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The Senator and his Secretary

November 1867

Mark Twain

On a fateful day in 1867, Senator William Stewart of Nevada was startled by a visitor. “[A] very disreputable-looking person slouched into the room,” Stewart recalled. “[A]rrayed in a seedy suit…A sheaf of scraggy black hair leaked out of a battered old slouch hat…an evil-smelling cigar…protruded from the corner of his mouth…[He had] a very sinister appearance.” When Stewart recognized the man as a reporter who had penned unflattering articles about him, he blurted out: “If you put anything in the paper about me, I’ll sue you for libel.” The visitor was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

Newly arrived in Washington, Twain was seeking an easy job with suitable income to subsidize his writing career. Reporters often supplemented their incomes by moonlighting as government clerks or secretaries. Since senators had no personal staff at the time, hiring reporters during each session proved beneficial to both parties. Twain’s shabby appearance stirred some senatorial sympathy, and Stewart agreed to hire him and even arranged for Twain to have a room in his boarding house. “Help yourself to whiskey and cigars, and wade in,” he told the aspiring novelist.

Twain’s Senate career did not last long! “During the whole time that I was connected with the Government,” he understated, “it seemed as if I could not do anything…without getting myself into trouble.” Twain upset Stewart’s elderly landlady by smoking his malodorous cigars in bed, forcing her to sit up all night for fear of fire. He routinely forged Stewart’s frank on personal letters. He rejected a report from the Treasury Department simply because it was too boring. “[T]here were no descriptive passages in it,” he complained, “no poetry, no sentiment—no heroes, no plot, no pictures—not even wood-cuts.” He arrived late, departed early, and accomplished very little. When confronted by a frustrated senator, Twain retorted: “Sir, do you suppose that I am going to work for six dollars a day?”

Most annoying of all, Twain answered Stewart’s constituent mail with reckless abandon. For example, when constituents requested the establishment of a post office in their Nevada mining camp, Twain wrote: “What the mischief do…you want with a post office?…If any letters came there, you couldn’t read them.…No, don’t bother about a post office…What you want is a nice jail.” A distraught Stewart lamented, “I am a ruined man,” and ordered Twain out of the house. “I regarded that as a sort of covert intimation that my service could be dispensed with,” Twain commented, “and so I resigned.”

Twain also worked for a few months for Nevada's other senator, James Nye. His short story, “My Late Senatorial Secretaryship,” described an incident when a constituent wrote to ask for legislation to incorporate the Episcopal Church in Nevada. Senator Nye told Twain to advise the writer that this was a matter for the state legislature. Here is what Twain wrote on the senator’s behalf. "You will have to go to the state legislature about this little speculation of yours. Congress doesn’t know anything about religion.…This thing you propose to do out in that new country isn’t expedient—in fact, it is simply ridiculous. You religious people there are too feeble, in intellect, in morality, in piety—in everything pretty much. You had better drop this—you can’t make it work. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves—that is what I think about it."

In later years, Twain occasionally mocked Stewart in his novels, while the Nevada senator woefully acknowledged their past association. “I was confident that [Twain] would come to no good end,” Stewart wrote in his memoir, “[but] I understand that he has…become respectable.”