My First Lie, and How I Got Out of It
As I understand it, what you desire is information
about "my first lie, and how I got out of it." I was
born in 1835; I am well along, and my memory is not as good as it
was. If you had asked about my first truth it would have been
easier for me and kinder of you, for I remember that fairly well; I
remember it as if it were last week. The family think it was week
before, but that is flattery and probably has a selfish project back of
it. When a person has become seasoned by experience and has
reached the age of sixty-four, which is the age of discretion, he likes
a family compliment as well as ever, but he does not lose his head over
it as in the old innocent days.
I do not remember my first lie, it is too far back;
but I remember my second one very well. I was nine days old at the
time, and had noticed that if a pin was sticking in me and I advertised
it in the usual fashion, I was lovingly petted and coddled and pitied in
a most agreeable way and got a ration between meals besides. It
was human nature to want to get these riches, and I fell. I lied
about the pin — advertising one when there wasn't any. You would
have done it; George Washington did it; anybody would have done
it. During the first half of my life I never knew a child that was
able to rise above that temptation and keep from telling that lie.
Up to 1867 all the civilized children that were ever born into the world
were liars — including George. Then the safety-pin came in and
blocked the game. But is that reform worth anything? No; for
it is reform by force and has no virtue in it; it merely stops that form
of lying; it doesn't impair the disposition to lie, by a shade. It
is the cradle application of conversion by fire and sword, or of the
temperance principle through prohibition.
To return to that early lie. They found no pin,
and they realized that another liar had been added to the world's
supply. For by the grace of a rare inspiration, a quite
commonplace but seldom noticed fact was borne in upon their
understandings — that almost all lies are acts, and speech has no part in
them. Then, if they examined a little further they recognized that all
people are liars from the cradle onward, without exception, and that
they begin to lie as soon as they wake in the morning, and keep it up,
without rest or refreshment, until they go to sleep at night. If they
had arrived at that truth it probably grieved them — did, if they had been
heedlessly and ignorantly educated by their books and teachers; for why
should a person grieve over a thing which by the eternal law of his make
he cannot help? He didn't invent the law; it is merely his business to
obey it and keep still; join the universal conspiracy and keep so still
that he shall deceive his fellow-conspirators into imagining that he
doesn't know that the law exists. It is what we all do — we that know.
speaking of the lie of silent assertion; we can tell it without saying a
word, and we all do it — that we know. In the magnitude of its territorial
spread it is one of the most majestic lies that the civilizations make
it their sacred and anxious care to guard and watch and propagate.
For instance: It would not be possible for a humane
and intelligent person to invent a rational excuse for slavery; yet you
will remember that in the early days of the emancipation agitation in
the North, the agitators got but small help or countenance from any one.
Argue and plead and pray as they might, they could not break the
universal stillness that reigned, from pulpit and press all the way down
to the bottom of society — the clammy stillness created and maintained by
the lie of silent assertion — the silent assertion that there wasn't
anything going on in which humane and intelligent people were
From the beginning of the Dreyfus case to the end of
it, all France, except a couple of dozen moral paladins, lay under the
smother of the silent-assertion lie that no wrong was being done to a
persecuted and unoffending man. The like smother was over England lately, a good half of the population silently
letting on that they were not aware that Mr. Chamberlain was trying to
manufacture a war in South Africa and was willing to pay fancy prices
for the materials.
Now there we have instances of three prominent
ostensible civilizations working the silent-assertion lie. Could one
find other instances in the three countries? I think so. Not so very
many, perhaps, but say a billion — just so as to keep within bounds.
those countries working that kind of lie, day in and day out, in
thousands and thousands of varieties, without ever resting? Yes, we know
that to be true, the universal conspiracy of the silent-assertion lie is
hard at work always and everywhere, and always in the interest of a
stupidity or a sham, never in the interest of a thing fine or
respectable. Is it the most timid and shabby of all lies? It seems to
have the look of it. For ages and ages it has mutely labored in the
interest of despotisms and aristocracies and chattel slaveries, and
military slaveries, and religious slaveries, and has kept them alive;
keeps them alive yet, here and there and yonder, all about the globe;
and will go on keeping them alive until the silent-assertion lie retires
from business — the silent assertion that nothing is going on which fair
and intelligent men are aware of and are engaged by their duty to try to
What l am arriving at is this: When whole races and
peoples conspire to propagate gigantic mute lies in the interest of
tyrannies and shams, why should we care anything about the trifling lies
told by individuals? Why should we try to make it appear that abstention
from lying is a virtue? Why should we want to beguile ourselves in that
way? Why should we without shame help the nation lie, and then be
ashamed to do a little lying on our own account? Why shouldn't we be
honest and honorable, and lie every time we get a chance? That is to
say, why shouldn't we be consistent, and either lie all the time or not
at all? Why should we help the nation lie the whole day long and then
object to telling one little individual private lie in our own interest
to go to bed on? Just for the refreshment of it, I mean, and to take the
rancid taste out of our mouth.
Here in England they have the oddest ways. They won't
tell a spoken lie — nothing can persuade them. Except in a large moral
interest, like politics or religion, I mean. To tell a spoken lie to get
even the poorest little personal advantage out of it is a thing which is
impossible to them. They make me ashamed of myself sometimes, they are
so bigoted. They will not even tell a lie for the fun of it; they will
not tell it when it hasn't even a suggestion of damage or advantage in
it for any one. This has a restraining influence upon me in spite of
reason, and I am always getting out of practice.
Of course, they tell all sorts of little unspoken
lies, just like anybody; but they don't notice it until their attention
is called to it. They have got me so that sometimes I never tell a verbal
lie now except in modified form; and even in the modified form they
don't approve of it. Still, that is as far as I can go in the interest
of the growing friendly relations between the two countries; I must keep
some of my self-respect — and my health. I can live on a low diet, but I
can't get along on no sustenance at all.
Of course, there are times when these people have to
come out with a spoken lie, for that is a thing which happens to
everybody once in a while, and would happen to the angels if they came
down here much. Particularly to the angels, in fact, for the lies I
speak of are self-sacrificing ones told for a generous object, not a
mean one; but even when these people tell a lie of that sort it seems to
scare them and unsettle their minds. It is a wonderful thing to see, and
shows that they are all insane. In fact, it is a country full of the
most interesting people.
I have an English friend of twenty-five years'
standing, and yesterday when we were coming downtown on top of the bus I
happened to tell him a lie — a modified one of course; a half-breed, a
mulatto: I can't seem to tell any other kind now, the market is so flat.
I was explaining to him how I got out of an embarrassment in Austria
last year. I do not know what might have become of me if I hadn't
happened to remember to tell the police that I belonged to the same
family as the Prince of Wales. That made everything pleasant. and they
let me go; and apologized, too, and were ever so kind and obliging and
polite, and couldn't do too much for me, and explained how the mistake
came to be made, and promised to hang the officer that did it, and hoped
I would let bygones be bygones and not say anything about it; and I said
they could depend on me. My friend said, austerely:
"You call it a modified lie? Where is the
I explained that it lay in the form of my statement
to the police.
"I didn't say I belonged to the royal family: I
only said I belonged to the same family as the Prince — meaning the human
family, of course, and if those people had had any penetration they
would have known it. I can t go around furnishing brains to the police;
it is not to be expected."
"How did you feel after that performance?"
"Well, of course I was distressed to find that
the police had misunderstood me, but as long as I had not told any lie I
knew there was no occasion to sit up nights and worry about it."
My friend struggled with the case several minutes,
turning it over and examining it in his mind; then he said that so far
as he could see the modification was itself a lie, being a misleading
reservation of an explanatory fact; so I had told two lies instead of
"I wouldn't have done it," said he: "I
have never told a lie, and I should be very sorry to do such a
Just then he lifted his had and smiled a basketful of
surprised and delighted smiles down at a gentleman who was passing in a
"Who was that, G—?"
"I don't know."
"Then why did you do that?"
"Because I saw he thought he knew me and was
expecting it of me, If I hadn't done it he would have been hurt, I
didn't want to embarrass him before the whole street."
"Well, your heart was right, G—, and you act was right. What you did was kindly and courteous and beautiful; I would have
done it myself: but it was a lie."
"A lie? I didn't say a word. How do you make it
"I know you didn't speak, still you said to him
very plainly and enthusiastically in dumb show, 'Hello! you in town?
Awful glad to see you, old fellow; when did you get back?' Concealed in
your actions was what you have called 'a misleading reservation of an
explanatory fact' — the fact that you had never seen him before.
expressed joy in encountering him — a lie; and you made that
reservation — another lie. It was my pair over again, But don't be
troubled — we all do it.
Two hours later, at dinner, when quite other matters
were being discussed, he told how he happened along once just in the
nick of time to do a great service for a family who were old friends of
his. The head of it had suddenly died in circumstances and surroundings
of a ruinously disgraceful character. If known, the facts would break
the hearts of the innocent family and put upon then a load of
unendurable shame. There was no help but in a giant lie, and he girded
up his loins and told it.
"The family never found out, G—?"
"Never. In all these years they have never
suspected. They were proud of him, and always had reason to be; they are
proud of him yet, and to them his memory is sacred and stainless and
"They had a narrow escape, G—."
"Indeed they had."
"For the very next man that came along might
have been one of those heartless and shameless truth-mongers. You have
told the truth a million times in your life, G—, but that one golden lie
atones for it all. Persevere."
Some may think me not strict enough in my morals, but
that position is hardly tenable. There are many kinds of lying which I
do not approve. I do not like an injurious lie, except when it injures
somebody else; and I do not like the lie of bravado, nor the lie or
virtuous ecstasy: the latter was affected by Bryant, the former by
Mr. Bryant said, "Truth crushed to the earth
will rise again."
I have taken medals at thirteen world's fairs, and
may claim to be not without capacity, but I never told as big a one as
that which Mr. Bryant was playing to the gallery; we all do it. Carlyle
said, in substance, this — I do not remember the exact words: "This
gospel is eternal — that a lie shall not live."
I have a reverent affection for Carlyle's books, and
have read his Revolution
eight times; and so I prefer to think he was
not entirely himself when he told that one. To me it is plain that he
said it in a moment of excitement, when chasing Americans out of his
back yard with brickbats. They used to go there and worship.
he was probably fond of them, but he was always able to conceal it.
kept bricks for them, but he was not a good shot, and it is a matter of
history that when he fired they dodged, and carried off the brick, for
as a nation we like relics, and so long as we get them we do not much
care what the reliquary thinks about it. lam quite sure that when he
told that large one about a lie not being able to live, he had just
missed an American and was over-excited. He told it above thirty years
ago, but it is alive yet; alive, and very healthy and hearty, and likely
to outlive any fact in history. Carlyle was truthful when calm, but give
him Americans enough and bricks enough and he could have taken medals
As regards that time that George Washington told the
truth, a word must be said, of course. It is the principal jewel in the
crown of American, and it is but natural that we would work for all it
is worth, as Milton says in his "Lay of the Last Minstrel."
was a timely and judicious truth, and I should have told it myself in
the circumstances. But I should have stopped there. It was a stately
truth, a lofty truth — a Tower; and I think it was a mistake to go on and
distract attention from its sublimity by building another Tower
alongside of it fourteen times as big. I refer to his remark that he
"could not lie," I should have fed that to the marines: or left
it to Carlyle; it is just in his style. It
would have taken a medal at any European fair, and would have got an
Honorable Mention even at Chicago if it had been saved up. But let it
pass: The Father of his Country was excited. I have been in those
circumstances, and I recollect.
With the truth he told I have no objection to offer,
as already indicated. I think it was not premeditated, but an
inspiration. With his fine military mind, he had probably arranged to
let his brother Edward in for the cherry-tree results, but by an
inspiration he saw his opportunity in time and took advantage of it.
telling the truth he could astonish his father; his father would tell
the neighbors; the neighbors would spread it; it would travel to all
firesides; in the end it would make him President, and not only that,
but First President. He was a far-seeing boy and would be likely to
think of these things. Therefore, to my mind, he stands justified for
what he did. But not for the other Tower: it was a mistake. Still, I
don't know about that; upon reflection I think perhaps it wasn't. For
indeed it is that Tower that makes the other one live. If he hadn't said
"I cannot tell a lie," there would have been no convulsion.
That was the earthquake that rocked the planet. That is the kind of
statement that lives forever, and a fact barnacled to it has a good
chance to share its immortality.
To sum up, on the whole I am satisfied with things
the way they are. There is a prejudice against the spoken lie, but none
against any other, and by examination and mathematical computation I
find that the proportion of the spoken lie to the other varieties is as
1 to 22,894. Therefore the spoken lie is of no consequence, and it is
not worth while to go around fussing about it and trying to make believe
that it is an important matter. The silent colossal National Lie that is
the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and
inequalities and unfairnesses that afflict the peoples — that is the one to
throw bricks and sermons at. But Let us be judicious and let somebody
And then — But I have wandered from my text. How did I
get out of my second lie? I think I got out with honor, but I cannot be
sure, for it was a long time ago and some of the details have faded out
of my memory. I recollect that I was reversed and stretched across
someone's knee, and that something happened, but I cannot now remember
what it was. I think there was music; but it is all dim now and blurred
by the lapse of time, and this may be only a senile fancy.
* Mark Twain wrote this
essay in 1899. [Back]