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UNCLASPING THE EAGLE'S TALONS: MARK TWAIN, AMERICAN FREETHOUGHT, AND THE RESPONSES TO IMPERIALISM

  • Nathan G. Alexander
Abstract

This article situates Mark Twain's anti-imperialism within the wider atheist and freethought response to debates about the American turn to empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While historians have been alert to the ways in which religion influenced debates around empire at this time, there have yet to be any studies of the views of American atheists and freethinkers on this question. I examine Twain and Robert Ingersoll, the leading American freethinker of the era, as well as some of the major freethought periodicals in the United States, the Truth Seeker, the Blue-Grass Blade, and the Free Thought Magazine, and argue that their irreligious views informed their responses to imperialism, from the initial support for a war against Catholic Spain, to opposition to the war against the Philippines motivated in large part by a hostility toward organized religion and its role in American expansion. More broadly, I argue for the need to move beyond a simplistic understanding of anti-imperialism within an American religious landscape that was basically Protestant, to a more nuanced understanding that incorporates the diversity of religious and nonreligious perspectives.

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NOTES

I would like to thank Colin Kidd, Dean Pavlakis, and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. I would also like to thank Roderick Bradford, who photographed the cartoons used in this article at the Center for Inquiry Library in Amherst, New York.

1 Mark Twain Home, An Anti-Imperialist,” New York Herald, Oct. 15, 1900, in Zwick, Jim, ed., Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 5.

2 Quoted in Preston, Andrew, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 156.

3 See William Karraker, “The American Churches and the Spanish-American War” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1940); Hudson, Winthrop S., “Protestant Clergy Debate the Nation's Vocation, 1898–1899,” Church History 42:1 (Mar. 1973): 110–18; chap. 6 of Welch, Richard E. Jr., Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 1899–1902 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979); especially chap. 12 of Preston, Sword of the Spirit; McCullough, Matthew, The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014); Wetzel, Benjamin, “A Church Divided: Roman Catholicism, Americanization, and the Spanish-American War,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 14 (2015): 348–66. There has, however, been important work done on the anti-imperialist views of British nonbelievers. See Claeys, Gregory, Imperial Sceptics: British Critics of Empire, 1850–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Nash, David, “Charles Bradlaugh, India, and the Many Chameleon Destinations of Republicanism” in Republicanism in Victorian Society, eds. Nash, David and Taylor, Anthony (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2000), 106–24; Nash, David, “Taming the God of Battles: Secular and Moral Critiques of the South African War” in Writing a Wider War: Rethinking the South African War, 189–1902, eds. Cuthbertson, Greg, Grundlingh, Albert, and Suttie, Mary-Lynn (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002), 266–86.

4 See Beisner, Robert L., Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898–1900 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968); Tompkins, E. Berkeley, Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890–1920 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970); Schirmer, Daniel B., Republic or Empire: American Resistance to the Philippine War (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1972); Cullinane, Michael Patrick, Liberty and American Anti-Imperialism: 1898–1909 (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

5 Rich, Jeremy, “Heresy Is the Only True Religion: Richard Lynch Garner (1848–1920), A Southern Freethinker in Africa and America,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 12:1 (Jan. 2013): 92.

6 Harris, Susan K., God's Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898–1902 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 7.

7 Harris, God's Arbiters, 16, 18.

8 Harris, God's Arbiters, 21.

9 Harris, God's Arbiters, 43.

10 The following paragraphs are based on Phipps, William E., Mark Twain's Religion (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003); Bush, Harold K. Jr., Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007); especially chap. 3 of Messent, Peter, Mark Twain and Male Friendship: The Twichell, Howells, and Rogers Friendships (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

11 Paine, Albert Bigelow, Mark Twain: A Biography, vol. 3 (New Haven, CT: Harper & Brothers, 1912), 1584–86, quotation on 1585.

12 For another perspective on Twain's religion, see Berkove, Lawrence I. and Csicsila, Joseph, Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010). This work argues that Twain believed in a malevolent god, which can be seen through an analysis of his literature.

13 Bush, Jr., Mark Twain and Spiritual Crisis, 266–69.

14 Bush, Jr., Mark Twain and Spiritual Crisis, 277.

15 Nash, David, “Reassessing the ‘Crisis of Faith’ in the Victorian Age: Eclecticism and the Spirit of Moral Inquiry,” Journal of Victorian Culture 16:1 (2011): 82.

16 See especially chap. 6 of Jacoby, Susan, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004); see also Post, Albert, Popular Freethought in America, 1825–1850 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943); Warren, Sidney, American Freethought, 1860–1914 (New York: Gordian Press, 1966); Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Village Atheists: How America's Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

17 The main sources for Ingersoll's life are Cramer, C. H., Royal Bob: The Life of Robert G. Ingersoll (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952); Larson, Orvin, American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll (New York: Citadel Press, 1962); Anderson, David D., Robert Ingersoll (New York: Twayne Publishers Inc., 1972); Jacoby, Susan, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

18 Warren, American Freethought, 83.

19 Warren, American Freethought, 175.

20 Bradford, Roderick, D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006), 8789.

21 Jacoby, Freethinkers, 210–12; see also Moore's autobiography, Moore, Charles Chilton, Behind the Bars; 31498 (Lexington, Kentucky: Blue Grass Printing Co., 1899).

22 On Green's life, see “Horace L. Green,” Blue-Grass Blade, Mar. 14, 1909, 2.

23 Warren, American Freethought, 22.

24 Warren, American Freethought, 202.

25 Schwartz, Thomas D., “Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll: The Freethought Connection,” American Literature 48:2 (May 1976): 183–93.

26 Bird, John, “The Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll Connection: Freethought, Borrowed Thought, Stolen Thought,” The Mark Twain Annual 11 (2013): 4261.

27 Macdonald, George, Fifty Years of Freethought, vol. 2 (New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1929), 361–63.

28 Schwartz, “Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll,” 192–93; Bush, Jr., Mark Twain and Spiritual Crisis, 278.

29 Quoted in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, xx.

30 Twain, Mark, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1897), 213.

31 “Mark Twain Home, An Anti-Imperialist,” New York Herald, Oct. 15, 1900, in Twain, Following the Equator, 5.

32 “Mark Twain Home, An Anti-Imperialist,” New York Herald, Oct. 15, 1900, in Twain, Following the Equator, 5.

33 Harris, God's Arbiters, 9–10; Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 228–29.

34 “Mark Twain Home, An Anti-Imperialist,” in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 5.

35 On Twain's involvement with the Anti-Imperialist League, see Zwick, Jim, Confronting Imperialism: Essays on Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialist League (West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity, 2007), 109–40.

36 Darkness is a common metaphor for unbelief in the Bible. The title of the work may be an allusion to Luke 1:79 (King James Version), in which Zechariah prophesies that his son, John the Baptist, would “give light to them that sit in darkness …”

37 “The Stupendous Procession,” unpublished, 1901, in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 46.

38 Another freethinker reported, “There is now a whole race of half-breeds in the Philippines, who point to this priest or that friar as their ‘father.’” W. E. Johnson, “Christianity in the Philippines,” Free Thought Magazine, Oct. 1900, 578.

39 “The Stupendous Procession,” unpublished, 1901, in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 46.

40 “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” North American Review, Feb. 1901, in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 36.

41 “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” North American Review, Feb. 1901, in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 36, 27. Emphasis in original.

42 Zwick, Confronting Imperialism, 116.

43 “Comments on the Moro Massacre,” unpublished, from Mar. 1906, in Zwick, Confronting Imperialism, 171–72. Emphasis in original.

44 “The Stupendous Procession,” in Zwick, Confronting Imperialism, 50.

45 Harris, God's Arbiters, 35.

46 Billings, M. E., The Crimes of Preachers in the United States and Canada from May, 1876 to May, 1882 (New York: D. M. Bennett, 1882).

47 Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 221.

48 “The War Prayer” was another example cited by John Bird in his case that Twain plagiarized from Ingersoll. See Bird, “Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll Connection,” 46–47.

49 “The War Prayer,” unpublished, from 1905, in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 156–57.

50 “The War Prayer,” unpublished, from 1905, in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 159.

51 “The War Prayer,” unpublished, from 1905, in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 160.

52 “The War Prayer,” unpublished, from 1905, in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 43–44.

53 Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 207.

54 Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 212–14.

55 See “Address on the Civil Rights Act,” a lecture delivered on Oct. 22, 1883, and “Should the Chinese be Excluded?” from North American Review, July 1893, both in Ingersoll, Robert G., The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, vol. 11 (New York: Dresden Publishing Co., C. P. Farrell, 1902), 1–52, 357–65.

56 Robert Ingersoll, interview with Press, Philadelphia, PA, Feb. 20, 1899, in Ingersoll, Works, 8:599–600.

57 Robert Ingersoll, interview with Inter-Ocean, Chicago, IL, Feb. 2, 1894, in Ingersoll, Works, 8:538.

58 Robert Ingersoll, interview with Courier Journal, Louisville, KY, February 1898, in Ingersoll, Works, 8:591.

59 Robert Ingersoll, “Spain and the Spaniard,” no date, in Ingersoll, Works, 12:267.

60 Robert Ingersoll, “Spain and the Spaniard,” no date, in Ingersoll, Works, 12:268.

61 See Maltby, William S., The Black Legend in England: The Development of Anti-Spanish Sentiment, 1558–1660 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1971).

62 Ingersoll, “Spain and the Spaniard,” 12:269.

63 Eugene Macdonald, “The Negro Problem,” Truth Seeker, Mar. 7, 1903, 148.

64 “Events of the Week,” Truth Seeker, Mar. 9, 1878, 155.

65 Eugene Macdonald, “Spain and Her Glory,” Truth Seeker, May 7, 1898, 291.

66 Macdonald, “Spain and Her Glory,” Truth Seeker, May 7, 1898, 291–92.

67 “All Sorts,” Free Thought Magazine, May 1898, 290.

68 Gerrit Smith, “Let Crushed Cuba Arise,” Free Thought Magazine, Aug. 1898, 376–80.

69 “All Sorts,” Free Thought Magazine, Aug. 1898, 404.

70 “All Sorts,” Free Thought Magazine, Dec. 1898, 523.

71 Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 216.

72 Harris, God's Arbiters, 15–16.

73 On Heston's life, see chap. 2 of Schmidt, Village Atheists.

74 “What Will Uncle Sam Do About It?,” Truth Seeker, Oct. 15, 1898, 657.

75 R.N.R., “Religion in Our New Territories,” Free Thought Magazine, Jan. 1899, 47.

76 “The Philippine Insurrection,” The Truth Seeker, June 25, 1898, 406.

77 Eugene Macdonald, “Filipinos Who Are Moral Without Religion,” Truth Seeker, Sept. 10, 1898, 584–85.

78 Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 223–24.

79 R.N.R., “Religion in Our New Territories,” 48.

80 Herman Wettstein, “The Relation of Freethought to the Philippine Question,” Truth Seeker, Jan. 13, 1900, 26.

81 T. B. Wakeman, “Secularism the Salvation of Our Republican Government,” Free Thought Magazine Jan. 1899, 29.

82 “All Sorts,” Free Thought Magazine, Feb. 1899, 118.

83 Robert Ingersoll, interview with Press, Philadelphia, PA, Feb. 20, 1899, in Ingersoll, Works, 8:599–600.

84 Robert Ingersoll, interview with North American, Philadelphia, PA, June 22, 1899, in ibid., 8:617.

85 Ingersoll, “Our New Possessions,” 12:274.

86 Robert Ingersoll, interview with Press, Philadelphia, PA, Feb. 20, 1899, in Ingersoll, “Our New Possessions,” 8:599–600.

87 Robert Ingersoll, interview with North American, Philadelphia, PA, June 22, 1899, in Ingersoll, “Our New Possessions,” 8:617–18.

88 George E. Macdonald, “A Misrepresentation,” Free Thought Magazine, Nov. 1900, 649.

89 Schirmer, Republic or Empire, 226–28, 232–40; Welch, Jr., Response to Imperialism, 133–47.

90 Ingersoll, “Should the Chinese be Excluded?,” 365.

91 Jacobson, Matthew Frye, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876–1917 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 225–27.

92 Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 237–38.

93 “The White Man's Burden,” Truth Seeker, Apr. 8, 1899, 209.

94 Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 239–42.

95 Charles G. Brown, “The Peace Congress, or The White Man's Burden,” Free Thought Magazine, May 1901, 259–60.

96 Charles G. Brown, “The Peace Congress, or The White Man's Burden,” Free Thought Magazine, May 1901, 260.

97 Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 214, 222–23.

98 Morris Sachs, “Mistakes of Bryan,” Blue-Grass Blade, Apr. 26, 1903, 4.

99 “Carrying Christian Civilization to the Filipino,” Truth Seeker, June 7, 1902, 358.

100 W. E. Johnson, “Christianity in the Philippines,” Free Thought Magazine, Oct. 1900, 572.

101 W. E. Johnson, “Christianity in the Philippines,” Free Thought Magazine, Oct. 1900, 574.

102 J. B. Wilson, “At Last Rome Has Won: And the American Government Has Drifted From Its Moorings,” Blue-Grass Blade, May 25, 1902, 1; “Papal Bull,” Blue-Grass Blade, Mar. 8, 1903, 3; “Friar Lands Deal Is Off,” Blue-Grass Blade, Nov. 15, 1903, 2; see also Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 228–29.

103 [Eugene Macdonald], “Saving the Filipinos,” Truth Seeker, Feb. 15, 1902, 101.

104 See “The Anglo-Saxon Race,” from an autobiographical dictation given on Sept. 7, 1906, in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 181–83.

105 Elizabeth E. Evans, “‘Christian Civilization,’” Truth Seeker, Mar. 24, 1900, 182.

106 Elizabeth E. Evans, “‘Christian Civilization,’” Truth Seeker, Mar. 24, 1900, 183. Evans has the quotation slightly wrong; the quote actually talks about “the charity, the purity, the unselfishness” of a group of Dominican friars and notes that this should “save their souls though they were bankrupt in the true religion [Protestantism]—which is ours.” Twain, Mark, Innocents Abroad (American Publishing Co., 1869), 261. Jeffrey Alan Melton disputes whether Twain is being ironic here, but it nonetheless is clear that Evans took him to be. Melton, Jeffrey Alan, Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 51.

107 Evans, “‘Christian Civilization,’” 183.

108 Wetzel, “A Church Divided,” 355–61.

109 Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 217–18.

110 On race-based arguments against imperialism, see Lasch, Christopher, “The Anti-Imperialists, the Philippines, and the Inequality of Man,” The Journal of Southern History 24:3 (Aug. 1958): 319–31.

111 [Eugene Macdonald], “The White Man's Burden,” Truth Seeker, Mar. 25, 1899, 186.

112 [Eugene Macdonald], “Are the Filipinos Anxious for the Bible?,” Truth Seeker, Feb. 18, 1899, 100.

113 James B. Blade, “A Free Thought Soldier's Letter,” Free Thought Magazine, May 1899, 276.

114 James B. Blade, “A Free Thought Soldier's Letter,” Free Thought Magazine, May 1899, 277.

115 See Twain's positive portrayal of the Filipino resistance leader Aguinaldo in his unpublished review of Edwin Wildman's biography of Aguinaldo, written between Sept. 1901 and Feb. 1902, in Zwick, Weapons of Satire, 88–108.

116 Joesphine K. Henry, “A Philippine Soldier: Says ‘Moore Has Hit the Nail on the Head,’” Blue-Grass Blade, Feb. 11, 1900, 2.

117 “How Is It,” Blue-Grass Blade, Feb. 16, 1902, 1.

118 “The Freethinkers’ Congress,” Free Thought Magazine, Jan. 1901, 48–51.

119 Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 128.

120 Cullinane, Liberty and American Anti-Imperialism, 83.

121 Macdonald, Fifty Years of Freethought, 2:118, 147. Tompkins, Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 136–38.

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