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H.L. Mencken on Abraham Lincoln
"Five Men at Random," Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, pp. 171-76. | H.L. Mencken

Posted on 06/20/2002 1:32:32 PM PDT by H.R. Gross

H.L. Mencken on Abraham Lincoln

From "Five Men at Random," Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, pp. 171-76.
First printed, in part, in the Smart Set, May, 1920, p. 141

Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that seldom, if ever, lose money in the United States—first, murder stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly overcome by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious ideas—surely an important matter in any competent biography—is yet but half solved. Was he a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Jesus? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Jesus were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other early friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but the Rev. Willian E. Barton, one of the best of later Lincolnologists, argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time—that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were live today, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs. As for me, I still wonder.

Lincoln becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has bee perceptible humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus marking hum fit for adoration in the Y.M.C.A.’s. All the popular pictures of him show him in his robes of state, and wearing an expression fit for a man about to be hanged. There is, so far as I know, not a single portrait of him showing him smiling—and yet he must have cackled a good deal, first and last: who ever heard of a storyteller who didn’t? Worse, there is an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, and so leave him a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost. What could be more absurd? Lincoln, in point of fact, was a practical politician of long experience and high talents, and by no means cursed with idealistic superstitions. Until he emerged from Illinois they always put the women, children and clergy to bed when he got a few gourds of corn aboard, and it is a matter of unescapable record that his career in the State Legislature was indistinguishable from that of a Tammany Nietzsche. Even his handling of the slavery question was that of a politician, not that of a messiah. Nothing alarmed him more than the suspicion that he was an Abolitionist, and Barton tells of an occasion when he actually fled town to avoid meeting the issue squarely. An Abolitionist would have published the Emancipation Proclamation the day after the first battle of Bull Run. But Lincoln waited until the time was more favorable—until Lee had been hurled out of Pennsylvania, and more important still, until the political currents were safely funning his way. Even so, he freed the slaves in only a part of the country: all the rest continued to clank their chains until he himself was an angel in Heaven.

Like William Jennings Bryan, he was a dark horse made suddenly formidable by fortunate rhetoric. The Douglas debate launched hum, and the Cooper Union Speech got him the Presidency. His talent for emotional utterance was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fire-works—the hollow rodomontades of the era. But in the middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost badly simple—and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered today. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost gem-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—"that government of the people, by the people, for the people," should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts in the penitentiary.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism
KEYWORDS: dixielist
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To: Colt .45
You don't state your intent for using these quotes. They support my point of view though.
161 posted on 06/25/2002 12:59:37 PM PDT by TheDon
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To: Colt .45
If you are of the belief that the Declaration of Independence is not valid as a cornerstone of our principles of American liberty, then you must be saying that the States should have petitioned the Federal Government to leave.

No, I'm saying they should have ammended the Constitution to allow states to leave the Union. If they could not convince their fellow citizens to do this, then they are out of luck. You are trying to ignore the Constitution by wrapping your arguments with the Declaration of Independence. It is rather offensive. Resorting to arms when you have not exhausted every legal means of resolving a conflict of this nature is not responsible. Read the Declaration of Independence more carefully and see how long, and how hard the colonists tried to reconcile with Britian before they declared their independence. Look at the long line of abuses suffered, and tell me how this compares with what the South was suffering. As for putting down the South's insurrection, that is explicitly within the power of the federal government, as listed in the Constitution, which all the Southern states accepted when they joined the Union.

162 posted on 06/25/2002 1:22:49 PM PDT by TheDon
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To: Colt .45
great quotes in 160.

Wasted, though not your fault, it is what happens when one casts pearls before swine.

163 posted on 06/25/2002 1:30:56 PM PDT by Triple
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To: TheDon

Your supposition that my quotes support your points is Horse Sh*t! I am pointing out how the Founders view State's and ultimately individual rights. State's had control of promoting the general prosperity and welfare.

Your position would've worked out well for Stalin. No wonder you are having difficulties with limited government. You are used to a Socialistic type of system. Hmmmmmmmmm ... you must be from Californicate.

164 posted on 06/25/2002 2:46:55 PM PDT by Colt .45
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To: Colt .45
Horse Sh*t! ... Stalin ... Socialistic ... Californicate ...

Out of ammo already? I'm not much for "electronic shouting matches", though I prefer that to lead in this case. The soldiers of the Civil War were not so fortunate.

165 posted on 06/25/2002 3:03:01 PM PDT by TheDon
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To: WhiskeyPapa
Hey Walt, you still here too?
166 posted on 06/25/2002 3:06:19 PM PDT by TheDon
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To: TheDon

Not out of ammo, just tired of trying to teach pigs to sing.

167 posted on 06/25/2002 3:15:57 PM PDT by Colt .45
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To: Colt .45
LOL! All right then. Spend some time working on your arguments, and try again another day.
168 posted on 06/25/2002 3:28:38 PM PDT by TheDon
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To: WhiskeyPapa
A voluntary union, is a more perfect Union. In a country that has been reconstructed, the wrong are made to seem right, and the right wrong. The yankees, were therefore, the true traitors. The reconstructive yankees changed the nature of this nation from a voluntary one to a coercive one, and turned the relationship between state and central governments upside down. (While claiming to "save the Union") Damn traitors to the principles behind the Constitution, they were.

George Washington was a Virginian. He would have seceded, reluctantly, just like Lee, to try to preserve, in the CSA, the decentralizing principles behind the Union which were being perverted by the Union Party Radicals in Congress.

US Grant, when asked if he was going to free his slave, replied, no, "good help is hard to come by."

I'm sure I could find any number of cases where your saviors/heros killed people in cold blood. Surely you don't want me to remind you of the things WT Sherman did in Georgia to southern women and children.

Nothing Lee, Forrest, or Davis ever did was unjustified.

"I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races -- that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

An address by Abraham Lincoln at Springfield, Illinois, on June 26, 1857 [Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol II, pp 408-9, Basler, ed.]

It's such a shame that Lincoln couldn't have guided the country during Reconstruction, and maintained the structure so that the STATES could have abolished slavery, as was their inclination and right to do so, at a time of their choosing. Damn John Wilkes Boothe. He enabled the traitorous radicals to take over.

169 posted on 06/25/2002 5:27:19 PM PDT by H.Akston
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To: Colt .45
170 posted on 06/25/2002 5:29:58 PM PDT by H.Akston
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To: TheDon
What I am 'only stating' is definitional. Look up the terms. "Overthrow" & "civil war" it was not.
171 posted on 06/25/2002 9:28:24 PM PDT by budo
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To: WhiskeyPapa
"Apparently the anti-feds were opposed to becoming the most powerful nation on

Precisely. If this was not THE defining difference between the anti's & the federalists, what would you say was?

Please define 'organic' in this context.

172 posted on 06/25/2002 9:33:11 PM PDT by budo
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To: WhiskeyPapa
"George Washington supported the consolidation of the federal government, calling it the goal of every true American. It seems hard to blame Lincoln for adopting the stance of Washington."

Washington, Lincoln, & any other federalists you'd care to name could hold whatever views they wanted, but to say those, or any other, trump liberty, is to not begrudge the whips in their hands & the enslavement that ensued as those views were rammed down peoples' throats.

"Washington would certainly agree that what we see today is totally beyond the pale. So would Lincoln."

I think 'yes' regarding Washington (or, at least, a very strong 'probably'); to Lincoln, it would be home, sweet home. It took Lincoln & co. to create the infrastructure from which has metastisized today's 'beyond the pale'....

"...whereas a liberal, and energetic Constitution, well guarded and closely watched, to prevent encroachments, might restore us to that degree of respectability and consequence, to which we had a fair claim, and the brightest prospect of

Just so. It wasn't well guarded or closely watched, & not that many years after these words were penned, it was annihilated.

"Would you be happy if the states could print their own money again?"

You're straying. This is a whole other - & large - topic. Stay on point.

"Whatever -you- personally own is more stable and more secure because of the stable and secure situation that you have now in contrast with the unstable situation that Washington saw in 1785. You'd think common sense would tell you that."

This comes as about as close to the crux of the whole debate as is likely to be seen this thread. My take on conservatives, & I know bunches of them, is that, deep down, they are timid, even frightened, people (& for neo-cons - conservatives to an exponent - change the word to 'terrified'...). This, coupled with a very limited ability for introspection seems to result in an insatiable appetite for 'security', which, of course, to such people, revolves around the ability to command & control as much of the external world as possible. But the instability lies within these people, and so the acquisition of power 'out there' failes to sate, their internal life is mostly appetitive, and they just keep grasping, grasping, grasping. I bet you are familiar with Franklin's contempt for people who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety....

I wish I could add audio to this so you could hear me guffawing over your alice-in wonderland statement re: the 'stability & security' of my property. Believe it or not, timid sir, but me & mine can can preserve the stability & security of ourselves & our property just fine...except, of course, against your pals, the federalists.
173 posted on 06/25/2002 10:37:08 PM PDT by budo
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To: Non-Sequitur
If you are correct, & 95% of the tariff was collected in northern ports in 1860, then the north paid the lion's share - in 1860 (would you conflate a single year's stats with the general situation?). But this would be news to me...Taussig's volume, "Tariff History of the U.S.", as far as I know, is considered seminal, and is my source. If you have another source, please share it. As to the second point, if you are referring to the period of time when the south was seriously outmanned, outsupplied, in desperate need of everything, her civilian population under seige, ports blockaded (just what is it you think was being imported, I wonder?) -and still kicking hell out of the yankee invaders - any & all means of raising revenue makes sense to me: it was life or death. Reread my post re: the drastic lowering - virtual elimination - of tariffs that wass written INTO the CSA constitution & the efffect that bit of info had on the northern appetite for invasion.
174 posted on 06/25/2002 11:01:30 PM PDT by budo
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To: TheDon
Please enlighten us as to the 'constitutional way' to leave the union....
175 posted on 06/25/2002 11:06:31 PM PDT by budo
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To: TheDon
I'm just working thru, one by one, so if farther on down you have ceased this infantile insistence on creating your own personal definitions for words like 'overthrow', my apologies. Otherwise, a click over to would add some much needed precision to your use of english.
176 posted on 06/25/2002 11:13:26 PM PDT by budo
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To: H.Akston
Interesting thesis. But Hamilton was federalist to the bone.
Madison wrote the federalist manifesto. And Washington seem a bit conflicted on the whole thing.
177 posted on 06/25/2002 11:19:24 PM PDT by budo
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To: TheDon
Virginia & Kentucky resolutions, as well as other state constitutions, have already been pointed out this thread. These state constitutions specified joining the compact in no way abrogated their ability to decide to leave said compact. For article6, clause2 to be read as trumping those state constitutions requires the oleaginous ethics of a bottom-feeding lawyer (like your pal Lincoln was, for instance...). At any rate, you have way too much regard for mere legality (or perhaps it serves your interests to pretend to, in this case). Laws uniformed by morality have no standing, are no litmus to right or wrong. Even if the federalists had executed legal trickery that resulted in states being compelled to indentured servitude, rather than merely deciding to force states into indentured servitude, the 'legality' of it would be irrelevant. A good title to a good book fits here..."Freeing Slaves, Enslaving Free Men", by Jeffrey Rogers (?) Hummel.
178 posted on 06/25/2002 11:42:00 PM PDT by budo
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To: WhiskeyPapa
Hello, Mr. Orwell! The income tax is 'voluntary' too. You & the don continue to look foolish. Maybe you & he could define your terms for the rest of us, help us to cut thru all your cognitive dissonance.
179 posted on 06/25/2002 11:50:02 PM PDT by budo
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To: WhiskeyPapa
I hadn't ever heard this about Nathan; coming from you (based on the qualities indicated in your posts), I doubt its true - but I'll look into it. Do you at least feign to profess equivalent (at least) moral outrage at wholesale northern atrocities (rape, plunder, murder) of southern civilian populations? Probably not, huh?

If all Washington was is encapsulated in your sentence, then 'putative hero' is all he could ever be. Lee was a noble, honorable man & so, of course, would not cleave wholesale to a man, or men, as you do, but to those high IDEALS embodied by the antifederalists.

Jefferson Davis was explicitly NOT tried for treason because his northern captors knew they would lose in open court on constitutional grounds.

You may as well have another whiskey, papa - coherence isn't your strong suit, anyway.
180 posted on 06/26/2002 12:20:35 AM PDT by budo
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