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Freedom Founts

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Chapter 1, section 7 of Mencken's Notes on Democracy (1926)


Liberty and Democratic Man

Under the festive surface, of course, envy remains: the proletarian is still a democrat. The fact shows itself grimly whenever the supply of panem et circenses falls off sharply, and the harsh realities make themselves felt. All the revolutions in history have been started by hungry city mobs. The fact is, indeed, so plain that it has attracted the notice even of historians, and some of them deduce from it the doctrine that city life breeds a love of liberty. It may be so, but certainly that love is not visible in the lower orders. I can think of no city revolution that actually had liberty for its object, in any rational sense. The ideas of freedom that prevail in the world to-day were first formulated by country gentlemen, aided and abetted by poets and philosophers, with occasional help from an eccentric king. One of the most valid of them—that of free speech—was actually given its first support in law by the most absolute monarch of modern times, to wit, Frederick the Great. When the city mob fights it is not for liberty, but for ham and cabbage. When it wins, its first act is to destroy every form of freedom that is not directed wholly to that end. And its second is to butcher all professional libertarians. If Thomas Jefferson had been living in Paris in 1793 he would have made an even narrower escape from the guillotine than Thomas Paine made.

The fact is that liberty, in any true sense, is a concept that lies quite beyond the reach of the inferior man’s mind. He can imagine and even esteem, in his way, certain false forms of liberty—for example, the right to choose between two political mountebanks, and to yell for the more obviously dishonest—but the reality is incomprehensible to him. And no wonder, for genuine liberty demands of its votaries a quality he lacks completely, and that is courage. The man who loves it must be willing to fight for it; blood, said Jefferson, is its natural manure. More, he must be able to endure it—an even more arduous business. Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without. The free man is one who has won a small and precarious territory from the great mob of his inferiors, and is prepared and ready to defend it and make it support him. All around him are enemies, and where he stands there is no friend. He can hope for little help from other of his own kind, for they have battles of their own to fight. He has made of himself a sort of god in his little world, and he must face the responsibilities of a god, and the dreadful loneliness. Has Homo boobiens any talent for this magnificent self-reliance? He has the same talent for it that he has for writing symphonies in the manner of Ludwig van Beethoven, no less and no more. That is to say, he has no talent whatsoever, nor even any understanding that such a talent exists. Liberty is unfathomable to him. He can no more comprehend it than he can comprehend honour. What he mistakes for it, nine times out of ten, is simply the banal right to empty hallelujahs upon his oppressors. He is an ox whose last proud, defiant gesture is to lick the butcher behind the ear.

“The vast majority of persons of our race,” said Sir Francis Galton, “have a natural tendency to shrink from the responsibility of standing and acting alone.” It is a pity that the great pioneer of studies in heredity did not go beyond the fact to its obvious causes: they were exactly in his line. What ails “the vast majority of persons of our race” is simply the fact that, to their kind, even such mild and narrow liberties as they can appreciate are very recent acquisitions. It is barely a century and a half—a scant five generations—since four-fifths of the people of the world, white and black alike, were slaves, in reality if not in name. I could fill this book with evidence, indubitable and overwhelming. There are whole libraries upon the subject. Turn to any treatise on the causes of the French Revolution, and you will find the French peasant of 1780 but little removed, in legal rights and daily tasks, from the fellahin who built Cheops' pyramid. Consult any work on the rise of the Industrial System in England, and you will find the towns of that great liberty-loving land filled, in the same year, with a half-starved and anthropoid proletariat, and the countryside swarming with a dispossessed and despairing peasantry. Open any school-book of American history, and you will see Germans sold like cattle by their masters. If you thirst for more, keep on: the tale was precisely the same in Italy, in Spain, in Russia, in Scandinavia, and in what remained of the Holy Roman Empire. The Irish, at the close of the Eighteenth Century, were clamped under a yoke that it took more than a century of effort to throw off. The Scotch, roving their bare intolerable hills, were only two steps removed from savagery, and even cannibalism. The Welsh, but recently delivered from voodooism to Methodism, were being driven into their own coal-mines. There was no liberty anywhere in Europe, even in name, until 1789, and there was little in fact until 1848. And in America? Again I summon the historians, some of whom begin to grow honest. America was settled largely by slaves, some escaped but others transported in bondage. The Revolution was imposed upon them by their betters, chiefly, in New England, commercial gents in search of greater profits, and in the South, country gentlemen ambitious to found a nobility in the wilderness. Universal manhood suffrage, the corner-stone of modern free states, was only dreamed of until 1867, and economic freedom was little more than a name until years later.

Thus the lower orders of men, however grandiloquently they may talk of liberty to-day, have actually had but a short and highly deceptive experience of it. It is not in their blood. The grandfathers of at least half of them were slaves, and the great-grandfathers of three-fourths, and the great-great-grandfathers of seven-eighths, and the great-great-great-grandfathers of practically all. The heritage of freedom belongs to a small minority of men, descended, whether legitimately or by adultery, from the old lords of the soil or from the patricians of the free towns. It is my contention that such a heritage is necessary in order that the concept of liberty, with all its disturbing and unnatural implications, may be so much as grasped—that such ideas cannot be implanted in the mind of man at will, but must be bred in as all other basic ideas are bred in. The proletarian may mouth the phrases, as he did in Jefferson’s day, but he cannot take in the underlying realities, as was also demonstrated in Jefferson’s day. What his great-great-grandchildren may be capable of I am not concerned with here; my business is with the man himself as he now walks the world. Viewed thus, it must be obvious that he is still incapable of bearing the pangs of liberty. They make him uncomfortable; they alarm him; they fill him with a great loneliness. There is no high adventurousness in him, but only fear. He not only doesn’t long for liberty; he is quite unable to stand it. What he longs for is something wholly different, to wit, security. He needs protection. He is afraid of getting hurt. All else is affectation, delusion, empty words.

The fact, as we shall see, explains many of the most puzzling political phenomena of so-called free states. The great masses of men, though theoretically free, are seen to submit supinely to oppression and exploitation of a hundred abhorrent sorts. Have they no means of resistance? Obviously they have. The worst tyrant, even under democratic plutocracy, has but one throat to slit. The moment the majority decided to overthrow him he would be overthrown. But the majority lacks the resolution; it cannot imagine taking the risk. So it looks for leaders with the necessary courage, and when they appear it follows them slavishly, even after their courage is discovered to be mere buncombe and their altruism only a cloak for more and worse oppressions. Thus it oscillates eternally between scoundrels, or, if you would take them at their own valuation, heroes. Politics becomes the trade of playing upon its natural poltroonery—of scaring it half to death, and then proposing to save it. There is in it no other quality of which a practical politician, taking one day with another, may be sure. Every theoretically free people wonders at the slavishness of all the others. But there is no actual difference between them.