Mencken, H. L. (1880-1956)
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Henry Louis (H. L.) Mencken, “The Sage of Baltimore,” left school in 1899 to become a reporter for the city’s Morning Herald and later served as drama critic, city editor, and then managing editor of the Evening Herald. So famous and influential was he in the age before TV that a prominent contemporary, the journalist Walter Lippmann, called him “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people.” Indeed, most Mencken admirers today may not be libertarians, but are instead appreciators of his impressive literary and journalistic skills. Soon after the Herald folded in 1906, he joined the Baltimore Sun, where he served as editor, columnist, or contributor for most of his career. His association with the Sunpapers was sometimes rocky, as during both world wars, when Mencken, himself German American and an admirer of German culture but certainly no Nazi, vigorously opposed American intervention in those conflicts, a position embarrassingly antithetical to that taken by his newspaper. From 1914 to 1923, he edited The Smart Set, a satirical magazine, and from 1924 to 1933, he edited American Mercury, an influential cultural magazine for a “civilized minority.” As an editor, he championed the work of many authors, including Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Sherwood Anderson.
A prolific writer with broad intellectual interests, he wrote more than two dozen books, many collections of journalism, and other products of laborious, painstaking scholarship, most notably, The American Language, originally published in 1919, tracing the development of a distinctive American idiom. His admiration for the work of Irish author and dramatist George Bernard Shaw led to a study published in 1905 called George Bernard Shaw—His Plays, and his admiration for the thought and values of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche led to both a study published in 1908 called The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and a translation in 1920 of the philosopher’s Der Antichrist. It makes sense that Mencken’s sensibilities should have attracted him to Nietzsche’s thought, which calls for a “transvaluation” or reversal of values traditionally prized by Christians. Both men believed that meekness, humility, and a dependence on faith in God are part of a “slave morality” unworthy of self-respecting and self-reliant high achievers. Both saw Christianity as reflecting a scheme of values by which the envious and resentful masses try to pull the elite down to their own level. Although Mencken was deeply interested in religion, his attitude toward organized religion is not central to libertarianism more generally.
Mencken’s political views were close to what might be called Jeffersonian classical liberalism or, in today’s language, libertarianism, although he had less confidence in the wisdom of the ordinary citizen than Jefferson did. In September 1927, Mencken wrote in American Mercury,
I believe in liberty. In any dispute between a citizen and the government, it is my instinct to side with the citizen… . I am against all efforts to make men virtuous by law… . I do not have [Jefferson’s] confidence in the wisdom of the common man, but I go with him in his belief that the very commonest of common men have certain inalienable rights.
Mencken believed that respect for persons requires defining and supporting clear limits on governmental power and that a recognition of reality requires accepting some differences in wealth and social status as ineradicable. Although he rejected hereditary aristocracies and special legal or economic privileges bestowed on groups, he believed that differences in intelligence, drive, and self-discipline will inevitably result in economic and social classes. Accordingly, he wrote in a Smart Set editorial dated October 1918,
The simple fact is that there must always be underdogs so long as there are any dogs at all, and that nothing human volition can achieve will ever be better for them than throwing them a few bones. Christianity was launched as a scheme for uplifting them. Has it succeeded? Science was to do it. Has it done so? Socialism was to perform the trick. Turn to Russia for the result. What … sentimentalists constantly overlook is that the underdog is by no means a mere victim of external justice. Part of his underdoggishness, perhaps nine-tenths, is congenital and inalienable.
Like Jefferson, Mencken held that, although some government is necessary to preserve peace and perform a few other duties individuals cannot easily perform for themselves, government beyond that minimum would likely be exploiting citizens, advantaging one group by disadvantaging another. In an editorial dated January 19, 1926, for the Evening Sun of Baltimore, he wrote cynically about persons in favor of an expansive role for government: “A Progressive is one who is in favor of more taxes instead of less, more bureaus and jobholders, more paternalism and meddling, more regulation of private affairs and less liberty. In general, he would be inclined to regard the repeal of any tax as outrageous.” His libertarian convictions also were well expressed in an editorial for the Chicago Tribune called “Why Liberty?” published on January 30, 1927:
I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air—that progress made under a policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value.
Even in the 1920s he lamented that government in America had expanded far beyond what was desired by Jefferson. His passion for freedom later put him at odds with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s contributions to the welfare state and call to self-sacrifice, which Mencken regarded as a plea for governmental tyranny. His strong belief in individual liberty, esteem for reason and science, and contempt for authoritarian systems of thought made him critical—and at times contemptuous—of organized religion, especially Christianity. Although he had respect for achievement-oriented values such as hard work and self-discipline, he delighted in iconoclastic attacks on middle-class “booboisie,” prudery, and organized religion.
Although thoroughly secular and this-worldly, he was interested in religion and enjoyed writing about it, often producing an equal measure of data and derision, as in the 1930 book Treatise on the Gods (Mencken’s personal favorite) and the 1934 book Treatise on Right and Wrong. Both works are deftly written and irreverent, revealing at least as much about their author as their subjects. In 1925, he took a keen interest in and reported on what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which Clarence Darrow defended and William Jennings Bryan prosecuted a schoolteacher arrested for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. Mencken’s real-life role as a journalist at the trial was depicted in the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, which was adapted from the Jerome Lawrence–Robert E. Lee play.
In the 1920s, Mencken also wrote about Prohibition, which he viewed as an indefensible and self-defeating violation of personal liberty. In December 1924, he wrote the following as part of an editorial for American Mercury:
None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.
His criticism of Prohibition sounds a great deal like current criticism of the drug war, about which he would probably write with equal disdain.
Besides being one of America’s most famous curmudgeons and talented journalists, Mencken is important to libertarianism because of his esteem for liberty and contempt for moralism and paternalism. His brave stance against wartime censorship, for example, marks him as a consistent defender of liberty even under adversity.
Bode, Carl. Mencken. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.
Douglas, George H. H. L. Mencken: Critic of American Life. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1978.
Mencken, H. L. The Gist of Mencken: Quotations from America’s Critic. Mayo DuBasky, ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990.
———. A Mencken Chrestomathy. New York: Knopf, 1949.
———. My Life as Author and Editor. Jonathan Yardley, ed. New York: Knopf, 1993.
———. Prejudices: First Series. New York: Knopf, 1919.
———. Prejudices: Second Series. New York: Knopf, 1920.
———. Treatise on the Gods. New York: Knopf, 1930.
———. Treatise on Right and Wrong. New York: Knopf, 1934.
Stenerson, Douglas C. H. L. Mencken: Iconoclast from Baltimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
Originally published .