H. L. Mencken (1880 – 1956)

compiled & edited by Daniel Hagadorn

Timeless insights from the “Sage of Baltimore” that continue to challenge our thinking today.

SOURCE: www.lhup.edu

“The truth that survives is the lie that it is pleasantest to believe.”[1]


“All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.”[2]


“Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”[3]


“Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed.”[4]

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed—and hence clamorous to be led to safety—by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”[5]


“Government, like any other organism, refuses to acquiesce in its own extinction. This refusal, of course, involves the resistance to any effort to diminish its powers and prerogatives. There has been no organized effort to keep government down since Jefferson’s day. Ever since then the American people have been bolstering up its powers and giving it more and more jurisdiction over their affairs. They pay for that folly in increased taxes and diminished liberties. No government as such is ever in favor of the freedom of the individual. It invariably seeks to limit that freedom, if not by overt denial, then by seeking constantly to widen its own functions.”[6]


The legislature, like the executive, has ceased, save indirectly, to be even the creature of the people: it is the creature, in the main, of pressure groups, and most of them, it must be manifest, are of dubious wisdom and even more dubious honesty. Laws are no longer made by a rational process of public discussion; they are made by a process of blackmail and intimidation, and they are executed in the same manner. The typical lawmaker of today is a man wholly devoid of principle—a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game. If the right pressure could be applied to him he would be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism.”[7]


“The main thing that every political campaign in the United States demonstrates is that the politicians of all parties, despite their superficial enmities, are really members of one great brotherhood. Their principal, and indeed their sole, object is to collar public office, with all the privileges and profits that go therewith. They achieve this collaring by buying votes with other people’s money. No professional politician is ever actually in favor of public economy. It is his implacable enemy, and he knows it. All professional politicians are dedicated wholeheartedly to waste and corruption. They are the enemies of every decent man.”[8]


My old suggestion that public offices be filled by drawing lots, as a jury box is filled, was probably more intelligent than I suspected. It has been criticized on the ground that selecting a man at random would probably produce some extremely bad State governors. […] But I incline to believe that it would be best to choose members of the Legislature quite at random. No matter how stupid they were, they could not be more stupid than the average legislator under the present system. Certainly, they’d be measurably more honest, taking one with another. Finally, there would be the great advantage that all of them had got their jobs unwillingly, and were eager, not to spin out their sessions endlessly, but to get home as soon as possible.”[9]


“The only guarantee of the Bill of Rights which continues to have any force and effect is the one prohibiting quartering troops on citizens in time of peace. All the rest have been disposed of by judicial interpretation and legislative whittling. Probably the worst thing that has happened in America in my time is the decay of confidence in the courts. No one can be sure any more that in a given case they will uphold the plainest mandate of the Constitution. On the contrary, everyone begins to be more or less convinced in advance that they won’t. Judges are chosen not because they know the Constitution and are in favor of it, but precisely because they appear to be against it.”[10]

“It is the aim of the Bill of Rights, if it has any remaining aim at all, to curb such prehensile gentry. Its function is to set a limitation upon their power to harry and oppress us to their own private profit. The Fathers, in framing it, did not have powerful minorities in mind; what they sought to hobble was simply the majority. But that is a detail. The important thing is that the Bill of Rights sets forth, in the plainest of plain language, the limits beyond which even legislatures may not go. The Supreme Court, in Marbury v. Madison, decided that it was bound to execute that intent, and for a hundred years that doctrine remained the corner-stone of American constitutional law.”[11]


“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental—men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”[12]


“The essential difficulty of pedagogy lies in the impossibility of inducing a sufficiency of superior men and women to become pedagogues. Children, and especially boys, have sharp eyes for the weaknesses of the adults set over them. It is impossible to make boys take seriously the teaching of men they hold in contempt.”[13]


“John Milton, in his famous ‘Tractate of Education’, laid stress upon the need to purge the young of infantile and adolescent concerns and concentrate their attention upon the ideas and interests of maturity. Any adequate education, he argued, must so influence them that ‘they may dispose and scorn all their childish and ill-taught qualities to deal with manly and liberal exercises.’”[14]


“The country high-schools of the United States no longer make any pretense to rational teaching. Now that every yokel above the intellectual level of an earthworm is run through them, their more intelligent teachers give up in despair, for not more than a small percentage of the pupils they face are really educable, at least beyond the fifth-grade level. The average curriculum shows a smaller and smaller admixture of rational instruction, and is made up more and more of simple time-killers. The high-school, in its earlier form of the academy, was a hard and even harsh school, but it actually taught a great deal. But in its modern form it is hardly more than a banal aggregation of social clubs. Every student of any pretensions belongs to a dozen—imitation fraternities, bands and orchestras, athletic teams, and so on.”[15]

[1] Will Durant, On the Meaning of Life (New York, NY: Ray Long & Richard Smith, Inc., 1932), p. 34. Author quoting H. L. Mencken.

[2] H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Third Series, Vol. 3 (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922) p. 289.

[3] H. L. Mencken, “The Divine Afflatus,” New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917).

[4] H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: Third Series, Chapter 3 (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922).

[5] H. L. Mencken, In Defense of Women (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918).

[6] H. L. Mencken, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), p. 197.

[7] H. L. Mencken, American Mercury (May 1930).

[8] H. L. Mencken, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), p. 204.

[9] H. L. Mencken, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), p. 329.

[10] H. L. Mencken, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), p. 241.

[11] H. L. Mencken, American Mercury (May 1930).

[12] H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Sun (26 July 1920).

[13] H. L. Mencken, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), p. 25.

[14] H. L. Mencken, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), p. 92.

[15] H. L. Mencken, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), p. 340.

3 Responses

  1. Well done. Thanks for the great post. Bookmarked

  2. Brian Wilson says:

    This blog is very well written, keep up the good work!

  3. I am glad that the site helped and please come again.

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