Twain’s Times

From Andrew Jackson to the Gilded Age: Mark Twain’s Times

by Craig Hotchkiss‚ Educational Program Director |

In 1835‚ the year Samuel Clemens was born into a hardscrabble Missouri frontier family‚ Andrew Jackson was nearing the end of his transformative presidency. During a period that historians now call “Jacksonian Democracy‚” the dynamic seventh president of the United States forged a new‚ and enduring political party‚ dedicated to wielding the power of government on behalf of the common white man who was making “manifest destiny” a reality in the West and opposing the agenda of favor and privilege being practiced by elites in the East. However‚ Jacksonian Democrats believed that it was primarily through the states‚ rather than the Federal government‚ that their goals should be achieved.

Here then‚ were the seminal conflicts that would eventually define the life and work of Samuel Clemens the principle of “states’ rights‚” which belied the more compelling logic of a truly national character‚ and the defense of “democratic” ideals on behalf of the common white man while begging the issues of equality for women‚ blacks‚ and ethnic minorities. The Civil War was a watershed for some of these contradictions‚ since the defeat of the Confederacy affirmed the principle that the Federal government reigned supreme over the states‚ and it ushered in three far-reaching Constitutional amendments that first emancipated‚ and then granted full citizenship to black‚ male slaves.

Prior to the Civil War‚ Samuel Clemens achieved his boyhood dream of becoming a steamboat pilot‚ but when Civil War hostilities between the North and South closed the Mississippi River to steamboat traffic‚ they also forced the young “Missouri Ruffian” to go west to Nevada‚ first to work as a prospector‚ and then as a frontier newspaper reporter. Using the pen name “Mark Twain” (an old riverboat term which means the line between safe water and dangerous water)‚ Clemens traveled widely‚ bearing witness to the relentless taming of the American West‚ including Hawaii‚ and the swift development of its vast natural resources as a result of industrialization.

Eventually he married Olivia Langdon‚ the daughter of a wealthy abolitionist from Elmira‚ N.Y.‚ and settled down to raise his family in Hartford‚ Connecticut. Here Mark Twain came of age as a writer and a champion of social justice at the very time that his native South was seeking to resurrect the racist and disgraced traditions that had led to the tragic Civil War and which were also being used to justify the establishment of an American empire abroad.

From 1866-76‚ the period known as Reconstruction‚ the dominant Republican Party attempted to compel Southern adherence to the new social order by using Federal troops to enforce new voting rights for freedmen as well as protecting their fledgling social and economic institutions intended to rapidly elevate their status to a rough equality with whites. Southern white resistance to these policies was ruthless and widespread‚ and it was not long before early advances toward racial equality were effectively negated.

By 1877‚ neither the Republican nor Democratic Party were willing to continue their standoff concerning Reconstruction‚ and in order to secure the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president‚ his party”s leadership pledged that Hayes would remove the troops and restore full state sovereignty in the South if the Democrats pledged to accept the fraudulent result of the recent election that denied Samuel Tilden‚ their party’s nominee‚ his rightful place in the White House. The deal was struck‚ and Reconstruction came to an end.

Without Federal protection‚ Southern freedmen were openly suppressed by the brutality of sharecropping and white terrorism‚ and quickly receded back to the lowest strata of society. Segregation became the norm in most of the nation during the last decades of the nineteenth century‚ as did the widespread promotion of vicious racial stereotypes that reinforced the belief in white supremacy. The so-called “Jim Crow” era would last well into the twentieth century‚ merging with an imperialist ideology that was euphemistically referred to as “The White Man’s Burden.”

In 1873‚ Mark Twain co-authored the book that characterized the post-Civil War era in America and gave it its most enduring name: The Gilded Age. The book was a scathing indictment of the greed‚ corruption‚ and moral degeneracy associated with urbanization and industrialization‚ and has since been used to describe the political bosses‚ Robber Barons‚ and conniving government officials that are most often associated with the late nineteenth century. Although Twain admired much of the technological and material progress of the age‚ but he deplored the price that a purportedly moral society had to pay in terms of human degradation and injustice. Twain dedicated most of his professional life after The Gilded Age to challenging all Americans to see the contradictions inherent in their new civilization‚ and to question the degree to which they were really being “civilized.”

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An opinionated guide to books on Mark Twain, his life in Hartford, and his times.

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