Roughing It Irony

Roughing It Irony

Trial By Jury, Part I

If one ever has pause to wonder what Mark Twain’s view on the judicial system of America was—in particular, his perspective on the oft-touted concept that American jurisprudence is inherently equitable with fairness—then one need only read the following passage with one’s irony detector turned on:

Alfred the Great, when he invented trial by jury and knew that he had admirably framed it to secure justice in his age of the world, was not aware that in the nineteenth century the condition of things would be so entirely changed that unless he rose from the grave and altered the jury plan to meet the emergency, it would prove the most ingenious and infallible agency for defeating justice that human wisdom could contrive.


A legendary figure named Slade so entrances the narrator that he will stop whatever else he is doing at the mere mention of the name of this enigmatic man known as the bloodiest, the most dangerous and yet most valuable inhabitant of the mountains. After a narrative that crosses over two chapters, the story of Slade finally concludes on a distinctly ironic note:

“if moral courage is not the requisite quality, what could it have been that this stout-hearted Slade lacked?—this bloody, desperate, kindly-mannered, urbane gentleman, who never hesitated to warn his most ruffianly enemies that he would kill them whenever or wherever he came across them next! I think it is a conundrum worth investigating.”

Trial by Jury, Part II

Twain’s continuing sardonic and questionable view of the stalwart foundation of American justice—trial by a jury of peers—comes in for some more ironic undermining in the chapter about Buck Fanshaw’s death and burial and the all-important inquest in between:

“On the inquest it was shown that Buck Fanshaw, in the delirium of a wasting typhoid fever, had taken arsenic, shot himself through the body, cut his throat, and jumped out of a four-story window and broken his neck—and after due deliberation, the jury, sad and tearful, but with intelligence unblinded by its sorrow, brought in a verdict of death “by the visitation of God.” What could the world do without juries?


A recurring theme of Roughing It is the transformation of the naïve newcomer into an experienced traveler. By the end of the book, the narrator has become far more mature and worldly than when he first traveled out west. Many individual episodes reflect this theme in miniature such as Twain’s first meeting with an exotic fruit:

“I thought tamarinds were made to eat, but that was probably not the idea. I ate several, and it seemed to me that they were rather sour that year. I found, afterward, that only strangers eat tamarinds—but they only eat them once.”

Trial by Jury, Part III

The comparison of the trial by jury as palladium of liberty can be found in one of the Federalist Papers written by Alexander Hamilton. In 1795, a song titled “Trial by Jury: The Grand Palladium of British Liberty” was sung in celebration of the acquittal of three men on trial for high treason. During Twain’s era, it became a popular through Lysander Spooner’s co-opting of Hamilton’s words to apply to the concept of jury nullification. But none of these used the phrase quite as memorably as Twain in yet another ironic attack upon the conventional wisdom of trial by jury:

“Trial by jury is the palladium of our liberties. I do not know what a palladium is, having never seen a palladium, but it is a good thing no doubt at any rate.”

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