Mencken vs. Lincoln

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Mention Mencken
and I say it’s time again to give that libertarian genius his due
for helping to light up the dark pro-state pro-war pitfalls of political
democracy today — and indeed all the way back to Ancient Greece
when thinkers of the stature of Aristotle and Plato hit the vacuity
of those who glibly equate Political Democacy with freedom and independence.

Henry Louis
Mencken, 1880—1956, known as either the “Bad Boy of Baltimore” or
the “Sage of Baltimore,” was christened by Murray Rothbard as “The
Joyous Libertarian.” In an article so entitled in the New Individualist
Review in 1962, Rothbard hit the wide public impression that
Mencken was but a cynic and nihilist

Yet Rothbard,
in his brilliant way, saw Mencken as a libertarian and individualist,
acing his point by giving insights to Mencken doctrine and quotations
from Mencken’s sharp pen, la these:

“The extortions
and oppressions of government will go on so long as such bare fraudulence
deceives and disarms the victims — so long as they are ready to
swallow the immemorial official theory that protesting against the
stealings of the archbishop’s secretary’s nephew’s mistress’ illegitimate
son is a sin against the Holy Ghost.”

“Democracy
is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve
to get it good and hard.”

“The mob is
competent to rule the rest of us — but it must be rigorously policed
itself.”

“Puritanism
is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

The Mencken
knack of getting to the heart of the dark matter of widely embraced
if not exalted political democracy is seen in his treatment of Abraham
Lincoln. Said Lincoln himself then a Congressman in a speech to
the House of Representatives on January 12, 1848 when he saw secession
as “a most valuable right, a most sacred right, a right which I
hope and believe we can liberate the world.” Hail Lincoln, if the
Forgotten Man of 1848.

That was then,
before the Presidential Bug evidently bit the Congressman, before
Confederate batteries fired on the Union’s Fort Sumter in Charleston’s
harbor. For by the time of the Civil War such secession sacredness
had somehow become a dead letter, the more so when Lincoln went
to Gettysburg to dedicate its battlefield as a national monument.

Mencken writing
in the May 1920 issue of his Smart Set Magazine extolled
the Gettysburg Address as “genuinely stupendous,” however adding
that “it is poetry, not logic, beauty, not sense.” Mencken asked
us to see through the strained Lincoln argument — “that government
of the people, by the people, for the people,” shall not perish
from the earth. Sure!

For while Mencken
embraced self-determination la that of Congressman
Lincoln in 1848, he was struck by the fact that the Union soldiers
were actually fighting against it — against the right of
the Confederates to fight for “the right of their people to govern
themselves.” So Mencken asked his readers:

“What is the
practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the
destruction of the old sovereignty of the states, i.e., but of the
people of the States? The Confederates went into battle but to fall
under the supervision and veto of the rest of the country — and
for nearly 20 years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed
scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts
in the penitentiary.”

Yes, Mencken
critics tout Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that freed the
slaves. Freed? Not quite. For what about the slaves in Union slave-holding
states such as Maryland, West Virginia, and Kentucky? Slaves there
were passed over — clearly for political reasons. So let’s hear
the Union side: Damn the Torpedoes! Democracy Forever — on Our Terms!

Woefully not
the peaceful terms of the British Parliament led by its M.P. William
Wilberforce. His bill and law (1807) reimbursed British slaveowners,
so enabling Britain to buy freedom for its slaves by cash, not war
— with our Civil War costing, aside from vast debt, more than 600,00
lives in a much smaller population.

No wonder Mencken,
Upstairs, is tantalized by Democracy, by its incongruancy, by its
politically unrightful, unsacred, and most unsafe goings-on.

April
14, 2009

William
Peterson [send him mail],
a longtime contributor to the Wall Street Journal, won the
2005 Schlarbaum Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Liberty
given by the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Auburn, Alabama.

William
H. Peterson Archives

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