All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 1973

Mr. Mencken on Liberty

Dr. Douglas is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana.

In 1925, Henry L. Mencken wrote to his English friend and biographer, Ernest Boyd, “So far as I can make out, I believe in only one thing: liberty.”  To be sure, Mencken believed in a number of other things as well — all quite fervently — but there can be little doubt that his ideas on liberty are among his best and most interesting contributions to American literature. For the most part, too, they are as pertinent and penetrating as they were during Mencken’s heyday of the 1920s.

This does not mean to suggest that Mencken has been influential as a writer on liberty. Indeed, American intellectuals tend to reject Mencken’s ideas entirely because of their decidedly Tory coloring, and insist that he is valuable today simply as a humorist, a wit, a satirist of the American life of his own time. And, to be sure, he was a brilliant stylist who could pin down the kinks and oddities of American social life with an almost deadly precision. But the brilliance of Mencken is due in no small measure to the brilliance of his ideas, and if he is one of our best essayists — perhaps even, as Robert Frost insisted, our very best — it is because his ideas continue to have weight and significance.

Mencken began his national career as a literary critic, and his contributions to The Smart Set, of which he was co-editor with George Jean Nathan between 1914 and 1923, fail to reveal more than the general drift of his political ideas. But during this same period Mencken came to see that his true vocation was as a social and political critic, and in 1924 he established The American Mercury with that vocation in the forefront of his mind. Mencken had come to believe that the clue to the social ills in American life was to be found in the political domain, and he became convinced that Americans had turned their backs on their country’s founding principles and abandoned the early American love of liberty.

A Republic

America, Mencken often pointed out, was established as a Republic, not a Democracy. The purpose of the American Revolution, as opposed to the French Revolution of a few years later, was to establish civil liberty, not rule by the masses. The founding fathers, the drafters of the Constitution, were in no wise convinced that the people in the aggregate were suited to rule, and they built into our system of government what they hoped were safeguards against the tyranny of the majority. The tyranny of the majority, after all, could be just as bad as any other kind of tyranny. In any case, it was an important part of Mencken’s thinking that we must not confuse the theory and nature of democracy with the theory and nature of liberty — a very common mental aberration in our history. Democracy is a theory about sovereignty, that is, a theory about who ought to rule. Its first principle is that all men are equal. Its second principle is that the power to rule belongs to a majority of the equal and undifferentiated human units. Democracy thus is a theory which asserts that the demos ought to rule. Therefore it is contrasted with autocracy, theocracy, aristocracy and other theories of who ought to rule.

The first principle of liberty, on the other hand, is that there is no one who, of right, ought to rule. The theory of liberty is not a theory of sovereignty at all. The early Americans were anxious to resist sovereignty, to resist authority, and they were no more anxious to submit to the rule of their neighbors than they were to the rule of the English king and his appointed officials.

In Mencken’s thinking, America got off to a very strong start among the nations of the world because its revolution was unlike any of the other revolutions known to the modern world. Its main intention was to secure independence and self-reliance. None of the other so-called revolutions had that as their end. Most of the others, when subjected to careful scrutiny, are seen to be cast in the mold of the French Revolution. They are what Mencken calls revolts of the mob. And revolts of the mob are not struggles for liberty but struggles for ham and cabbage. When the mob revolts it is simply because it wants to grab more of something for itself. “When it wins, its first act is to destroy every form of freedom that is not wholly directed to that end. And its second is to butcher all professional libertarians. If Thomas Jefferson had been living in Paris in 1793 he would have made an even narrower escape from the guillotine than Thomas Paine made.” ¹

A Unique Revolution

The American revolution was not a revolution of the mob, said Mencken, and the philosophical ideals of liberty that stood behind it bear little relationship to the political ideals which were to develop in America in the next two centuries. It is true that for long after the revolution the people continued to mouth phrases which seem to suggest a continuing belief in liberty. But the present-day American esteems what Mencken calls “false forms of liberty, for example, the right to choose between two mountebanks.”  In short, he has erroneously come to believe that liberty is somehow bound up with the magic of the franchise, with the right of the public to vote and choose among candidates in a popularity contest. The American democrat of more recent vintage is fretfully anxious to go about the act of choosing his statesman, to identify a hero from amongst the crowd, and then turn the running of the government over to him. The early republicans wanted government of the people, which means not what it means today, freedom to pull a lever, but rather a form of government where people bear the responsibility of government.

The trouble is that the responsibility of government is harsh and demanding, and the people want to be relieved of it. Liberty requires two qualities which the masses simply don’t possess: it requires courage, that is, the willingness to fight for one’s rights, and it requires endurance. The man who loves liberty must be able to bear it. Unfortunately, the pursuit of liberty is difficult, strenuous, and mostly the people have no stomach for it.

Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without. The free man is one who has won a small and precarious territory from the great mob of his inferiors, and is prepared and ready to defend it and make it support him. All around him are enemies, and where he stands there is no friend. He can hope for little help from men of his own kind, for they have battles of their own to fight. He has made himself a sort of God in his little world, and he must face the responsibilities of a god, and the dreadful loneliness.2

Liberty Requires Effort

Liberty, as Nietzsche used to remark, is too cold to be borne. It is hard, it requires effort — effort that the average man wants to shun. In the modern life there are few willing to endure the burdens of liberty. These burdens “make him uncomfortable, they alarm him; they fill him with a great loneliness. There is no high adventurousness in him, but only fear. He not only doesn’t long for liberty; he is quite unable to stand it. What he longs for is something wholly different, to wit, security. He needs protection. He is afraid of getting hurt.” ³

What we look for nowadays from the government is comfort, security — things which under a system of liberty are not given but won. Accordingly, from the days of the early republic, when the government was considered at best to be a necessary evil, we have expanded the role of government in our life to grotesque proportions, and we tend to look on it as the great provider, not only in the material sense, but in most spiritual ways as well — we look to the government to provide moral guidance, we look to it as an agency of reform, we look to it for firm resolution of all the problems and sorrows of the world. It was always something of a mystery and a puzzle to Mencken to discover how Americans, who, from the earliest times, and even throughout most of the nineteenth century, were suspicious of the authority of government, came to swallow with great docility the role of a big and powerful central government of proportions that would have seemed nightmarish, and even insane, to a Washington or a Jefferson.

Part of the answer to this mystery is that a good many notions about government that persist are part of the heritage of thousands of years of absolutism, going back to ancient times where political leaders managed to convince the hordes that the state was an extension of the Godhead. Statecraft ever since has attempted to foist on the people a concept from those “black days of absolutism” that should have been tossed overboard with the notion of the divine right of kings, a concept, to wit,

that government is something that is superior to and quite distinct from all other human institutions — that is, in its essence not a mere organization of ordinary men, like the Ku Klux Klan, the United States Steel Corporation or Columbia University, but a transcendental organism composed of aloof and impersonal powers, devoid wholly of self-interest and not to be measured by merely human standards…. This concept, I need not argue, is full of error. The government at Washington is no more impersonal than the cloak and suit business is impersonal. It is operated by precisely the same sort of men, and to almost the same ends. When we say that it has decided to do this or that, that it proposes or aspires to do this or that — usually to the great cost and inconvenience of nine-tenths of us — we simply say that a definite man or group of men has decided to do it, or proposes or aspires to do it; and when we examine this group of men realistically we almost invariably find that it is composed of individuals who are not only not superior to the general, but plainly and depressingly inferior, both in common sense and common decency — that the act of government we are called upon to ratify and submit to is, in its essence, no more than an act of self-interest by men who, if no mythical authority stood behind them, would have a hard time of it surviving in the struggle for existence.4

Needless to say, the founding fathers were under no illusions that governments were something other than governments of fallible and occasionally corrupt human beings, and they did their best to save the country from the unseemly proliferation of governmental power. But still it is not easy to understand how it was that the very people who only two centuries ago were determined to fight for liberty grew to one of the most over governed and overregulated peoples in the history of the world. (Mencken found Americans to be the most regimented people in the world except the Chinese.) In way of historical background, Mencken pointed out that not only in the early days, but throughout nearly all of the nineteenth century, most Americans resisted this development, and were aware, as twentieth century man is not, that government is invariably a government of men —men looking for something.

In fact, as the nineteenth century progressed, the American politician had not yet found the way to implant the delusion that the government was other than a concatenation of human wants and an exploitation of some individuals by others. Mencken noted that for fifty years after the inauguration of the spoils system under Jackson (the spoils system, ironically, was supposed to be itself a reform) the people generally held office seekers and office holders in very low esteem. “The job holder, once theoretically a freeman discharging a lofty and necessary duty, was seen clearly to be no more than a rat devouring the communal corn.”  In the late nineteenth century the widely held view of the government and of politicians was not very far removed from those gloomy prophesies of Henry Adams which predicted that the United States would boil away in corruption. When an English speaker addressed the students at a fashionable women’s college during the 1870s and suggested that all of the ladies gathered there must be from the best of homes — the offspring of congressmen and such like — he was greeted with peals of laughter. The public had few illusions about congressmen in the 1870s, and even fewer about job holders.

Political Corruption and Civil Service Reform

Naturally, such a situation couldn’t be long tolerated, and the way out of this particular kind of governmental disrepute was through Civil Service Reform. The civil servant was whitewashed in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the public’s distrust of him subsided. The only difficulty was that while Civil Service Reform was able to placate the public it was a sorry downfall for the politician. The job holder became a mere slave, a bookkeeper. “His pay and emoluments were cut down and his labors were increased. Once the proudest and most envied citizen of the Republic, free to oppress all other citizens to the limit of their endurance, he became at one stroke a serf groaning in a pen, with a pistol pointed at his head.” 5

Of course this dismal situation couldn’t be endured for long either, “else politics would have tumbled into chaos and government would have lost its basic character; nay, its very life.”  The public servant could no more remain a plodding bookkeeper or clerk than he could a leech or peculator. If politicians are not believed in, if the work has no stature or dignity, then it obviously can’t continue to exist; no one will be drawn to governmental work.

The light and deliverance came in the twentieth century. The office holder no longer needed to be either an absconder or a drone, he could become, under newly fair and promising skies, a reformer, a doer of good, an expert in right thinking. Politics has survived in marvelous good health in our century because it has managed to “suck reform into the governmental orbit.”  The main business of the government is now reform, good works, uplift. And, unfortunately, such activities are almost invincible, their Achilles’ heel nearly impossible of detection. Now, the civil servant is not only secure in a well-paid government job, but he offers himself to the world as “a prophet of the new enlightenment, a priest at a glittering and immense shrine.”  How can anyone in good conscience take out after him as one could after the old-time office holder? In the days of the spoils system one could say of the office holder that although he had done his share in electing the ticket, he was obviously a loafer and deserved no place at the public trough.

But what answer is to be made to his heir and assign, the evangelist of Service, the prophet of Vision? He doesn’t start off with a bald demand for a job; he starts off with a Message. He has discovered the long-sought cure for all the sorrows of the world; he has the infallible scheme for putting down injustice, misery, ignorance, suffering, sin; his appeal is not to the rules of a sinister and discreditable game, but to the bursting heart of humanity, the noblest and loftiest sentiments of man. His job is never in the foreground; it is concealed in his Vision. To get at the former one must dispose of the latter. Well, who is to do it? What true-born American will volunteer for the cynical office? Half are too idiotic and the rest are too cowardly. It takes courage to flaunt and make a mock of Vision — and where is courage?6

Something to Sell

The bureaucrat twentieth century style thus has something important and valuable to sell. He is either an expert or a man with a vision — more likely both.

He is the fellow who enforces the Volstead Act, the Mann Act, all the endless laws for putting down sin. He is the bright evangelist who tours the country teaching mothers how to have babies, spreading the latest inventions in pedagogy, road-making, the export trade, hog-raising and vegetable-canning, waging an eternal war upon illiteracy, hookworm, the white slave trade, patent medicines, the foot and mouth disease, cholera infantum, adultery, rum. He is, quite often as not, female; he is a lady Ph.D., cocksure, bellicose, very well paid.7

The government thus becomes little more than a perpetuator of safe, convenient, and stereotyped ideas. The lady Ph.D. who dispenses information on infant care from some government office dispenses her wisdom not only with a sense of mission but from a position of almost unbelievable authority — the kind of authority once delegated only to archbishops. The public naturally believes that the lady Ph.D. reformer is not only knowledgeable in the extreme, but, because she is working for the government, disinterested as well. Government becomes in our time a mother lode of technological expertise and assumes oracular authority on the base of it — the very kind of oracular authority liberty-loving people would insist upon doing without.

Needless to say, Mencken rejects both of these assumptions about modern civil servants — that they are knowledgeable and that they are disinterested. Both are mistaken for the same reason. Government bureaucracies are nothing other than individual power and pressure groups, like similar power and pressure groups in the private sector of society, similarly seeking to push themselves above the others in importance and authority. If you have a Bureau of Narcotics, let us say, the people who run it are going to be subject to a struggle for power among competing agencies and competing viewpoints, and will tend to develop a missionary zeal, a pathological belief in the importance of “narcotics work.”  They become intoxicated, so to speak, with the value of this narcotics work, and can in no way detach themselves from their missionary zeal, and can thus exercise no independent judgment on their own activities, which is the same as saying that they are certain not to act intelligently on all matters of their own concern. To act intelligently one must be able to criticize one’s own doings. Thus, when they pull for more and more power and recognition, we are foolish if we allow ourselves to be deluded into seeing it all as a search for truth and virtue; it is no more a search for truth and virtue than we could expect from the advertising department of a used car dealership.

Warring Factions

In short, what we get from a government bureaucracy is what we get from any other special-interest group — at worst, falsehood and deceit, at best, platitudes and half-truths. Actually, because of the multitude of reform or uplift factions in government in its twentieth century democratic form, what we get may actually be worse — it approaches a kind of mental unbalance or insanity since the various power groups cannot be easily reconciled; they tend to struggle and war against one another for hegemony. Let us consider an example from our own time rather than Mencken’s. Since the appearance in the 1960s and 1970s of the ecology reform movement it is only natural that certain factions of the government should take up the crusade to clean up the environment. However, cleaning up the environment is expensive and is bound to come into conflict with other branches of the government committed to stemming the tide of inflation. What happens when two such factions meet in a collision course, as they are assuredly bound to do? How is it possible, for example, to reconcile the desire to conserve petroleum when the anti-pollution devices on automobiles bring about shocking increases in the consumption of gasoline? Of course these various demands result in conflict, a conflict which will invariably be carried on not in intelligent discourse but in a shouting or clamoring contest of a kind that is inevitable in a democracy, where the weaponry of the power groups is the weaponry of slogans, half-truths, simplistic formulas —the winner being the side which for the moment can successfully enflame the passions of the multitudes and cater to their immediate desires.

Even if it were theoretically possible to keep all the power centers of a democracy in check it becomes increasingly difficult to do so practically because in our time bureaucracy, agencies of government, have so proliferated that their very enormity prevents them from being held in check. There is no evidence in the twentieth century that any sector of the government has decreased in size, or, at least, no evidence that any bureau, department or office has willingly and without a struggle given up its authority and prerogatives. Every year some new area of reform can be expected to arise, but none of the old ones die. We now have agencies to police the safety in automobile manufacture, none of which existed in 1925 and were not perceived to be necessary. Similarly, we continue to have an unwieldy Agricultural Extension Service with an army of county agents prepared to advise the struggling farmer how to operate his tiny family farm at a profit at a time when the only farmers left are businessmen farmers who operate large farm corporations for big profits and know more about farm business and operation than the government agent himself. Why, then, can’t we get the county agricultural agent to vanish into the mist of history? Well, obviously, because he has tenure, a strong grip on his position, he is secure in it and has no intention of giving it up without a struggle.

So it is with every branch of government. Far from being impersonal and toplofty as the public believes, every office holder has a very personal and private reason for being. Thus we are completely deluded when we believe that public servants are motivated by the common weal or the common good. “These men, in point of fact, are seldom if ever moved by anything rationally describable as public spirit; there is actually no more public spirit among them than among so many burglars or streetwalkers. Their purpose, first, last, and all the time, is to promote their private advantage, and to that end, and that end alone, they exercise all the vast powers that are in their hands.”8 (Always keep in mind that Mencken is not only talking about pecuniary interest; vested interests in ideas can be no less corrupting.)

Mencken’s view of life under a democracy is thus a rather bleak and pessimistic one. He thinks that democratic man, in forsaking the ideals and duties of civil liberty, has committed himself to a kind of authoritarianism that is not really very different from that offered by the more outwardly authoritarian or totalitarian regimes of the world. He was also pessimistic in that he believed the present evangelical, Puritanical, reform-laden, expert-oriented form of government cannot be easily reversed, and he harbored no hope that it is possible to return to early American republicanism. But at times he was inclined to believe that democracy is a self-limiting disease, and that it is just possible that the disease may one day remit.

Mencken himself was a jovial and good-hearted man and he did point nut that it is possible to offer one simple consolation to those who live in a democracy. Democratic government is a good form of national entertainment. The government pitches from one outlandish scandal or frenzy to another, and most of these can be the source of some amusement to the intelligent man. “Politics under a democracy consists almost wholly of the discovery, chase and scotching of bugaboos. The statesman becomes, in the last analysis, a mere witch-hunter, a glorified smeller and snooper, eternally chanting ‘Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum.’ ”9 It all makes a good show, and the show may lighten the heart, except in those hours when one cannot stifle the nostalgic dreams of what America might have been.



1 Henry L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926, p. 44.

2 Ibid., p. 45.

³ Ibid., p. 49.

4 Henry L. Mencken, Prejudices, Fourth Series, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924, pp. 223-24.

5 Ibid., pp. 230-31.

6 Ibid., pp. 233-34.

7 ibid., p. 232.

8 Ibid., pp. 224-25.

9 Notes on Democracy, p. 22.