Mark Twain Understood What Motivated Mobs

When it comes to putting the January 6 siege of the Capitol in perspective for the upcoming Senate trial of Donald Trump, the 80-page brief filed by the House impeachment managers is thorough, as are two are two shorter, academic essays–Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s “The American Abyss,” and foreign-policy expert Mark Danner’s “Be Ready to Fight.”  

There is, however, another writer who should be read as the Senate trial begins: Mark Twain. Twain never imagined the Capitol being trashed by an angry mob, but in his 1901 essay, “The United States of Lyncherdom,” he foresaw how a mob, like the ones he knew as a Southerner, could terrorize a major, northern city. For Twain, the mob was a staple of American life, not an anomaly, and in “The United States of Lyncherdom” he treated the mob as a political force to be reckoned with.

“I may live to see a negro burned in Union Square , New York, with fifty thousand people present, and not a sheriff visible, not a governor, not a constable, not a clergyman, not a law-and-order representative of any sort,” Twain wrote.

Twain was responding to the rise of lynching, the increased influence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Supreme Court’s landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson  decision that made “separate but equal” the law of the land.  But Twain’s essay, written, as he tells readers, in the wake of an incident in Missouri in which a mob lynched three black men and burned the houses of five black families after a white woman was found murdered, goes far beyond the Jim Crow era in which he lived.  

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