Written in 1900, Mark Twain’s rarely printed “Battle Hymn of the Republic (Brought Down to Date)” is a parody of Julia Ward Howe’s 1861 “hymn” composed at the Civil War’s outbreak.
Twain’s parody reversed the patriotic purpose of Howe’s piece and articulated his radical criticism of his era’s incongruities — militarism, human exploitation, religious hypocrisy, hazardous conformity, avarice, deformed patriotism:
Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.
I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps —
His night is marching on.
I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel
“As ye deal with pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on.”
We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgment seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on!
In the sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom — and for others’ goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich —
Our God is marching on.
In his introduction to “A Pen Warmed Up in Hell: Mark Twain in Protest,” editor Frederick Anderson writes that when Twain completed “A Connecticut Yankee,” he wrote to William Dean Howells in 1889.
“Well, my book is written — let it go. … But if it were only to write over again there wouldn’t be so many things left out,” Twain wrote. “They burn in me; and they keep multiplying and multiplying; but now they can’t ever be said. And besides, they would require a library — and a pen warmed-up in hell.”
In the following two decades that remained of his life, Twain used that devilish pen to state his judgments on matters political, religious and economic, making public his private fury.
He was most impassioned about the right of all people to contrary beliefs, writing that “a man’s first duty is to his own conscience and honor — the party and country come second to that, and never first. … The only necessary thing to do, as I understand it, is that a man shall keep himself clean (by withholding his vote for an improper man).”
Twain also wrote that “allegiance to party plays into the hands of politicians of the baser sort.”
And: “Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world — and never will.”
Ralph R. Reiland is associate professor of economics emeritus at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
Ralph R. Reiland
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