A quote from H L Mencken..about the Gettysburg Address..

Did Mr Mencken hit the nail on the head? Or was he ranting?

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.

The Confederates fought for the right to own other people.
This has been covered before in this thread.


Well, here we go again with the old “what was the Civil War really about” debate. I think I’ll sit this one out.


I said H L Mencken. A well known muckracker. Not John Ashcroft. Not even going to react to the slavery thing. We can perhaps discuss tarriffs on southern goods if you desire. Tarriffs that went to the North.

Gosh, yes, I’ve read my Mencken, particularly his coverage of the Scopes trial. But you ignore the point that the Confederates were not fighting for independence because they were being held captive by a cruel Union. They seceded from the Union to preserve the institution of slavery, so you might as well react to it.

The Tariff of Abominations in 1828 and the following tariff in 1832 spawned the nullification controversy that was settled by Andrew Jackson. John C. Calhoun defended nullifcation by saying that the Union was not a binding entity, but a compact freely entered into by sovereign states that were equally free to leave it. This set the stage for secession. However divisive the tariff question was, it was the South’s fear that the North would prevent the expansion of slavery to the western states that sparked the Civil War.

Or not. Up to you (it’s your thread), but the tariffs pertained to states’ rights no more nor less than did slave-holding, which was acknowledged by no less an authority than Jefferson Davis to be the overriding reason for secession. I fail to see the validity in denying the relevance of the slavery question while decrying the effects of the tarriffs.

As to the question in your OP: “Did Mr Mencken hit the nail on the head? Or was he ranting?”

I think Mencken was quite correct in his description of the Gettysburg Address as poetry, but was far off-base in his interpretation of Lincoln’s meaning. While Mencken assures us that Linconln’s “doctrine” was the preservation of self-determination, it is quite clear from Lincoln’s own statements before and during the War that his doctrine was the preservation of the Union at all costs; this would have been manifestly evident to all who heard and read the Address at the time, and is strongly suggested by Lincoln’s phrasing:

Lincoln’s mission was to preserve the integrity of the central governing entity; he saw, quite correctly, that a division between the states would surely and eventually bring down the Republic. The North needed the South’s agricultural resources, and could ill afford an antagonistic nation at the border of its capitol. Lincoln’s reverence for the “American experiment” was the guiding principle for his pursuit of the war, and was expressed beautifully and completely in the Gettysburg Address.


I find your term “sparked” the civil war interesting. Doesn’t it take kindling for a spark to set off a fire? I agree slavery was the spark but the reasons go much deeper. The North using monies much better used in the south to further their cause. The North…Not even Lincoln had any desire to end slavery. Slavery is just the whitewash to cover the real reasons for the war.


So by your reasoning the only reason the Union should be held together was the money the south gave to the north? You and I both know money then and now was apportioned by population. Compare the populations sometime. Especially since the north didn’t see blacks as people. So the north took the money from the south and gave it to themselves. I don’t know about you, But that would perturb me just a bit.

Well, money, then and now was apportioned by a combination of perceived need and political clout, and the south got their share. The port of New Orleans got a lot of federal money, and so did the railroad junction at Atlanta. There were also a lot of forts on the Mississippi and the sec. of War tended to be a Southerner. Taxes were determined by population, with a slave counting for 2/3 of a free man, and Indians not counted. The south wasn’t too pleased about that, but slaves were also included (2/3 again) to determine representation in the House.

? I’m sorry sir, I seem to have mistaken you for someone who asked a question about H. L. Mencken’s interpretation of a political speech.

If you’re looking to me to supply pro-Union arguments, I’m afraid you’re in for some disappointment. In fact, I provided absolutely no such reasoning in my remarks; I merely stated the verifiable fact that preservation of the Union was Lincoln’s supreme reason for pursuit of the war, and explained why I thought his fears regarding the survival of the American system of government were well founded.

Since my intent was to answer your question as stated in the OP, rather than to get sucked into yet another Confederate apologist argument, I’ll let you proceed without me.

'Bye now.


It was 3/5’s. Still compare populations and see where the money was going.

Hmmm… I’m always leery of jumping into debates about the “Lost Cause” since, after all, we lost. However, folks do get caught up in the idea that the war was either all about slavery (no!) or that slavery hardly factored into it (no! again).

Slavery was essential to the macroeconomy of the ante bellum South: big farms and plantations just wouldn’t have been profitable without it. However, there were other factors involved: tariffs on southern goods, certainly; equal representation in Congress is another. This combination of factors is what drove many politically powerful southerners to secession, not slavery by itself.

As a life-long Southerner with pretty deep roots in the Agrarian philosophical attitude, my continual and abiding frustration with the North = good and South = bad and “slavery was the sole cause of the war” arguments goes beyond the mere oversimplification of complex history. Equally as many northern fortunes were made possible by slave labor. Boston merchants made many a tidy profit trading salt cod for Carribbean rum in the 18th century; northern textile barons profited from making garments with southern cotton in the 19th. The North was able to work through its need for slavery economics before the South could. Perhaps that was THE cause of the war.

So. Neither Southern-sympathizers nor Yankee apologists need take on a superior attitude. Slavery was a factor, not THE factor. The South lost. And we’re ALL still paying the price for slavery.

Helpful book recommendation (because, y’know, I’m Mr. Helpful Book Recommendation Guy): Lincoln at Gettysburg, a thorough examination of the speech by Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills.

I also second goboy’s helpful comment to review the other thread, and I’ll reprise the handy-dandy book recommendation given there: Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the Civil War by (wouldn’t you know it) Pulitzer Prize-winner James McPherson.

When you’ve finished with those books, you can try The Cat in the Hat by Theodore Geisel. Geisel didn’t win the Pulitzer, but the book’s a real page-turner.

Oops…no idea where 2/3 came from…my brain was asleep. My contention though, is that a simple comparison of populations isn’t enough to see where the money is going. Do you have budgetary receipts to show where the money went before the Civil War? I’m not saying you’re wrong with the premise, “the money flowed from South to North”…I’m just questioning the way you came to that.

Let’s not forget what a fanatic racist Mencken was, based on his Social Darwinist philosophy. It’s really ironic that, because of the Scopes Trial, and the misapplication of the TOE to society, we view Mencken as an enlightened gadfly, and Bryan a pathetic buffoon and blowhard. They both misunderstood Darwin, but (and this comes from a commited and even evangelic atheist) Bryan was the better person, and his misunderstanding stemmed from his fight against Social Darwinism. Because of this, I would look carefully at anything Mencken said about the War to Preserve the Peculiar Institution.

And what about the right of the slaves to govern themselves?

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery…” – A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union

“We hold as undeniable truths…That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations…” – A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union

“The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically…Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.” – Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America

“No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” – The Constitution of the Confederate States of America

If slavery is the “whitewash to cover the real reasons for the war”, it appears to have been the Confederates who were doing a good bit of the covering. “Yeah, let’s claim we’re building a new nation and risking a war for slavery, because we don’t dare let everyone know our real reasons.” (Which I presume must have been a desire to stomp kittens or something like that, if slavery was the whitewash the Confederates were slapping over their “real” motivations.) Of course, when the Confederates weren’t being excessively frank, they did have plenty of whitewashes (“states’ rights”, “the Southern ‘way of life’”) to cover over their real motive, which was the preservation of slavery.

Fair enough. Slavery wasn’t the “spark”; the election of Lincoln, an anti-slavery Republican*, to national office was the spark. (As my own home state put it, “The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state.”)

The fuel, which had been building up for much of the first half of the 19th century, was slavery.

[sub]*“Anti-slavery Republican” does not necessarily equal “immediate unconditional abolitionist”, just as “anti-Communist” does not necessarily equal “Curtis LeMay and the John Birch Society”.[/sub]

Someone has already recommended Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg as the book to read on the Gettyburg address, but let me mention another of Wills’s books. In his A Necessary Evil, in chapter 21, he discusses four writers (all good to brilliant writers, he admits) whose philosophy boiled down to the claim that they were too wonderful to associate with mere human beings. These writers are Henry David Thoreau, Henry Adams, H. L. Mencken, and Albert Jay Nock. Read the book and see if you still think that highly of Mencken.