My wife recently sent to me a photo of our six-month-old son with his foot in his mouth. That’s a feat I, in adulthood, occasionally still pull off, although in a less envious way and with more embarrassment. However, for babies, it seems a feat of ongoing delight and unending fun.
Seeing Maxwell with his toe in his mouth made me think of Ulysses S. Grant.
The story involves Mark Twain, and it’s one of my favorite episodes from Twain’s and Grant’s friendship.
In 1879, following his successful two-year world tour, Grant and his wife, Julia, traveled from San Francisco eastward toward their new home in New York. All along the way, the Grants were celebrated and feted. As part of the string of festivities, Grant “was to be feasted in Chicago by the veterans of the Army of the Tennessee—the first army over which he had had command . . .” Twain reported in his own autobiography.
The toast committee telegraphed me and asked me if I would be present and respond at the grand banquet to the toast to the ladies. I telegraphed back that the toast was worn out. Everything had been said about the ladies that could be said at a banquet, but there was one class of the community that had always been overlooked upon such occasions and if they would allow me I would take that class for a toast: “The Babies.”
The committee agreed and asked Twain for a title for his toast. Twain replied, “The Babies. —As they comfort us in our sorrows, let us not forget them in our festivities.”
The speech, Twain recalled afterwards, “was granted the perilous distinction of the place of honor. It was the last speech on the list, an honor no person, probably, has ever sought. It was not reached until two o’clock in the morning.”
He expected the speech to go off well—“and it did,” he admitted— but there was “one thing in it I had fears about, and that one thing stood where it could not be removed in case of disaster. It was the last sentence of the speech.”
In a letter to William Dean Howells on November 17, 1879, Twain told his literary friend that “Gen. Grant sat at the banquet like a statue of iron & listened without the faintest suggestion of emotion to fourteen speeches which tore other people all to shreds, but when I lit in with the fifteenth & last, his time was come!”
As Twain stood for his toast in those wee morning hours, speaking to a room well-lubricated by alcohol, he began with a nod to the topic he’d originally been asked to address. “We have not all had the good fortune to be ladies,” he said. “We have not all been generals, or poets, or statesmen; but when the toast works down to the babies, we stand on common ground.”
It is a shame that for a thousand years the world’s banquets have utterly ignored the baby, as if he didn’t amount to anything. If you will stop and think a minute—if you will go back fifty or one hundred years to your early married life and recontemplate your first baby—you will remember that he amounted to a good deal, and even something over. You soldiers all know that when that little fellow arrived at family headquarters you had to hand in your resignation. He took entire command. You became his lackey, his mere body-servant, and you had to stand around too. He was not a commander who made allowances for time, distance, weather, or anything else. You had to execute his order whether it was possible or not.
Of course, for me, as the father of three kids—one of them currently still very much a baby—Twain’s words hit close to home! But his toast then spoke to the Army of Tennessee veterans directly:
You could face the death-storm at Donelson and Vicksburg, and give back blow for blow; but when [the baby] clawed your whiskers, and pulled your hair, and twisted your nose, you had to take it. When the thunders of war were sounding in your ears you set your faces toward the batteries, and advanced with steady tread; but when he turned on the terrors of his war-whoop, you advanced in the other direction, and mighty glad of the chance, too.
Twain even worked in a nod to Philip Sheridan, who’d fathered twin girls two years earlier. “As long as you are in your right mind, don’t you ever pray for twins,” Twain said. “Twins amount to a permanent riot. And there ain’t any real difference between triplets and an insurrection.”
As he continued, Twain pictured “the America of fifty years hence, with a population of two hundred million souls, and was saying that the future President, Admirals, and so forth of that great coming time were now lying in their various cradles, scattered aboard over the vast expanse of this country,” he later summarized,
and then said, “And now in his cradle somewhere under the flag of the future illustrious Commander-in-Chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeur and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind at this moment to trying to find out some way to get his big toe into his mouth—something, meaning no disrespect to the illustrious guest of this evening, which he turned his entire attention to some fifty-six years ago.”
This sudden reference to Grant—the “illustrious guest of this evening”—caught the room off-guard. “And here, [as] I had expected, the laughter ceased and a sort of shuddering silence took its place—for this was apparently carrying the matter too far,” Twain reported.
“I waited a moment or two to let this silence sink well home.
“Then turning toward the General I added: ‘And if the child is but the father of the man there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded.’”
Grant, breaking his stony reserved, guffawed. “Which relieved the house,” Twain wrote, “for then they saw the General break up in good-sized pieces they followed suit with great enthusiasm.”
In his letter to Howells, he elaborated. “I shook him up like dynamite & he sat there fifteen minutes & laughed & cried like the mortalest of mortals,” Twain recounted in a self-congratulatory tone. “But bless you I had measured this unconquerable conqueror, & went at my work with the confidence of conviction, for I knew I could lick him. He told me he had shaken hands with 15,000 people that day & come out of it without ache or pain, but that my truths had racked all the bones of his body apart.”
You can read Twain’s full speech, “The Babies,” courtesy of the University of Virginia. And as you do, consider the toe-mouthing Maxwell and all the other babes—the future presidents and generals and admirals and other great men. “If the child is but the father of the man,” Twain said. I delight to wonder what he’ll someday become.