Ambrose Bierce? H. L. Mencken? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a comically acerbic remark about elections that is often attributed to the famous cynic Ambrose Bierce:
An election is nothing more than the advanced auction of stolen goods.
Several of my friends have told me that these are actually the words of the influential journalist and pundit H. L. Mencken, but no one seems to have a precise citation. Would you please examine this saying?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Ambrose Bierce said or wrote this comment.
In 1956 the press of Johns Hopkins University released an important compilation of essays by H. L. Mencken under the title “A Carnival of Buncombe” edited by Malcolm Moos. An essay called “Sham Battle” was published in the “Baltimore Evening Sun” on October 26, 1936, and it has been reprinted in this collection. Mencken presented an uncompromisingly harsh evaluation of the electoral process. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
The state—or, to make the matter more concrete, the government—consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get, and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.
Government, of course, has other functions, and some of them are useful and even valuable. It is supposed, in theory, to keep the peace, and also to protect the citizen against acts of God and the public enemy.
QI believes that the modern version of the saying was derived from the 1936 passage above.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The words of Mencken were remembered in 1960 when a columnist on the opinion page of a newspaper in Indiana, Pennsylvania republished a long excerpt from Mencken’s essay. The text closely matched that given previously in this article: 2
In this connection we are reminded of a sage remark made by H. L. Mencken, who made a good living knocking the platitudes and cliches of politicians and doo-gooders alike into ill-shapen supports for public beliefs:
“.. . the government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taken one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get, and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.”
If that sounds a bit harsh, it is good medicine for that part of our society which is dormant and apathetic, and sorely needs sharp prodding.
In 1962 a columnist in a newspaper in Arcadia, California reprinted a long excerpt from Mencken’s essay which we have abbreviated below: 3
There is justifiable cynicism in the words of the late H. L. Mencken, who wrote: “The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me…
…In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.”
In 2000 an instance of the quotation was printed in the book “Getting What You Want: The 7 Principles of Rational Living” by Robert J. Ringer. A short version of the quotation was credited to Mencken, but the wording was slightly altered. The word “advanced” was used instead of “advance”, and the phrase “auction sale” was changed to “auction”. Also note that the phrase “nothing more” was written by Ringer and not Mencken: 4
Most swing voters are, plain and simple, for sale to the highest bidder. How right H. L. Mencken was when he opined that an election is nothing more than “an advanced auction of stolen goods.” Each presidential candidate rushes from forum to forum, promising more government largesse to all who will step forward and cast their votes for him.
By 2006 an instance of the saying was being credited to Ambrose Bierce. A collection of essays and poetry called “Beyond Bougie” included the following: 5
Ambrose Bierce, in his cynical, yet honest ways said, “An election is nothing more than an advanced auction of stolen goods.”
In conclusion, QI believes that H. L. Mencken can properly be credited with the statement in his 1936 essay. Over time the wording of the quotation has been altered, and it has been incorrectly reassigned to Ambrose Bierce.
Image Notes: Ballot box from Nemo at Pixabay. H. L. Mencken portrait from before 1923 via Wikimedia Commons. Vote button from OpenClips at Pixabay.
(Special thanks to Barry Popik for his valuable research on this saying. He found evidence in 1972 pointing to H. L. Mencken and an edition of the Baltimore Sun in 1936. Great thanks to Kevin A. Short whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Short saw ascriptions to both Bierce and Mencken.)
- 1956, A Carnival of Buncombe by H. L. Mencken, Edited by Malcolm Moos, Sham Battle by H. L. Mencken Start Page 323, Quote Page 325, (“Baltimore Evening Sun” article dated October 26, 1936), Published by Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Maryland. (Verified on paper in 1956 book)(At this time QI has not directly confirmed the presence of the essay in the “Baltimore Evening Sun” on the date specified. The quotation does not seem to be present in the ProQuest database of the “Baltimore Sun”. This is understandable because the content in the morning and evening editions of “The Sun” differed) ↩
- 1960 August 30, Indiana Evening Gazette, Point of View: Need Good Moral Sense by William L. Ingersoll, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Indiana, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1962 March 19, Arcadia Tribune, After Hours: The Social Security Myth Part I by John Morley, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Arcadia, California. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2000, Getting What You Want: The 7 Principles of Rational Living by Robert J. Ringer, Chapter 5: Freedom From, Quote Page 181, G. P. Putman’s Sons, Penguin Putnam, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2006, Beyond Bougie: A Collection of Creative Nonfiction, Essays, and Poetry on Race, Class and Gender by Stephen Earley Jordan II, Quote Page 94, Published by Stephen Earley Jordan II, U.S. (Google Books Preview) ↩