Mark Twain's Views on Enslavement

Statue of Mark Twain
Mitch Diamond

What did Mark Twain write about the enslavement of African people? How did Twain's background influence his position on enslavement? Was he a racist?

Born in a Pro-Slavery State

Mark Twain was a product of Missouri, a pro-slavery state. His father was a judge, but he also traded in enslaved people at times. His uncle, John Quarles, enslaved 20 people, so Twain witnessed the practice of enslavement firsthand whenever he spent summers at his uncle's place.

Growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain witnessed an enslaver brutally murder an enslaved man for "merely doing something awkward." The owner had thrown a rock at him with such force that it killed him.

Evolution of Twain's Views on Enslavement

It is possible to trace the evolution of Twain's thoughts on enslavement in his writing, ranging from a pre-Civil War letter that reads somewhat racist to postwar utterances that reveal his revulsion of enslavers and clear opposition to the practice. His more telling statements on the subject are listed here in chronological order: 

In a letter written in 1853, Twain wrote: "I reckon I had better black my face, for in these Eastern states, n****** are considerably better than white people."

Nearly two decades later, Twain wrote to his good friend, novelist, literary critic, and playwright William Dean Howells about Roughing It (1872): "I am as uplifted and reassured by it as a mother who has given birth to a white baby when she was awfully afraid it was going to be a mulatto."

Twain laid bare his opinion on enslavement in his classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnpublished in 1884. Huckleberry, a runaway boy, and Jim, a freedom seeker, sailed down the Mississippi together on a flimsy raft. Both had escaped abuse: the boy at the hands of his family, Jim from his enslavers. As they travel, Jim, a caring and loyal friend, becomes a father figure to Huck, opening the boy's eyes to the human face of the enslavement of African people. Southern society at the time considered helping a freedom seeker like Jim, who was thought to be inviolable property, the worst crime you could commit short of murder. But Huck sympathized so profoundly with Jim that the boy freed him. In Twain's Notebook #35, the writer explains: 

It seemed natural enough to me then; natural enough that Huck & his father the worthless loafer should feel it & approve it, though it seems now absurd. It shows that that strange thing, the conscience—the unerring monitor—can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it.

Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889): "The blunting effects of slavery upon the slaveholder's moral perceptions are known and conceded the world over; and a privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under another name."

In his essay The Lowest Animal (1896), Twain wrote:

"Man is the only Slave. And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another. In our day, he is always some man's slave for wages and does that man's work, and this slave has other slaves under him for minor wages, and they do his work. The higher animals are the only ones who exclusively do their own work and provide their own living."

Then in 1904, Twain wrote in his notebook: "The skin of every human being contains a slave."

Twain said In his autobiography, finished in 1910 just four months before his death and published in three volumes, beginning at his behest in 2010: "The class lines were quite clearly drawn and the familiar social life of each class was restricted to that class."

For most of Twain's life, he railed against enslavement in letters, essays, and novels as an evil manifestation of man's inhumanity to man. He eventually became a crusader against the thinking that sought to justify it.