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HL Mencken, The nature of liberty

September 9, 2010

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: I am enjoying being introduced to classic American writers of whom I’ve heard but not read through the Library of America. This week it is HL Mencken, and you can read his satirical piece, “The nature of liberty” (1920), online at LOA. Mencken (1880-1956), according to the brief introductory notes that always accompany these LOA stories, was a highly popular figure in post World War 1 America*. The Library writes that this popularity gave him the freedom to write on subjects that no-one else would: he “supported woman suffrage, promoted African American authors, and championed the contribution of immigrants to American society. He inveighed against censorship, corruption, police brutality, the Ku Klux Klan, and (above all) Prohibition“. Well, I thought, this sounds like an interesting man.

And so, I read “The nature of liberty”. It is essentially a satirical essay on the limits of liberty, on the way the Bill of Rights has been “kneaded and mellowed” through the legislature and judiciary, on the tension between a person’s liberty and the law (aka the state). The example he uses is the use of violence by police. He imagines the story of an innocent citizen who resists arrest and is beaten, then arrested and investigated by the police. He shows how, once that citizen is proven innocent, the citizen’s rights of redress are severely limited because all those involved (police, detective, watchman) acted within the law. There is only one right that the citizen has, he says

…and the courts have jealously guarded it. You have a clear right, guaranteed under the Constitution, to go into a court of equity and apply for a mandamus requiring the Polizei to cease forthwith to expose your portrait in the Rogues’ Gallery among the murderers. This is your inalienable right…

The satire is obvious throughout the essay – but you can see it here, particularly in the use of emotive terms such as “Polizei” and “Rogues’ Gallery”, and legalese such as mandamus. At the beginning of the essay, he ridicules the Civil Libertarians, with whom he patently sympathises, as follows:

…the same fanatics who shake the air with sobs every time the Postmaster-General of the United States bars a periodical from the mails because its ideas do not please him, and every time Russian is deported for reading Karl Marx, and every time a Prohibition enforcement officer murders a bootlegger who resists his levies …

Mencken very effectively shows, in this essay, how “rights” can be so regulated that the ordinary citizen ends up, in effect, with few. Those of us living in the era of “the war against terror” are only too aware of how quickly rights can be eroded in the name of the “common good”, in which the rights of individuals can be overridden in the blink of an eye.

Mencken was a passionate libertarian. He was critical of democracy, seeing it as inherently paradoxical, and of course, as a libertarian, he disliked socialism. And yet, we are social beings who live in groups, and we therefore need to balance individual liberties against the needs of the group. Earlyish in the essay, he comments that the Bill of Rights “specified the rights of a citizen, but it said nothing whatever about his duties”.  This issue of “duties” is mentioned and then dropped. I wonder, for all the satire, what his attitude was to “duties” and the degree to which these “duties” might impinge upon individual freedoms? But that, I think, is a discussion for another day … perhaps via another LOA essay.

*He was apparently also the inspiration for Anita Loos’ Gentlemen prefer blondes!

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2010 5:12 am

    I am enjoying (thoroughly ) these literary outings, too – and came to them via you a few weeks’ back now. Excellent. Improving. And free!

    • September 10, 2010 9:07 am

      Thanks Federay … that’s really nice to hear. I don’t get to read them all (though have printed a lot out – as I do like to read them with my pen in hand – for a possible future time) but just love this service.

  2. September 10, 2010 11:45 am

    I love the description of the Bill of Rights being “kneaded”! It made me chuckle and feel sad at the same time… I’m sure I’ve heard of this writer before, but I can’t for the life of me figure out where!

    • September 10, 2010 4:46 pm

      Yes, he has a way with words. I wonder if you came across him at UVA in one of those American lit oriented courses?

  3. September 10, 2010 4:55 pm

    I know of this writer from quotations only, and its interesting to read a little more about him.

    We have a government at the moment which is trying to roll back some of the oppressive legislation of the last one which definitely went too far in removing civil liberties – the new lot have scrapped the proposed citizen ID card for example.

    Are you pleased that you now have a government again?

    • September 10, 2010 10:30 pm

      I think that’s basically how I knew him too Tom. That’s great about your government and civil liberties. Yes, we are glad to have a government again – and the one we wanted although not as secure as we would have liked. Better than the alternative though!

  4. September 11, 2010 12:33 am

    I’ve heard much about Mencken and have always meant to read him, but, you know how it goes. I think he is making a sort of comeback these days. I’ve seen a number of articles about him within the last few months and I think there might be a new book out about him. Don’t quote me on that though!

    • September 11, 2010 2:07 pm

      Thanks for that info Stefanie. I wonder if it’s because of the recent threats to liberty? It’s fascinating how writers and ideas come into and out of vogue EXCEPT, of course, our Jane who seems to have been in vogue now for a long time. (Just like Shakespeare!)

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