Slavery and the Clemens Family
Slavery was a given part of life in the world of young Samuel Clemens. He grew up in a family that owned slaves and relied upon their labor for daily comforts. Sam’s father, John Marshall Clemens, had descended from a line of wealthy, slave-owning Virginia planters, a lineage of which he was very proud. Though the writer Mark Twain would later come to mock this pride in heritage with his caricatured depiction of the First Families of Virginia, or FFVs as he called them, in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, the child Sam accepted that racial heritage determined slavery or freedom, deprivation or privilege.
John Marshall Clemens inherited three slaves after the death of his father. Upon his marriage to Jane Lampton on May 6, 1923, he came into possession of three more slaves. The growing Clemens family thus started out with six slaves, but as John Marshall’s business ventures successively failed, he sold these slaves to keep the family financially solvent. By 1835, after relocating several times and facing further business failures, the Clemens family had only Jennie; the other five had been sold. Jennie, had been taken from her Tennessee friends and family and brought to Missouri where she primarily served as a nursemaid to the frail infant Samuel Clemens. Twain tells the story of a beating which Jennie received from Mr. Clemens. At the insistence of Mrs. Clemens, Jennie was ultimately sold on the auction block.
In 1840, the Clemens family settled in Hannibal, Missouri. Like many other families in Hannibal, the Clemenses leased slaves to perform domestic tasks. A much older Samuel Clemens recorded in his autobiography his memory of one such slave serving the Clemens family, a boy named Sandy:
We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from some one, there in Hannibal. He was from the eastern shore of Maryland and had been brought away from his family and his friends halfway across the American continent and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing—it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper and went raging to my mother and said Sandy had been singing for the past hour without a single break and I couldn’t stand it and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes and her lip trembled and she said something like this:
"Poor thing, when he sings it shows that he is not remembering and that comforts me; but when he is still I am afraid he is thinking and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.” (Neider, Autobiography of Mark Twain 6-7).
Clearly his mother’s words made a lasting impression on young Sam, and as a man, he grew to understand the “friendless” position and disadvantages of the slave child, Sandy. Once he had attained fame and fortune, Samuel Clemens, the child of slave owners, considered it his duty to support and encourage newly emancipated African Americans as they struggled to escape the position to which white society had relegated them. For more information on Samuel Clemens’s philanthropic support for African Americans, see our section on Mark Twain the Humanitarian.
Adapted from: Dempsey, Terrell. Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens’s World. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003.