I am starting to dig into Mark Twain’s epic autobiography, and I just got through reading his accounts of how he ended up publishing General US Grant’s memoirs. There are two rather surprising discoveries in these Twain writings. First, you can tell that he absolutely worshiped Grant, as many likely did in the 1880s. Grant, after all, had led the Union to victory in the Civil War. This is funny only because Twain was often so cynical that seeing him idolize a person is downright weird!
The other lesson you see in these writings, though, is something quite different. What you learn is that Ulysses S. Grant, “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, the man who accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, was often played for a fool.
Banks and Books
The main offender against Grant, according to Twain, was a man by the name of Ward, who worked with Grant’s son in a bank. Grant was a silent partner. Ward was one of those guys who could convince you huge tracts of land existed that would be excellent investments. He could tell you that he would pay you right back and you’d believe him even though he hadn’t paid you back last time. He convinced the Grant family that he was reliable enough. After all, they started a business with him. But eventually, Ward cleaned out not only the Grant family but also anyone associated with them.
This experience continued to pierce Grant until he died, but it did not prevent him from nearly walking into similar situations. As Grant began to write articles and then his memoirs, he got offers from various publishers. Some offered him a 10% royalty. Others offered him small amounts of money for articles he was writing about the great battles he had fought in the Civil War. To Twain, these articles were priceless. Not only were they reminiscences of a great hero, but Grant’s articles would inspire other heroes to write articles for those magazines too. Twain was dumb-founded at how little Grant was being offered for his work, and he was perplexed that Grant was willing, despite his experience with Ward, to take all of the publishers at their word.
Something Twain knew a bit about
It’s certainly surprising to find that Grant was so easily fooled and so very trusting in people. What’s equally surprising is that Twain, who could be so biting, so sarcastic, so disappointed in humanity, would be taken for just as much of a ride as Grant was. You see, Mark Twain got ensnared by a man who told Twain he had invented a revolutionary typesetting device. Twain went in to see the machine and was wowed by it. He relied on a lawyer who said it was a great investment. Twain kept giving the inventor money, even though he noticed the inventor himself never bet any of his own money on these efforts. This went on for decades, not days or weeks, and Twain lost an extremely substantial amount of money as a result. So, even while he was coaching Grant on how to avoid a scam, Twain was being scammed himself.
Trusting is forgivable
What does this mean for us in this age of technology? It means that sometimes we may guess wrong about people. In this era of online communication, it’s harder than ever to guess at someone’s real personality and real motives. It’s so easy to believe those people who email you and say, “Oh, I need money sent to me right away, I got robbed on vacation!” It’s so easy to believe that someone is one way when they are in fact not that way at all.
If you have gotten ensnared by such a scenario, or even come close, it can be really easy to beat yourself up. “I’m smarter than this!” you might say.
But history tells us that even the smartest of the smart, the most cynical of the cynical, the bravest of the brave – even they fell for silly tricks sometimes. This doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind. It just means that we’re all only human. Cut yourself a break. Tricksters can be really good at what they do. It’s their full-time job.
What do you think?
Image by Ulrik De Wachter. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/Ulrik