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The Declaration of Independence in American
December 5, 2001 3:54 PM   Subscribe

The Declaration of Independence in American by H.L. Mencken, circa 1921. A quote: "When things get so balled up that the people of a country have to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are on the level, and not trying to put nothing over on nobody." Gangbusters!
posted by acridrabbit (26 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
The original, for your comparison, is here.
posted by acridrabbit at 3:56 PM on December 5, 2001


Ever notice how many of these precepts our OWN government breaks? For instance, having a huge military in times of peace, holding meetings in obscure places and not telling anybody so that it's nearly impossible for the average person to attend, or, my favorite, making it SO HARD for a fellow to have a fair accounting at a trial (like when sued by a huge multinational agro-business, for instances) that they have to pull out of the trial altogether.
posted by taumeson at 4:08 PM on December 5, 2001


Afflict the comfortable!

“Wilson-Palmer saturnalia of oppressions”

Red scare — opposite of democracy. The similiarties to the 20s and recent events are interesting, actually. Thanks for bringing this up.
posted by raaka at 4:09 PM on December 5, 2001


Interesting how he largely eliminates both God and natural law. Not that making the Declaration of Independence more accessable to the less educated isn't a noble goal, but those ideas were ideological cornerstones in the philosophy of the founding fathers, and I would think that the revision should stay true to the meaning of the original, as far as possible. Editing out ideas you don't like hurts our understanding of history.
posted by gd779 at 4:09 PM on December 5, 2001


Bloody brilliant.
posted by Ty Webb at 4:13 PM on December 5, 2001


Interesting how he largely eliminates both God and natural law. Not that making the Declaration of Independence more accessable to the less educated isn't a noble goal....

gd779, I'm assuming you didn't actually read this, he was mostly making commentary on his own times, I think its safe to say. He's reporter and commentator, not historian.

Besides, this is H.L. Mencken after all, who was short or respect for religion after covering the Scopes trial madness... a couple relevant quotes from Mencken:

Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.

Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration -- courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.

Ah, good ol' Mencken.
posted by malphigian at 4:36 PM on December 5, 2001


addendum: Scopes trial was 1925, and this was written in 1921, but he was diehard atheist then too. Also, sorry about the typos :(
posted by malphigian at 4:39 PM on December 5, 2001


For a slightly less controversial but no less vitriolic dose of Mencken, much of his literary criticism (including the entirety of Prejudices, First Series) is available online.
posted by snarkout at 4:47 PM on December 5, 2001


gd779, I'm assuming you didn't actually read this, he was mostly making commentary on his own times, I think its safe to say. He's reporter and commentator, not historian.

Of course I read it. (Although, admittedly, I missed the date and assumed it was written recently). Mencken is not representing this as commentary on the Declaration, but rather as the Declaration of Independence put into modern language. He says, for example, that...

"Such Johnsonian periods are quite beyond his comprehension, and no doubt the fact is at least partly to blame for the neglect upon which the Declaration has fallen in recent years. When... specialists in liberty began protesting that the Declaration plainly gave the people the right to alter the goverment... they encountered the utmost incredulity... What ailed them was that they could not understand its eighteenth century English. I make the suggestion that its circulation among such patriotic men, translated into the language they use every day, would serve to prevent, or, at all events, to diminish that sort of terrorism."

And that's my point. If you're going to try to put the Declaration into "the language that we use every day", you shouldn't let your personal prejudices lead you into deleting the passages you don't like.

On the other hand, viewing this as some sort of social commentary, my point is indeed moot.
posted by gd779 at 5:26 PM on December 5, 2001


gd, you gotta lighten up a bit. It's a humorous piece, afterall.

And afterall, you may claim that "those ideas were ideological cornerstones in the philosophy of the founding fathers" but I don't believe the word God is used at all in the Constitution. The fact that it was used in the Decleration of Independance doesn't suprise me: it was written hundreds of years ago, in a much more superstitious time. People probably still believed tomatos were poisonous, and had just finished killing women because they were "witches."
posted by Doug at 6:02 PM on December 5, 2001


I'd go further and say that Jefferson went to great pains to avoid reference to God or Xianity, using phrasing that's almost awkward for its avoidance of specific religious leanings:
the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God
they are endowed by their Creator
the Supreme Judge of the world

These and other phrases seem to really stress, by what they don't say, that Jefferson & Co. wanted a non-religious form of government, leaving religious preference as a private choice. While Jefferson was no atheist (as has been noted in previous MeFi threads, he did make his own edited version of the Bible), it's pretty hard to square the Deism of Thomas and his fellow Founding Fathers with the notion that xianity was a 'cornerstone' of our nations' political philosophy. I think you're letting your personal prejudices, gd779, influence your own reading and interpretation of both the original and adultered versions.


posted by hincandenza at 6:25 PM on December 5, 2001


Warning... this one'll be long.

gd, you gotta lighten up a bit.

Yeah, okay. Point taken. Sorry if I'm coming on too strong; it was unintentional and I'll be sure and dial it back a bit.

And after all, you may claim that "those ideas were ideological cornerstones in the philosophy of the founding fathers" but I don't believe the word God is used at all in the Constitution.

It's not used directly in the constitution, no. There are some very good reasons for that, perhaps most important is the fact that America is not a theocracy. But, like it or not, Christianity really was central to the ideology underlying the revolution. Frankly, it would be kinda difficult to overstate the importance of religion, especially Calvinism, in the ideological foundation of this country.

Take the separation of powers, for example. Though taken for granted today, that was once a pretty revolutionary concept. It's creator, the Baron Montesquieu of France, was cited by the ff's more often than any source except the Bible. What did Montisquieu base his political theory on? The Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of man. Believing strongly in the total depravity of man, and the need for civil government to restrain man's selfish behavior, Montisquieu advocated a separation of powers by which power checks power. In his most famous work, The Spirit of Laws, Montisquieu writes this:

But the intelligent world is far from being so well governed as the physical. For though the former has also its laws, which of their own nature are invariable, it does not conform to them so exactly as they physical world. This is because, on the one hand, particular intelligent beings are of a finite nature, and consequently liable to error; and on the other, their nature requires them to be free agents. hence they do not steadily conform to their primitive laws; and even those of their own instituting they frequently infringe...

As an intelligent being, [man] incessantly transgresses the laws established by God, and changes those of his own instituting. He is left to his private direction, though a limited being, and subject, like all finite intelligences, to ignorance and error: even his imperfect knowledge he loses; and as a sensible creature, he is hurried away by a thousand impetuous passions. Such a being might every instant forget his Creator; God has therefore reminded him of his duty by the laws of religion... Formed to live in society, he might forget his fellow creatures; legislators have, therefore, by political and civil laws, confined him to his duty...

The Christian religion, which ordains that men should love each other, would, without doubt, have every nation blest with the best civil, the best political laws; because these, next to this religion, are the greatest good that men can give and receive.


Montisquieu believed strongly in man's wicked nature and in a theory of natural law drawn directly from God's law; this was the philosophical foundation from which the doctrine of separation of powers flowed.

Second only to Montisquieu in the eyes of the founding fathers was Sir William Blackstone. Blackstone is largely credited with the theory of natural law, which states that human laws are subject first to the Divine laws found in the Bible. Though secularizing the message by removing Blackston'e direct reference to the Bible, Alexandar Hamilton summed natural law theory up nicely in The Farmer Refuted as follows:

Good and wise men, in all ages... have supposed that the Deity, from the relations we stand in to Himself, and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institutions whatever.

Blackstone said, and the founding fathers agreed, that "the first and primary end of human laws, is to maintain and regulate these absolute rights of individuals." Thus America got her love of rights and freedom, which contrasts sharply with other domanant political theories of the day.

For an even more stark example, we can look at John Locke. Widely considered to be once of the most profoundly influential philosophers in forming the American revolution, John Locke was a moderate Calvinist who, like Montisquieu, drew his philosophy from his religion. His line about "life, liberty, and property", which finds expression in our 5th and 14th amendments, as well as the declaration of independence, was a straightforward application of Calvinist covenant theory as expounded by the Rev. Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex. Calvinist covenant theology held that God's covenant with man is two-fold: a covenant of law and a covenant of grace. Without getting too far into the details, I don't think it'd be controversial to say that this view found secular expression in a number of philosophies, notably the view that men, in a state of nature, formed a government by mutual consent and gave it certain limited authority to act to protect their basic rights (life, liberty, and property). This "social contract theory" was also the foundation for the popular rallying cry: "Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God".

So we see that much of the foundational ideology expressed during the revolution, and even the justification for revolution itself, was simply the secular application of Calvinist doctrine. Christianity, in one form or another, was the intellectual cornerstone upon which the ff's built American ideology.

Were all of our ff's Fundamentalist Christians? No. Some were Calvinists, some were Catholics, and some were Deists of one variety or another. But most were some flavor of Christian, and even those that weren't were working with ideas who had their intellectual roots in Christian doctrine.

(Incidentally, based on the signed statements of faith commonly required for church membership, at the constitutional convention it is estimated that 28 delegates were Episcopalians, 8 were Presbyterians, 7 were Congregationalists, 2 were Lutherans, 2 Dutch Reformed, 2 Methodist, 2 Roman Catholic, and 3 were deist. One religious preference (James McClung) is unknown to historians).

George Van Droph, one of the leading scholars of American history during the 1800's, called John Calvin the Father of America. "He who would not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin", Droph said, "knows little of the origin of American liberty".

hicandenza:These and other phrases seem to really stress, by what they don't say, that Jefferson & Co. wanted a non-religious form of government, leaving religious preference as a private choice.

Absolutely. But that sentiment is not limited to the deists. It was the fundamental belief of a fairly large number of the ff's that Christianity, being a private decision, could not be encouraged by state force, and thus the state should leave the matter to private conscience. The practical application of that sentiment was hotly disputed, but the basic sentiment was shared.
posted by gd779 at 7:42 PM on December 5, 2001


To back up that last statement slightly:

I also give it in charge to you to avoid all disrespect of the religion of the country, and its ceremonies. Prudence, policy, and a true Christian spirit will lead us to look with compassion upon their errors without insulting them. While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the rights of conscience of others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case they are answerable.

- Washington, Letter to Colonel Benedict Arnold dated September 14, 1775.

Now Washington, who was perhaps the first ff to use the phrase "freedom of religion", was strongly religious. However, he was notoriously silent on specific matters of faith and thus is often considered a deist. If that claim is true, then Washington must have been willing to sacrifice his honor in order to conceal a secret deism: in 1765 Washington signed a statement of faith swearing to his acceptance of the doctrine of the Church of England. A deist could not, in good conscience, sign such a statement.
posted by gd779 at 7:57 PM on December 5, 2001


I don't know anyone that talks like that, and I live in Ringgold, GA.
posted by mcsweetie at 9:38 PM on December 5, 2001


gd770 - thought you might like this article on the Magna Carta and the role of Edmund Coke in the development of the Declaration of Independence, called Magna Carta and its American Legacy. See the section about halfway down the page on Coke's Reinterpretation of the Magna Carta. His statement that "even kings must comply to common law" is the basis for the Declaration's "all men are created equal," or as Mencken interpreted it, "you and me is as good as anybody else." This was an important statement to make at the time - not so much that everyone was created equally, but rather that the "kingly rights" that King George relied upon to place himself above the commoners and the colonists was being soundly renounced.
posted by bragadocchio at 11:10 PM on December 5, 2001


I don't know anyone that talks like that, and I live in Ringgold, GA.

It is the vernacular of 80 years ago, and from at least as far north of you as Baltimore. Urban lower middle class from somewhere.
posted by Zurishaddai at 1:47 AM on December 6, 2001


Sounds an awful lot like a Bushism to me!
posted by Carol Anne at 5:05 AM on December 6, 2001


gd770 - thought you might like this article on the Magna Carta and the role of Edmund Coke in the development of the Declaration of Independence, called Magna Carta and its American Legacy. See the section about halfway down the page on Coke's Reinterpretation of the Magna Carta. His statement that "even kings must comply to common law" is the basis for the Declaration's "all men are created equal,"

Thanks, bragadocchio. I hope that, in my effort to emphasize the philosophical and intellectual importance of Christianity in early America, I didn't give the impression that I was doing so to the exclusion of all else. Of course the Magna Carta was an extremely important selling point for the revolutionaries; it helped to form their justification for the war. But the Magna Carta is a legal document, not a moral one; it influenced their ideology, but not their philosophy.

The "cornerstone" analogy may be a good way of expressing the relationship here. Just like ancient houses, justifications and ideologies are never built upon just one cornerstone: documents like the magna carta formed the legal and political cornerstone of revolutionary thought, Christianity formed a large part of the moral and philosophical cornerstone.

Am I drawing a distinction without a difference? Maybe. I find the moral and philosophical questions more interesting, but that's just me. At worst, my original contention still stands: Christianity, particularly Calvinism, formed a large part of the ideological foundation that created revolutionary thought.
posted by gd779 at 12:40 PM on December 6, 2001


Well, gd, it turns out we were arguing different things. I won't deny that the ff's had some xian leanings, or drew some of their moral beliefs from biblical sources (although the older I get, the more I find that my approach to divining a man-made moral code has great similarities to the Christian ethics; it's possible for two people to arrive at the same place from different routes), just as you didn't deny that the ff's also were very particular about not introducing a great deal of religious flavor into these documents. Mencken's vernacularizing of the Dec. omitted religious reference much as the actual Dec. did, which is my point in response to your original claim that he was whitewashing it by not mentioning the religious basis for much of the ff's philosophies. The deeper historical truths notwithstanding, though, I feel that Mencken didn't shortchange the level of religion found in the Declaration itself.
posted by hincandenza at 6:10 PM on December 6, 2001


Yeah, okay. Sounds like we agreed all along, mainly. (I'd change "xian leanings" to "were Christians", but I'm not a historian. Pull me away from logic, philosophy, and primary sources, and I have to basically accept what the historians tell me.)
posted by gd779 at 2:55 PM on December 7, 2001


although the older I get, the more I find that my approach to divining a man-made moral code has great similarities to the Christian ethics; it's possible for two people to arrive at the same place from different routes

That's interesting. If you happen to be still reading, I'm curious to know... to what do you attribute that? Is it simply the result of living in a society where Christianity has played a large role, or is there something about the moral precepts you've adopted that you think makes them just naturally good?
posted by gd779 at 3:09 PM on December 7, 2001


The fact that it was used in the Decleration of Independance doesn't suprise me: it was written hundreds of years ago, in a much more superstitious time.

The authors of both the DoI and the Consititution were a good mix of deists, skeptics, and christians. Find me a deist or an atheist (skeptic I believe was the proper term for them back then) in a position of power today in the US. Politically, we're living in a much more religious time than previously.

Oh course a great deal of declarations of faith and displays of faith are strictly for the electorate, but I doubt George Washington or Thomas Jefferson could get elected today.
posted by skallas at 6:32 PM on December 7, 2001


hincandenza: it's possible for two people to arrive at the same place from different routes

Very true. Kant and the Founders arrived at very similiar destinations at about the same time. Only one of them used God to guide them. (Sadly, in my mind anyway, the nation turned out more Millian than Kantian.)

skallas, Of course George wouldn't get elected, not only did the man have wooden teeth, but he sounded like a religious peacenik socialist.

Praised religion and was wary of the “supposition” that “morality can be maintained without religion.” Warned against overgrown, over-communicative governmental agencies and hated the party system. He praised taxes for crying out loud! Especially when used for “Institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” Surely this means colleges and museums. Doesn’t it also mean public broadcasting? Warned against “overgrown military establishments.” He advised the Nation to “steer clear of permanent Alliances.” This guy was wacky!

Washington selling swampland in northern Virginia to the federal government might've turned into the nation's first “-gate”.

Washington in real estate scandal! John Adams appointed special investigator!
posted by raaka at 5:23 AM on December 8, 2001


How does this:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

translate into this:

Of course, that donÕt mean having a revolution every day like them South American coons and yellow-bellies and Bolsheviki, or every time some job-holder does something he ainÕt got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons and Bolsheviki, and any man that wasnÕt a anarchist or one of them I. W. W.Õs would say the same.

"Coons?" "Bolsheviki"? What the hell? The whole thing reaks of ignorant populist chauvinism.
posted by mapalm at 7:34 AM on December 8, 2001


"Coons?" "Bolsheviki"? What the hell? The whole thing reaks of ignorant populist chauvinism.

That's partially the point; ignoring the fact that Mencken was something of a racist himself, he was putting on (somewhere between "adopting" and "parodying", and leaning heavily towards the latter) his version of an American working-class vernacular. That would be circa 1921, a year in which a white mob firebombed black neighborhoods in Tulsa.
posted by snarkout at 9:56 AM on December 8, 2001


I find it very helpful to imagine this being read by a young Burgess Meredith, probably wearing a driving cap.
posted by dhartung at 10:48 AM on December 8, 2001


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