Mark Twain’s Modest Proposal for Ending Lynching in the American South

Mark Twain’s Modest Proposal for Ending Lynching in the American South

Why you should care

Because satire is not always safe, even for a professional.

After attending church on Aug. 19, 1901, 23-year-old Caseila Wild set off alone on the long walk back to her country home. Later that day, Wild’s twin brother found her body in a culvert by the road, her throat slit. The gruesome murder of the young White woman in Pierce City, Missouri, shocked the community, and ignited a far more deadly tragedy.

What followed after the discovery of Wild’s body was a 15-hour rampage in which Pierce City’s White citizens, using more than 50 rifles and 600 rounds of ammunition stolen from a nearby state militia arsenal, engaged in a brutal purge of the town’s 300 Black residents, driving them from their homes in pursuit of Wild’s killer, reportedly — backed up by no proof whatsoever — a Black male. Three Black suspects were lynched or killed on the spot — one was hanged from the porch of a local hotel, another burned to death in his own home.

The rampage appalled many in America, and it also stuck in the craw of perhaps the one man in Missouri with the influence and intellectual wherewithal to do something about it: Mark Twain, the state’s favorite son, and arguably the most beloved writer in America at the time. In response to the events in Pierce City, Twain penned a devastating indictment of his fellow citizens — including a modest proposal for how to end lynching in the South once and for all — one so devastating that it would not be published until 13 years after the literary giant’s death.

If people must imitate someone else, Twain argues, let them copy someone else’s moral courage.

Twain begins his essay “The United States of Lyncherdom” in the vein of a 19th-century Malcolm Gladwell: He wants to get to the bottom of how decent, law-abiding Christians in his home state could become vigilantes and willing appendages of a lynch mob. It makes no rational sense, he writes — “even the average child should know better” — to think of lynching as an effective deterrent. Rather, such retributive actions only increase the chances of future acts of violence. Or as Twain neatly sums up: “In a word, the lynchers are themselves the worst enemies of their women.” And yet, he notes, lynching was becoming more, not less, prevalent, citing data that 115 Blacks were lynched in 1899, and 88 through the first half of 1900. Twain worries that “in time these will breed a mania, a fashion; a fashion which will spread wide and wider, year by year, covering state after state, as with an advancing disease.”

So how do people get infected by this disease? What makes someone in a crowd “pretend to enjoy a lynching” or ignore an obvious atrocity? According to Twain, the primary culprit is fear of one’s “neighbor’s disapproval — a thing which, to the general run of the race, is more dreaded than wounds and death.” Or, what the sociologists that Gladwell likes to cite might call a “herd mentality” or “diffusion of responsibility.”

Twain turns next to possible solutions. If people must imitate someone else, he argues, let them copy someone else’s moral courage. He proposes stationing brave individuals of conscience in each affected community for the herd to follow toward justice and righteousness. But the sardonic writer quickly torpedoes his own scheme, lamenting that, upon further reflection, “there are not enough morally brave men in stock” in the American South. Or at least not enough that are readily available.

Gettyimages 50690175

Illustration of a lynching out West.

Source Getty Images

The real solution, then? Import a few brave men. To help solve the immoral contagion of lynching, Twain ends by offering his own modest proposal: “Let us import American missionaries from China, and send them into the lynching field.” He observes that U.S. missionaries trying to convert the Chinese to Christianity are already dealing with a colossal uphill battle in a country that boasts a “birth rate of 33,000 pagans per day.” The missionaries’ zeal, including their moral courage, would be much more effectively put to use in civilizing their own people in the God-fearing South. “O kind missionary, O compassionate missionary, leave China!” Twain pleads. “Come home and convert these Christians!”

When it came to publishing the essay, however, Twain felt his own reformist zeal cool in the face of potential backlash. He told his publisher that “I shouldn’t have even half a friend left down there [in the South], after it issued from the press.” Twain added the essay to a pile of similarly controversial works he decided were not publishable, says Stephen Railton, an English professor at the University of Virginia, most of which have been published in the century since he died. Twain, though comfortable with indicting violence and prejudice across the globe and in his fictional works, sometimes flinched when it came to directly confronting his American audience with their own sins. “It is indeed ironic that one of the themes Mark Twain consistently came back to in the last decade or so of his life was moral cowardice — being afraid to take a stand against public opinion,” says Railton, “and that he put aside as non-publishable so many of the works in which he developed this theme.”

In short, even an outspoken iconoclast such as Twain could not always manage to ignore his “neighbor’s disapproval” in order to become a “morally brave man.” Or, as Twain himself sums it up best: “We are made like that, and we cannot help it.”

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