The best of H.L.Mencken, witty defender of liberty

During the first half of the 20th century, Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was the most outspoken defender of liberty in America. He spent thousands of dollars challenging restrictions on freedom of the press. He boldly denounced President Woodrow Wilson for whipping up patriotic fervor to enter World War I, which cost him his job as a newspaper columnist. And he denounced Franklin Delano Roosevelt for amassing dangerous political power and maneuvering to enter World War II. Amid the uproar, he ended up resigning his newspaper job.

Although he was intensely controversial, Mencken earned respect as one of America’s foremost newspapermen and literary critics. He produced about 30 books, contributions to 20 more books, and thousands of newspaper columns. He wrote an estimated 100,000 letters. Here are a few choice selections about liberty and related topics:

“I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air – that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value. I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave.” [“Why Liberty?”, Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1927]

“Liberty in itself, to be sure, cannot bring in the millennium. It cannot abolish the inherent weaknesses of man – an animal but lately escaped from the jungle. It cannot take the place of intelligence, courage, honor. But the free man is at least able to be intelligent, courageous and honorable if the makings are in him. Nothing stands in the way of his highest functioning. He may go as far as nature intended him to go, and maybe a step or two beyond. Free, he may still be dull, timorous and untrustworthy. He may be shiftless and worthless. But it will not be against his will; it will not be in spite of himself. Free, he will be able to make the most of every virtue that is actually in him, and he will live and die under the kind of government that he wants and deserves.” [“Why Liberty?”, Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1927]

“Law and its instrument, government, are necessary to the peace and safety of all of us, but all of us, unless we live the lives of mud turtles, frequently find them arrayed against us. Worse, we are very apt to discover, facing their sudden inhibition of our desires, that their reputed impersonality and impartiality are myths – that the government whose mandates we almost instinctively evade is not the transcendental and passionless thing it pretends to be, but simply a gang of very ordinary men, and that the judge who orders us to obey them is another of the same kind…” [“The Curse of Government,” American Mercury, September 1928]

“The aims of all governments, whatever their names or forms, are precisely the same, at all times and everywhere. The first and foremost of them is simply to maintain the men constituting the government in their positions of power, that they may live gloriously at the expense of the people they govern, and enjoy all the honors and usufructs that go therewith. There may be other purposes in them from time to time, but those purposes are transient, and most of them are insincere…The natural tendency of every government is to grow steadily worse – that is, to grow more satisfactory to those who constitute it and less satisfactory to those who support it.” “What Constitutes a State?,” American Mercury, August 1927]

“[Government’s] great contribution to human wisdom…is the discovery that the taxpayer has more than one pocket.” [“What is Going on in the World,” American Mercury, November 1933]

“A progressive is one who is in favor of more taxes instead of less, more bureaus and jobholders, more paternalism and meddling, more regulation of private affairs and less liberty. In general, he would be inclined to regard the repeal of any tax as outrageous.” [“Rally ‘Round the Tax,” Baltimore Evening Sun, January 19, 1926]

“The true bureaucrat is a man of really remarkable talents. He writes a kind of English that is unknown elsewhere in the world, and has an almost infinite capacity for forming complicated and unworkable rules.” [Letter to P.E. Cleator, December 1936]

“In any dispute between a citizen and the government, it is my instinct to side with the citizen. I am against bureaucrats, policemen, wowsers, snouters, smellers, uplifters, lawyers, bishops and all other sworn enemies of the free man. I am against all efforts to make men virtuous by law. I believe that the government, practically considered, is simply a camorra of incompetent and mainly dishonest men, transiently licensed to live by the labor of the rest of us. I am thus in favor of limiting its powers as much as possible, even at the cost of considerable inconvenience, and of giving every citizen, wise or foolish, right or wrong, the right to criticize it freely, and to advocate changes in its constitution and personnel…the very commonest of common men has certain inalienable rights.” [“Autopsy,” American Mercury, September 1927]

“Herein lies the value of free speech. It makes concealment difficult, and, in the long run, impossible. One heretic, if he is right, is as good as a host. He is bound to win in the long run. It is thus no wonder that foes of the enlightenment always begin their proceedings by trying to deny free speech to their opponents. It is dangerous to them and they know it. So they have at it by accusing these opponents of all sorts of grave crimes and misdemeanors, most of them clearly absurd – in other words, by calling them names and trying to scare them.” [“The Sad Case of Tennessee,” Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1926]

“This right to privacy, I am inclined to believe, is just as valid as the right to free speech, and might be very well erected into a permanent limitation upon it. It is not mentioned in any Bill of Rights that I know of, and yet it is plainly one of the inalienable possessions of every free citizen of a free state, and many of our laws recognize it. Every such free citizen has a right to announce his views on any subject, but he has no right to force any other citizen to listen to him. Thus the latter’s right to privacy takes precedence of the former’s right to free speech, and if it is not supported by the Constitution then it is at least supported by every consideration of logic, fairness, good order and common decency. [“The Right to Picket,” Baltimore Evening Sun, May 5, 1940]

“Soon or late the money to pay the State’s mounting bills will have to be found, and there is only one place to look for it. That is in the pockets of persons who earn the communal income by doing some sort of useful work. Politicians never earn it, and neither do the uplifters. It must always come, in the last analysis, from men who go to work in the morning and labor hard all day.” [“More and More Taxes,” Baltimore Evening Sun, April 19, 1937]

“When…[government] gets into difficulties it can raise money by seizing it, in the form of taxes, from those who have earned it. So long as such persons confine their resistance to academic protests, it will continue well-heeled, and ready for ever new and worse extravagances. Even when it finds, on trying to shake them down, that their pockets are quite empty, it can still borrow on the security of their future earning power. Legally speaking they are its slaves. It can dip into their bank account whenever it pleases, and if those bank accounts turn out to be too scanty for its needs, it can mortgage whatever money they seem likely to accumulate tomorrow, or next month, or next year…It is a millstone around their necks that grows heavier every time they try to throw it off…The Bill of Rights gives a long list of things that the government may not do to the citizen in his person…There is only one provision dealing with his property: the government is forbidden to take it without paying for it. It seems me that there is a hint here. Why not a new Bill of Rights, definitely limiting the taxing powers of the government? Why not…[an] Amendment restoring it to its simple and proper functions, and forbidding it forever to collect or spend a cent for any purpose lying outside them?” [“A Third of a Century,” Baltimore Evening Sun, January 11, 1932]

“The storm center of lawlessness in every American State is the State Capitol. It is there that the worst crimes are committed; it is there that lawbreaking attains to the estate and dignity of a learned profession; it is there that contempt for the laws is engendered, fostered and spread broadcast.” [“On Lawlessness,” Baltimore Evening Sun, October 20, 1910]

“Wars are seldom caused by spontaneous hatreds between peoples, for peoples in general are too ignorant of one another to have grievances and too indifferent to what goes on beyond their borders to plan conquests. They must be urged to slaughter by politicians who know how to alarm them.” [“Its State Today,” Treatise on Right and Wrong, 1934]

“I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time. But that is certainly not the common American view; the majority of Americans are far more hopeful. When they see an evil they try to remedy it – by peaceful means, if possible, and if not, then by force.” [“The Coolidge Buncombe,” Baltimore Evening Sun, October 6, 1924]

“The citizen sees nothing wrong, in the sense of robbing a neighbor is wrong to him, in turning the tables upon…[government] whenever the opportunity offers. When he steals anything from it he is only recovering his own, with fair interest and a decent profit. Two gangs stand thus confronted: on the one hand the gang of drones and exploiters constituting the government, and on the other hand the body of prehensile and enterprising citizens…The difference between the two gangs – of professionals and amateurs – is that the former has the law on its side, and so enjoys an unfair advantage.” [Editorial in American Mercury, February 1925]

“The history of liberty is an unbroken history of bloodshed. Every right that the free citizen enjoys today was gained by some other citizen with arms in his hands.” [“The New Despotism,” Baltimore Evening Sun, January 11, 1926]

“Jefferson was unquestionably one of our giants. There was more in his head than there has been in the heads of all the presidents in office since he went out. He was a man of immense intellectual curiosity, profound originality, and great daring. His integrity was of doric massiveness. But was he always right? I don’t think many reflective Americans of today would argue that he was.” [“The Heroic Age,” American Mercury, March 1926]

“I’d rather know one such man [like Beethoven] than all the golf professionals.” [“Essay on Constructive Criticism,” Chicago Tribune, March 28, 1926]

"Liberty, at bottom, is a simple thing, whatever its outward forms. It is common faith in man, common good will, common tolerance and charity, common decency, no less and no more. Translated into political terms, it is the doctrine that the normal citizen of a civilized state is actually normal – that the decency which belongs naturally to homo sapiens, as an animal above the brutes, is really in him. It holds that this normal citizen may be trusted, one day with another, to do the decent thing. It relies upon his natural impulses, and assumes them to be sound. Finally, it is the doctrine that if these assumptions are false, then nothing can be done about it – and if human beings are actually so bad, then none is good enough to police the rest.” [Editorial in American Mercury, February 1929]

“[Liberty] is the first thing and the last thing. So long as it prevail the how is thrilling and stupendous; the moment it fails the show is a dull and dirty farce.” [“H.L. Mencken,” Nation, November 5, 1923]

See:

Mayo DuBasky ed., The Gist of Mencken, Quotations from America's Critic (Metuchen, N.J. Scarecrow Press, 1990).

"Feisty Free Spirit," in Jim Powell, The Triumph of Liberty (New York: Free Press, 2000).

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