Life on the Mississippi

by Mark Twain
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In Life on the Mississippi, why does Twain write that "such a thing, happening in the upper river in the old times, could have transferred a slave from Missouri to Illinois and made a free man of him"?

In Life on the Mississippi, Twain writes these words to show the bizarre situation whereby the straightening and shortening of the Mississippi changes the geographical position of towns along the river. This meant that, in practice, a town in slaveholding Missouri could have moved to Illinois, a free state, thus allowing a slave to become free.

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In Life on the Mississippi, Twain introduces us to a bizarre natural phenomenon. Apparently, the Mississippi River can make "prodigious jumps" by cutting through narrow strips of land and, in the process, straighten and shorten itself.

In practical terms, this leads to some pretty unusual results. Several river towns have been thrown out into rural areas as the movement of the Mississippi builds up sand bars and forests in front of them. The town of Delta, which was once three miles below Vicksburg, is now two miles above it.

Inevitably, such geographical changes have political implications, as people can find themselves inadvertently moving from one state to another. A man could go to bed one night in the state of Mississippi, then find himself in the state of Louisiana when he wakes up.

Twain muses that the straightening and shortening of the Mississippi could easily have had consequences for the operation of slavery. Hypothetically speaking, a slave living on the border between Missouri, a slave state, and Illinois, a free state, could've ended up becoming a free man once the place where he lived changed states due to the Mississippi River cutting through the land. It's highly unlikely that such a thing ever happened, but it was always a possibility, however remote.

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