Mark Twain is known as the “father of American literature” (per Faulkner). Remembered as the great American comic writer, he was a cutting critic of American society. While The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a more popular work, his novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, has important lessons for understanding America’s foreign policy one hundred and thirty years on.
The novel is commonly read as a critique of contemporary 19th century America as too closely resembling a feudal society; it’s political vision of a new system was taken up by FDR, who got the term “New Deal” from the book itself. The plot follows Hank Morgan, a 19th century American engineer, as he is suddenly transported back to King Arthur’s medieval court and forced to fend for his life. In the end, as his scientific knowledge brings him political power and authority, he attempts a radical reform to make England a democratic state with educated and politically free citizens.
We can read this as America intervening in the politics of a foreign nation.
Specifically, Twain’s character embodies and portrays the full fledged American political ideals that underlie interventionist policy, from the 19th to 21st century. In his quest to undermine local government, Hank Morgan reveals the nature of interventionism, its ideals, and failures in the field.
Let’s start with a description of King Arthur’s England. Here, slavery remains, the aristocracy retains power by blood relation (not competency), and the Church maintains full control over the hearts of the kingdom. One is shocked by the descriptions of different abuses committed by the aristocrats: murdering innocents (with no recompense), jailing random prisoners for life, and the trading of humans for money. Further, “a master might kill his slave for nothing: for mere spite, malice, or to pass the time.”
There is no question: the regime in King Arthur’s Court is oppressive, tyrannical, and utterly despotic. What, then, is the alternative proposed by Hank?
As one might imagine, it is a rousing and romantic vision of American pragmatism and democratic principles brought to life through Hank’s own thoughts. He describes the need for self-government, a desire for the people of England to choose their own leaders. Further, he wishes to create a meritocratic social order that no longer places value on birthright and abolishes all slavery. Hank wishes to industrialize the nation (through the development of factories) to materially improve the lives of many, implement widespread educational programmes to give the common class literacy, create national newspapers to inform and stand witness to political happenings, and to promote freedom of religion.
Hank Morgan acts decisively: “A man has no business to be depressed by a disappointment, anyway; he ought to make up his mind to get even.”
The newspapers are particularly telling as a sign of Hank’s American background. He assumes and acknowledges the importance of the “Fourth Estate” in maintaining a meaningful democracy (showing his due diligence in matters of reform). Finally, the most particularly American ideal of his is the notion of freedom of religion. Hank takes it as a sign of oppression that the English all accept a single Church and are entirely bound to its rulings without any free consideration on their own part. His protest is a Protestant one, clamoring for the freedom of the individual to accept religious values and beliefs as they see fit. He desires “to overthrow the Catholic Church and set up the Protestant faith on its ruins—not as an Established Church, but as a go-as-you-please one.”
A clear difference from any interpretation of real world political actors is Hank’s genuine idealism. There are no backhand deals, no desire to be re-elected, and no way for Hank to gain materially from his actions to liberate England. By convincing the people of England that he has extraordinary magical powers and having control over technology to produce firearms, Hank can essentially have anything he wants and take it through brute force. He refuses, however, and instead desires to raise the common people of medieval England to a higher state.
Moving back into real world politics, one can see how Hank’s vision and influence on medieval England can be considered similar to American interventionist policy. Consider Iraq under Saddam Hussein. A common argument in favor of the invasion of Iraq was the hope to liberate the people from Saddam’s totalitarian rule, including granting certain liberties to a population under “brutal repression.” This follows a long standing, yet common, argument in favor of political violence that Hank repeats:
“Why, it was like reading about France and the French, before the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal-wave of blood—one: a settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell. There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break?” 
In this line of logic, violence can be constituted as either a long term and grievous oppression or as a short term blood bath. Therefore, intervention to prevent such oppression—though violent—is enacted in the name of preventing and retaliating against long term, mundane violences. This argument holds in Hank’s case, as he watches the aristocracy murder and brutalize common citizens regularly and without restraint. Thus, he (America) will bring the aircraft carrier (his pistol) to fight the noble knights. Extending this argument gives us the French Revolution and is a common argument in favor of political violence generally across the political spectrum (though, it is usually considered extremist in domestic affairs).
Problems begin to arise immediately, however, in Hank’s interventionist approach. To begin, his methods are not democratic. By all means, the people of England believe, truly, that they have no right to be educated, no right to vote, and no right to freedom of religion. What would it even mean to “choose among the options” of faiths in a country with only one prominent religion? Throughout all social classes, Hank finds popular resistance to his program of education and liberation, because it goes against all the values and traditions of these people:
“There it was, again. He could see only one side of it. He was born so, educated so, his veins were full of ancestral blood that was rotten with this sort of unconscious brutality, brought down by inheritance from a long procession of hearts that had each done its share towards poisoning the stream. To imprison these men without proof, and starve their kindred, was no harm, for they were mere peasants… but for these men to break out of unjust captivity was insult and outrage, and a thing not be countenanced.”
Similar to real-life interventionist actors, a dilemma is posed: Do we consider these objections the product of Stockholm Syndrome and lack of education, or do we listen to the “will of the people” and refuse to intervene? The people of England, in a sense, are being forced to accept democratic government. While American values make this to be a good in itself, questions arise of the nature of self-government.
Secondly, Hank is required to enact a major set of political violences against the English population to enact his policies. To begin, as expected, the English aristocracy condemn his attempt to instate a democracy in the wake of King Arthur’s death (and at the direction of the Church). As such, they declare war against him. Given his superior technology, Hank’s weapons massacre the entire ruling class of England. To be certain, Hank maintains a defensive position during the war; still, his actions lead to this slaughter. With this sudden power vacuum, however, Hank is not made victorious; instead, a different and more absolute power comes to grip the English people: the Church. As people lose direct political and military leaders, they turn to the usually underlying power structure of religion for consolation, direction, and leadership. The Church, not fond of Hank’s democratization and “freedom of religion,” names him an enemy of England, further leading to massacres and a mass rejection of Hank’s reforms. Merlin, another enemy of Hank’s, casts a spell on him and sends him into a thirteen-century slumber.
To cycle back, let’s see how these predictions play out in relation to the world of interventionism. Despite the ideals of democratization, education, and liberation, the Iraq War saw the deaths of innumerable Iraqis. First, the local political and military elites (the “knights”) were essentially destroyed by US military forces, forcing Saddam into hiding. Given the external nature of this liberation, the US was resisted by many people on the ground, and decried by many religious figures.
As we now know, with the loss of local leaders to maintain control, certain sects of religious fundamentalists gained power (ISIS being a prominent example). Without anywhere to turn, and rejecting the interventionists as outsiders, the local population is left vulnerable to religious fanatics who wish to capitalize on the chaos. In England, the Church takes total control over the country and turns them entirely against Hank and his program of education and industrialization, essentially erasing all of his peaceful attempts to improve the lives of the peasants.
Through violence, even the peaceful reforms are disturbed and destroyed. The uncertainty and vulnerability of a war put everything at stake, especially the most innocent facets of society.
Unlike Hank, however, we cannot sink into a dream. The United States military is stuck in a quagmire fighting perpetual wars for control in the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan. The lack of stability created by insurrection, regardless of its idealism, has been a burden for the region. The ultimate end of this conflict is uncertain; Twain’s character gets off easy and skips the rest of his war in a magical coma. We cannot sleep through our battles, though. Our wars remain, until the day we decide to properly remove ourselves.
The final major lesson for me, however, is the enduring and engrained nature of American idealism. While real life leaves many opportunities for disgraceful conduct, knowing that somewhere in the past, at the heart of American literature, lies a concrete and stalwart defender of the moral vision of America is powerful. As a confused and dazed nation attempts to find its moral center, I believe it has been with us all along in our stories.
A very special thanks to Danny Cordray for suggesting this novel to me and helping me critically think about this book.
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- Reiss, Edmund. Afterword. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain, 1889., Penguin Books, 1963, pp. 345-355.
- Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hartford, 1889.
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