Hadleyburg thinks it’s an incorruptible town. Well, a stranger will put that to the test.
So how does the stranger corrupt Hadleyburg? Well with the one thing that can corrupt almost anyone – money. Gold coins, to be specific. He sends a sack of them and claims they are meant for the person who helped him during his last trip to the town. Well everyone wants to get their hands on the sack of gold. However, part of the stranger’s test is to have them guess a certain remark written within the sack. The whole town eventually tries doing so, proving they aren’t so incorruptible after all.
The stranger wants revenge on Hadleyburg for offending him during his visit. The citizens are shocked to find out the full remark is: “You are far from being a bad man – go and reform – or mark my works – some day for your sins you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg – TRY AND MAKE IT THE FORMER.”
He’s only doing this because Hadleyburg is only incorruptible because it has never been tested. The stranger writes, “Why, you simple creatures, the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire.”
Which leads to one of the primary point of Twain’s story: Virtue isn’t true virtue unless its been tested. Hadleyburg was never incorruptible in the first place simply because it’s impossible – all human beings are corruptible. They can be tempted, even the seemingly upstanding ones: “My idea was to make liars and thieves of nearly half a hundred smirchless men and women who had never in their lives uttered a lie or stolen a penny.” And he can accomplish this because many will do the wrong thing if they think they can get away with it.
Humans wish they could be pure and incorruptible. And they do attempt to reach this ideal. This can be seen with the countless small towns and their citizens that try to uphold a facade of morals and family values. Twain’s story basically exposes the idea of the perfect small town for the fraud that it is.
Once one sees past the mask, one can find the gossip, manipulation and falsehood among these supposedly upstanding communities.
Even before the stranger came there’s some signs that Hadleyburg already had plenty examples of corruption. This is seen when it’s revealed upright Mr. Richards had stopped a man (Goodson) from marrying his lover because she had African American ancestry. He thinks he’s doing something good of course: “he thus saved Goodson from marrying the tainted girl.” This exposes Hadleyburg for having the typical human flaws their fellow man does. They judge, shame and dislike outsiders.
And as the story reveals Hadleyburg really angered this stranger: “I passed through your town at a certain time, and received and offense which I had not earned. Any other man would have been content to kill one or two of you and call it square, but to me that would have been a trivial revenge and inadequate: for the dead do not suffer.” Clearly there was already a certain amount of corruption for them to offend this stranger so terribly.
By the end Hadleyburg knows it’s flawed and its town seal goes from: “Lead us not into temptation” to “Lead us into temptation.” And they were lead into temptation and each of the citizens probably will again. They are human, after all.