Mark Twain on Politics: A man’s first duty is to his own honor

Adding humor to your speech - pondering on it

Written by Conor Cunneen

Published October 31, 2016

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M-TOPP: Mark Twain on Politics and Politicians


A man’s first duty is to his own honor; not to his country and not to his party.

It is easy to despair about the state of the current political environment and with some justification, but for those who believe politics has reached its nadir… well consider that among other things, Abraham Lincoln was referred to as “the obscene ape of Illinois.”

The election of 1884 featured Democrat Grover Cleveland who had fathered a child outside of marriage – “Maw, Maw, where’s my paw?” was a constant refrain from supporters of corrupt Republican candidate James Blaine who had been castigated for accepting bribes from railroad interests.

Given this climate, Mark Twain – who prior to the 1884 election voted Republican – had much to say and that “a man’s first duty is to his own honor; not to his country and not to his party.”

To his good friend William Dean Howells, he wrote:

“Somehow I can’t seem to rest quiet under the idea of your voting for Blaine. I believe you said something about the country and the party. Certainly allegiance to these is well; but as certainly a man’s first duty is to his own conscience and honor—the party or the country come second to that, and never first. I don’t ask you to vote at all—I only urge you to not soil yourself by voting for Blaine.

When you wrote before, you were able to say the charges against him were not proven. But you know now that they are proven, and it seems to me that that bars you and all other honest and honorable men (who are independently situated) from voting for him.

It is not necessary to vote for Cleveland; 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) even though the party and the country go to destruction in consequence. It is not parties that make or save countries or that build them to greatness—it is clean men, clean ordinary citizens, rank and file, the masses. Clean masses are not made by individuals standing back till the rest become clean.

As I said before, I think a man’s first duty is to his own honor; not to his country and not to his party.” mark-twain-signature





twain-front-180-10-27Keynote speaker Conor Cunneen is author Suppose You Were An Idiot… Mark Twain on Politics and Politicians

Twain once wrote “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Congressman. But I repeat myself.”

“Whiskey is taken into the committee rooms in demijohns and carried out in demagogues.”

Mark Twain Notebook




Conor Cunneen is also author

What Mark Twain Learned Me ’bout Public Speakin’

“When I say I’ll learn (‘Teach’ is not in the river vocabulary) a man the river, I mean it. And you can depend on it, I’ll learn him or kill him.” Life on the Mississippi  – Mark Twain

Utilizing a unique and memorable MARK TWAIN acronym, author Conor Cunneen demonstrates what the Dean of American Humorists learned him bout public speakin !

MARK ——– BEFORE you go on stage

Message preparation

Audience research and knowledge

Relate to audience

Know your objective


Titter and humor wins the audience

Wait – The power of the Pause

Anecdotes connect

Involve, Inform, Inspire your audience

Narration and stagecraft.

BUY: What Mark Twain Learned Me ’bout Public Speakin’

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