"I rise to protest"
To me this speech, besides being my favorite, is the best performance to look at to see what MT could and couldn't achieve morally as a humorist. It was delivered at the first annual dinner of Philadelphia's New England Society (the same kind of occasion as his 1882 toast "To Woman," although New York's New England Society was 77 years older). The various New England Societies scattered across the country (there was even one in Charleston) met on the anniversary of the arrival of an immigrant group -- the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock -- yet one of the forces behind the spread of these Societies throughout the nineteenth century was a reactionary resistance to the recurring waves of immigration from non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups. While the many speakers at these annual dinners paid homage to the Pilgrim Fathers, their filio-piety also nurtured their self-righteous belief that the descendants of such fathers were the "true" America, the legitimate heirs to the nation's places of privilege, the guardians of American culture across the dislocations of space and time.
This was a major theme of the keynote address at this dinner, as you can see by reading the account of the banquet from the Philadelphia Press. MT gave his speech last, after a number of other toasts to New England and the "sons" who had gathered to pay homage to the legacy of the "fathers." MT's speech was the only one to notice all the other native sons and daughters who had been excluded from the Society's version of America: native Americans, slaves, women and other "Others." As with Huck Finn's voice, MT here chooses to occupy and speak from a place at the denigrated margins of society. He re-views American history in a way that profoundly anticipates the revisionist historicism of our times. But he does so always as a comedic performance. As humor, this "protest" shocked and entertained its audience -- at the same time. When they stopped laughing, would the sons of the Puritans in his audience have felt the need to do anything else about the pattern of injustice MT articulates?
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On calling upon Mr. Clemens to make response, President Rollins said:
"This sentiment has been assigned to one who was never exactly born in New England, nor, perhaps, were any of his ancestors. He is not technically, therefore, of New England descent. Under the painful circumstances in which he has found himself, however, he has done the best he could -- he has had all his children born there, and has made of himself a New England ancestor. He is a self-made man. More than this, and better even, in cheerful, hopeful, helpful literature he is of New England ascent. To ascend there in anything that's reasonable is difficult, for -- confidentially, with the door shut -- we all know that they are the brightest, ablest sons of that goodly land who never leave it, and it is among and above them that Mr. Twain has made his brilliant and permanent ascent -- become a man of mark."
I RISE to protest. I have kept still for years, but really I think there is no sufficient justification for this sort of thing. What do you want to celebrate those people for? -- those ancestors of yours of 1620 -- the Mayflower tribe, I mean. What do you want to celebrate them for? Your pardon: the gentleman at my left assures me that you are not celebrating the Pilgrims themselves, but the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock on the 22d of December. So you are celebrating their landing. Why, the other pretext was thin enough, but this is thinner than ever; the other was tissue, tinfoil, fish-bladder, but this is gold-leaf. Celebrating their landing! What was there remarkable about it, I would like to know? What can you be thinking of? Why, those Pilgrims had been at sea three or four months. It was the very middle of winter: it was as cold as death off Cape Cod there. Why shouldn't they come ashore? If they hadn't landed there would be some reason for celebrating the fact. It would have been a case of monumental leatherheadedness which the world would not willingly let die. If it had been you, gentlemen, you probably wouldn't have landed, but you have no shadow of right to be celebrating, in your ancestors, gifts which they did not exercise, but only transmitted. Why, to be celebrating the mere landing of the Pilgrims -- to be trying to make out that this most natural and simple and customary procedure was an extraordinary circumstance -- a circumstance to be amazed at, and admired, aggrandized and glorified, at orgies like this for two hundred and sixty years -- hang it, a horse would have known enough to land; a horse -- Pardon again; the gentleman on my right assures me that it was not merely the landing of the Pilgrims that we are celebrating, but the Pilgrims themselves. So we have struck an inconsistency here: one says it was the landing, the other says it was the Pilgrims. It is an inconsistency characteristic of your intractable and disputatious tribe, for you never agree about anything but Boston. Well, then, what do you want to celebrate those Pilgrims for? They were a mighty hard lot -- you know it. I grant you, without the slightest unwillingness, that they were a deal more gentle and merciful and just than were the people of Europe of that day; I grant you that they are better than their predecessors. But what of that? -- that is nothing. People always progress. You are better than your fathers and grandfathers were (this is the first time I have ever aimed a measureless slander at the departed, for I consider such things improper). Yes, those among you who have not been in the penitentiary, if such there be, are better than your fathers and grandfathers were; but is that any sufficient reason for getting up annual dinners and celebrating you? No, by no means -- by no means. Well, I repeat, those Pilgrims were a hard lot. They took good care of themselves, but they abolished everybody else's ancestors. I am a border-ruffian from the State of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption. In me, you have Missouri morals, Connecticut culture; this, gentlemen, is the combination which makes the perfect man. But where are my ancestors? Whom shall I celebrate? Where shall I find the raw material?
My first American ancestor, gentlemen, was an Indian -- an early Indian. Your ancestors skinned him alive, and I am an orphan. Not one drop of my blood flows in that Indian's veins today. I stand here, lone and forlorn, without an ancestor. They skinned him! I do not object to that, if they needed his fur; but alive, gentlemen -- alive! They skinned him alive -- and before company! That is what rankles. Think how he must have felt; for he was a sensitive person and easily embarrassed. If he had been a bird, it would have been all right, and no violence done to his feelings, because he would have been considered "dressed." But he was not a bird, gentlemen, he was a man, and probably one of the most undressed men that ever was. I ask you to put yourselves in his place. I ask it as a favor; I ask it as a tardy act of justice; I ask it in the interest of fidelity to the traditions of your ancestors; I ask it that the world may contemplate, with vision unobstructed by disguising swallow-tails and white cravats, the spectacle which the true New England Society ought to present. Cease to come to these annual orgies in this hollow modern mockery -- the surplusage of raiment. Come in character; come in the summer grace, come in the unadorned simplicity, come in the free and joyous costume which your sainted ancestors provided for mine.
Later ancestors of mine were the Quakers William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, et al. Your tribe chased them out of the country for their religion's sake; promised them death if they came back; for your ancestors had forsaken the homes they loved, and braved the perils of the sea, the implacable climate, and the savage wilderness, to acquire that highest and most precious of boons, freedom for every man on this broad continent to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience -- and they were not going to allow a lot of pestiferous Quakers to interfere with it. Your ancestors broke forever the chains of political slavery, and gave the vote to every man in this wide land, excluding none! -- none except those who did not belong to the orthodox church. Your ancestors -- yes, they were a hard lot; but, nevertheless, they gave us religious liberty to worship as they required us to worship, and political liberty to vote as the church required; and so I the bereft one, I the forlorn one, am here to do my best to help you celebrate them right.
The Quaker woman Elizabeth Hooton was an ancestress of mine. Your people were pretty severe with her -- you will confess that. But, poor thing! I believe they changed her opinions before she died, and took her into their fold; and so we have every reason to presume that when she died she went to the same place which your ancestors went to. It is a great pity, for she was a good woman. Roger Williams was an ancestor of mine. I don't really remember what your people did with him. But they banished him to Rhode Island, anyway. And then, I believe, recognizing that this was really carrying harshness to an unjustifiable extreme, they took pity on him and burned him. They were a hard lot! All those Salem witches were ancestors of mine! Your people made it tropical for them. Yes they did; by pressure and the gallows they made such a clean deal with them that there hasn't been a witch and hardly a halter in our family from that day to this, and that is one hundred and eighty-nine years. The first slave brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine -- for I am of a mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite Mongrel. I'm not one of your sham meerschaums that you can color in a week. No, my complexion is the patient art of eight generations. Well, in my own time, I had acquired a lot of my kin -- by purchase, and swapping around, and one way and another -- and was getting along very well. Then, with the inborn perversity of your lineage, you got up a war, and took them all away from me. And so, again am I bereft, again am I forlorn; no drop of my blood flows in the veins of any living being who is marketable.
O my friends, hear me and reform! I seek your good, not mine. You have heard the speeches. Disband these New England societies -- nurseries of a system of steadily augmenting laudation and hosannaing, which, if persisted in uncurbed, may some day in the remote future beguile you into prevaricating and bragging. Oh, stop, stop, while you are still temperate in your appreciation of your ancestors! Hear me, I beseech you; get up an auction and sell Plymouth Rock! The Pilgrims were a simple and ignorant race. They never had seen any good rocks before, or at least any that were not watched, and so they were excusable for hopping ashore in frantic delight and clapping an iron fence around this one. But you, gentlemen, are educated; you are enlightened; you know that in the rich land of your nativity, opulent New England, overflowing with rocks, this one isn't worth, at the outside, more than thirty-five cents. Therefore, sell it, before it is injured by exposure, or at least throw it open to the patent-medicine advertisements, and let it earn its taxes.
Yes, hear your true friend -- your only true
friend -- list to his voice. Disband these societies,
hotbeds of vice, of moral decay -- perpetuators of
ancestral superstition. Here on this board I see water, I see milk, I see the wild and deadly
lemonade. These are but steps upon the downward
path. Next we shall see tea, then chocolate, then
coffee -- hotel coffee. A few more years -- all too
few, I fear -- mark my words, we shall have cider!
Gentlemen, pause ere it be too late. You are on
the broad road which leads to dissipation, physical ruin, moral decay, gory crime and the gallows!
I beseech you, I implore you, in the name
of your anxious friends, in the name of your suffering families, in the name of your impending
widows and orphans, stop ere it be too late. Disband these New England societies, renounce these
soul-blistering saturnalia, cease from varnishing
the rusty reputations of your long-vanished ancestors -- the super-high-moral old iron-clads of
Cape Cod, the pious buccaneers of Plymouth
Rock -- go home, and try to learn to behave!
However, chaff and nonsense aside, I think I
honor and appreciate your Pilgrim stock as much
as you do yourselves, perhaps; and I endorse and
adopt a sentiment uttered by a grandfather of
mine once -- a man of sturdy opinions, of sincere
make of mind, and not given to flattery. He
said: "People may talk as they like about that
Pilgrim stock, but, after all's said and done, it
would be pretty hard to improve on those people;
and, as for me, I don't mind coming out flatfooted
and saying there ain't any way to improve on
them -- except having them born in Missouri!"