I’ve long been a fan of H.L. Mencken, the iconoclastic journalist and critic of the early 20th Century. Just last summer I read A Religious Orgy in Tennessee, a collection of his coverage of the “Scopes Monkey Trial” for the Baltimore Evening Sun. That’s why I was surprised this week to discover I was unaware that in 1921 Mencken “translated” our founding document into “The Declaration of Independence in American.”
Mencken was adept at using humor, often quite biting, to make serious points. Writing in the wake of the Palmer Raids and the country’s first “Red Scare,” Mencken suggested that Declaration had become “unintelligible to the average American,” i.e., the government and those who supported the raids. He suggested that putting the Declaration into vernacular might “serve to prevent, or, at all events, to diminish that sort of terrorism.”
I think he astutely translated what is to me the heart and soul of the Declaration, its “self-evident” truths: “[F]irst, you and me 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 however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn[.]”
Given the way things have been going this century, it looks like we need to start widely circulating Mencken’s translation.
But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more … 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[.]
H.L. Mencken, “The Declaration of Independence in American“