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Puritanism: Then and Now

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Journalist, editor, and literary and social critic Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken (1880–1956) adopted the moniker “libertarian” years before it became popular to do so. In a letter of 1920, he wrote: “I am an extreme libertarian, and believe in absolute free speech.” In a book-review column of 1922, he wrote, “I am, in brief, a libertarian of the most extreme variety, and know of no human right that is one-tenth as valuable as the simple right to utter what seems (at the moment) to be the truth.”

Mencken has been called “the sage of Baltimore” (he was born and died there), “the most influential journalist of the first half of the 20th Century,” and “the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century.” Wit and satire were two of his formidable weapons. The Austrian economist Murray N. Rothbard referred to Mencken as “the joyous libertarian.” Yet, he likewise maintained that

Mencken’s guiding passion was individual liberty. To his good friend Hamilton Owens, he once solemnly declared: “I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to limit or deny that freedom.”

Mencken believed in absolute individual liberty “up to the limit of the unbearable, and even beyond.” He wrote to one of his biographers: “So far as I can make out, I believe in only one thing: liberty. But I do not believe in even liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone. That is, I am nothing of the reformer, however much I may rant against this or that great curse or malaise. In that ranting there is usually far more delight than indignation.” Mencken was “a serene and confident individualist, dedicated to competence and excellence and deeply devoted to liberty, but convinced that the bulk of his fellows were beyond repair.” The best kind of government, he said, “is one which lets the individual alone, one which barely escapes being no government at all.”

Mencken was one of the most quoted writers of the 20th century. Some of his most famous quips are:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

People do not expect to find chastity in a whorehouse. Why, then, do they expect to find honesty and humanity in government, a congeries of institutions whose modus operandi consists of lying, cheating, stealing, and if need be, murdering those who resist?

There’s really no point to voting. If it made any difference, it would probably be illegal.

The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.

Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.

The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable.

Puritanism — The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

It is this last quote in particular that stands out. It first appeared as a freestanding aphorism under the title “Clinical Notes” in the January 1925 issue of The American Mercury, which Mencken founded and co-edited with George Jean Nathan. The quote was later included in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949), which Mencken defined as “a collection of choice passages from an author or authors.” And what a choice passage it is.

The Puritans

Puritan has always been a pejorative term. The original Puritans were those in the Church of England after the Act of Supremacy of Henry VIII in 1535 who sought a more pure Church, free from certain Roman Catholic practices. They favored a more complete Reformation. Whole families of Puritans relocated to America after 1620, settling first in Massachusetts. They were often as intolerant as the religious environment they had fled. Meanwhile, back in England, the Puritans increasingly gained political power after the First English Civil War (1642–1646). They were at their peak of power during the Interregnum (1649–1660).

The definitive work on the Puritans during this period is England’s Culture Wars: Puritan Reformation and its Enemies in the Interregnum, 1649–1660 (Oxford, 2012) by Bernard Capp. Profane language, blasphemy, cursing, and the swearing of oaths could result in heavy fines. Working, unnecessary travel, drinking, dancing, sports, fishing, and commercial activity on the Sabbath were likewise discouraged with fines. Puritans looked sternly on sexual promiscuity. The Adultery Act of 1650, “the most notorious legislation of the interregnum, laid down the death penalty for adulterous women and their partners, and imprisonment for fornicators.” Single mothers could be incarcerated. Adulterers and fornicators could be publicly whipped. Couples could be “prosecuted for pre-marital sex, when a child was born less than nine months after the wedding.” Sodomy was a hanging offense. The Interregnum “was characterized by harsh and frightening new laws, and the rigorous if patchy enforcement of old ones, within a moral climate that was fiercely contested.” Although alcohol itself “was not viewed as evil,” the “alehouse and tavern” were viewed with deep suspicion, as was the sport of football. Drunkards could be fined. Disorderly and unlicensed alehouses were suppressed. Sumptuary legislation was meant to enforce “proper distinctions between the sexes, and between those of different status.” Popular music was viewed “with deep suspicion, especially when associated with the alehouse world of dancing, bawdy humour, and drunkenness.” Any “fiddler or minstrel playing or offering to play in an inn, tavern or alehouse was to be whipped as a vagrant.” “Bawdy singing in alehouses” could result in arrest. Playhouses were closed and actors arrested and whipped “as rogues and vagabonds.” Even into the 1690s, “London alone saw hundreds of prosecutions for adultery and fornication.”

Puritanism in America

Mencken believed that the Puritan spirit had never gone into “actual eclipse” or “suffered more than a temporary damping.” He wrote about Puritanism in “The American: His New Puritanism” in 1914 and expanded that essay into “Puritanism As a Literary Force,” published as six chapters in A Book of Prefaces in 1917. He said about Puritanism and American history:

Make the most cursory review of American history that you will, and you must surely be impressed by the persistence of the Puritan outlook upon the world, the Puritan conviction of the pervasiveness of sin, the Puritan lust to make a sinner sweat and yell. If there is one mental vice, indeed, which sets off the American people from all other folks who walk the earth, not excepting the devil-fearing Scotch, it is that of assuming that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that ninety-nine percent of them are wrong.

At bottom, of course, it rests upon the inherent Puritanism of the people; it could not survive a year if they were opposed to the principle visible in it. That deep-seated and uncorrupted Puritanism, that conviction of the pervasiveness of sin, of the supreme importance of moral correctness, of the need of savage and inquisitorial laws, has been a dominating force in American life since the very beginning. There has never been any question before the nation, whether political or economic, religious or military, diplomatic or sociological, which did not resolve itself, soon or late, into a purely moral question.

American Puritanism was the new Puritanism. As explained by D.G. Hart in Damning Words: The Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken (2016): “Mencken recognized that the new Puritanism was a secularization of the old. Instead of being enforced by clerics and professors, Puritanism now enjoyed a raft of social science and policy experts, persons who had lost the ‘flavor of sacerdotalism,’ whose chief business was the ‘chase and punishment of sinners.’” According to Mencken, the impulse behind the new Puritanism was “a will to power” and “the disposition to domineer.”

Mencken contrasted the old and the new Puritanism:

The distinguishing mark of the elder Puritanism, at least after it had attained to the stature of a national philosophy, was its appeal to the individual conscience, its exclusive concern with the demon within, its strong flavor of self-accusing…. But the new Puritanism — or, perhaps more accurately, considering the shades of prefixes, the neo-Puritanism — is a frank harking back to the primitive spirit.

That is to say, the sinner who excited his highest zeal and passion was not so much himself as the other fellow; to borrow a term from psychopathology, he was less the masochist than the sadist. And it is that very peculiarity which sets off his descendant of today from the milder Puritan of the period between the Revolution and the Civil War.

The new Puritanism is not ascetic but militant. Its aim is not to lift up the saint but to knock down the sinner. Its supreme manifestation is the vice crusade, an armed pursuit of helpless outcasts by the whole military and naval forces of the Republic, a wild scramble into Heaven on the backs of harlots.

The original Puritans had at least been men of a certain education, and even of a certain austere culture. They were inordinately hostile to beauty in all its forms, but one somehow suspects that much of their hostility was due to a sense of their weakness before it, a realization of its disarming psychical pull. 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.

But in the end, “various Puritan enterprises” like anti-liquor and anti-gambling organizations and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, although “differing widely in their targets and working methods,” have one characteristic in common:

They are all efforts to combat immorality with the weapons designed for crime. In each of them there is a visible effort to erect the individual’s offense against himself into an offense against society. Beneath all of them there is the dubious principle, indeed, of Puritanism — that it is competent for the community to limit and condition the most private acts of its members, and with it the inevitable corollary that there are some members of the community who have a special talent for such legislation, and that their arbitrary fiats are, and of a right ought to be, binding upon all. This is the essential fact of Puritanism, new or old: its recognition of the moral expert, the professional sinhound, the virtuoso of virtue. The difference between the old and the new is merely a difference in organization, in magnitude and in virulence.

“At the bottom of Puritanism,” observes Mencken, “one finds envy of the fellow who is having a better time in the world, and hence hatred of him.” He told the novelist and journalist Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) in 1915 that his “whole life” would be “devoted to combating Puritanism,” which he considered to be “a philosophy of taboos.”


The culmination of Puritanism in the United States was Prohibition. It is this that was behind Mencken’s hostility toward the Methodists and Baptists, not his agnosticism. A resolution proposing the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives on December 17, 1917. The Senate passed the resolution the next day. The ratification of the amendment was completed on January 16, 1919, and it took effect the next day.

The Eighteenth Amendment contains three sections:

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the Legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

The “appropriate legislation” mentioned in the text that was later passed by Congress to institute Prohibition was the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, after House member Andrew Volstead (1860–1947).

The Volstead Act, which was passed over Woodrow Wilson’s veto, stated that “no person shall on or after the date when the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States goes into effect, manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized in this Act.” It defined “intoxicating liquor” as any beverage containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, granted exceptions and exemptions for medical and religious purposes, and provided penalties for the law’s violation. And although the Volstead Act did not criminalize the possession of alcoholic beverages, it effectively curtailed their legal use because

after February 1, 1920, the possession of liquors by any person not legally permitted under this title to possess liquor shall be prima facie evidence that such liquor is kept for the purpose of being sold, bartered, exchanged, given away, furnished, or otherwise disposed of in violation of the Provisions of this title.

The “burden of proof” was on “the possessor in any action concerning the same to prove that such liquor was lawfully acquired, possessed, and used.”

Alcohol prohibition laws have been the most violated and unenforceable of all laws. They simply drive alcohol consumption underground. According to the National Archives, “By 1925 in New York City alone there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.” Although the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment — which was proposed, passed, adopted, and made effective in 1933 — some states adopted or revived their own alcohol prohibition laws. Some of these laws are still with us today.

Thirty-three states allow counties and municipalities to prohibit the sale and possession of hard liquor. In Arkansas, almost half of its 75 counties are dry, and Sunday sales of alcohol are prohibited statewide except in a few cities. About 10 percent of the landmass of the United States is made up of dry counties and municipalities. Although the Jack Daniel’s distillery is in Moore County, Tennessee, one cannot drink the distillery’s whiskey at any nearby restaurants since Moore is a dry county. Although anyone in the United States who is 18 or older is legally eligible to vote, run for office, enter into contracts, get married, engage in consensual sex with other adults, adopt children, join the military, be drafted, and purchase pornography, he cannot purchase a single can of beer because the drinking age in every state is 21. In many states and counties, no alcoholic beverages of any kind can be sold before a certain time on Sunday or sold for off-premises consumption at all. Surprisingly, these laws are not necessarily unpopular. A 2014 CNN poll found that nearly one in five Americans believed that alcohol consumption itself should be illegal. And just a few years ago, a writer for Vox advocated a minimum price on alcohol so that “America could save lives, combat crime, and slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.”

Alcohol prohibition laws are some of the greatest government violations of liberty and property. They cannot be justified on any grounds. As succinctly explained by Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973): “If one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away.”

21st-century Puritanism

Puritanism is alive and well in the 21st century, and not just when it comes to alcohol. The government’s war on drugs is the greatest example. What makes this even worse than Prohibition is that at least the puritanical Progressives acknowledged that the Constitution had to be amended in order to institute Prohibition nationwide.

But not only are laws against illegal gambling and sex work still prevalent, enforced, and accepted in the United States, there still exists blue laws that dictate what businesses can remain open on Sundays and holidays, what products they can sell, and what hours they are limited to.

The aforementioned writer for Vox who advocated a minimum price on alcohol concluded that the government should be in the business of controlling people’s behavior: “Maybe you still oppose all of this on the grounds that the government simply should not be involved in controlling behaviors. That’s up to you to decide. I personally think the government should try to push people in society to be healthier and happier when it’s possible, especially when the issue at hand is a product that, frankly, isn’t necessary for human life.” What is sad is that millions of 21st-century Puritans in the United States agree with him.

This is the great divide in the country, not liberals and conservatives or Democrats and Republicans. As explained by former member of Congress and presidential candidate Ron Paul:

I like to divide things into two parts: authoritarianism and volunteerism. On the one side are people who think that your life ought to be done on voluntary terms, as long as you reject aggression. On the other side are the authoritarians and they think they know what’s best for others. They really do. People I knew in Washington are convinced that people are idiots and therefore they can’t be responsible for themselves.

And as Mencken said: “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”

This article was originally published in the September 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.

The post Puritanism: Then and Now appeared first on The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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