Political Economy

Mark Twain

Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my is the basis of all good gov­ern­ment. The wis­est men of all ages have brought to bear upon this sub­ject the—

[Here I was inter­rupt­ed and informed that a stranger wished to see me down at the door. I went and con­front­ed him, and asked to know his busi­ness, strug­gling all the time to keep a tight rein on my seething polit­i­cal-econ­o­my ideas, and not let them break away from me or get tan­gled in their har­ness. And pri­vate­ly I wished the stranger was in the bot­tom of the canal with a car­go of wheat on top of him. I was all in a fever, but he was cool. He said he was sor­ry to dis­turb me, but as he was pass­ing he noticed that I need­ed some lightning-rods. 

I said, Yes, yes — go on — what about it?” He said there was noth­ing about it, in par­tic­u­lar — noth­ing except that he would like to put them up for me. I am new to house­keep­ing; have been used to hotels and board­ing­hous­es all my life. Like any­body else of sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence, I try to appear (to strangers) to be an old house­keep­er; con­se­quent­ly I said in an off­hand way that I had been intend­ing for some time to have six or eight light­ning-rods put up, but — The stranger start­ed, and looked inquir­ing­ly at me, but I was serene. I thought that if I chanced to make any mis­takes, he would not catch me by my coun­te­nance. He said he would rather have my cus­tom than any man’s in town. I said, All right,” and start­ed off to wres­tle with my great sub­ject again, when he called me back and said it would be nec­es­sary to know exact­ly how many points” I want­ed put up, what parts of the house I want­ed them on, and what qual­i­ty of rod I pre­ferred. It was close quar­ters for a man not used to the exi­gen­cies of house­keep­ing; but I went through cred­itably, and he prob­a­bly nev­er sus­pect­ed that I was a novice. I told him to put up eight points,” and put them all on the roof, and use the best qual­i­ty of rod. He said he could fur­nish the plain” arti­cle at 20 cents a foot; cop­pered,” 25 cents; zinc-plat­ed spi­ral-twist,” at 30 cents, that would stop a streak of light­ning any time, no mat­ter where it was bound, and ren­der its errand harm­less and its fur­ther progress apoc­ryphal.” I said apoc­ryphal was no slouch of a word, ema­nat­ing from the source it did, but, philol­o­gy aside, I liked the spi­ral-twist and would take that brand. Then he said he could make two hun­dred and fifty feet answer; but to do it right, and make the best job in town of it, and attract the admi­ra­tion of the just and the unjust alike, and com­pel all par­ties to say they nev­er saw a more sym­met­ri­cal and hypo­thet­i­cal dis­play of light­ning-rods since they were born, he sup­posed he real­ly could­n’t get along with­out four hun­dred, though he was not vin­dic­tive, and trust­ed he was will­ing to try. I said, go ahead and use four hun­dred, and make any kind of a job he pleased out of it, but let me get back to my work. So I got rid of him at last; and now, after half an hour spent in get­ting my train of polit­i­cal-econ­o­my thoughts cou­pled togeth­er again, I am ready to go on once more.]

rich­est trea­sures of their genius, their expe­ri­ence of life, and their learn­ing. The great lights of com­mer­cial jurispru­dence, inter­na­tion­al con­fra­ter­ni­ty, and bio­log­i­cal devi­a­tion, of all ages, all civ­i­liza­tions, and all nation­al­i­ties, from Zoroast­er down to Horace Gree­ley, have—

[Here I was inter­rupt­ed again, and required to go down and con­fer fur­ther with that light­ning-rod man. I hur­ried off, boil­ing and surg­ing with prodi­gious thoughts wombed in words of such majesty that each one of them was in itself a strag­gling pro­ces­sion of syl­la­bles that might be fif­teen min­utes pass­ing a giv­en point, and once more I con­front­ed him — he so calm and sweet, I so hot and fren­zied. He was stand­ing in the con­tem­pla­tive atti­tude of the Colos­sus of Rhodes, with one foot on my infant tuberose, and the oth­er among my pan­sies, his hands on his hips, his hat-brim tilt­ed for­ward, one eye shut and the oth­er gaz­ing crit­i­cal­ly and admir­ing­ly in the direc­tion of my prin­ci­pal chim­ney. He said now there was a state of things to make a man glad to be alive; and added, I leave it to you if you ever saw any­thing more deliri­ous­ly pic­turesque than eight light­ning-rods on one chim­ney?” I said I had no present rec­ol­lec­tion of any­thing that tran­scend­ed it. He said that in his opin­ion noth­ing on earth but Nia­gara Falls was supe­ri­or to it in the way of nat­ur­al scenery. All that was need­ed now, he ver­i­ly believed, to make my house a per­fect balm to the eye, was to kind of touch up the oth­er chim­neys a lit­tle, and thus add to the gen­er­ous coup d’oeil’ a sooth­ing uni­for­mi­ty of achieve­ment which would allay the excite­ment nat­u­ral­ly con­se­quent upon the coup d’é­tat.’” I asked him if he learned to talk out of a book, and if I could bor­row it any­where? He smiled pleas­ant­ly, and said that his man­ner of speak­ing was not taught in books, and that noth­ing but famil­iar­i­ty with light­ning could enable a man to han­dle his con­ver­sa­tion­al style with impuni­ty. He then fig­ured up an esti­mate, and said that about eight more rods scat­tered about my roof would about fix me right, and he guessed five hun­dred feet of stuff would do it; and added that the first eight had got a lit­tle the start of him, so to speak, and used up a mere tri­fle of mate­r­i­al more than he had cal­cu­lat­ed on — a hun­dred feet or along there. I said I was in a dread­ful hur­ry, and I wished we could get this busi­ness per­ma­nent­ly mapped out, so that I could go on with my work. He said, I could have put up those eight rods, and marched off about my busi­ness — some men would have done it. But no; I said to myself, this man is a stranger to me, and I will die before I’ll wrong him; there ain’t light­ning-rods enough on that house, and for one I’ll nev­er stir out of my tracks till I’ve done as I would be done by, and told him so. Stranger, my duty is accom­plished; if the recal­ci­trant and dephlo­gis­tic mes­sen­ger of heav­en strikes your — ” There, now, there,” I said, put on the oth­er eight — add five hun­dred feet of spi­ral-twist — do any­thing and every­thing you want to do; but calm your suf­fer­ings, and try to keep your feel­ings where you can reach them with the dic­tio­nary. Mean­while, if we under­stand each oth­er now, I will go to work again.” I think I have been sit­ting here a full hour this time, try­ing to get back to where I was when my train of thought was bro­ken up by the last inter­rup­tion; but I believe I have accom­plished it at last, and may ven­ture to pro­ceed again.]

wres­tled with this great sub­ject, and the great­est among them have found it a wor­thy adver­sary, and one that always comes up fresh and smil­ing after every throw. The great Con­fu­cius said that he would rather be a pro­found polit­i­cal econ­o­mist than chief of police. Cicero fre­quent­ly said that polit­i­cal econ­o­my was the grand­est con­sum­ma­tion that the human mind was capa­ble of con­sum­ing; and even our own Gree­ley had said vague­ly but forcibly that Polit­i­cal—

[Here the light­ning-rod man sent up anoth­er call for me. I went down in a state of mind bor­der­ing on impa­tience. He said he would rather have died than inter­rupt me, but when he was employed to do a job, and that job was expect­ed to be done in a clean, work­man­like man­ner, and when it was fin­ished and fatigue urged him to seek the rest and recre­ation he stood so much in need of, and he was about to do it, but looked up and saw at a glance that all the cal­cu­la­tions had been a lit­tle out, and if a thun­der-storm were to come up, and that house, which he felt a per­son­al inter­est in, stood there with noth­ing on earth to pro­tect it but six­teen light­ning-rods — Let us have peace!” I shrieked. Put up a hun­dred and fifty! Put some on the kitchen! Put a dozen on the barn! Put a cou­ple on the cow! Put one on the cook! — scat­ter them all over the per­se­cut­ed place till it looks like a zinc-plat­ed, spi­ral-twist­ed, sil­ver-mount­ed cane-brake! Move! Use up all the mate­r­i­al you can get your hands on, and when you run out of light­ning-rods put up ram­rods, cam-rods, stair-rods, pis­ton-rods — any­thing that will pan­der to your dis­mal appetite for arti­fi­cial scenery, and bring respite to my rag­ing brain and heal­ing to my lac­er­at­ed soul!” Whol­ly unmoved — fur­ther than to smile sweet­ly — this iron being sim­ply turned back his wrist-bands dain­ti­ly, and said he would now pro­ceed to hump him­self. Well, all that was near­ly three hours ago. It is ques­tion­able whether I am calm enough yet to write on the noble theme of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, but I can­not resist the desire to try, for it is the one sub­ject that is near­est to my heart and dear­est to my brain of all this world’s philosophy.]

econ­o­my is heav­en’s best boon to man.” When the loose but gift­ed Byron lay in his Venet­ian exile he observed that, if it could be grant­ed him to go back and live his mis­spent life over again, he would give his lucid and unin­tox­i­cat­ed inter­vals to the com­po­si­tion, not of friv­o­lous rhymes, but of essays upon polit­i­cal econ­o­my. Wash­ing­ton loved this exquis­ite sci­ence; such names as Bak­er, Beck­with, Jud­son, Smith, are imper­ish­ably linked with it; and even impe­r­i­al Homer, in the ninth book of the Ili­ad, has said:

Fiat justi­tia, ruat coelum,

Post mortem unum, ante bellum,

Hic jacet hoc, ex-parte res,

Politicum e‑conomico est.

The grandeur of these con­cep­tions of the old poet, togeth­er with the felic­i­ty of the word­ing which clothes them, and the sub­lim­i­ty of the imagery where­by they are illus­trat­ed, have sin­gled out that stan­za, and made it more cel­e­brat­ed than any that ever—

[“Now, not a word out of you — not a sin­gle word. Just state your bill and relapse into impen­e­tra­ble silence for ever and ever on these premis­es. Nine hun­dred, dol­lars? Is that all? This check for the amount will be hon­ored at any respectable bank in Amer­i­ca. What is that mul­ti­tude of peo­ple gath­ered in the street for? How? — look­ing at the light­ning-rods!’ Bless my life, did they nev­er see any light­ning-rods before? Nev­er saw such a stack of them on one estab­lish­ment,’ did I under­stand you to say? I will step down and crit­i­cal­ly observe this pop­u­lar ebul­li­tion of ignorance.”]

THREE DAYS LAT­ER. — We are all about worn out. For four-and-twen­ty hours our bristling premis­es were the talk and won­der of the town. The the­aters lan­guished, for their hap­pi­est scenic inven­tions were tame and com­mon­place com­pared with my light­ning-rods. Our street was blocked night and day with spec­ta­tors, and among them were many who came from the coun­try to see. It was a blessed relief on the sec­ond day when a thun­der­storm came up and the light­ning began to go for” my house, as the his­to­ri­an Jose­phus quaint­ly phras­es it. It cleared the gal­leries, so to speak. In five min­utes there was not a spec­ta­tor with­in half a mile of my place; but all the high hous­es about that dis­tance away were full, win­dows, roof, and all. And well they might be, for all the falling stars and Fourth-of-July fire­works of a gen­er­a­tion, put togeth­er and rained down simul­ta­ne­ous­ly out of heav­en in one bril­liant show­er upon one help­less roof, would not have any advan­tage of the pyrotech­nic dis­play that was mak­ing my house so mag­nif­i­cent­ly con­spic­u­ous in the gen­er­al gloom of the storm.

By actu­al count, the light­ning struck at my estab­lish­ment sev­en hun­dred and six­ty-four times in forty min­utes, but tripped on one of those faith­ful rods every time, and slid down the spi­ral-twist and shot into the earth before it prob­a­bly had time to be sur­prised at the way the thing was done. And through all that bom­bard­ment only one patch of slates was ripped up, and that was because, for a sin­gle instant, the rods in the vicin­i­ty were trans­port­ing all the light­ning they could pos­si­bly accom­mo­date. Well, noth­ing was ever seen like it since the world began. For one whole day and night not a mem­ber of my fam­i­ly stuck his head out of the win­dow but he got the hair snatched off it as smooth as a bil­liard-ball; and; if the read­er will believe me, not one of us ever dreamt of stir­ring abroad. But at last the awful siege came to an end-because there was absolute­ly no more elec­tric­i­ty left in the clouds above us with­in grap­pling dis­tance of my insa­tiable rods. Then I sal­lied forth, and gath­ered dar­ing work­men togeth­er, and not a bite or a nap did we take till the premis­es were utter­ly stripped of all their ter­rif­ic arma­ment except just three rods on the house, one on the kitchen, and one on the barn — and, behold, these remain there even unto this day. And then, and not till then, the peo­ple ven­tured to use our street again. I will remark here, in pass­ing, that dur­ing that fear­ful time I did not con­tin­ue my essay upon polit­i­cal econ­o­my. I am not even yet set­tled enough in nerve and brain to resume it.

TO WHOM IT MAY CON­CERN. — Par­ties hav­ing need of three thou­sand two hun­dred and eleven feet of best qual­i­ty zinc-plat­ed spi­ral-twist light­ning-rod stuff, and six­teen hun­dred and thir­ty-one sil­ver-tipped points, all in tol­er­a­ble repair (and, although much worn by use, still equal to any ordi­nary emer­gency), can hear of a bar­gain by address­ing the publisher.

Mark Twain (18351910) was an Amer­i­can humorist, satirist, social crit­ic, lec­tur­er and nov­el­ist. He is most remem­bered for The Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn and The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer. He wrote this sto­ry in 1870.
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