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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CXXIII. The Grant Speech of 1879
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|If the lunar rainbow had any fortuitous significance, perhaps we may find
it in the two speeches which Mark Twain made in November and December of
that year. The first of these was delivered at Chicago, on the occasion
of the reception of General Grant by the Army of the Tennessee, on the
evening of November 73, 1879. Grant had just returned from his splendid
tour of the world. His progress from San Francisco eastward had been
such an ovation as is only accorded to sovereignty. Clemens received an
invitation to the reunion, but, dreading the long railway journey, was at
first moved to decline. He prepared a letter in which he made "business"
his excuse, and expressed his regret that he would not be present to see
and hear the veterans of the Army of the Tennessee at the moment when
their old commander entered the room and rose in his place to speak.
"Besides," he said, "I wanted to see the General again anyway and renew
the acquaintance. He would remember me, because I was the person who did
not ask him for an office."
He did not send the letter. Reconsidering, it seemed to him that there
was something strikingly picturesque in the idea of a Confederate soldier
who had been chased for a fortnight in the rain through Ralls and Monroe
counties, Missouri, now being invited to come and give welcome home to
his old imaginary pursuer. It was in the nature of an imperative
command, which he could not refuse to obey.
He accepted and agreed to speak. They had asked him to respond to the
toast of "The Ladies," but for him the subject was worn out. He had
already responded to that toast at least twice. He telegraphed that
there was one class of the community that had always been overlooked upon
such occasions, and that if they would allow him to do so he would take
that class for a toast: the babies. Necessarily they agreed, and he
prepared himself accordingly.
He arrived in Chicago in time for the prodigious procession of welcome.
Grant was to witness the march from a grand reviewing stand, which had
been built out from the second story of the Palmer House. Clemens had
not seen the General since the "embarrassing" introduction in Washington,
twelve years before. Their meeting was characteristic enough. Carter
Harrison, Mayor of Chicago, arriving with Grant, stepped over to Clemens,
and asked him if he wouldn't like to be presented. Grant also came
forward, and a moment later Harrison was saying:
"General, let me present Mr. Clemens, a man almost as great as yourself."
They shook hands; there was a pause of a moment, then Grant said, looking
at him gravely:
"Mr. Clemens, I am not embarrassed, are you?"
So he remembered that first, long-ago meeting. It was a conspicuous
performance. The crowd could not hear the words, but they saw the
greeting and the laugh, and cheered both men.
Following the procession, there were certain imposing ceremonies of
welcome at Haverly's Theater where long, laudatory eloquence was poured
out upon the returning hero, who sat unmoved while the storm of music and
cheers and oratory swept about him. Clemens, writing of it that evening
to Mrs. Clemens, said:
I never sat elbow to elbow with so many historic names before.
Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Schofield, Pope, Logan, and so on.
What an iron man Grant is! He sat facing the house, with his right
leg crossed over his left, his right boot sole tilted up at an
angle, and his left hand and arm reposing on the arm of his chair.
You note that position? Well, when glowing references were made to
other grandees on the stage, those grandees always showed a trifle
of nervous consciousness, and as these references came frequently
the nervous changes of position and attitude were also frequent.
But Grant! He was under a tremendous and ceaseless bombardment of
praise and congratulation; but as true as I'm sitting here he never
moved a muscle of his body for a single instant during thirty
minutes! You could have played him on a stranger for an effigy.
Perhaps he never would have moved, but at last a speaker made such a
particularly ripping and blood-stirring remark about him that the
audience rose and roared and yelled and stamped and clapped an
entire minute--Grant sitting as serene as ever-when General Sherman
stepped up to him, laid his hand affectionately on his shoulder,
bent respectfully down, and whispered in his ear. Then Grant got up
and bowed, and the storm of applause swelled into a hurricane.
But it was the next evening that the celebration rose to a climax. This
was at the grand banquet at the Palmer House, where six hundred guests
sat down to dinner and Grant himself spoke, and Logan and Hurlbut, and
Vilas and Woodford and Pope, fifteen in all, including Robert G.
Ingersoll and Mark Twain. Chicago has never known a greater event than
that dinner, for there has never been a time since when those great
soldiers and citizens could have been gathered there.
To Howells Clemens wrote:
Imagine what it was like to see a bullet-shredded old battle-flag
reverently unfolded to the gaze of a thousand middle-aged soldiers,
most of whom hadn't seen it since they saw it advancing over
victorious fields when they were in their prime. And imagine what
it was like when Grant, their first commander, stepped into view
while they were still going mad over the flag, and then right in the
midst of it all somebody struck up "When we were marching through
Georgia." Well, you should have heard the thousand voices lift that
chorus and seen the tears stream down. If I live a hundred years I
sha'n't ever forget these things, nor be able to talk about them. I
sha'n't ever forget that I saw Phil Sheridan, with martial cloak and
plumed chapeau, riding his big black horse in the midst of his own
cannon; by all odds the superbest figure of a soldier. I ever
Grand times, my boy, grand times!
Mark Twain declared afterward that he listened to four speeches that
night which he would remember as long as he lived. One of them was by
Emory Storrs, another by General Vilas, another by Logan, and the last
and greatest by Robert Ingersoll, whose eloquence swept the house like a
flame. The Howells letter continues:
I doubt if America has ever seen anything quite equal to it; I am
well satisfied I shall not live to see its equal again. How pale
those speeches are in print, but how radiant, how full of color, how
blinding they were in the delivery! Bob Ingersoll's music will sing
through my memory always as the divinest that ever enchanted my
ears. And I shall always see him, as he stood that night on a
dinner-table, under the flash of lights and banners, in the midst of
seven hundred frantic shouters, the most beautiful human creature
that ever lived. "They fought, that a mother might own her child."
The words look like any other print, but, Lord bless me! he
borrowed the very accent of the angel of mercy to say them in, and
you should have seen that vast house rise to its feet; and you
should have heard the hurricane that followed. That's the only
test! People may shout, clap their hands, stamp, wave their
napkins, but none but the master can make them get up on their feet.
Clemens's own speech came last. He had been placed at the end to hold
the house. He was preceded by a dull speaker, and his heart sank, for it
was two o'clock and the diners were weary and sleepy, and the dreary
speech had made them unresponsive.
They gave him a round of applause when he stepped up upon the table in
front of him--a tribute to his name. Then he began the opening words of
that memorable, delightful fancy.
"We haven't all had the good-fortune to be ladies; we haven't all been
generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the
babies--we stand on common ground--"
The tired audience had listened in respectful silence through the first
half of the sentence. He made one of his effective pauses on the word
"babies," and when he added, in that slow, rich measure of his, "we stand
on common ground," they let go a storm of applause. There was no
weariness and inattention after that. At the end of each sentence, he
had to stop to let the tornado roar itself out and sweep by. When he
reached the beginning of the final paragraph, "Among the three or four
million cradles now rocking in the land are some which this nation would
preserve for ages as sacred things if we could know which ones they are,"
the vast audience waited breathless for his conclusion. Step by step he
led toward some unseen climax--some surprise, of course, for that would
be his way. Then steadily, and almost without emphasis, he delivered the
opening of his final sentence:
"And now in his cradle, somewhere under the flag, the future illustrious
commander-in-chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his
approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole
strategic mind, at this moment, to trying to find out some way to get his
own big toe into his mouth, an achievement which (meaning no disrespect)
the illustrious guest of this evening also turned his attention to some
fifty-six years ago."
He paused, and the vast crowd had a chill of fear. After all, he seemed
likely to overdo it to spoil everything with a cheap joke at the end.
No one ever knew better than Mark Twain the value of a pause. He waited
now long enough to let the silence become absolute, until the tension was
painful, then wheeling to Grant himself he said, with all the dramatic
power of which he was master:
"And if the child is but the father of the man, there are mighty few who
will doubt that he succeeded!"
The house came down with a crash. The linking of their hero's great
military triumphs with that earliest of all conquests seemed to them so
grand a figure that they went mad with the joy of it. Even Grant's iron
serenity broke; he rocked and laughed while the tears streamed down his
They swept around the speaker with their congratulations, in their
efforts to seize his hand. He was borne up and down the great dining-
hall. Grant himself pressed up to make acknowledgments.
"It tore me all to pieces," he said; and Sherman exclaimed, "Lord bless
you, my boy! I don't know how you do it!"
The little speech has been in "cold type" so many years since then that
the reader of it to-day may find it hard to understand the flame of
response it kindled so long ago. But that was another day--and another
nation--and Mark Twain, like Robert Ingersoll, knew always his period and