Congress … yuck! A distasteful subject! Quite literally even, according to Mark Twain.
Every year Congress gives us more reasons to loathe it. This year perhaps more than ever. Thinking ill and making fun of Congress is a sport that goes back to the beginning of the republic. Mark Twain, if anyone, is probably America’s foremost critic and satirist of Congress.
“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”
“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”
These are just two quotes from Twain about Congress specifically and The American Way in general. There are many more like that and quite a few of them made their way into my Mark Twain musical “beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN“, which also features the following excerpt in which Twain’s distaste of Congress is quite literally, in more ways than one, hilariously mixed up with no less unappetizing a subject than cannibalism.
By the way, that percussive sound you’ll hear during the reprise “In December on a Train” at the end is the singers gleefully clinking knives and forks in rhythm.
Enjoy, or, I should say, bon appetit:
CANNIBALISM IN THE CARS
JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICA
Riding on a train in South Dakota
On a journey through America
On a long long trip to Indiana
Wide stretched the plain and sky cut by the horizon
There I sat beside a politician
Once a congressman of able skill
That fellow did regale me with quite a tale
Of a scale bigger than whale
That would never fail to thrill
IN DECEMBER ON A TRAIN
In December on a train
Riding through the endless plain
Men that numbered twenty-two
Passengers and crew
Not one lady, no children too
Suddenly the skies grew dark
Lightning flashing like a spark
Then the snow began to fall
In a vicious squall
Covering the plains, tracks and all
All around the train the snow was falling, ever falling
Wind was blowing, snow banks growing
Train was stalling, train was slowing
Snow came to the window top
Till finally and fatally we reached a creaking stop
Fifty miles from any town
With no help around
And the snow was still coming down
We all shoveled snow in vain
Stoked the engine of the train
But we stayed helplessly stuck
Without any luck
In a high and wide snowy muck
We had wood to keep us warm
Through the days of endless storm
But there was no food to eat
Not a scrap of meat
Not even a lone grain of wheat
So for days on end we’d wait for succor without supper
Eating nothing, lots of nothing
Getting hungry, oh so hungry
Somewhat angry, but more hungry
After four, then five, then six, then seven days of pain
It was clear that we all knew
What the twenty-two
Gentlemen must do on that train
Gentlemen – it cannot be delayed longer! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!
Gentlemen – I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer, of Tennessee.
I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote, of New York
I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen, of St. Louis.
Gentlemen – I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey.
If there be no objection, the gentlemen’s desire will be acceded to.
Mr. Van Nostrand objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.
I move that the nominations now close, and that the House shall proceed to an election by ballot.
Gentlemen – I protest earnestly against these proceedings. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting, and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly.
Gentlemen – I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made – and do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution –
It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day, under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid.
So the motion to create a committee to make selections was passed. A recess of half an hour was taken, and some little caucusing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson, of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman, of Louisiana, and W. Messick, of Colorado, as candidates. The report was accepted.
Mr. President – the report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Lucious Harris, of St. Louis. I do not wish to cast the least reflection upon the high character of the gentleman from Louisiana, but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us – none can be blind to the fact that the committee has been derelict in its duty in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him –
I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis, of Oregon, for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by some gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen. Is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious? No, gentlemen: bulk is what we desire – substance, weight, bulk – these are the supreme requisites now – not talent, not genius, not education.
Mr. Chairman – I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore, is bulky only in bone – not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? This wreck, this gnarled and blighted vagabond from Oregon’s inhospitable shores? Never!
After a fiery debate, the amendment was put to a vote and lost. The balloting then began. On the sixth ballot, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself.
I move that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go in election for breakfast.
On the first ballot there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. There was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready drove all thought of it to the winds.
IN DECEMBER ON A TRAIN (continued)
CONGRESSMAN (while “Gentlemen” sing lalala):
I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I believe no man ever agreed with me better than Harris. Messick was very well, rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fiber, give me Harris.
Do you mean to tell me that –
After breakfast we elected Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good, a little rare, but very good. I wrote his wife so afterwards.
Bailey offered rather less, since his left leg was wood
Buckminster was especially good
McElroy seemed quite thin and small
Yet had the finest taste of all
Three Smiths, two Clarks, one Hawkins I could name
Then rescue came
And so rescue did come at last?
Yes, one bright, sunny morning, just after election. John Murphy was the choice, but he came home with us and lived to marry the widow Harris
Widow of –
Widow of our first choice, yes. Ah – this is my stopping place, sir; I must bid you good-bye. I like you, sir; I could like you as well as I liked Harris myself. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey. (exits)
Who was that man?
He was a member of congress once. But he got caught in a snowdrift in the cars, and almost starved. Now he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject, he never stops till he has eaten up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd, only he had to get out here. When he gets them all eat up but himself, he always says –
Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived, and there being no objection, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objection offered, I resigned.
And that’s how it came to be
There was only me
Left of twenty-two on that train