H.L. Mencken: Unsung Libertarian Hero

Today, the 12th September, marks the anniversary of the birth of perhaps the greatest libertarian journalist to put pen to paper, H.L. Mencken. Long and deservedly recognised as a member of the highest canon of American letters, it is one of the tragedies of history that the libertarian movement, in its evolution, has neglected Mencken’s contribution. This neglect may have happened through the manner in which popular libertarianism has altered its approach to philosophising about political issues; it may just boil down to the unfortunate work of Father Time. For this reason, I am dedicating my weekly column to showing, tersely, why Mencken still matters.

The first reason Mencken remains an important figure for the libertarian movement is because of his promulgation of a newer, alternative set of philosophical premises for a libertarian world view. Mencken’s own political ideology abandoned the tenets of classical liberalism, in the vein of important thinkers such as Mill and Rousseau. It was instead through his own reading of Friedrich Nietzsche (on whom Mencken was the first person to write a book in English) that he arrived at a conception of individualism and personal freedom which we commonly associate with the mainstream genealogy of libertarian thinking (the classical liberal route).


Many such classical liberals derived their individualism from a promotion of equality between men under natural law; this notion was counterposed by Nietzsche and by extension Mencken, who had no such pretensions. Instead, they respectively recognised the tendency in nature not for equality, but for natural aristocracy among members of the species homo sapiens. This is interesting because, while Mencken’s individualism no doubt promulgates the same consequences of individual freedom arrived at by the traditional libertarian precursors such as Mill and Rousseau, the ethos driving his individualism was as far opposed to theirs as could be conceived; instead of all men being allowed to get on by themselves in the world, the Nietzsche-Mencken line was rather that the natural aristocrats, the strong and best of society, should be given space to thrive in a social environment where they would not be expected to make sacrifices or concessions for the weaker or more mediocre members of society.

This alternative thread of libertarian ideology may seem obvious to many modern day libertarians; hardly anything new, they might say. But this is because for the large part of the 20th century, the best-selling novels of Ayn Rand, one of the fountainheads of the libertarian movement (geddit?), had been espousing something very similar to this notion. How this ties to H.L. Mencken is that it was Mencken who was the first literary figure to give Ayn Rand any notice; her first novel, We The Living, was shunned by publishers for years, while Mencken was singing its praises. Now, it is not impossible to imagine the authoritative words of one of America’s most respected journalists  pricking the ears of a few publishing houses up. What is hard to imagine is what modern conservatism in America would look like without the influence of Ayn Rand.

The second reason to recognize the importance of Mencken is for the hand he played in that infamous legal case, the Scopes “Monkey” Trial. The 1925 case of the State of Tennessee v John Scopes, a schoolteacher who had violated a state bill by teaching Darwinian evolution in a science classroom, was one of Mencken’s finest hours as a reporter. Covering the trial from inside the courtroom, Mencken’s prosaic ridicule of the creationists persecuting Scopes proved to be the most effective weapon against the ignorance of the devout residents of Tennessee, whom Mencken described as “the actual prisoners at the bar” rather than Scope; prisoners of their own lack of knowledge.

Scopes 'monkey' trial
Scopes ‘monkey’ trial

The reporting of the Scopes Trial showed Mencken as an advocate of freedom in another form; educational freedom. Whilst Mencken himself noted that it wasn’t necessarily unconstitutional to make teachers teach creation myths in science classrooms, he poured venomous condemnation upon those “so-called human beings” who were happy and/or dozy enough to be satisfied with one book, the Bible, as a source of all knowledge. Even though Scopes’ case  was lost, the aftermath of the trial is now often referred to as the legal benchmark for religious freedom in America ever since it took place. The individual freedoms enshrined de facto in freedom of or from religions received a worthy supporter in Mencken’s coverage of the Scopes Trial, whose collection of reports for The Baltimore Sun remain some of the finest pieces of journalism ever written.

Moving from the sacred to the profane, or rather from the theological to the dipsomaniacal, the third reason Mencken still matters is for his vehement support for the consumption of alcohol during the time of American ‘Prohibition’. Adamant that government had no business in telling you what you can and cannot put in your own body, Mencken’s typewriter blazed off journalistic scorn at the imposed temperance on all Americans during the fourteen years between 1919 and 1933, when Prohibition was legally repealed. Far from satisfied at remaining just the wordsmith critic, however, Mencken took to ignoring the lawgiving powers that be and brewed all kinds of the stuff at his home in Baltimore. The kind of booze Mencken and his associates would guzzle for themselves was described by Anita Loos as being “bathtub gin, whisky colored with creosote, and beer that was needled with ether.”So far will some men go to assume autonomy over their own bodies, eh?

I’ve included the last reason somewhat in jest, of course, but I hope to have now at least shown that the name Mencken should still command some respect amongst libertarians. But what form should this respect take? Mere historical curiosity? I think not; we need a Mencken, and Mencken’s manner of thinking more than ever, in both American and British politics. Just look at the buffoons who are running the show, both sides of the Atlantic! Palin? Bachmann? Milliband?! We need a Mencken more than ever! Until the day that politicians are wise rather than educated, full of conviction rather than populism, and impressive rather than impressionable, H.L. Mencken will still matter.


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