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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: aculeus; Orual; H.R. Gross; TheDon

Half-dump, in gratitude for small mercies. Mencken is generally readable, even when trotted out by the "Lincoln's Victims Never Have a Nice Day" crowd. Besides, it's vastly better than raimondo's junk, which H.R. Gross used to post regularly.

Then again, what *isn't* better?

21 posted on 06/20/2002 3:06:46 PM PDT by dighton
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To: El Sordo
Slavery was a minor issue in the Civil War.

Next I suppose you'll be telling us that Islam is a religion of peace.

Let us suppose that slavery was indeed a minor issue in the civil war. Why did the South secede, then? (And why did slavery figure so prominently in those wily Southerners' Declarations of Secession?)

22 posted on 06/20/2002 3:14:36 PM PDT by r9etb
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To: TheDon
So, in your view, calling people who don't share your views of Lincoln's deity "idiots" is acceptable within your parameters of civilized debate? Perhaps you're the liberal. You come out with insults, and when you reap results in return, you counter with "he broke the rules of civilized debate by insulting!"
23 posted on 06/20/2002 3:23:27 PM PDT by Treebeard
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To: H.R. Gross
His early speeches were mere empty fire-works-the hollow rodomontades of the era.
Rodomontade n [MF fr. lt Rodomonte character in Orlando Innamorato by Matteo M. Boiardo
1 a bragging speech
2. vain boasting or bluster
24 posted on 06/20/2002 3:47:11 PM PDT by Marianne
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To: r9etb
There were many reasons; tariffs that punished southern industry in favor of northern industry, sovereignty issues, dandy stuff like that. Such issues took up far more room in their declarations than slavery.

Ref: y.html
25 posted on 06/20/2002 4:52:52 PM PDT by El Sordo
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To: okchemyst
I can take the insults, as long as they are in the context of a debate on a topic. I have little interest in debates which strictly involve insults.
26 posted on 06/20/2002 5:09:20 PM PDT by TheDon
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To: El Sordo
Your reply is correct, except for the last sentence. Try imagining a reason for the South to secede if slavery had never been introduced to the Americas. You even state, "Slaves states on the Union side were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation." The reason they were exempt was to keep them from joining the Confederacy.
27 posted on 06/20/2002 5:27:31 PM PDT by TheDon
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To: TheDon
I don't have a dog in this hunt. I am not interested in debating this issue, and neither is Walt, Non-S, Illbay, Ditto, X, etc. I and they know that neither side will change any minds by means either persuasive or pejorative.

It's not a big deal to me that they think Lincoln was a minor deity. I used to like devilled ham, too, but I got over it. The issue I have is that the pro-Lincoln faction always comes on here with sneering condescension toward anyone who does not share their view. Southerners are all crackers, slack jawed yokels, hicks, cousin-f***in, banjo playing morons. Anyone who displays the slightest hint of reverence or respect toward a dead Confederate soldier is ridiculed, called a "venerator of losers", racists, supporters of slavery, etc.

In that sense, your characterization of these threads as a debate, per se, is inaccurate. This is an electronic shouting match in which both sides trot out their pet quotes and belittle each other. I have been dragged into that, and I have done my share of belittling. It's really distracting and takes away from my rereading of Shelby Foote and Paul Johnson's History of the American People.(Go ahead, Walt and Non-S, tell me those aren't viable sources).

Thus, I'm going to stop and return to that pursuit. I have done lots of family history research and have stood at the graves of uncles, cousins, grandfathers, etc, that died in that war. It's disgusting to hear them called "perpetual losers" or "slave holding sons of bitches", or to read the sentiments that they "deserved to die" as traitors, or hopes that they are "rotting in hell".

One of the great physicists of the "Golden Era", perhaps De Broglie, said something to the effect that no theory gains acceptance because its opponents are suddenly converted to it, but rather because the opponents gradually die off and a new generation arises that has grown up with it.

28 posted on 06/20/2002 6:52:37 PM PDT by Treebeard
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To: shuckmaster; 4ConservativeJustices; one2many; billbears; Constitution Day; Alas Babylon!; ...
29 posted on 06/20/2002 7:09:53 PM PDT by stainlessbanner
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To: H.R. Gross
Mencken was great. I love hum. Great post! parsy.
30 posted on 06/20/2002 7:12:22 PM PDT by parsifal
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To: dighton; aculeus

31 posted on 06/20/2002 7:38:20 PM PDT by Orual
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To: H.R. Gross; Constitution Day; TomServo; billbears; aomagrat; stainlessbanner; archy; Ligeia; ...
America's tyrant ping!
32 posted on 06/20/2002 7:38:34 PM PDT by shuckmaster
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To: TheDon; El Sordo
Try imagining a reason for the South to secede if slavery had never been introduced to the Americas

How 'bout these in addition to South Carolinas attempts to secede.....

33 posted on 06/20/2002 8:17:57 PM PDT by stainlessbanner
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To: shuckmaster; stainlessbanner
Do you want to see Walt's latest find?

A Note On Footnotes(Lincoln Bashing)

34 posted on 06/20/2002 8:30:35 PM PDT by Libertarianize the GOP
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To: TheDon
i'd have to side with the others on this, don, it seems that you threw the first insult in your "debating"...

although maryland was never a union state, but a borderstate forced to remaining loyal by submission...

as for lincoln, our state song says it best... "maryland my maryland" ...
35 posted on 06/20/2002 8:48:37 PM PDT by teeman8r
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To: TheDon
<> Geez Don, Delaware and New Jersey join the Confederacy?
36 posted on 06/20/2002 8:58:49 PM PDT by Rebelo3
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To: okchemyst
I would like the record to show that in my mocking of DiLorenzo's attempts at rewriting American history, I have not portrayed the South, or in particular, the Southern soldier in a bad light. In fact I have not mentioned them at all.

But, so you will not have any misconceptions about what I think about the Confederacy, and those who fought for their cause, I will tell you that I hold the soldiers on both sides in the highest esteem. On both sides there were acts of great courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. I have read accounts of Civil War battles which have left me in awe of the common soldier of the South.

One can debate the cause of the South, and the North, without attacking those who fought well for their cause. This includes politicians as well as military leaders. If there are those who while attacking the arguments of DiLorenzo, resort to attacking the common soldier, or the South in general, that is unfortunate. I have not engaged in enough of these "discussions" on FR to say whether this is the usual, so I will take your word for it.

I too am a lover of history, but I am cautious about whose versions of history I will read. There are some out there who have a particular axe to grind and distort the history to suit their point of view. It is a waste of time to read "history" of that nature. Trying to filter out the point of view of the author from the historical fact becomes very difficult, and often the reader finds themselves infected with false history, and false views.

I would add, if it is not already apparent, that I do not think one has to defend the cause of the South, to uphold the honor, and good name, of those who fought for that cause. I do not doubt they believed in their cause every bit as much as the North did in theirs.

As there were many men who were willing, and in fact, did die for the Confederacy, it should not be surprising that there are many today who feel they were in the right. Your observation that many on these threads are engaged not in debate, but an "electronic shouting match", is probably correct. In that case, what is the point in posting this material? In particular, in the News forum?

Just as you do not like the South being bad mouthed, nor do I for that matter, neither do those of us who feel the North was in the right, like to see Lincoln being bad mouthed.
37 posted on 06/20/2002 9:04:04 PM PDT by TheDon
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To: teeman8r
My insult was in regard to an argument of DiLorenzo's, not against any of the posters. It is a subtle difference, but I'm sure you can see it. ;)
38 posted on 06/20/2002 9:06:58 PM PDT by TheDon
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To: Rebelo3
39 posted on 06/20/2002 9:08:07 PM PDT by TheDon
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To: WhiskeyPapa
We can actually thank(?) Robert Dale Owen for that Proclamation.

Heck, he even helped screw up the American Public School system . . .

40 posted on 06/20/2002 9:17:21 PM PDT by Alabama_Wild_Man
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