Saturday, November 12, 2005

Mark Twain's story on Diplomacy

This may be taken down from the site in a few days so as to not clog the archives.
Last spring I went out to Chicago to see the Fair, and although I did not see it my trip was not wholly lost – there were compensations. In New York I was introduced to a major in the regular army who said he was going to the Fair, and we agreed to go together. I had to go to Boston first, but that did not interfere; he said he would go along, and put in the time. He was a handsome man, and built like a gladiator. But his ways were gentle, and his speech was soft and persuasive. He was
companionable, but exceedingly reposeful. Yes, and wholly destitute of the sense of humor. He was full of interest in everything that went on around him, but his serenity was indestructible; nothing disturbed him, nothing excited him.

But before the day was done I found that deep down in him somewhere he had a passion, quiet as he was – a passion for reforming petty public abuses. He stood for citizenship – it was his hobby. His idea was that every citizen of the republic ought to consider himself an unofficial policeman, and keep unsalaried watch and ward over the laws and their execution. He thought that the only effective way of preserving and protecting public rights was for each citizen to do his share in preventing or punishing such infringements of them as came under his personal notice.

It was a good scheme, but I thought it would keep a body in trouble all the time; it seemed to that one would be always trying to get offending little officials discharged, and perhaps getting laughed at for all reward. But he said no, I had the wrong idea; that there was no occasion to get anybody discharged; that in fact you mustn’t get anybody discharged; that that would itself be a failure; no, one must reform the man – reform him and make him useful where he was.

“Must one report the offender and then beg his superior not to discharge him, but reprimand him and keep him?”

“No, that is not the idea; you don’t report him at all, for then you risk his bread and butter. You can act as if you are going to report him – when nothing else will answer. But that’s an extreme case. That is a sort of force, and force is bad. Diplomacy is the effective thing. Now if a man has tact – if a man will exercise diplomacy -”

For two minutes we had been standing at a telegraph wicket, and during all this time the Major had been trying to get the attention of one of the young operators, but they were all busy skylarking. The Major spoke now, and asked one of them to take his telegram. He got for reply:

“I reckon you can wait a minute, can’t you?” and the skylarking went on.

The Major said yes, he was not in a hurry. Then he wrote another telegram.

“President Western Union Tel. Co.:

“Come and dine with me this evening. I can tell you how business is conducted in one of your branches.”

Presently the young fellow who had spoken so pertly a little before reached out and took the telegram, and when he read it he lost color and began to apologize and explain. He said he would lose his place if this deadly telegram was sent, and he might never get another. If he could be let off this time he would give no cause for complaint again. This compromise was accepted.

As we walked away, the Major said:

“Now, you see, that was diplomacy – and you see how it worked. It wouldn’t do any good to bluster, the way people are always doing – that boy can always give you as good as you send, and you’ll come out defeated and ashamed of yourself pretty nearly always. But you see he stands no
chance against diplomacy. Gentle words and diplomacy – those are the tools to work with.”

“Yes, I see; but everybody wouldn’t have had your opportunity. It isn’t everybody that is on those familiar terms with the president of the Western Union.”

“Oh, you misunderstand. I don’t know the president – I only use him diplomatically. It is for his good and for the public good. There’s no harm in it.”

I said, with hesitation and diffidence:

“But is it ever right or noble to tell a lie?”

He took no note of the delicate self-righteousness of the question, but answered, with undisturbed gravity and simplicity:

“Yes, sometimes. Lies told to injure a person, and lies told to profit yourself are not justifiable, but lies told to help another person, and lies told in the public interest – oh, well, that is quite another matter. Anybody knows that. But never mind about the methods: you see the result. That youth is going to be useful now, and well-behaved. He had a good face. He was worth saving. Why, he was worth saving on his mother’s account if not his own. Of course, he has a mother – sisters, too. Damn these people who are always forgetting that! Do you know, I’ve never fought a duel in my life – never one – and yet have been challenged, like other people. I could always see the other man’s unoffending women folks or his little children standing between him and me. They hadn’t done anything – I couldn’t break their hearts, you know.”

He corrected a good many little abuses in the course of the day, and always without friction – always with a fine and dainty “diplomacy” which left no sting behind; and he got such happiness and such contentment out of these performances that I was obliged to envy him his trade – perhaps would have adopted it if I could have managed the necessary deflections from fact as confidently with my mouth as I believe I could with a pen, behind the shelter of print, after a little practice.

Away late that night we were coming uptown in a horse-car when three boisterous roughs got aboard, and began to fling hilarious obscenities and profanities right and left among the timid passengers, some of whom were women and children. Nobody resisted or retorted; the conductor tried soothing words and moral suasion, but the roughs only called him names and laughed at him. Very soon I saw that the Major realized that this was a matter which was in his line; evidently he was turning over his stock of diplomacy in his mind and getting ready, I felt that he made in this place would bring down a land-slide of ridicule upon him and maybe something worse; but before I could whisper to him and check him, he had begun, and it was too late. He said, in a level and dispassionate tone:

“Conductor, you must put these swine out. I will help you.”

I was not looking for that. In a flash the three roughs plunged at him. But none of them arrived. He delivered three such blows as one could not expect to encounter outside the prize-ring, and neither of the men had life enough left in him to get up from where he fell. The Major dragged them out and threw off the car, and we got under way again.

I was astonished; astonished to see a lamb act so; astonished at the strength displayed, and the clean and comprehensive result; astonished at the brisk and business-like style of the whole thing. The situation had a humorous side to it, considering how much I had been hearing about mild persuasion and gentle diplomacy all day from this pile-driver, and I would have liked to call his attention to that feature and do some sarcasms about it; but when I looked at him I saw that it would be of no use – his placid and contented face had no ray of humor in it; he would not have understood. When we left the car, I said:

“That was a good stroke of diplomacy – three good strokes of diplomacy, in fact.”

“That? That wasn’t diplomacy. You are quite in the wrong.
Diplomacy is a wholly different thing. Once cannot apply it to that sort, they would not understand it. No, that was not diplomacy; it was force.”

“Now that you mention it, I – yes, I think perhaps you are right.”

“Right? Of course I am right. It was just force.”

“I think, myself, it had an outside aspect of it. Do you often have to reform people in that way?”

“Far from it. It hardly ever happens. Not oftener than once in half a year, at the outside.”

“Those men will get well?”

“Get well? Why, certainly they will. They are not in any danger.
I know how to hit and where to hit. You noticed that I did not hit them under the jaw. That would have killed them.”

I believed that. I remarked – rather wittily, as I thought – that he had been a lamb all day, but now had all of a sudden developed into a ram – battering-ram; but with dulcet frankness and simplicity he said no, a battering-ram was quite different thing and not in use now. This was maddening, and I came near bursting out and saying he had no more appreciation of wit than a jackass – in fact, I had it on my tongue, but did not say it, knowing there was no hurry and I could say it just as well some other time over the telephone.

We started to Boston the next afternoon. The smoking-compartment in the parlor-car was full, and we went into the regular smoker. Across the aisle in the front seat sat a meek, farmer-looking old man with a sickly pallor in his face, and he was holding the door open with his foot to get the air. Presently a big brakeman came rushing through, and when he got to the door he stopped, gave the farmer an ugly scowl, then wrenched the door to with such energy as to almost snatch the old man’s boot off. Then on he plunged about his business. Several passengers laughed, and the old gentleman looked pathetically shamed and grieved.

After a little the conductor passed along, and the Major stopped him and asked him a question in his habitually courteous way:

“Conductor, where does one report the misconduct of a brakeman? Does one report to you?”

“You can report him at New Haven if you want to. What has he been doing?”

The Major told the story. The conductor seemed amused. He said, with just a touch of sarcasm in his bland tones:

“As I understand you, the brakeman didn’t say anything.”

“No, he didn’t say anything.”

“But he scowled, you say.”


“And snatched the door loose in a rough way.”

“Yes, that is the whole of it.”

The conductor smiled pleasantly, and said:

“Well, if you want to report him, all right, but I don’t quite make out what it’s going to amount to. You’ll say – as I understand you – that the brakeman insulted this old gentleman. They’ll ask you what he said.
You’ll say he didn’t say anything at all. I reckon they’ll say, how are you going to make out an insult when you acknowledge yourself that he didn’t say a word.”

There was a murmur of applause at the conductor’s compact reasoning, and it gave him pleasure – you could see it in his face. But the Major was not disturbed. He said:

“There – now you have touched upon a crying defect in the complaint-system. The railway officials – as the public think and as you also seem to think – are not aware that there are any kind of insults except spoken ones. So nobody goes to headquarters and report insults of manners, insults of gestures, look, and so forth; and yet these are sometimes harder to bear than any words. They are bitter hard to bear because there is nothing tangible to take hold of; and the insulter can always say, if called before the railway officials, that he never dreamed of intending any offense. It seems to me that the officials ought to specially and urgently request the public to report unworded affronts and incivilities.”

The conductor laughed, and said:

“Well, that would be trimming it pretty fine, sure!”

“But not too fine, I think. I will report this matter at New Haven, and I have an idea that I’ll be thanked for it.”

The conductor’s face lost something of its complacency; in fact, it settled to a quite sober cast as the owner of it moved away. I said:

“You are not really going to bother with that trifle, are you?”

“It isn’t a trifle. Such things ought always to be reported. It is a public duty, and no citizen has a right to shirk it. But I shan’t have to report this case.”


“It won’t be necessary. Diplomacy will do the business. You’ll see.”

Presently the conductor came a on his rounds again, and when he reached the Major he leaned over and said:

“That’s all right. You needn’t report him. He’s responsible to me, and if he does it again I’ll give him a talking to.”

The Major’s response was cordial:

“Now that is what I like! You mustn’t think that I was moved by any vengeful spirit, for that wasn’t the case. It was duty – just a sense of duty, that was all. My brother-in-law is one of the directors of the road, and when he learns that you are going to reason with your brakeman that very next time he brutally insults an unoffending old man it will please him, you may be sure of that.”

The conductor did not look as joyous as one might have thought he would, but on the contrary looked sickly and uncomfortable. He stood around a little; then said:

“I think something ought to be done to him now. I’ll discharge him.”

“Discharge him? What good would that do? Don’t you think it would be better wisdom to teach him better ways and keep him?”

“Well, there’s something in that. What would you suggest?”

“He insulted the old gentleman in presence of all those people. How would it do to have him come and apologize in their presence?”

“I’ll have him here right off. And I want to say this: If people would do as you’ve done, and report such things to me instead of keeping mum and going off and blackguarding the road, you’d see a different state of things pretty soon. I’m obliged to you.”

The brakeman came and apologized. After he was gone the Major said:

“Now, you see how simple and easy that was. The ordinary citizen would have accomplished nothing – the brother-in-law of a director can accomplish anything he wants to.”

“But are you really the brother-in-law of a director?”

“Always. Always when the public interests require it. I have a brother-in-law on all the boards – everywhere. It saves me a world of trouble.”

“It is a good relationship.”

“Yes. I have over three hundred of them.”

“Is the relationship never doubted by a conductor?”

“I have never met with a case. It is the honest truth – I never have.”

“Why didn’t you let him go ahead and discharge the brakeman, in spite of your favorite policy? You know he deserved it.”

The Major answered with something which really has a sort of distant resemblance to impatience:

“If you would stop and think a moment you wouldn’t ask such a question as that. Is a brakeman a dog, that nothing but dog’s methods will do for him? He is a man, and has a man’s fight for life. And he always has a sister, or a mother, or wife and children to support.
Always – there are no exceptions. When you take his living away from him you take theirs away too – and what have they done to you? Nothing. And where is another just like him? It’s unwisdom. Don’t you see that the rational thing to do is to reform the brakeman and keep him? Of course it is.”

Then he quoted with admiration the conduct of a certain division superintendent of the Consolidated road, in a case where a switchman of two years’ experience was negligent once and threw a train off the track and killed several people. Citizens came in a passion to urge the man’s dismissal, but the superintendent said:

“No, you are wrong. He has learned his lesson, he will throw no more trains off the track. He is twice as valuable as he was before. I shall keep him.”

We had only one more adventure on the trip. Between Hartford and
Springfield the train-boy came shouting in with an armful of literature
and dropped a sample into a slumbering gentleman’s lap, and the man woke
up with a start. He was very angry, and he and a couple of friends
discussed the outrage with much heat. They sent for the parlor-car
conductor and described the matter, and were determined to have the boy
expelled from his situation. The three complainants were wealthy Holyoke
merchants, and it was evident that the conductor stood in some awe of
them. He tried to pacify them, and explained that the boy was not under
his authority, but under that of one of the news companies; but he
accomplished nothing.

Then the Major volunteered some testimony for the defense. He said:

“I saw it all. You gentlemen have not meant to exaggerate the
circumstances, but still that is what you have done. The boy has done
nothing more than all train-boys do. If you want to get his ways softened
down and his manners reformed, I am with you and ready to help, but it
isn’t fair to get him discharged without giving him a chance.”

But they were angry, and would hear no compromise. They were well
acquainted with the president of the Boston & Albany, they said, and would
put everything aside next day and go up to Boston and fix that boy.

The Major said he would be on hand too, and would do what he could
to save the boy. One of the gentleman looked him over, and said:

“Apparently it is going to be a matter of who can wield the most
influence with the president. Do you know Mr. Bliss personally?”

The Major said, with composure:

“Yes; he is my uncle.”

The effect was satisfactory. There was an awkward silence for a
minute or more; then the hedging and the half-confessions of overhaste and
exaggerated resentment began, and it was resolved to drop the matter and
leave the boy’s bread and butter unmolested.

It turned out as I had expected: the president of the road was not
the Major’s uncle at all – except by adoption, and for this day and train

We got into no episodes on the return journey. Probably it was
because we took a night train and slept all the way.

We left New York Saturday night by the Pennsylvania road. After
breakfast the next morning we went into the parlor-car, but found it a
dull place and dreary. There were but few people in it and nothing going
on. Then we went into the little smoking-compartment of the same car and
found three gentlemen in there. Two of them were grumbling over one of
the rules of the road – a rule which forbade card-playing on the trains on
Sunday. They had started an innocent game of high-low-jacket and been
stopped. The Major was interested. He said to the third gentleman:

“Did you object to the game?”

“Not at all. I am a Yale professor and a religious man, but my
prejudices are not extensive.”

Then the Major said to the others:

“You are at perfect liberty to resume your game, gentleman; no one
here objects.”

One of them declined the risk, but the other one said he would like
to begin again if the Major would join him. So they spread an overcoat
over their knees and the game proceeded. Pretty soon the parlor-car
conductor arrived, and said, brusquely:

“There, there, gentlemen, that won’t do. Put up the cards – it’s
not allowed.”

The Major was shuffling. He continued to shuffle, and said:

“By whose order is it forbidden?”

“It’s my order. I forbid it.”

The dealing began. The Major asked:

“Did you invent the idea?”

“What idea?”

“The idea of forbidding card-playing on Sunday.”

“No – of course not.”

“Who did?”

“The company.”

“Then it isn’t your order, after all, but the company’s. Is that

“Yes. But you don’t stop playing; I have to require you to stop
playing immediately.”

“Nothing is gained by hurry, and often much is lost. Who authorized
the company to issue such an order?”

“My dear sir, that is a matter of no consequence to me, and -”

“But you forget that you are not the only person concerned. It may
be a matter of consequence to me. It is indeed a matter of very great
importance to me. I cannot violate a legal requirement of my country
without dishonoring myself; I cannot allow any man or corporation to
hamper my liberties with illegal rules – a thing which railway companies
are always trying to do – without dishonoring my citizenship. So I come
back to the question: By whose authority has the company issued this

“I don’t know. That’s their affair.”

“Mine, too. I doubt if the company has any right to issue such a
rule. This road runs through several States. Do you know what State we
are in now, and what its laws are in matters of this kind?”

“Its laws do not concern me, but the company’s orders do. It is my
duty to stop this game, gentleman, and it must be stopped.”

“Possibly; but still there is no hurry. In hotels they post certain
rules in the rooms, but they always quote passages from the State law as
authority of these requirements. I see nothing posted here of this sort.
Please produce your authority and let us arrive at a decision, for you see
yourself that you are marring the game.”

“I have nothing of the kind, but I have my orders, and that is
sufficient. They must be obeyed.”

“Let us not jump to conclusions. It will be better all around to
examine into the matter without heat or haste, and see just where we stand
before either of us makes a mistake – for the curtailing of the liberties
of a citizen of the United States is a much more serious matter than you
and the railroads seem to think, and it cannot be done in my person until
the curtailer proves his right to do so. Now -”

“My dear sir, will you put down those cards?”

“All in good time, perhaps. It depends. You say this order must be
obeyed. Must. It is a strong word. You see yourself how strong it is.
A wise company would not arm you with so drastic an order as this, of
course, without appointing a penalty for its infringement. Otherwise it
runs the risk of being a dead letter and a thing to laugh at. What is the
appointed penalty for an infringement of this law?”

“Penalty? I never heard of any.”

“Unquestionably you must be mistaken. Your company orders you to
come here and rudely break up an innocent amusement, and furnishes you no
way to enforce the order? Don’t you see that that is nonsense. What do
you do when people refuse to obey this order? Do you take the cards away
from them?”


“Do you put the offender off at the next station?”

“Well, no – of course we couldn’t if he had a ticket.”

“Do you have him up before a court?”

The conductor was silent and apparently troubled. The Major started
a new deal, and said:

“You see that you are helpless, and that the company has placed you
in a foolish position. You are furnished with an arrogant order, and you
deliver it in a blustering way, and when you come to look into the matter
you find you haven’t any way of enforcing obedience.”

The conductor said, with chill dignity:

“Gentlemen, you have heard the order, and my duty is ended. As to
obeying it or not, you will do as you think fit.” And he turned to leave.

“But wait. The matter is not yet finished. I think you are
mistaken about your duty being ended; but if it really is, I myself have a
duty to perform yet.”

“How do you mean?”

“Are you going to report my disobedience at headquarters in

“No. What good would that do?”

“You must report me, or I will report you.”

“Report me for what?”

“For disobeying the company’s orders in not stopping this game. As
a citizen it is my duty to help the railway companies keep their servants
to their work.”

“Are you in earnest?”

“Yes, I am in earnest. I have nothing against you as a man, but I
have this against you as an officer – that you have not carried out that
order, and if you do not report me I must report you. And I will.”

The conductor looked puzzled, and was thoughtful for a moment; then
he burst out with:

“I seem to be getting myself into a scrape! It’s all a muddle; I
can’t make head or tail of it; it’s never happened before; they always
knocked under and never said a word, and so I never saw how ridiculous
that stupid order with no penalty is. I don’t want to report anybody, and
I don’t want to be reported – why, it might do me no end of harm! Now do
go on with the game – play the whole day if you want – and don’t let’s
have any more trouble about it!”

“No – I only sat down here to establish this gentleman’s rights – he
can have his place now. But before you go won’t you tell me what you
think the company made this rule for? Can you imagine an excuse for it?
I mean a rational one – an excuse that is not on its face silly, and the
invention of an idiot?”

“Why surely, I can. The reason it was made is plain enough. It is
to save the feelings of the other passengers – the religious ones among
them, I mean. They would not like it, to have the Sabbath desecrated by
card-playing on the train.”

“I just thought as much. They are willing to desecrate it
themselves by traveling on Sunday, but they are not willing that other
people -”

“By gracious, you hit it! I never thought of that before. The fact
is, it is a silly rule when you come to look into it.”

At this point the train-conductor arrived, and was going to shut
down the game in a very high-handed fashion, but the parlor-car conductor
stopped him and took him aside to explain. Nothing more was heard of the

I was ill in bed eleven days in Chicago and got no glimpse of the
Fair, for I was obliged to return east as soon as I was able to travel.
The Major secured and paid for a state-room in a sleeper the day before we
left, so that I could have plenty of room and be comfortable; but when we
arrived at the station a mistake had been made and our car had not been
put on. The conductor had reserved a section for us – it was the best he
could do, he said. But the Major said we were not in a hurry, and would
wait for the car to be put on. The conductor responded, with pleasant

“It may be that you are not in a hurry, just as you say, but we are:
Come, get aboard, gentlemen, get aboard – don’t keep us waiting.”

But the Major would not get aboard himself nor allow me to do it.
He wanted his car, and said he must have it. This made the hurried and
perspiring conductor impatient, and he said:

“It’s the best we can do – we can’t do impossibilities. You will
take the section or go without. A mistake has been made and can’t be
rectified at this late hour. It’s a thing that happens now and then, and
there is nothing for it but to put up with it and make the best of it.
Other people do.”

“Ah, that is just it, you see. If they had stuck to their rights
and enforced them you wouldn’t be trying to trample mine underfoot in this
bland way now. I haven’t any disposition to give you unnecessary trouble,
but it is my duty to protect the next man from this kind of imposition.
So I must have my car. Otherwise I will wait in Chicago and sue the
company for violating its contract.”

“Sue the company? - for a thing like that!”


“Do you really mean it?”

“Indeed, I do.”

The conductor looked the Major over wonderingly, and then said:

“It beats me – it’s bran-new – I’ve never struck the mate to it
before. But I swear I think you’d do it. Look here, I’ll send for the

When the station-master came he was a good deal annoyed – at the
Major, not at the person who had made the mistake. He was rather brusque,
and took the same position which the conductor had taken in the beginning;
but he failed to move the soft-spoken artilleryman, who still insisted
that he must have his car. However, it was plain that there was only one
strong side in this case, and that that side was the Major’s. The
station-master banished his annoyed manner, and became pleasant and even
half-apologetic. This made a good opening for a compromise, and the Major
made a concession. He said he would give up the engaged state-room, but
he must have a state-room. After a deal of ransacking, one was found
whose owner was persuadable; he exchanged it for our section, and we got
away at last. The conductor called on us in the evening, and was kind and
courteous and obliging, and we had a long talk and got to be good friends.
He said he wished the public would make trouble oftener – it would have a
good effect. He said that the railroads could not be expected to do their
whole duty by the traveler unless the traveler would take some interest in
the matter himself.

I hoped that we were done reforming for the trip now, but it was not
so. In the hotel-car, in the morning, the Major called for broiled
chicken. The waiter said:

“It’s not in the bill of fare, sir; we do not serve anything but
what is in the bill.”

“That gentleman yonder is eating a broiled chicken.”

“Yes, but that is difference. He is one of the superintendents of
the road.”

“Then all the more must I have broiled chicken. I do not like these
discriminations. Please hurry – bring me a broiled chicken.”

The waiter brought the steward, who explained in a low and polite
voice that the thing was impossible – it was against the rule, and the
rule was rigid.

“Very well, then, you must either apply it impartially or break it
impartially. You must take that gentleman’s chicken away from him or
bring me one.”

The steward was puzzled, and did not quite know what to do. He
began an incoherent argument, but the conductor came along just then, and
asked what the difficulty was. The steward explained that here was a
gentleman who was insisting on having a chicken when it was dead against
the rule and not in the bill. The conductor said:

“Stick by your rules – you haven’t any option. Wait a minute – is
this the gentleman?” Then he laughed and said: “ Never mind your rules -
it’s my advice, and sound; give him anything he wants – don’t get him
started on his rights. Give him whatever he asks for; and if you haven’t
got it, stop the train and get it.”

The Major ate the chicken, but said he did it from a sense of duty
and to establish a principle, for he did not like chicken.

I missed the Fair it is true, but I picked up some diplomatic tricks
which I and the reader may find handy and useful as we go along.

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