Mencken vs. Lincoln
William H. Peterson
by William H. Peterson
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, à 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 à 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.
Copyright © 2009 William H. Peterson