Every Election Is a Sort of Advance Auction Sale of Stolen Goods

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.

Continue reading Every Election Is a Sort of Advance Auction Sale of Stolen Goods

Notes:

  1. 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)

The Urge to Save Humanity is Almost Always Only a False-Face for the Urge to Rule It

H.L. Mencken? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following saying is credited to H.L. Mencken on several websites, and I found it in some quotation dictionaries. But I cannot find it directly in any works written by Mencken. Could you tell me if the attribution is correct?

The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-front for the urge to rule it.

Quote Investigator: I sympathize with your inability to find this adage using electronic searches. Locating this saying is tricky because the key word “false-front” is incorrect. Here is the phrase with some additional context as it appeared in “Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks” which were first published in 1956 [MRH]:

The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve. This is true even of the pious brethren who carry the gospel to foreign parts.

The first sentence above was altered to yield the common modern variant by replacing “false-face” with “false-front” and by deleting the word “only”. It is not clear when or where this modification took place.

Continue reading The Urge to Save Humanity is Almost Always Only a False-Face for the Urge to Rule It

Why Should Any Man Be Allowed to Buy a Printing Press and Disseminate Pernicious Opinions?

Vladimir Lenin? Winston Churchill? George Riddell? H. L. Mencken? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I was thumbing through The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations to try and find a good saying about freedom of the press and I was stunned to see this hostile sentence [OPQ]:

As to freedom of the press, why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?

These words were attributed to Winston Churchill based on a 1984 biography by Piers Brendon [WPB]. But these same words were attributed to Vladimir Lenin in another collection of quotations I read recently and that is why I was astounded. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the book. Now I am starting to doubt my memory. Could you research this quote?

Quote Investigator: Thanks for a fascinating puzzle. Indeed, most of this sentence does appear as part of a longer passage that is attributed to Vladimir Lenin in a famous compilation published in 1942 called “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken”. The name Nikolai Lenin is used instead of Vladimir Lenin in Mencken’s reference work [NQL]:

Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?

NIKOLAI LENIN: Speech in Moscow, 1920

QI has traced this expression back to a diary entry that was written in 1920 by George Riddell who was a powerful newspaperman and close friend of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Lloyd George. Riddell later became the 1st Baron Riddell. The text in Mencken’s reference is very similar to the text in Riddell’s diary, but it is not identical.

Riddell mentioned both Churchill and Lenin in a crucial passage of his diary. But QI believes that Riddell was describing a speech by Lenin and not the words of Churchill. Hence, QI thinks that the ascription to Churchill is almost certainly incorrect.

Continue reading Why Should Any Man Be Allowed to Buy a Printing Press and Disseminate Pernicious Opinions?