The Moral Mind

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 18, 1910

In the city of Toledo one evening lately a Socialist spellbinder named William Patterson tramped the downtown streets with a soap box under his arm. Coming at last to a roomy corner, he deposited the soap box at the curb, mounted it, removed his hat, mopped his brow, flapped his wings—and began to exhort. Two messenger boys and a Chinaman stopped to listen; in a minute they were joined by half a dozen idlers; in five minutes the crowd had grown to 25 or 30, and whenever Patterson delivered a particularly effective wallop at the Money Power there went up a feeble cheer.

Off To the Lock-Up

By and by a policeman appeared, contemplatively swinging his stick. He paused a minute, ran his eye over the crowd, and then, without further delay, ordered Patterson to be silent. When the latter refused the cop rushed upon him, dragged him from his soap box, summoned a patrol wagon and sent him off to the watch-house. The charge was that of “interfering with the free passage of persons passing by and along a public highway.” In support of this charge there was no evidence whatever. A crowd, true enough, had gathered about Patterson, but plenty of room remained for passersby. There had been no disorder. No one had been molested. An intelligent magistrate, hearing the case next morning, dismissed Patterson without a moment’s hesitation. He was clearly guiltless of any offense against the laws.

Brand Whitlock, the mayor of Toledo, was absent from the city at the time, but when he returned, a few days later, the case was brought to his attention. He looked into it, was aroused to just indignation, and at once did the only thing proper under the circumstances. That is to say, he wrote a letter to Patterson offering him an official apology for the policeman’s gratuitous and intolerable invasion of his clear rights as an American citizen. By the same mail there went a letter to the Director of Public Safety, the head of Toledo’s police, ordering him to dismiss from the force any policeman who presumed in future to interfere with peaceful rhetoricians. The right of free speech, said the mayor, is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. It is perfectly lawful for any American citizen to be a Socialist, an anarchist, a Buddhist, a Mormon or an atheist, as he pleases, and it is likewise lawful for him to admit it and to woo any other citizen, by any peaceful means to his way of thinking.

The Mayor’s Philosophy

The whole episode, as may be imagined, delighted the Toledo Socialists, for it attracted public attention to them. At once the streets swarmed with their spellbinders, Patterson was hailed as a martyr, and Mayor Whitlock was lavished with praises. And then the mayor, having proved his common sense once, proved it again. That is to say, he issued a statement to the local newspapers reviewing the matter from first to last, disclaiming all wish to serve the Socialists as a hero and laying down some plain truths about humanity in general and propagandists in particular. This statement was so remarkable for its sanity, its insight and its honesty that it is here reprinted, as a valuable contribution to philosophy of government.

There is—it began—a certain order of mind in the world which causes most of its troubles. Socialists of the impossibilist wing, evangelists, prohibitionists and policemen are all endowed with this order of mind. These, while forming subdivisions of a distinct intellectual class of humanity, are generically the same. That is, they are always under all circumstances right.

All of these classes think in the same groove, and they are practically unanimous in their fundamental mode of thought. They differ only in minor details, but they always meet upon that narrow strip of ground upon which they have erected their inflexible model for humanity, with just room enough by its side for the scaffold upon which to hang those who don’t accept it.

Now when, by a strange coincidence, two of these species meet in the mistaken supposition that there is any disagreement between them there is of course, bound to be trouble, and whenever a Socialist—I speak of the Socialist of the impossibilist wing of the party—and a policeman—and all good policemen are impossibilists—meet, why of course we have posited the old problem of an irresistible body meeting an impenetrable substance.

There is another element to be encountered in difficulties of this sort. The policeman feels that the more authority he wields, the more thoroughly he is proving his devotion to “law and order,” and the speaker feels that the more he is interfered with the more he is suffering for the cause, and of course when a man gets to feeling that the blood of the martyrs is in him, which as he has heard somewhere is the seed of the church, why of course he is in such an exalted frame of mind that there is no human way of dealing with him.

And then, that strange human spark, that mysterious thing of personality, is always there—that element which makes impossible any perfectly or ideally organized state, social or otherwise. It is assumed by those of the order of mind to which I have referred that it is possible so to organize human affairs that they will work with the precision of a machine, that they will work just as they are intended to work and in no other way, that it is impossible for them to work any other way, and that it may be predicted long in advance just exactly how the machines will work at any given instant or under any circumstances.

This of course, is impossible, as everybody knows except the impossibilist. That is why they are impossibilists.

Certain citizens of the indurate order of mind are given to saying that if they were in authority the police would do so and so, or the police would not do such and such a thing, or that they would have the police see to this or that, etc., etc. But they would do no such thing. After they had been in power a while they would grow humble, if not discouraged, and they would be gratified if they succeeded in doing about one-third of what they had hoped and planned to do.

Thus it was that I, who had tried to give everybody the right to free speech, was chagrined to find that a man had been interfered with as was claimed, for preaching the mild doctrine of socialism, a doctrine based upon the theory that our religion was right when it advocated the brotherhood of man and that our Declaration of Independence was right when it advocated his equality.

I felt that Mr. Patterson had an indignity put upon him by his arrest, and while of course, I couldn’t undo what had been done, I could tender him an official apology, and that is what I did. As to the orders to the police, I instructed the director of public safety to inform them that the next man who interfered with any voice crying in the wilderness would be dismissed from the force.

O wise Brand Whitlock! O sane and honest man! O voice of truth crying aloud in a wilderness of platitude, pretense and baffle.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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