100 years after his death, Twain’s legal critique resonates

April 21, 2010

“A lawyer one day spoke to him with his hands in his pockets. ‘Is it not a curious sight to see a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets?’ remarked the humorist in his quiet drawl.”

That humorist, of course, was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, who died 100 years ago today at the age of 74. Best known for his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn books, Twain was a sharp-witted societal commentator, and his wit was sometimes aimed in the direction of attorneys and the court.

Here are just a few of his many comments on our country’s laws and legal system.

  • “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”
  • “We have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding 12 men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.”
  • “The jury system puts a ban upon intelligence and honesty, and a premium upon ignorance, stupidity, and perjury.”
  • “We have an insanity plea that would have saved Cain.”
  • “If there wasn’t a penalty for laughing in court, the jury would never be able to hear the evidence.”
  • “If you laid all of our laws end to end, there would be no end.”
  • “The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”

Samuel Clemens postage stamp from the 1940sIf you’re a fan of legal fiction, be sure to check out one of Twain’s lesser-known masterpieces, Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, a book with a murder trial that turns on fingerprint evidence (and was published years before fingerprints were first used as evidence in court).

For more great quips from Mark Twain like the ones above, pick up a copy of Uncle Anthony’s Unabridged Analogies: Quotes & Proverbs for Lawyers and Lecturers. It’s available right now at a 10% discount to Westlaw Insiders like you.