San Francisco Letter

Mark Twain

Virginia City Territorial Enterprise/December 10, 1865

A Graceful Compliment

One would hardly expect to receive a neat, voluntary compliment from so grave an institution as the United States Revenue Office, but such has been my good fortune. I have not been so agreeably surprised in many a day. The Revenue officers, in a communication addressed to me, fondle the flattering fiction that I am a man of means, and have got “goods, chattels and effects” – and even “real estate!” Gentlemen, you couldn’t have paid such a compliment as that to any man who would appreciate it higher, or be more grateful for it than myself. We will drink together, if you object not.

I am taxed on my income! This is perfectly gorgeous! I never felt so important in my life before. To be treated in this splendid way, just like another William B. Astor! Gentlemen, we must drink.

Yes, I am taxed on my income. And the printed paper which bears this compliment – all slathered over with fierce-looking written figures – looks as grand as a steamboat’s manifest. It reads thus:


Name – M. Twain
Residence – At Large
List and amount of tax – $31.25
Penalty – 3.12
Warrant – 2.45

Total amount – $36.82

Date – November 20, 1865.

Deputy Collector.

Please present this at the Collector’s office.”

Now I consider that really handsome. I have got it framed beautifully, and I take more pride in it than any of my other furniture. I trust it will become an heirloom and serve to show many generations of my posterity that I was a man of consequence in the land – that I was also the recipient of compliments of the most extraordinary nature from high officers of the national government.

On the other side of this complimentary document I find some happy blank verse headed “Warrant,” and signed by the poet “Frank Soule, Collector of Internal Revenue.” Some of the flights of fancy in this Ode are really sublime, and show with what facility the poetic fire can render beautiful the most unpromising subject. For instance: “You are hereby commanded to distrain upon so much of the goods, chattels and effects of the within named person, if any such can be found, etc.” However, that is not so much a flight of fancy as a flight of humor. It is a fine flight, though, anyway. But this one is equal to anything in Shakspeare: “But in case sufficient goods, chattels and effects cannot be found, then you are hereby commanded to seize so much of the real estate of said person as may be necessary to satisfy the tax.” There’s poetry for you! They are going to commence on my real estate. This is very rough. But then the officer is expressly instructed to find it first. That is the saving clause for me. I will get them to take it all out in real estate. And then I will give them all the time they want to find it in.

But I can tell them of a way whereby they can ultimately enrich the Government of the United States by a judicious manipulation of this little bill against me – a way in which even the enormous national debt may be eventually paid off! Think of it! Imperishable fame will be the reward of the man who finds a way to pay off the national debt without impoverishing the land; I offer to furnish that method and crown these gentlemen with that fadeless glory. It is so simple and plain that a child may understand it. It is thus: I perceive that by neglecting to pay my income tax within ten days after it was due, I have brought upon myself a “penalty” of three dollars and twelve cents extra tax for that ten days. Don’t you see? – let her run! Every ten days, $3.12; every month of 31 days, $10; every year, $120; every century, $12,000; at the end of a hundred thousand years, $1,200,000,000 will be the interest that has accumulated….


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