Mencken's America by H L Mencken
Maryland terrapins used to be eaten.
- That it is better to tell the truth than to lie
- That it is better to be free than to be a slave
- That it is better to have knowledge than to be ignorant.
Here (the US) the business of getting a living is enormously easier than it is anywhere else in Christendom -- so easy, in fact, that an educated and unsqueamish man who fails at it must actually make deliberate efforts to that end.
The average intelligent foreigner ... will tell you at once that the outstanding mark of the American is his money madness, and assume it thereafter as a primary and immutable premise... In all European languages, and in most of those more remote, the United States is frankly spelled "United $tate$".
His (the American) chief boast, indeed, is that the civilization he adorns puts a high premium upon enterprise and originality, that his country is preeminently the land of opportunity. But opportunity to do what? To make money, yes. To launch new religions, to market new patent medicines, to combine the two in new and bizarre ways -- yes again. To change the old platitudes into new platitudes, the superstitions of yesterday into the superstitions of today -- yes a third time. But certainly not opportunity to tackle head on and with a surgeon's courage the greater and graver problems of being and becoming, to draw a sword upon the timeworn and doddering delusions of the race, to clear away the corruptions that make government a game for thieves and morals a vice for petty old maids and patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels -- to think, in brief, as men think whose thinking is worthwhile, cleanly, innocently, ruthlessly! Alas no.
So, too, in the Rome of the First Triumvirate and in the English Commonwealth: democracy is the same forever. It makes for an irrational, explosive, get-a-rope way of doing things. It puts the wayward passion and biliousness of the hour above all settled conviction and policy. ...
But the man who makes the attempt (to change settled conviction) and fails must pay a swift and staggering penalty for his failure. His sin is not against any ideal of abstract and immutable virtue, not against any jure divino or jus naturae, but against the security and amore-propre of the majority. And the punishment for that sin does not flow from any remote and icy fountain of justice, but from the blind rage of a mob.
The Johns Hopkins was founded upon a plan that was quite novel in the United States: it was to be, not a mere college fo the propagation of the humanities amongst the upper classes, but a genuine university in the Continental sense, devoted almost wholly to research. To that end it set up shop in a few plain buildings in a back street -- and within twenty years its fame was world-wide, and its influence upon all other American universities of the first rank was marked...
Today the Johns Hopkins is reorganized, but upon a new plan. It has a large and beautiful campus; its buildings begin to rise in huge groups; it challenges Harvard and Princeton. ...
Everything is booming. But the old Johns Hopkins is dead.
But the American of the new republic was of a different kidney. He was not so much hostile to beauty as devoid of any consciousness of it; he stood as unmoved before its phenomena as a savage before a table of logarithms.
I'd rather see a thousand bootleggers at large than one peaceable and honest man molested in his inalienable rights. I'd rather, with Thomas Jefferson, see a revolution every fifty years than a government strong enough to ill-use even the humblest and foolish of citizens.