Before Lin-Manuel Miranda, H. L. Mencken

If Miranda updated the Founders (Happy July 4th, by the way) in the vernacular of hip-hop (or is it rap?), Mencken was two steps ahead when he put the Declaration of Independence into the language of the common American circa 1920. So he began:

WHEN THINGS get so balled up that the people of a country got 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 not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man them rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to give it the bum’s rush and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day like them South American yellow-bellies, or every time some jobholder goes to work and does something he ain’t 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 any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I.W.W.’s would say the same. But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal so much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more.

It goes on, and on, probably too on. Mencken made his point with those first two graphs.

But those who admire his cleverness, usually miss Mencken’s point for putting the vaunted Declaration in the idiom of Woodrow Wilson’s America. The reason was to defend civil liberties at a time when war policies had not been particularly sensitive to constitutional provisions. He was not mocking the Founders. He was deriding his fellow American who had lost sight of limited government and civil liberties. You’d almost think he was writing about America during a pandemic (I mean war on virus):

When, during the Wilson-Palmer saturnalia of oppressions, specialists in liberty began protesting that the Declaration plainly gave the people the right to alter the goverment under which they lived and even to abolish it altogether, they encountered the utmost incredulity. On more than one occasion, in fact, such an exegete was tarred and feathered by the shocked members of the American Legion, even after the Declaration had been read to them.

What ailed them was that they could not understand its 18th-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.

One thought on “Before Lin-Manuel Miranda, H. L. Mencken

  1. “That any government that don’t give a man them rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter”.

    In the age of “what authority?”. who is the judge? Fortunately, our government still stands even when very powerful people here and around the globe want to speak destructive words. Instead of speaking openly they simply unleash powerful waves of psychologically sophisticated pan-propaganda. Wreck the people you wreck the government. Plop Mencken in 2022 and his head would spin off.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.