Pap’s “Govment” Speech in Huckleberry Finn

“Then the old man got to cussing, and cussed everything and everybody he could think of, and then cussed them all over again to make sure he hadn’t skipped any, and after that he polished off with a kind of general cuss all round, including a considerable parcel of people which he didn’t know the names of, and so called them what’s-his-name, when he got to them, and went right along with his cussing.” (Huckleberry Finn, speaking about his Pap).

Pap’s “Govment” Speech, in Chapter 6 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is an excellent example of how Mark Twain empowered his words to rise beyond the meanings they seem to have on the page and create their own distorted realities. Some of his words appear believable enough on the surface but taken within the contexts of who was speaking them. However, in reality, they mainly serve to mask his selfish motives. Before he delivered his speech, he pulled Huck out of school and kept him a captive in his small, isolated and thinly furnished backwoods cabin. This action undermined the efforts of the two well-meaning spinster sisters, who were trying to sivilize him. Pap reasoned that no son of his should be allowed to become “puffed –up” and learn more than his father. Huck narrates and prepares the reader to understand the context of the speech. He says that  Pap was laying in the gutter of town the night before and continuing to drink heavily before he spoke. Huck reflects that when Pap drinks, he often goes after the government. His rant starts:

Call this a govment! Why, just look at it and see what it’s like. Here’s the law a-standing ready to take a man’s son away from him — a man’s own son, which he has had all the trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising. Yes, just as that man has got that son raised at last, and ready to go to work and begin to do suthin’ for him and give him a rest, the law up and goes for him. And they call that govment!    

Pap talks like he is working a political crowd, while Huck only listens and watches him without comment. Twain likely observed men giving speeches like these. The speech illustrates how words delivered from greedy men with self-serving points of view can sway those who are ignorant or not paying attention to their underlying hidden messages. Such speeches are the foundations of political propaganda, which Twain recognized and resisted. When examined on the surface, reasonable people might agree with parts of what Pap said. However, when measured against the realities of how he has acted as a father and a citizen, his speech rings hollow. For example, most people would agree that the govment should not normally take a child away from his father. But Huck was not delivered to the care of the two sisters because the government wanted to deprive Pap of a son. Rather, he forfeited the right to be a parent because he often left his twelve or thirteen-year-old son alone for months at a time to fend for himself in the woods. As the United States was still a relatively young country when this story was said to take place (early nineteenth century), men engaged in forceful debates about what which rights were afforded by the state and which belonged to parents. In the present day, we still argue about such matters when we debate whether parents have the right to withhold inoculations or medical treatment to their children. Huck’s mother had died a long time ago. But Pap was not going on those long trips away from home to help improve his son’s situation. He was a deadbeat dad and a violent and dangerous alcoholic. Twain’s writing was replete with drunken men who lost all understanding of reality and acted recklessly irresponsible toward their families. Recall how Injun’ Joe convinced Muff Potter that he had killed Dr. Robinson in a drunken stupor, when, instead, the Injun’ had done it himself. Pap had not been a responsible father and had not gone to any expense raising Huck. He declares that he should be entitled to see his son begin to work for him now that he is old enough and skilled. Perhaps, we can agree with Pap on this statement, as stands outside of its context. But, I suspect that not many readers would believe that Huck should give up his money so that Pap could enjoy the carefree and drunken life he believed he had a right to enjoy. Since Pap had been away, Huck and Tom Sawyer had discovered a treasure worth $12, 0000. Judge Thatcher, who represents the govment that Pap despises, had put the money away in a safe place to protect both Tom’s and Huck’s future prospects. But Pap believes that he has a right to Huck’s share of the money simply because he is his father. According to Pap’s thinking, the govment only needs to protect his rights and has no obligation to protect the rights of a son, even one who has been neglected and abused and battered by his father. Pap expresses his outrage at Judge Thatcher, declaring that I would be “one of the wealthiest men in town if I could get my rights.”

What are Pap’s rights? By his definition, his rights are what the government owes him, and they do not involve the responsibilities he has to take care of himself or his family. They also don’t extend to his obligation to look out for any other people in his community, particularly not to black people. Pap is riled up and verbally trashes a well-dressed, educated, and wealthy free black man from Ohio, who he saw on his last voyage. Pap states that he had “fine clothes, a gold watch, and chain, and a silver-headed cane,” could speak “all kinds of languages, and knowed everything.” But the worst part of the encounter, he reports, was that the man also had the right to vote. To him, this clearly demonstrated how low the govment had fallen. Pap declares that he was so indignant, that when it was Election Day, he would have voted himself, “if I warn’t too drunk to get there.” He declares that he will never vote again as long as the govment continues to allow a black man to vote. He then brags that he threatened directly “to Judge Thatcher’s face” that he was considering leaving the country unless the situation was rectified. He continues his outrage by mentioning that the well-to-do black man wouldn’t move out of his way when they met each other on the road until Pap shoved him aside. In the South, before the Civil War, black slaves and freedmen were required by law to move out-of-the-way of whites. Twain, in bringing up this example, illustrates that he likely thought this was an unjust law, and that he was not a racist. However, from Pap’s point of view, he deserved to better off and have more rights than any black man.

It’s hard to justify Pap’s argument since he was the sole reason he had fallen down to such a lowly station. He had no cause to blame the govment or black people for his misfortunes. Twain offers this story and the Govment Speech to show how unreasonable Pap’s arguments were. Twain was suspicious of the government and believed that it should not interfere much in people’s lives. But this story illustrates that Twain did not agree with Pap’s idea that the government should be responsible for ensuring the well-being of its citizens. We can also clearly see that he did believe that the government should have the right to protect a son from a neglectful and abusive father. By merely reporting the words of Pap’s govment speech and not providing any opinion about it, Huck offers his point of view with an element of innocence and makes his story very believable. His naïve voice allows room for readers to make up their own mind about Pap and many of the other unsavory characters he encounters in his escape to freedom down the Mississippi River.

 

 

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