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PINE NUTS – Minister to China

May 1, 2023 | McAvoy Lane

Today’s national news features America’s Ambassador to China, Robert Nicholas Burns, he who speaks French, Arabic, and Greek as well as English, addressing mounting tensions with China. Of course, a little voice deep inside me shouted, “Hey, hey, this connects to Mark Twain!”

Sure enough, when the capable Minister to China, Anson Burlingame resigned in 1867, Sam Clemens was offered the position, at least that’s what he said. Others maintain that Sam applied for the position and was denied. Be that as it may, Anson Burlingame had a huge influence on an impressionable Sam Clemens when they met aboard the Ajax, bound for the Sandwich Islands in 1866. Anson told Sam, “You have great ability; I believe you have genius. What you need now is refinement of association.” Sam took Anson’s advice to heart and married Olivia Langdon.

Had Samuel become Minister to China, well, we might not be feeling the tensions that are so palpable today.

Sam enjoyed a short sinecure as secretary to Nevada Senator William Stewart back in 1867. “Help yourself to the whiskey and cigars, Sam, and wade right in.” 

So Sam went right to work humoring some of Nevada’s finest. In answering a request for a post office at Baldwin’s Ranch, Sam replied, “What the mischief do you suppose you want with a post office in Baldwin Ranch? It would not do you any good. If any letters came there, you couldn’t read them, you know. What you want is a nice jail.”

On another occasion, when a Nevada clergyman petitioned Senator Stewart in a letter, to present a bill to incorporate the Episcopal Church of Nevada, Sam took the liberty to reply, “Petition your state legislature, because Congress don’t know anything about religion.”

Samuel claimed he retired from the employ of Old Bully-raggin’ Billy Stewart, and that “Thanks to Bill Stewart, history will show that men do not own mines in Nevada, but holes in the ground, and that a hole in the ground is not taxable. From here on, that staunch old bulwark of the state will be known as, The Great Gould & Curry Hole-In-The-Ground.”

Stewart, on the other hand, claimed he had to fire Clemens, and maintained, “Sam Clemens was the most lovable scamp and nuisance that ever blighted Nevada.”

So, if Sam had become a popular Minister to China, might his indelible humor still be a tonic today? Perhaps we should allow Samuel to speak on his own behalf. Sam observed about fellow humorist Artemus Ward following Ward’s death in 1867, “He seems never to have written a harsh thing against anybody -neither have I, for that matter -at least nothing harsh enough for a body to fret about.”

Personally, I got to teach school at St. Joseph’s College in Hong Kong a while back, and fell in love with the Chinese people. Were I appointed Minister to China today as an impressionist of Mark Twain, well, I might hang in there just long enough to see a permanent jollification set in, then retire gracefully to Lake Tahoe…

Audio: https://anchor.fm/mcavoy-layne

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