The American: His Morals

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/June, 1913

“MORE than any other people,” said Wendell Phillips, in one of his penetrating flashes, “we Americans are afraid of one another.” He might have added, as an obvious corollary, “and merciless to one another.” The national fear of giving offense, in truth, has the soundest of prudence in it: it is fed constantly by new evidence of what happens to the man who treads upon the communal corns. A scream of rage—and he is flat upon his spine. And swiftly upon the heels of that condign felling, before ever he can lift his voice in his defense, or even in apology and appeal for grace, the process continues as follows:

  1. The removal of his liver and lights.
  2. The deposit of a cake of ice in the cavity.
  3. The burial of the corpse.

A natural consequence, perhaps, of democracy. An inevitable symptom of that emotional mob-thinking which distrusts all genuine distinction on the one hand, and is eternally eager for an auto-da-fé on the other. Wherever and whenever the mob has ruled, it has leaned to like proceedings. You remember, of course, the program of Wat Tyler and his honest hinds—how they stopped each stranger they met on the road to London and demanded to know if he could read and write; and how, if he said yes, they bawled, “He confesses!” and forthwith hanged him to the nearest oak. So, again, in the French Revolution: if there was one thing more astounding than the mob’s fickleness, it was the mob’s senseless savagery. It killed men for crimes that were improbable and even incredible, and its favorite for killing was always some amateur messiah whose hand it had licked the day before.

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. Menaced everlastingly by the chance that the minority of today may become the majority of tomorrow, that black may turn suddenly white, that the wholly virtuous may become the wholly vile, it falls into the habit of striking from the shoulder while a nose is actually within reach. In other words, the majority heaps penalties upon the minority in the hope of crippling it beyond recovery, or, failing that, of drawing out its recovery as long as possible. And the method thus pursued in the field of purely political combat is used again in the field of morals. Immorality, in the abstract, is not frowned upon by democracy. On the contrary, democracy is itself immoral, and its highest rewards go to successful acts of immorality. Its central doctrine, indeed, is that all human valuations are subject to change overnight, and it holds that there is a positive merit in thus overturning them. But the man who makes the attempt 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 natures, but against the security and amour-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.

Thus we find in the very constitution of the American commonwealth a reason for the strange timorousness which marks the American—a timorousness noted by Harriet Martineau, De Tocqueville, Follen, Emerson and Channing before ever Phillips pointed it out and moralized upon it, and by Maurice Low, Nicholas Murray Butler, Hugo Munsterberg and many another anatomist of the national character after him. But this reason is not the whole reason. It accounts for the fear of the individual, but it does not account for the moral obsession of the mass. It explains why the punishment of the erring is so devastating, but it does not explain why the community should be so eager to smell the erring out.

That further explanation is to be found, I believe, in the continued survival of a dominating taint of Puritanism in the American character—a survival no less real and corrupting because many of its outward evidences have been concealed by time. Since the very dawn of his separate history, the American has been ruled by what may be called a moral conception of life. He has thought of all things as either right or wrong, and of the greater number of them, perhaps, as wrong. He has ever tended, apparently irresistibly, to reduce all questions of politics, of industrial organization, of art, of education, and even of fashion and social etiquette, to questions of ethics. Every one of his great political movements has been a moral movement; in almost every line of his literature there is what Nietzsche used to call moralic acid; he never thinks of great men and common men, of valuable men and useless men, but only of good men and bad men. And to this moral way of thinking he adds a moral way of acting. That is to say, he feels that he is bound to make an active war upon whatever is bad, that his silence is equivalent to his consent, that he will be held personally responsible, by a sharp-eyed, long-nosed God, for all the deviltry that goes on around him. The result, on the one hand, is a ceaseless buzzing and slobbering over moral issues, many of them wholly artificial and ridiculous, and on the other hand, an incessant snouting into private conduct, in the hope of bringing new issues to light. In brief, the result is Puritanism.

This national Puritanism, of course, has been considerably modified, in materials if not in method, by the passage of the years, and is still in process of laborious evolution. At the start, as everyone knows, it was inextricably mingled with purely theological ideas. In all of the early colonies, at least in the North, it was a great deal more dangerous for a man to go astray in exegesis than to go astray in conduct. Under the Massachusetts theocracy, for example, the punishment for heresy was far heavier than the punishment for adultery, or even than the punishment for ordinary murder. But by the time the constitution of the new republic came to be framed, this old snorting over the affairs of heaven had been eased, in a measure, by the pressing importance of the affairs of this earth, and so the hostile factions were ready to accept the compromise proposed by Thomas Jefferson and other such neutrals, declaring a permanent truce of God in religion. As Maurice Low points out, it was the bitter need of the hour and not any genuine toleration that lay at the bottom of this truce. The breach between Quaker and Catholic, churchman and dissenter, was still unspanable, but they chose to forget it in the face of common perils and a common hatred. Each faction held hunkerously to its own creed, but it was ready to abandon its right to damn and penalize the creeds of the others.

But this very sacrifice in the department of theology made for an increase of activity in the department of morality. The scope of puritanical endeavor was suddenly narrowed, but the puritanical spirit remained. If it was now impossible to throw a fellow man to the wolves for confusing the Hebrew vowel points, it was still possible to throw him to the wolves for mistaking some other fellow’s wife for his own, and to this and like ferocities the Americans addressed themselves with holy fire. The country became, in brief, a bullring of malignant moralists, each bent upon forcing the whole population to greater and greater feats of personal asepsis, and all bawling like the devil. Religion, ceasing to be a conflict of principles—intelligible at least, however absurd—became a mere debauch of unordered and gaudy emotions, an orgy of enthusiasms, a frenzy almost pathological and wholly obscene. This was the period of great revivals, of entire counties converted to holiness en masse and brought bellowing to the mourners’ bench. Thus and then was prohibition born, and the jehad against tobacco with it, and the campaign against swearing, and the vice crusade, and a dozen such donkeyish ecstasies and outrageous invasions of private morals. The camp meeting, invented by negroes but once removed from cannibalism, was adopted by the whole population—and survives today as the chautauqua. Morality raged like a pestilence. No human act, however natural and innocent, escaped a destructive moral analysis. Even the language, as Bartlett tells us in his “Dictionary of Americanisms,” was spayed and fitted with skirts. Such words as “bull” and “mare,” in the forties and fifties, became “male cow” and “female horse.” “Stomach” (held virtuous for some reason unknown) was stretched to include the whole region from the nipples to the pelvic arch. The forthright nouns and adjectives of a franker if no less moral day were covered with such gossamers as “the social evil,” “a statutory offense,” “a house of ill fame” and “an interesting condition.”

In politics appeared the same exaltation of moral issues and moral reasoning. There has been no great political movement in the United States since Jefferson’s day without some purely moral balderdash at its center. The long battle against slavery, for example, was led from first to last by men obsessed by the wickedness of the slaveowners, and eager to put it down at any cost in blood and sweat. The historians, true enough, show us that slavery was economically unsound, and that irresistible natural laws worked toward its destruction, but no one thought of its economical unsoundness during the two decades before the Civil War. It was the moral unsoundness of the thing that inflamed the North and sent John Brown across the Potomac and provoked four years of unparalleled wrath and butchery. The Abolitionists were not moved by any fear that the South was going bankrupt, nor even by any tangible feeling that the North was suffering unfair competition, but simply and solely by an uncontrollable craving, entirely puritanical in character, to make the Southerners change their brand of virtue. It was their unalterable conviction that they themselves were wholly good and that the Southerners were wholly bad, and they thought it was their supreme duty, as custodians of the divine grace, to purge and punish the erring. In brief, they were Puritans of the purest ray. They were willing to sacrifice everything, including even the State itself, to force their private morals upon unwilling sinners.

The same mania, always taking extremely hysterical forms, is evident in all our other political experiments and revolutions. A new political idea, however persuasively it may be set forth, never takes hold upon the American imagination until it is put into terms of a sonorous morality. I need not point out how our political mountebanks have always given poignancy to their issues by the simple process of finding (or inventing) villains to denounce. The great heroes of the common people have seldom brought anything actually new to the problems they have presumed to solve. Jackson was not the author of the so-called Jacksonian scheme of mob rule, and Bryan was not the discoverer of the free silver panacea, and Roosevelt was not the father of any of his vast and irreconcilable brood of remedies. But Jackson did convince the chandala that their betters were robbing them, and Bryan did convince them that the trusts were crucifying them, and Roosevelt did convince them there were vast, horrible and unintelligible conspiracies against them, and so these rabble-rousers got their ears and inflamed them to multitudinous follies. The touchstone, in every case, was their moral hyperesthesia, their weakness for reducing all ideas to terms of right and wrong, their eternal eagerness to burn a concrete and screaming sinner.

But how does it happen that this Puritan point of view has survived the swift and radical changes of a century? How, for one thing, has it survived the opposition of the 30,000,000 immigrants who have poured into the country since 1830—many of them from lands untouched by Puritanism, some of them from environments bitterly hostile to it? And how, for another thing, has it survived the changing conditions of life at home—from the spaciousness and leisure of the country to the crowded competition of the towns, from pastoral simplicity of interests to commercial and industrial complexity? The first of these two questions answers itself if you reflect upon the newly-arrived immigrant’s dominating desire to lose his differentiation as soon as possible. That differentiation is a heavy burden to him. It costs him a lot every day, not only in actual wages but also in social opportunity and public respect, to be a Mick, a Dutchman, a Bohick, a squarehead, a dago or a guiney. He is impatient to be accepted as an American, and if, by any ossification of habits, he is personally deprived of that boon, he makes sure that his children enjoy it. And public opinion supports him in his effort. All the little tricks of manner that he brought with him are laughed at, and so are his inherited ways of thinking. So long as he remains a palpable foreigner, he is a common butt, and on no higher level than the native blackamoor. No wonder he tries his best to lose his stigmata! No wonder his one hope is to speak American as the Americans speak it, to look and eat and see and smell like an American, to outfit his mind with a full stock of American ideas! And no wonder he is especially hospitable, whatever his initial repugnance, to those ideas which Americans seem to set most value upon—in other words, to the great root ideas of their national Puritanism.

This absorption of the foreigner, of course, is not wholly without its compensatory coloring of the absorbing mass. The German has ceased to be a German in the United States, and the Russian Jew is ceasing to be either Russian or a Jew, but the American, by the same token, has become a bit of a German, and a bit of a Jew. Where large numbers of an invading race have settled together, they have broken down the native morality by their sheer weight, and substituted a sort of compromise between it and their own morality. Thus the Irish introduced their peculiar weakness for political chicanery into most of the large cities of the East—often finding a fertile soil for it, one may observe, in a native weakness almost as marked. And thus the Germans and Scandinavians in such cities as Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago have made Puritanism draw in more than one of its horns. But in general the immigrant has done nine-tenths of the yielding. I was somewhat startled lately, for example, to hear that a number of German-American pastors had joined the Lord’s Day Alliance, one of the most violent and vicious of all our native camorras of puritanical snouters. And everyone must have noticed how the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has taken on something of the national austerity and distrust of joy. On its own soil the church is far from puritanical. Its bishops in Austria, Bavaria, Spain and Italy would never think of prohibiting innocent sports on Sunday afternoons, or of arguing that a man who buys a lottery ticket will go to hell; but their brethren in this country, while perhaps not actually preaching such doctrines, have at least remained silent while other shepherds have preached them, and while complaisant legislators have sought to reinforce them with pharisaical and unenforceable laws.

As for the second question—how Puritanism has survived the changing conditions of life at home—its answer is that Puritanism has changed with them. In principle, perhaps, that yielding has been very slight. The American’s point of view is still essentially puritanical. He still sees the devil’s snares on all sides of him; he is still enormously interested in the private morals of his fellow men; he is still eager to display his abhorrence of sin by cleaving off the hide of a sinner. But his repertoire of sins has been overhauled more than once: he has taken out old ones and put in new ones. In the main, it will be noted, on examination, that those he has taken out are sins that he has found it expedient or convenient to commit himself with increasing frequency and lack of concealment. And those that he has put in are sins for which he has lost all use or taste, or which he has learned to commit without having to admit it. The primitive Puritan, as we have seen, was more interested in theology than in anything else under the sun, and so he placed the discussion of it above all other enterprises, and was ever ready to hang or burn the man whose view of it offended him. But the American of today, having lost his notion of the supreme importance of theology, is impatient of the turmoil which its discussion entails, and so he has actually erected that discussion, once the first of pious duties, into a sin. Thus he has turned a complete somersault in morals and robbed Puritanism of its original aim and excuse. Religious freedom, in the few American colonies which offered it, meant the right of every man to state his belief boldly and without risk of being disemboweled. But in the republic of today it has come to mean the duty of every man to approve the belief of the other fellow, if not on the ground that he holds it himself, then at least on the ground that it is made reasonable by the other fellow’s assent, and is, in any case, not worth rowing about. Once the sin lay in questioning that which happened to be orthodox; now the sin lies in the simple fact of questioning. The American still thinks that it is virtuous to crack the skull of a sinner who professes no faith at all, but he has learned to keep his hands off the sinner who merely professes the wrong one.

To be a sin, under a moral democracy, an act must meet one of two conditions: either it must be something which the majority of persons have no taste or capacity for committing, or it must be something which the average man can commit without serious risk of being found out. To the first class, in the United States, belongs the new sin we have just been discussing. The American of today has no taste for serious religious controversy—he believes, in his normal moods, that one route to heaven is about as good as another and that all sinners will go to the same hell—and so he holds that such controversy is evil. Into the same class he puts acts that are beyond his imagination and talents—for example, seduction, piracy upon the high seas, polygamy, homicide in all the forms that require courage, usury, duelling, bullfighting, acts in restraint of free competition (i. e., against the artificial security of the weak and incompetent), gambling upon any but the prettiest scale, rebellions against the marriage laws, originality in dress, efforts to overthrow the Constitution and set up a better one, and armed resistance to the tyrannies of the police and to statutes passed by corrupt and imbecile legislatures. Such acts, the delight of many undoubtedly first-rate men in all ages, are viewed with horror by the American. He groups a great many of them under the generic name of “anarchy”—and then flees from the name as from a plague. He would regard it as an act of “anarchy” to propose that the President of the United States be shipped to the Philippines and a king put in his place. And by the same token, he would regard it as “anarchy” to go about with naked legs, or to live in amity with two or three wives, or to substitute the cleanly killing of slum babies for their slow starvation, or to teach the poor how to limit their offspring, or to halt the evil-doing of a camorra of political thieves with machine guns, or to extend the masculine standard of morals to women. His chief complaint against the trusts is that they are “anarchistic.” By this he means that they accomplish successfully, by straightforward and intelligent means, the things that the average man is unable to accomplish by his clumsy and stupid means.

To the same class belong many offenses which carry us somewhat deeper into the congenital Puritanism of the American. Call them acts of joy and you have described them pretty accurately. The American views joy with unscotchable suspicion, whatever its visible form: his attitude toward it, in general, is exactly opposite to that of the Periclean Greek. Some of its agents, true enough, have wormed themselves, after a fashion, into his reluctant affections—the theater and the dance may serve as examples—but he is still full of a vague feeling that the devil sent them, he is still disposed to apologize for them. When he flings his legs in air, it is by no means in innocence, but with a full sense that the act is subtly lascivious; that it will lay him up no stores in heaven. In principle, indeed, he is wholly against dancing, as he is against card playing and wine-bibbing, and the largest of his native religious sects specifically prohibits all three. Unable, by a defect of the imagination, to penetrate to their spiritual uses or to apprehend the joy they symbolize as a thing in itself, he sees only their element of carnality, and so he feels uncomfortably wicked every time he yields. In the theater his conscience is always with him, sitting sepulchrally at his side and favoring him with a clammy smack ever and anon. The result is a constant effort to stave it off, to placate it, to com promise with it. That is to say, his choice is ever for plays that tickle it at least as much as they outrage it—plays that end safely upon some sonorous and preposterous platitude—plays teaching the general doctrine that virtue is not only possible in this life, but even profitable and agreeable. If the American shows a willingness, now and then, to venture a rod or two into the moral Bad Lands, it is only because of the excuse it gives him for an affecting rush back. He will stand for a play in which John Doe casts a libidinous eye upon Mrs. Richard Roe, but not for a play in which John gets away with it. No, there must be a sad finish for John, and a reconciliation between Mrs. Roe and Richard. And, as a rule, the American feels that even this small toleration of immorality is rather too much. He greatly prefers, indeed, a play in which John picks a virgin for his dalliance, and in which the virgin remains in that blessed state until after the final curtain. In brief, he insists upon what he calls a happy ending.

All sports except baseball are held to be immoral by the American. He may go to see a horse race or a boxing match once in a while, just as he may play poker or view a hoochee-coochee dance or get drunk, but always there will be protests from his conscience. Such diversions, and fox hunting and joy riding with them, are on his roster of iniquities, and he would not dare to yield to any of them if he thought he were going to die next week. The persons who patronize them habitually constitute a recognized and abhorrent caste of sinners: the follower of horses or of royal flushes is just as sure to go to hell as the follower of skirts. Baseball escapes from this general ban for two reasons: the first is that its essential immorality, as an expression of joy, is covered up by its stimulation of a childish and orgiastic local pride, a typically American weakness, and the second of which, flowing from the first, is that it offers an admirable escape for that bad sportsmanship and savage bloodlust which appear in all the rest of the American’s diversions. An American crowd does not go to a baseball game to see a fair and honest contest, but to see the visiting club walloped and humiliated. If the home club can’t achieve the walloping unaided, the crowd helps—usually by means no worse than mocking and reviling, but sometimes with fists and beer bottles. And if, even then, the home club is drubbed, it becomes the butt itself, and is lambasted even more brutally than the visitors. The thirst of the crowd is for victims, and if it can’t get them in one way it will get them in another.

This hot yearning to rowel and punish someone—preferably a sinner, but failing that, anyone handy—is one of the distinguishing marks of the American. The energies which the Germans put into bacchanalian and military enterprise, and the English into idle sport and vapid charity, are chiefly devoted, in this fair land, to moral endeavor, and particularly to punitive moral endeavor. The nation is forever in the throes of loud, barbaric campaigns against this sin or that. It is difficult to think of a human act that has not been denounced and combated at some time or other. Thousands of self -consecrated archangels go roaring from one end of the country to the other, raising the posse comitates against the Rum Demon, or cocaine, or the hobble skirt, or Mormonism, or the cigarette, or horse racing, or bucket shops, or vivisection, or divorce, or the army canteen, or profanity, or race suicide, or moving picture shows, or graft, or the negro, or the trusts, or Sunday recreations, or dance halls, or child labor. The management of such crusades is a well organized and highly remunerative business: it enlists a great multitude of snide preachers and unsuccessful lawyers, and converts them into public characters of the first eminence. Candidates for public office are forced to join in the bellowing; objectors are crushed with accusations of personal guilt; inquisitorial and unconstitutional laws are put upon the statute books; the courts, always so flabby under a democracy, are bullied into complaisance. In the large cities, of course, there is considerable opposition to these puritanical frenzies, if only on the ground that they hurt trade, but the laws of most American cities, it must be remembered, are not made by their citizens but by peasant legislators from the country districts, and no protest can ever prevail against the rural madness for chemical purity.

Such donkeyish enactments, of course, do not actually put down the sins they are aimed at. Their one certain effect, indeed, is quite the contrary: they rein force mere immorality with positive crime. Thus, in New York City, the effect of prohibiting prostitution, a wholly ineradicable evil, has been to convert it into a mammoth and predatory business, with thousands of petty politicians fattening upon it; and the effect of the unenforceable laws against gambling has been to turn the police into blackmailers. But this inevitable failure doesn’t daunt the moral American. The way he gets his fun is not by stamping out sin, but by giving chase to sinners. He likes to catch a few of them now and then and put them to the torture—but it would give him bitter disappointment if they all came in and surrendered. Prohibition, a typically American imbecility, is kept alive by the very fact that it won’t work. Its appeal lies almost wholly in the endless sport it affords. First there is the fun of prohibiting the chief solace and recreation of a horde of protesting sinners, and then there is the fun of hunting down all those who refuse to come over to well water—i. e., about 99.99 per cent. There is just as much drunkenness in a dry town as in a wet town, and sometimes even more—but there is also more moral excitement. The constant raids and denunciations thrill the pure heart. There is infinite opportunity for exhilarating, spying, threatening, roweling, punishing. The liquor seller who was a licensed merchant yesterday “and felony for to shoot,” is now an outlaw, a fugitive from justice, ferae naturae. The breeding and pursuit of such game is the national sport of the American.

The same ferocious impulse is at the bottom of most of the “anti-ring” and “reform” movements which periodically rack American cities. For grafting, in itself, the American has only a theoretical horror, just as he has only a theoretical horror of drunkenness. Whether in public office or in private office, he is commonly a grafter himself, at least in a modest way, and what is more, the fact is universally recognized and taken into account. The cash register is omnipresent in the United States—and for a reason. In no other land in Christendom is the bonding business one-fifth as prosperous. Nowhere else are the public service corporations—such as street car and gas companies, for example—put to greater ingenuity to protect themselves from their customers. But this petty dishonesty—the natural fruit, perhaps, of the hypocrisies engendered by the national Puritanism—does not interfere with the rapturous chase of grafters of more heroic cut. Let but a newspaper announce solemnly that a given public official is taking bribes—a fact already known, or at least strongly suspected, by every reasonable man in the community—and at once the mob is up in arms, and a rousing hunt has begun. Loud demands are made that the trial of the accused be rushed, that he be jailed as quickly as possible, that he be given the maximum sentence under the law. All persons who appear in his behalf, if only to plead for his plain rights, are denounced as accomplices and scoundrels. The whole population yells for his gore; the racial bloodlust demands an immediate victim. But once he is safely behind the bars, once the chase is over, all interest in it dries up. A year or so later the felon is turned out. Sentimentality now rescues him, as savagery once condemned him.

Here we come at last (and it is high time, for these papers must be short) upon the second of the two classes of sins mentioned two or three pages back—that is to say, the sins which the man of average talents can commit without serious risk of being found out. This sin of grafting is a shining example: it is almost always possible, as the vernacular has it, to get away with the goods. Probably the majority of all American public officials, federal, state or municipal, may be “reached” with more or less ease, but not one in a thousand is ever caught and punished. And in private life the ratio of the guilty to the convicted is certainly no larger. (How many men are ever jailed for beating the street cars? Or for using lead nickels in slot machines?) So it is perfectly safe for the American to arraign graft fiercely when a peculiarly inept practitioner is taken in the act: the more he bellows, indeed, the more he diverts suspicion from himself. And not only is it safe and profitable, but in addition, it is urged by a sort of subconscious psychological necessity, for, as Dr. Freud tells us, it is always our own salient weakness that we combat most violently. The wildest foes of the Rum Demons are drunkards under their skins; the Sunday school superintendent is a bad man to trust with orphans’ money; the most rigidly perfect table manners are found in persons whose childhood meals were eaten in the kitchen and to the raucous music of father’s gurgitation. And the loudest excoriators of graft, perhaps, are those who know its snares too well.

But an even better example of the sin subterranean is adultery, an act punished in the United States by penalties unmatched in any other civilized land. All our moralists, however far they roam, come back to it soon or late. The wars upon cigarettes, bridge whist and peekaboo waists are passing madnesses; the war for the Seventh Commandment is with us always. It is the inspiration and foundation of innumerable laws, uncompromising, preposterous, unenforceable. It is the theme perpetual of all pious dervishes and rabble-rousers, tear-squeezers and mad mullahs. To be taken in adultery, dramatically, publicly, is to forfeit all qualification to public office under the republic. The simple accusation of a weeping woman, even of a weeping charwoman, might have ruined a Lincoln or a Grant. It did ruin—but I name no names! In nearly half the territorial area of the United States a man accused of one form of adultery becomes an outlaw ipso facto; he may be shot down without trial, and public opinion will applaud his slayer. And from end to end of the country, the woman who makes an open departure from the cold, straight path is practically expelled from the human race. There is no room in our national life for a George Sand, nor even for a George Eliot. Gorki the patriot and Gorki the artist were swallowed up instanter by Gorki the adulterer. Of the two chief questions that every immigrant must answer before he may enter the gates of the nation, one gives him plain notice that he must not shoot the President and the other gives him plain notice that he must not deny monogamy. Only once in our history has a whole State faced the penalty of disfranchisement for crime, and then it was for allowing polygamists to admit it.

But does all this show an unexampled purity of national character, a unique frenzy for virtue, a unanimous worship of virginity? Is the American, then, the most chaste of living creatures? Is he a frigid, ascetic archangel, remote from all the low passions and appetites of the brute? Alas, I fear I cannot tell you that he is! I wish I could, but I can’t—and he isn’t. On the contrary, he is one of the lustiest rogues in all Christendom, a fellow grievously over-sexed, the constant victim of his own fevers, a natural adventurer in amour. All his so-called chivalry, indeed, is no more than evidence of one of his projecting defects: his inability, to wit, to think of women save as servitors to his uses. It is costing him great effort to acquire a more complex view of them; he is still somewhat scandalized whenever they show intelligence and individuality. He would much prefer them to remain his simple property—his cherished, coddled, well defended property, perhaps, but still un mistakably his property. The things he asks of them in return for that jealous cherishing are services almost purely sexual: he wants them to be assiduous wives and willing mothers: it displeases him to picture them in any other role. This view, of course, reacts viciously upon the women themselves. There is no land in which the holding out of the sexual lure is less covered up by artificialities and disguises. The American girl is turned loose upon the reluctant male at seventeen, and she practises her frank magic until she is long past forty. Scarcely a single restraint is upon her; no crippling conventions hamper her display of goods; she is free to snare a man however she may.

And in a score of less open and innocent ways the crude sexuality of the American makes itself evident. His cities reek with prostitution; his news papers devote enormous space to matters of amour; his one permanent intellectual exercise is the exchange of obscene and witless anecdotes. Recognizing this weakness himself, he makes elaborate efforts to armor himself against it. No other civilized white man is so full of hypocritical pruderies. He is afraid of all “suggestion,” as he calls it, in books, pictures and plays. He cannot look at a nude statue innocently; he cannot even imagine a nude woman innocently. Words and images that have no more effect upon a German or a Frenchman than the multiplication table are subtly salacious to the American, and lead him into evil. He is forbidden to kiss his girl in the public parks because he cannot be trusted to stop at kissing. His laws solemnly proscribe, as incitements to debauchery, the very weapons that professional moralists aim at—for example, the report of the Chicago Vice Commission. The ordinances of all his large cities embody a specific denial that he has kidneys; he is afraid to face squarely the commonplaces of physiology. A man eternally tortured by the animal within him, a man forever yielding to brute passion and instinct, his one abiding fear is that he may be mistaken for a mammal.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380425;view=1up;seq=457)