Skip to comments.H.L. Mencken on Abraham Lincoln
Posted on 06/20/2002 1:32:32 PM PDT by H.R. Gross
click here to read article
Yet, this is damned good writing:
and it is a matter of unescapable record that his career in the State Legislature was indistinguishable from that of a Tammany Nietzsche.Sophism is a joy to behold. (I should know.)
19th Century American attitudes about race were far from those currently accepted. When someone points to discrepancies or deficiencies in Lincoln's record about race it's natural that those who respond will bring in the Confederate record on race and the fact that slavery was an important part of Southern life at the time. Then this is taken for an attack on the South.
The things that you cite are to be deplored. They don't fit into the tone that debates should hold to. But they aren't always characteristic of the posters that you have named, and they certainly aren't unique to them. There is plenty of abuse from the other side that you don't mention. You do a disservice by singling out people that you disagree with in a complaint about things that you object to. There is a big difference between indulging in fruitless debates and resorting to insults.
The comments that you mention are more likely to come from casual passers-by who see Civil War thread after Civil War thread and don't see what the fuss is about. The Rockwell/League of the South world is a small one that circulates the same quotes over and over again and seems to be speaking largely to itself. There are a lot of important and obvious things that this group ignores or denies, and no shortage of those who, happening accidentally upon a Rockwell piece for the first time or the umpteeth time, address these omissions in a colorful or offensive fashion.
I think you're right that neither side will be convinced by convinced by anything said here. But it would be a mistake to say that "neither side will change any minds" or that no one is writing in an attempt to persuade. There are many who are uncommitted and still amenable to reason and persuasion. I had an open mind when I first encountered these threads, and made a decision based on the different arguments and the sources they cited. Others may be able to say the same, without endorsing everything that's said by one side or the other. Even if everyone were committed to one side or another, still the effort to found evidence and craft a reasoned reply could be seen as an effort to debate and persuade. While the debate is frustrating and largely fruitless, it has been an interesting and entertaining way to learn more about American history, and that has been of some value.
I see enough spitting on the culture of the North and the leadership of the Union to make me sceptical of the "We just want to be left alone to honor our heroes" argument. Understand that others want to do the same. There is room for honoring both. But "The South Was Right" school goes far beyond honoring the Confederate dead and actively demeans the cause of those who fought on the other side.
As for Mencken, I think he misunderstands the questions behind the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln wasn't talking about the right of self-determination, but about the survival of free, constitutional and democratic republics. The demands that groups made for self-determination would tear apart self-governing societies, and secession would be a warrant for perpetual war and all the anarchy and tyranny that war brings. You can agree or disagree with Lincoln, but simply giving a green light to every movement that demands secession on its own terms at its own will, doesn't prevent the dilemmas Lincoln calls our attention to. Such a policy would be more likely to create and exacerbate them.
The idea that state sovereignty equals the sovereignty of the people of the states equals freedom is another that can be called into question. The idea of minority rights defended by "state's right's" advocates can also be applied against "state's rights." If I am not free because of the abuses of majorities at the federal level, do abuses of majorities at the state level leave me any freer? Similarly, the idea that "the Confederates went into battle free" is also open to debate. It depends on how one defines "Confederates" and "free." Mencken's sentence opens up too many cans of worms to be accepted at face value as true. A committed group of warriors always goes into battle free, but that doesn't tell us much about the society in which they live, and the rights of others in it, including slaves, oppositionists, taxpayers and conscripts.
Great description. Here he is addressing the style of Lincoln, and he is correct. Lincoln's rhetoric was stupendous. Absolutely I still want to turn you on to Mencken, nicollo. If you read enough Mencken, you see he was wrong about a great many things, but try to find another writer who is so entertaining and funny in the process of being wrong. If Bob Herbert or Thomas Friedman or Al Hunt were this funny, or this skillful with prose, I would read them regularly and disregard their political fallacies.
At times one wonders how serious he was about his subject matter. Which was more important to him? That he got his facts right, or that his sentence ended with the proper cadence. His humor, his gusto, and above all his style--the way he said things--is as lively and entertaining today as it must have been in his day. I imagine he was a great guy to have beer and steaks with, too. He was interested in a variety of subjects, including art, science, politics, history, sociology, psychology, sports, religion. But one doesn't go to him for facts, or even for excellent analysis. One goes to Mencken for language, and humor, and memorable aphorisms. Ultimately, we all find HLM saying things we don't like. I imagine fans of this Lincoln ditty might not like the following:
The South is one of the few regions in Christendom wherein it is still socially dangerous for a man to express belief in the ordinary principia of science. Northerners who are unfamiliar with the Southern mind are always loath to believe this, but it is a fact. Revivals still go on annually at nearly all of the principal sub-Potomac colleges, and in the smaller ones they are as important in the calendar as the annual football combats. It is impossible to imagine anyting properly describable as civilization in a region so dreadfully beset by organized imbecility. If any actual Southerner has ever spoken out openly and bravely against the tyranny of its reigning Protestant shamans I have not heard of him. They all devote themselves to furious debate over irrelevances, and usually end by putting the blame for all the troubles of the South on a Northern conspiracy. No such conspiracy exists. The North itself would be far better off if the South were more civilized.
--Henry Louis Mencken, Minority Report
HLM cut all ways. Here is my favorite HLM quote (available on my profile page:)
"To be an American is, unquestionably, to be the noblest, grandest, the proudest mammal that ever hoofed the verdure of God's green footstool. Often, in the black abysm of night, the thought that I am one awakens me like a blast of trumpets, and I am thrown into a cold sweat by contemplation of the fact. I shall cherish it on the scaffold; it will comfort me in hell.
--H.L. Mencken, "The Final Estimate," The Smart Set, 1919.
Superb writing. But he was wrong about a lot of things.
The only writer with the clarity and mordant wit that I have found today is Florence King, who writes "The Misanthrope's Corner" for National Review.
LOL!!! Well look who it's written by. What would you expect? Southern Dixie bump. This however is a good article and thanks for posting it
The only way for a state to secede lawfully is through the amendment process in Article V.
It shouldn't be forgotten that the Arts. of Confed were a big flop and people -knew- they were a big flog at the time They in many cases reluctantly agreed to the United States taking a national form under the Constitution. But they knew that was what was being done.
The framers -clearly- wanted to establish nationality and Washington, Madison and Jefferson are only the most prominent.
A state may NOT leave the union unilaterally. To suggest it may perverts what the framers intended.
A whole blizzard of obscure quotations cannot change what the framers wanted.
People shouldn't let dissatisfaction with the government today cloud ther view of what the framers intended.
How did the original colonies enter? And where is the prohibition against leaving? Just curious.
Jay, Chief Justice:-- The Question we are now to decide has been accurately stated, viz.: Is a state suable by individual citizens of another state?...
The revolution, or rather the Declaration of Independence, found the people already united for general purposes, and at the same time, providing for their more domestic concerns by state conventions, and other temporary arrangements. From the crown of Great Britain, the sovereignty of their country passed to the people of it; and it was then not an uncommon opinion, that the unappropriated lands, which belonged to that crown, passed, not to the people of the colony or states within whose limits they were situated, but to the whole people; on whatever principles this opinion rested, it did not give way to the other, and thirteen sovereignties were considered as emerged from the principles of the revolution, combined with local convenience and considerations; the people nevertheless continued to consider themselves, in a national point of view, as one people; and they continued without interruption to manage their national concerns accordingly; afterwards, in the hurry of the war, and in the warmth of mutual confidence, they made a confederation of the States, the basis of a general Government.
Experience disappointed the expectations they had formed from it; and then the people, in their collective and national capacity, established the present Constitution. It is remarkable that in establishing it, the people exercised their own rights and their own proper sovereignty, and conscious of the plenitude of it, they declared with becoming dignity, "We the people of the United States," 'do ordain and establish this Constitution." Here we see the people acting as the sovereigns of the whole country.; and in the language of sovereignty, establishing a Constitution by which it was their will, that the state governments should be bound, and to which the State Constitutions should be made to conform. Every State Constitution is a compact made by and between the citizens of a state to govern themeselves in a certain manner; and the Constitution of the United States is liekwise a compact made by the people of the United States to govern themselves as to general objects, in a certain manner. By this great compact however, many prerogatives were transferred to the national Government, such as those of making war and peace, contracting alliances, coining money, etc."
Wilson, Justice-- "Whoever considers, in a combined and comprehensive view, the general texture of the constitution, will be satisfied that the people of the United States intended to form themselves into a nation for national purposes. They instituted, for such purposes, a national government complete in all its parts, with powers legislative, executive and judiiciary, ad in all those powers extending over the whole nation."
-- From "Chisholm v. Georgia", 1793
The Supreme Court is amply on the record to answer your question.
The whole Constitution forbids secession.