Senator Mencken

A few words of wisdom — true then and true today — from H.L. Mencken’s favorite politician, the great Sen. James A. Reed (D-Mo.):

Truth to tell, Washington has become the universal Mecca of human freaks. To that city protagonists of vagaries gravitate by all known routes, some by election, some by appointment, and some by “divine command.” The great majority, however, merely follow noses that itch for the business of others. There they bed and breed. They haunt the corridors of the public buildings, crowd into the offices of congressmen, and insist upon displaying their fantastic and sometimes loathsome wares. Consumed by passion for experimentation, they regard the public corpus as a legitimate subject for ceaseless exploratory operations and clinical vivisection.

To this array of freaks, the Constitution is not a bulwark of liberty but a shackle upon progress which they hold in contemptuous disregard. Congress itself is full of men who do not think of the Constitution save as an obstacle to their desires. They study it only to devise some plan for its circumvention. There is no subterfuge they will not employ, no deceit to which they will not resort, if peradventure the limitations imposed by the Constitution may be cheated.

A favorite device is, by a false recital of the real objects of a bill, to bring it apparently under some specific power granted to the federal government. Witness:

The Mann Act which, pretending to be an exercise of authority to regulate commerce between the States, in fact sought to regulate commerce between the sexes.

The penalization of doctors for prescribing beer as a medicine under the pretended authority of the amendment prohibiting liquor as a beverage.

The attempted prohibition of interstate commerce in the products of child labor on the pretext that the use of such goods was injurious to the public health.

The recent effort of the Nebraska Legislature to forbid the teaching of any other than the English language on the false recital that the child’s morals would be thereby impaired.

Under another grouping, but even more monstrous, is the proposal by Congress of a constitutional amendment empowering the federal government to pass laws denying to all human beings under eighteen years of age the right to work. Happily, that barbarous and tyrannical proposition is being rapidly rejected by the States. Evidently, there is an awakening of the States, if not of Congress.

A single further instance. Very recently, a joint committee of both Houses proposed a bill to send to jail in certain cases any citizen who failed to inform against himself or his neighbor. Seemingly no member of the committee ever heard of the constitutional provision: “nor shall [any citizen] be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” Instances might be indefinitely extended. The Capitol is choked with the advocates of changes.

What shall the end be? Will that race of men who for a thousand years have asserted the “right of castle,” rejected governmental interference in domestic affairs, proclaimed the right of free man to regulate his personal habits and to rear and govern his children in accordance with the law of conscience and of love, now become subject to a self-imposed statutory tyranny which from birth to death interferes in the smallest concerns of life? Shall we endure a legal despotism, the equivalent of which would have provoked rebellion amongst the Saxons even when under the Norman heel?

I doubt not these statutory bonds will be eventually broken. The right of the free man to live his own life, limited only by the inhibition of non-infringement upon the rights of others, will again be asserted. But before that day arrives, will the splendid symmetry of our governmental structure have been destroyed?

Read the whole essay, “The Pestilence of Fanaticism,” here. It originally ran in Mencken’s American Mercury 1925. As with most Mercury material of the time, the essay bears the imprint of the editor’s heavy hand. But Reed and Mencken were close enough of mind that I suspect the HLM flourishes don’t deviate much from Reed’s own thoughts.


2 thoughts on “Senator Mencken

  1. Tim April 12, 2008 / 8:32 am

    Reed’s account of the fanatics’ three point plan sounds like an expose of the legal and domestic surveillance side of the Bush war on terror.

    “1. That our plan of government has not worked with perfection and that therefor the plan ought to be destroyed;

    2. That all who oppose them are “in league with hell and have made a covenant with death”;

    3. That they possess an infallible specific which every human being should be by law compelled to swallow, and that, thereupon, evil will disappear, sorrow will cease, men and women will be transformed into statutory angels, and “everything will be lovely and the goose hang high”–particularly if the reformer succeeds somehow or other in grabbing a lucrative job.”

  2. Berin Szoka April 19, 2008 / 6:10 pm

    Fantastic. Mencken’s homage to Reed upon his departure from the Senate in 1929 is particularly compelling: “It is a great pity that there are not more like him. The country could use a thousand, and even so, each of the thousand would find a thousand mountebanks in front of him. The process of government among us becomes a process of pillage and extortion. The executive power is in the hands of a gang of bureaucrats without responsibility, led by charlatans without conscience. The courts, succumbing to such agencies as the Anti-Saloon League, reduce the constitutional guarantees to vanity and nullity. The legislative machine is operated by nonentities, with frauds and fanatics flogging them. In all that vast and obscene mob there are few men of any solid ability, and fewer still of any intellectual integrity. Reed was one. He had both.”

    One wonders how American history might have been different had Reed not retired from the Senate after one term but instead continued to serve until his death in 1944.

    Even more wildly, what if he had won the democratic nomination in 1928 or 1932? He was a candidate in both races. See, e.g.,

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