H. L. MenckenH. L. Mencken, (1880-1956) American Journalist, Editor, Essayist, Linguist, Lexicographer, and Critic

H. L. Mencken Quote

“The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history...the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination -- that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.”

H. L. MenckenH. L. Mencken
~ H. L. Mencken

Ratings and Comments

Georgia Peach, Savannah

Oooh! How politically incorrect of you to bring this up! ;-) History is written by the victors... and it is repeating itself.

Editor, Liberty Quotes

Here is a link to the actual Gettysburg Address:

Peter, Port Huron

Critical thinkers acknowledge the truth in this statement. Thought control police label it such anti-concepts as poltically incorrect or racist.

Dick Trice, Fort Worth

I admire Mencken greatly but this is one of his few statements that do not ring true. If one considers Negroes non-humans then it makes sense. As it were, the Negro population of the South didn't count in Mencken's mind. They certainly were not voting to remain in slavery.

D. C. Hemphill, Boulder City, NV

An effective reminder that the "nobility" of the Union cause was greatly compromised by economic issues and a scatoma concerning the constitution.

A. Jurgensen, Stuart, FL

Old H.L. had it exactly right...it was the South that was fighting for the right to make its own decisions...whether One agrees with the popular premise that the 'troubles' were about slavery or not. States rights? Not always.

Reed Hardy, Green Bay, Wisconsin

Lincoln's purpose was to preserve the United States of America as a "government of the people, by the people and for the people." Had he failed, our form of government would have died with him. If Mr. Mencken had consulted the Constitution of the Confederate States he would have found that the "of the people" part was there, but the "by the people" was revised to "by the elite."

E Archer, NYC

To Reed Hardy: Here is the Constitution of the Confederate States -- your quotes from it cannot be found. There are several sections on the right to keep slaves, but most everything else is directly from the US Constitution at that time. I do not condone slavery, but the ends do not always justify the means. Let's not revise history -- better to face it and reform from there. There were a number of forces at work behind the War Between the States -- most of them economic. Deeper digging into the history will reveal efforts from the banking dynasty in Europe to destroy the Constitutional government of the USA. Lincoln did what he could to prevent it, but in the end, the bankers won (even though the 'Union' was saved). It would not be until Andrew Jackson that the 'den of vipers' were cast out again (for a few more years).

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Chicago    5/23/05

The American people have paid a hefty price for the hypocrisy of a 'Free nation with slaves.' Indeed we still pay for it as our view of Freedom has become so twisted that to be bound to obey the government and pay its debts to private bankers forever is considered Liberty. Denial runs so deep because we are so well conditioned -- it's the American 'Dream'. Wake up!

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Anonymous    11/21/05

One word to describe the South during the Civil War: traitors. The South fought for the right to keep slaves - gee, how noble of them. I admire Mencken, but he is dead wrong here.

anonymous, Dover, NH
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anonymous, Dover, NH Anonymous 2/18/20

Mencken was a typical intellectual elitist!  Just like Woodrow Wilson, he was also a progressive and a racist--believing that self-determination was only for WASPS and that keeping black slaves was not only morally acceptable, but necessary to preserve the plantation economy.  The Union soldiers died for self-determination for all.  The modern democrats of both south and north haven't changed their stripes since--keep them poor and ignorant--and therefore dependent--and they'll keep voting for you!

Jim G., Raleigh, NC

The War Between the States could not have been about the preservation of the Union. The Union would have continued, but it just would have been smaller. It was certainly not about slavery - though its abolition was the wonderful effect of it. It was about the right of a state to secede. That from then on states could not secede was the disastrous effect for the reasons Hencken spelled out. The slave states (not all were Southern states) were wrong to allow slavery. It's arguable that slavery was going to end in the South in the not too distant future. The Northern states were wrong to force the Southern states into a union it wanted out of. Unfortunately, the US Constitution did not outlaw slavery (if it had, there would have been no US). Mencken was a racist, probably no more than most people of the time, but regardless of that, he was right again.

Jimmy Shirley, Palm Springs, Florida

The thing about preserving the so-called ""union as it was"" is destroyed by the changes the radical republicans foist upon the nation after the war. Two years after the war, after the Southern States participated in the ratification process of the 13th Amendment, the yankee government imposes the so-called Reconstruction acts upon the South, imposing military occupation, absolute military rule, illegally making territories that Congress had declared NOT IN THE UNION to have to ratify the 14th Amendment in order to get back in. In 1861-65, the US government declared the Southern States as States in the so-called ""union"" but in rebellion. But, in 1867, the Congress declares the Southern States out of the so-called ""union"", right where they wanted to be all along, seceded from the ""union"". So, was lincoln correct? Or was he speaking as a lawyer and establishing the vague precedence followed by his successor, bill clinton - "what the definition of is, is".

cal, lewisville

Outgoing President Buchannon said it right, "The constitution fails to give the federal government the right to force the states back into the union!" It seems Lincoln could care less about the constitution!

Mike, Norwalk

Slavery was an extremely hot topic of the day, Clear back in the 1850 Compromise, States were getting divided into slave and non-slave States. It appeared slavery was going to die a natural death even when Lincoln offered the South to keep its slaves if it would just simply re-enter back into the Union. Slavery was more a moral issue fought in the media of popular opinions. It also probably cost Douglas the presidency. The war was far more about States rights and individual sovereignty than slavery. Slavery was a huge blight and ugly contradiction in terms but that didn't change the why's of secession and/or the war between the 2 nations. I keep hearing from people that the war settled the issue of secession, where is the treaty that all Independent States signed, that exceeds the individual sovereign's Creator endowed rights, that declares that? It doesn't exist.

Jack, Brussels (Belgium) - but I'm British !

Mencken's next sentence (which was omitted from your extracts) was: "What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the states, i.e., of the people of the States?"

J Carlton, Calgary

The first mistake everyone makes about the war between the states is that it was about slavery. It was not. The North had its fair share of slaves and Lincoln himself offered in a letter to the Confederacy that escaped slaves would be returned to the south as a concession to the return of the south to the union. His "nobility" on the emancipation of slaves is a crock. The war was about bringing the south and its resources under the control of the industrialized north. Slavery would have died a natural death anyway and it was only a matter of time. It was indeed the south that was fighting for liberty. The north for control, and that "control" is very much alive and well today as the White House and International Bankers share a bed. Wasn't it Andrew Jackson who said "These international bankers are a pit of vipers and must be routed from these United States"? There's the real reason for the Civil War.

jim k, austin

Lincoln didn't care a whit about the slaves. This was a war of Northern aggression, pure and simple. The Emancipation Proclamation freed only slaves in states that opposed Lincoln. namely Southern states. Border states were free to keep their slaves. For a better view of disHonest Abe, read "Lincoln Unmasked".

PatisVer, Malmö, Sweden, from CT

This is a really important quote to remember when looking at history.

Joe, North Caldwell, NJ

I'm always amazed at the "War of Northern Aggression" stuff spouted by southerners. Their central argument is usually that the Emancipation Proclamation didn't free slaves within the Union -- but that was because Lincoln didn't have the authority to free Union slaves, and he knew it -- the only way to do that was with a Constitutional amendment, which happened in 1869. Lincoln was a politician, but he did oppose slavery: "If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong." That said, Mencken (who loved taking the least popular view) was wrong too -- the WHITE Confederates fought for the right to govern themselves, but if you weren't white, God help you. For 100 years after the Civil War, blacks were treated as 3rd-class citizens in the South, and nothing the southern apologists say can change that fact.

J Carlton, Calgary

Joe, North Caldwell...And the black population were treated as local gentry in Newark? Again, slavery had nothing to do with any of it.

warren, olathe

Clearly the south did not fight for the right of their people to self govern. It fought for the right for their elite to govern and or own the many.

Joe, North Caldwell, NJ

That's a strawman -- who said anything about "local gentry?" My point is that slavery would not have died on its own without the 13th Amendment, IMO, because the South continued to hold blacks in defacto slavery (which is what sharecropping was) and segregate their schools, work environments, and even bathrooms for the next 100 years. You're absolutely right that the South was doing much better economically than the North, which is why Lincoln couldn't afford to allow the South to secede -- but don't you think slave labor had something to do with the South's economic success? I agree slavery was the excuse, not the primary motivation -- but to say slavery had "nothing to do with it" is disingenuous at best.

warrem, olathe

Jimmy, Lincoln did not preside over the destruction of the south. He was very much opposed to the retribution wanted by much of the north and even members of his own cabinet. If he had not been killed I am sure things would have been much different. He intended for the south to be treated as a prodigal son, not a treasonous mob. To this day there are a lot of interesting conspiracy theories about his assassination with the motivation being his opposition to punishing the south. I believe that if he had lived and had his policies stay in place we would not have had the oppression of the post war south and resulting race problems in this country.

J Carlton, Calgary

Joe, those are reasonable observations. I don't really think slavery had "nothing" to do with it. Slavery is a blight on American history for sure. But I think the entire world believes that slavery was a particularly American thing too, which is wrong. Slavery was implemented by the English, Spanish, French and Portuguese and brough to America. The slaves themselves were often rounded up by other tribes in Africa and brought to ports for shipment. All in all a horrible thing. In any event, I think you and I are basically on the same page.

Dick, Fort Worth

I think, by God, you are in trouble putting my name on something I have not written. This is the second time I have caught you in deliberately printing a lie with my name on it. And don't give me the line before that I had really made the statement in a previous reply. This is something I don't believe and I would never have used such poor grammar. I will see my lawyer about this. DT

Editor, Liberty Quotes
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Editor, Liberty Quotes Dick, Fort Worth 2/19/20

Dick, according to our logs, your initial post was made 5/20/2005, and the IP address is in the same range.  This was your post; we would not and do not make posts on others' behalf.

J. B. Wulff, Bristol

Wow! Never thought of that speech that way! As to the cause of the Civil War, it was all about power and states rights. I love our Constitution, but if you view it as a contract, it provides no method for a member state to leave. Amendment or revolution remain the only options. The first state's rights issue was the Hartford Convention of 1812. The South was really worried about the coming changes in the balance of power in Congress. There was an even balance which protected the southern agrarian economy against the northern manufacturing economy. As new states were being added, the balance in Congress could change and go against the South. It also could be seen that the new states would be "free" rather than "slave." This may have something to do with the unique right that Texas was given to divide into up to four states. The curious fact about the century following the Civil War was how the South was "protected" in Congress. Senority determined who would chair committees in Congress and it just happened that most of the important committees were chaired by southerners. They tended to be returned to office more reliably than the rest of the members. It bought the South nearly a century of protection. Today it can be said, The South Has Risen Once Again!

Waffler, Smith

BS: the south fought for money and power just like the Nazi's did. What Lincoln was referring to is whether or not a people who joined together for the purposes expressed in the Declaration and Constitution would stay together and continued to be so dedicated to the founding principles or woudl dissemble into a fractions mob interested in themeselves only. Menecken is way off base here. I live in the South and they don't believe any of this BS.

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Anon    5/27/09

Slavery was the emotional play on the people so to justify the war so to justify the gathering and centralizing of power by the federal government. States powers were abrogated and reconstruction by tyranny put the states in their place. Since then the states have lost power to the federal government as was the new master's perogative to take it. Since then everything that's been done in the name of what's good for the people has not. It's been for the good of those who are in power today.

Johann Hollar, Saint Paul

very inspiring

Nancy, Franklin, KY

Firstly, by "govenment" Lincoln meant the government of the United States of America, not of states and their rights, so Mencken's take on that is skewed from the start. Seconldly, slaverly and States Rights apart, the reason Lincoln and the North fought so hard to preserve the Union was that a divided USA would be a weak USA, and the British, French, Spanish imperialists would have been on us like vultures on a dead cow. Why is it that Americans, north and south, seem to have such a hard time seeing things in global perspective? Then as now it is a dangerous and short-sighted view of the world. Instead of studying the Civil War (and by the way, the South did start it) as a domestic event, it needs to be studied in relationship to the European powers that would have delighted in doing some futher Empire building. Additionally, so many of the soldiers for the South had no conception of State's Rights. They were poor, uneducated, and desperate to find a way to get out of their hardscrabble lives and advance themselves. Did they even realize that they were fighting to preserve the right of the plantation owners to continue to use slave labor; to breed and sell human beings like they would cattle; to live like little kings on their huge holdings, worked by people who couldn't call their lives their own? JUST THINK ABOUT IT!

joe berg, anamosa

Thanks Nancy. History with history together shows the real facts.

Nancy, Franklin, KY

-- joe berg, anamosa Thanks Nancy. History with history together shows the real facts. -- joe berg, anamosa Glad you agree, Joe. My husband, who's family has been in VA since it was settled, actually opened my eyes to the real facts of that period of history, even though his ancestors fought for the Confederacy and mine for the Union. You have to see beyond the obvious arguments, and open your eyes to the larger picture....in any conflict. Something mankind has always had trouble doing.

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    Anonymous    5/29/09

    PS Sorry abt. typos in my first lengthy comments. Passion should not rule out care.

    empty pockets, Albuquerque

    Excellent and accurate observation by Mencken. Though due to the revision of history we don't hear mention such :"unmentionables". The South declared war over states' rights. Lincoln used slavery as a "tool" to whip up support for his cause of expanding the control of a strengthened, centralized federal government. Apparently even then, the GOP had lost its way. Experts agree that slavery was diminishing and would have disappeared within a few years anyway-without the aborgation of states' rights and the destruction of the South. Still, "that a government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth" is a great line...one we should take to heart now that it's continuing in force.

    Corey, Nebraska

    The Hartford Convention was in 1814 and not in 1812. The New England states got together to seriously discuss seceding from the union because they felt the war was injurous to there economy. They had many genuine gripes. The North did not offer up any ground troups for the war of 1812 because they refused to. The U.S. Constitution does not provide for a member state to leave because the right to do so is already granted in the Declaration of Independance. Our nation was built on secessionist movements. Secesion means nothing more than a formal withdrawl from a society. Such as a political society. The conventionists in 1814 Hartford were many of those who seceded from their political union with Great Britain during the American Revolution. They were also in attendance when each state decided for its self weather to secede from the Union under the Articles of Confederation. It took 3 years to do but 2 seperate democracies existed in piece for those three years (1787-1790) without anyone forcing another to stay or go. Each State had the right to choose. When all 13 states seceded from the union under the Articles of Confederation, they effectively abolished a government as an inherited right given by the Declaration of Independance. As each state that seceded from the union (one at a time and not all at once) under the Articles of Confederation, that state effectively abolished that form of government for that state. As long as there was at least one State to perpetuate that form of government, that government would live on but it is no longer considered a Union. It would just be a singular political entity of its own. It is still a fully sanctioned and recognized form of governement. It was a States right to secede from the Articles of Confederacy, if it so choosed. The Declaration of Independance generated that precise political spirt of secession. To abolish a govenment and form a new one. A right to declare political freedom. The "perpetual union" phrase used in the Articles of Confederation was a sore spot for the 13 States because it was interpreted as an "inescapable union" or never ending. This is what they already went through with Great Britain. They had to fight to escape that union and they did not want to ever have a repeat of that. The result, was that they chose not to recycle the "perpetual union" phrase for reuse in the U.S. Constitution. It made no difference 72 years later though as the Southern States during the Civil War noticed that the "perpetual union" phrase was reinstated, while the Declaration of Independence was nulified by Abe Lincoln. The right to declare political freedom was no longer an American thing to do because it was an anit-Northern thing to do. Northerners considering themselves to be the only "real Americans." We regognized the right of Texas to secede from Mexico. Again another example of how our country was formed from secesionist movements. The rights of secesion were taught at West Point Academy in New York as part of the curriculum, starting in the 1820's. Those Northern men at the Hartford Convention in 1814 knew that secession was not illegal. They had already done it two times previously when they met at Hartford in 1814.

    Daniel, Willianstown

    And for the right to own slaves who convienetly had black skin.


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