Since I am doing a lot of reading of Mencken these days, I was curious to see what the bad boy of Baltimore had to say about the Declaration of Independence and its author. The following excerpt from his review of Albert Jay Nock’s, Jefferson (1926) seems as apt these days as when Nock and Mencken first wrote about the nation’s third president. And it suggests that libertarianism, contrary to its critics, is not as bad as all that:
Of the Jeffersonian system Mr. Nock offers a clear and comprehensive account, disentaingling it from the trivialities that party history has thrown about it. The essence of it, he says, is to be found in what would be called, to-day, Jefferson’s class consciousness. He divided all mankind into two classes, the producers and the exploiters, and he was for the former first, last and all the time. But there is no consolation in the fact for for the Marxians who now rage in the world, for to Jefferson producers meant far more than mere handworkers. A manufacturer, if he made some useful thing, was also a producer, so was a large landowner, if only he worked his land; Jefferson regarded himself as a producer, and his friend Jimmie Madison as another. Living in our own time, no doubt, he would put Henry Ford in that category; Henry, in fact, put himself there, and with no little show of reason. The only genuine non-producer, in the Jefferson lexicon, was the speculator — that is to say, the bonder, the promoter, the usurer, the jobber. It was against this class that he launched all his most awful thunderbolts of invective; it was this class that he sought to upset and destroy in the ferocious and memorable campaign of 1800. His failure was colossal. Driving that class out of the executive offices and making life very warm for it in the hall of legislation, he only shoved it into the courts, and there it has survived gloriously ever since, gradually extending and consolidating its power. Since Marshall’s day the American courts have suffered many vicissitudes and entertained many heresies, but in one department, at least they have kept the faith heroically: they have always protected the virtuous and patriotic bond-holder.
That is a useful reminder of where the power in the U.S. (and the world) still resides even after the banking failures of 2008 and the federal government’s bailout and “reforms” of Wall Street. And yet, Mencken still found a kind word to say about Jefferson’s outlook:
[Jefferson] was less the foe of the Federalists than of government in general. He believed that it tended inevitably to become corrupt — that it was the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men. The less there was of it, the better he liked it, and the more he trusted it. Well, that was a century ago, and wild doctrines from the barricades were still in the air. Government has now gone far beyond anything dreamed of it in Jefferson’s day. It has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a state religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men. (Mencken, Prejudices: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series, 448-49)
No amount of turning the magistrate into the good and Christian ruler can undo what the Psalmist sang, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.”