What would Mark Twain think about being depicted on the 2016 commemorative coins that will honor him for his immense contributions to American literature?
I think he would be amused, and he was vain enough that he would also be a bit pleased.
Twain is the first American chosen for depiction on U.S. commemorative coinage to receive the honor because of his literary contributions.
Congress has honored dozens of politicians and military leaders and athletes and Civil Rights advocates on our commemorative coinage, and some of them made their own literary contributions. But never before has Congress honored anyone whose primary claim to fame is that he was a writer.
And what a writer.
Twain was the quintessential American writer and humorist. His Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered one of the greatest works of American literature; it can be read on multiple levels (I first encountered it as a very young child, and have read it multiple times since, gaining new appreciation every time). Life on the Mississippi beautifully captures the river that played such a major role in Twain’s life. Roughing It includes his hilarious experiences as a prospector and miner in the Nevada mining region (he failed spectacularly, and had to turn to writing to survive — fortunately for the literary world). His time travel story, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, predates H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine by many years, and is so much funnier than Wells’ dystopian tale.
His shorter works, too, are often wonderful, including “The £1,000,000 Bank Note,” which tells of the troubles resulting from disputes over ownership of a very high denomination Bank of England note.
Twain’s influence on American humorists cannot be overstated. All modern humorists owe a great debt to him. If he were alive today, he would likely have his own television show like Stephen Colbert and John Stewart. He would be just as biting and funny as any of these modern-day commentators. And like those two very funny men on their TV programs, Twain, when he was a reporter, blurred the lines between facts and fantasy. His early newspaper writings, what turned Sam Clemens into Mark Twain, would fit right in on Saturday Night Live’s news brief, or the monologues read by Colbert or Stewart.
In addition to being amused and maybe a bit proud at appearing on a coin, Twain would also recognize the irony of depicting him on coinage bearing the national motto “In God We Trust.”
Twain said this about the motto’s use on coinage, in a speech he gave May 14, 1908:
“Some years ago on the gold coins we used to trust in God. It think it was in 1863 that some genius suggested that it be put on the gold and silver coins which circulated among the rich. They didn't put it on the nickels and coppers because they didn't think the poor folks had any trust in God. ... If I remember rightly, the President required or ordered the removal of that sentence from the coins. Well, I didn't see that the statement ought to remain there. It wasn't true. But I think it would better read, ‘Within certain judicious limitations we trust in God,’ and if there isn't enough room on the coin for this, why enlarge the coin.”
On the basic facts, Twain’s comments were a fairly accurate recapitulation of the history of the motto’s use on coinage.
He was a little off on the date, of course. The motto’s origins trace to an 1861 letter from a minister to the Treasury secretary and it didn’t appear on a coin until the release of the bronze 2-cent coin in 1864. But he was pretty close otherwise.
The president being referenced was Theodore Roosevelt, and Twain was right; TR demanded that the motto not be used on the new gold coins designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens for issuance in 1907. Of course, about the time Twain was making his speech, Congress was overriding Roosevelt’s decision by ordering the use of the motto on the coinage. And the lesser coins mentioned by Twain — the nickels and coppers — they, too, would gain the motto a few years later as new designs were issued to replace the old “godless” coins.
Twain’s appearance on American coinage is long overdue. And it is very welcome.