in Europe and for the most part was in support of the conflict with Spain and the Philippines.  He was disillusioned by the idea that the U.S. was fighting exclusively for the freedom of Cuba.  The Treaty of Paris, which gave control of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the U.S. quickly changed his opinion on the matter.  Twain was disgusted by the fact that a war which had been meant to give freedom was really only a pretext for further expansion for the U.S.

Twain’s return to the United States in 1900 was widely publicized, as were his strong views on imperialism.  Soon after he joined the Anti-Imperialist League.  After sending his condemnation of imperialism, “A Salutation Speech From the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth” to both the League and the New York Herald, Twain was asked to take the position as vice-president of the League.  Although he declined to work on customary tasks he would continue to write and speak in support of anti-imperialism.

Mark Twain strongly believed that the U.S. could not be an empire and a republic at the same time.  He condemned the racism against the Filipinos and argued that the Filipinos were perfectly able to govern themselves.  Twain was an admirer of Emilio Aguinaldo who resisted Spanish rule and later continued to lead the struggle against American occupation.  Because the Spanish concentration camps in Cuba had given the U.S. extra incentive to support Cuban freedom, Twain especially spoke out against similar U.S. camps in the Philippines.

In 1901, Twain published “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” which criticized war in the Philippines and the missionary activities in China following the Boxer Rebellion.  This was to become the League’s most popular publication.

“Is it perhaps, possible that there are two kinds of Civilization-one for home consumption and one for the heathen market?”
The same year, Mark Twain was invited to sign a July 4th address “To the American People” which was published in newspapers nationwide.  He was also present at the only meeting of officers held by the New York branch of the League.  A petition to the Senate comparing Spanish and American concentration camps was signed by Twain in an effort to put a stop to U.S. hostile negotiations with the Philippines in 1902.

In 1903, Twain was enlisted to help with the League’s campaign against atrocities committed by the U.S. military in the Philippines.  He was asked to focus on the water torture done to a Filipino priest, Father Augustine, by U.S. soldiers because the priest was raising money for the Filipino army.

Mark Twain’s wife, Olivia, died after they moved to Italy and when Twain returned to the U.S. , the League was divided into the Philippine Independence Committee and the Filipino Progress Association, both of which endorsed less immediate actions.  Twain continued to support the original League but was also deeply involved in supporting the Russian Revolution.  However, a scandal forced Twain and other supporters to withdraw their advocacy.

Up until his death in 1910, Twain continued to be in the Anti-imperialist League.


Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. Microsoft Corporation. 1993-1997

Zwick, Jim.  Mark Twain’s Weapon’s of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the  Philippine-American War. Syracuse University Press. 1992

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