Classic Essays

Mencken on Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg Address

by H.L. Mencken

THE BACKWARDNESS OF the art of biography in These States is made shiningly visible by the fact that we have yet to see a first-rate life of either Lincoln or Whitman. Of Lincolniana, of course, there is no end, nor is there any end to the hospitality of those who collect it. Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States — first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious faith — surely an important matter in any competent biography — is yet but half solved. Here, for example, is the Rev. William E. Barton, grappling with it for more than four hundred large pages in “The Soul of Abraham Lincoln.” It is a lengthy inquiry — the rev. pastor, in truth, shows a good deal of the habitual garrulity of his order — but it is never tedious. On the contrary, it is curious and amusing, and I have read it with steady interest, including even the appendices. Unluckily, the author, like his predecessors, fails to finish the business before him. Was Lincoln a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Christ? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Christ were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other close friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but Dr. Barton argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time — that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were alive today, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs. As for me, I still wonder.

The growth of the Lincoln legend is truly amazing. He becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus making him fit for adoration in the chautauquas and Y. M. C. A.’s. All the popular pictures of him show him in his robes of state, and wearing an expression fit for a man about to be hanged. There is, so far as I know, not a single portrait of him showing him smiling — and yet he must have cackled a good deal, first and last: who ever heard of a storyteller who didn’t? Worse, there is an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, and so leave him a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost. What could be more absurd? Lincoln, in point of fact, was a practical politician of long experience and high talents, and by no means cursed with inconvenient ideals. On the contrary, his career in the Illinois Legislature was that of a good organization man, and he was more than once denounced by reformers. Even his handling of the slavery question was that of a politician, not that of a fanatic. Nothing alarmed him more than the suspicion that he was an Abolitionist. Barton tells of an occasion when he actually fled town to avoid meeting the issue squarely. A genuine Abolitionist would have published the Emancipation Proclamation the day after the first battle of Bull Run. But Lincoln waited until the time was more favorable — until Lee had been hurled out of Pennsylvania, and, more important still, until the political currents were safely running his way. Always he was a wary fellow, both in his dealings with measures and in his dealings with men. He knew how to keep his mouth shut.

Nevertheless, it was his eloquence that probably brought him to his great estate. Like William Jennings Bryan, he was a dark horse made suddenly formidable by fortunate rhetoric. The Douglas debate launched him, and the Cooper Union speech got him the presidency. This talent for emotional utterance, this gift for making phrases that enchanted the plain people, was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fireworks — the childish rhodomontades of the era. But in middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost baldly simple — and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered today. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection — the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is oratory, 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 that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. 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? The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country — and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege.

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Source: Prejudices, Third Series

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4 Comments

  1. Jimmy Smith
    May 18, 2015 at 11:10 pm — Reply

    Although the Southern States may have had the Constitutional right to secede from the Union, Andrew Carrington Hitchcock’s book “The Synagogue of Satan” reveals that Rothschilds’ agents had long been fomenting the Southern Secession movement ever since President Andrew Jackson succeeded in denying the charter for the 2nd National bank of America by the time of his death in 1845.
    The idea behind the civil war was to weaken the United States and to re-establish a centralized bank in the country and economically enslave the nation. This theory may be debatable, but no one can debate that the outcome of this conspiracy was a successful one from the point of view of International Bankers. I seem to come across many white Southerners who are racially aware but are under the misconception that President Lincoln was responsible for the South’s ruin and the freeing of the Negro slaves. Although Lincoln can be rightfully criticized for not allowing the South to secede, I believe it is a bit unfair to say that it was Lincoln’s desire to subjugate the South and allow the Negro to rain free terror upon White Southerners.
    It is verifiable fact that Lincoln was not an egalitarian, he was not sympathetic to Negroes whatsoever. Lincoln planned to repatriate the freed slaves to Africa after the Civil War. This plan was in fact started but never finished. Lincoln’s Assassination subsequent to his issuance of his own currency, the Greenbacks, proves that the Civil War in the United States was planned by international Jews for the sole purpose of re-establishing a central bank in the United States. At around the same time that Lincoln Was Assassinated, the Tsar of Russia was also assassinated because like Lincoln, he was defying the Jewish plans to establish a central bank in Russia. After Lincoln’s death in 1865 Jacob Schiff was sent to America by the Rothschilds to re-establish the central bank in America, and to put American currency back onto the gold standard.
    In 1870 General Albert Pike was recruited by the Rothschilds to draw up plans for 3 world wars. The first to destroy the Tsar of Russia and replace his government with Communism, The Second to destroy Facism(especially Germany) and strengthen Jewish Zionism, and the Third to subjugate the Muslim world to Jewish Zionism.

    So while many White Southerners today believe that their lives would be better had it not been for Lincoln, I wish to remind them that the Old South had a strong relationship with its trading partners in Europe, especially England which was already controlled by the Jewish International Bankers, just like most of Europe except for the Tsar’s Russia. It’s impossible to say if the present would of been much different had the Southern Secession movement succeeded, simply because the Jewish International Banking swindle already had its hands in America by the time the Civil war took place. If the Agents of the Rothschilds were planted in the United States to incite the South to secede then what’s to say those same Jewish agents would not have lead the South to ruin eventually had the South successfully seceded from the Union?

  2. aa
    May 19, 2015 at 7:01 am — Reply

    A forced alliance is not a union; it’s federal despotism

    Lincoln was straight out of the school of rhetoric. He talked more s**t than a 2 dollar radio. So far as the Jews are concerned, they had almost complete control of the Northern economy by the time the war started. The federals financed their monstrous war at Wall Street.

    Communism took hold in the North simultaneously with the Jew Russian revolution.

  3. fd
    May 19, 2015 at 9:05 am — Reply

    Hostile Sections – Opposite Civilizations

    Consolidated despotism – Federal infestation – Destruction of statehood.

    Lincoln’s firebrand rule and violent opposition to secession led to Shakespeare tragedy at a public theatre. The animus mundi denied the ‘great centralizer’ to see his fratricidal war to its end. And he never ruled the Southern country. The kinfolk states moved forward to defeat Reconstruction and conquer the universe with its music.

    Every Southern state voted against Lincoln—the Union is broken. The purpose of secession was to escape the Federal government (Edward pollard). National authority and national domain has not made this country stronger. The people went from citizens of their state to 14th amendment police state citizens of the hateful city on the Potomac.

    So far as Jews are concerned, their Universal stronghold is the North, not Israel.

    Lincoln Tribute

    FUNERAL ADDRESS
    BY RABBI ISAAC M. WISE

    Delivered at Lodge Street Temple, Cincinnati, O., April 19, 1865.

  4. Togorny
    May 19, 2015 at 4:02 pm — Reply

    I can recommend Thomas J. diLorenzo’s books on dishonest Abe. Very devastating. Too much to write here, but perhaps Kevin Alfred can do a radio program about it. Hoping. Just reading the contents of one of the mentioned books on amazon.com will make any person interested in true history buy it immediately.

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