Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Through the Tax Assessor's Eyes: Enslaved People, Free Blacks and Slaveholders in Early Nineteenth Century Baltimore


Slavery and Freedom in Baltimore City:

What can be known about the Black Community

prior to the Civil War

In 1812 as the country and the City of Baltimore prepared for war, and again in 1817 when the city’s boundaries were enlarged in a time of rapid economic growth and increasing demand for city services, a concerted effort was made to identify all the taxable property in the city including lots with or without improvements, slaves and personal effects such as furniture, horses, and wagons. This transcription and index focuses on the slaves, the slave holders, and the taxable property of Free Blacks between 1813 and 1818, providing a ward by ward analysis of slaveholding in the city with the names of the slaves, and insight into the degree and distribution of the taxable wealth of Free Blacks in each ward. There were 8 wards in 1813 and initially 11 in 1818 when the city boundaries were expanded by legislative fiat to approximately 15 square miles.

Following in the tradition of Ralph Clayton and Jerry M. Hynson, Noreen Goodson and Donna Hollie have painstakingly transcribed and indexed the property tax lists of Baltimore City for 1813 and 1818 for free Blacks, slaves, and slave owners. Entitled Though the Tax Assessor’s Eyers: Enslaved People, Free Blacks and Slaveholders in Early Nineteenth Century Baltimore, It is works like this that help put a name, if not a face, to the struggle for economic and personal freedom in the largest urban area in a slave state, a city that vied for third and second place among all cities in the United States in the years before the Civil War. For the period of time covered by their book, 1813-1818, the Free Black population in Baltimore with a total population of 46,555 (1810), grew from about 5,671 to 10,326 within a total population of 62,738 (1820). At the same time the resident slave population declined from 4,672 to 4,357, a pattern that would continue until slavery was abolished in 1864. Slavery did not thrive in the cities as Richard Wade points out, except perhaps as domestic servants, while manumitted slaves and generations of free Blacks increased as a significant element of the workforce and the religious community of Baltimore.

A number of historians have provided overviews of the rise of the free Black population, and the decline of slavery in Baltimore. Among the best are Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground, Maryland During the Nineteenth Century, Christopher Phillips’ Freedom’s Port, Seth Rockman’s Scraping By, T. Stephen Whitman’s The Price of Freedom, and Richard C. Wade’s Slavery in the Cities. Particularly helpful are Barbara Fields, Christopher Phillips, Steve Whitman, and Seth Rockman who provide a clear picture of the struggles of the working poor, black and white, to survive and succeed in a world that became increasingly discriminatory and restrictive. In doing so they make use of the broad brush that manumissions, census records, city directories, petitions to city officials, bank ledgers, and tax records provide, most which can be accessed at the Baltimore City Archives where the originals of the 1813 and 1818 property tax lists transcribed and indexed here, reside (see: BRG4: Baltimore City Property Tax Records (see further information about researching Property Tax Records for an itemized listing of the surviving tax records). Stephen Whitman uncovered records relating to employers, and with Seth Rockman’s study it is possible to better understand the struggle of Black and white wage earners to make a living for themselves in an increasingly industrialized world where labor was at a distinct disadvantage in securing a rightful share of the economic largesse. More recently, Andrew K. Diemer in The Politics of Black Citizenship has charted the struggle within the pre-civil war black communities of Baltimore and Philadelphia over emigration and acquiring full citizenship, which is helpful in delineating the black leadership in both communities.

But we still do not know the community as individuals and of their individual accomplishments in a city of limited promise for the Free Black and Slave population. Beginning with Bettye Jane Gardner’s Free Blacks in Baltimore, 1800-1860 (1974), Ralph Clayton’s Black Baltimore,1820-1870, and Jerry M. Hynson’s compilations of fugitive slaves, emigrant free blacks, and blacks in the city and county jails, it has been possible to begin to identify who the slaves and free Blacks were in Baltimore, and to gain some insight into the lives of individuals and their families. Because of Ralph Clayton’s Cash for Blood, we are also able to better understand who was affected by the domestic slave trade out of Baltimore to New Orleans and other points South, which always posed a threat to the slaves and free Blacks of Baltimore. The former, always in fear of being sold South, the latter always in danger of being stolen and being pulled back into slavery for a journey in which their lives and their futures might well be lost altogether to the relentless appetite of slavery.

This work pushes back to 1813 and forward to 1818, the knowledge of who were the Black property owners and holders of slaves in Baltimore City prior to the 1830s. For the period prior to 1813, Richard Cox and Wilbur Hunter indexed the names on the tax lists of Baltimore City from 1798-1808, but not the race. Apart from the overview that Christopher Phillips provides for that period and a few examples elsewhere, who those Black property owners were and the names of slave owners and their owners in those years remain for future identification, although with Benjamin Ennis, who does appear in these tax lists, it is possible to sample how free Blacks purchased ground rent property and acquired houses for themselves prior to 1813.

What can be known from the Cox index is that only 10 of the Black property owners in this volume assessed with property over $100 appear in the tax records prior to 1808. It is in the years covered by this volume that Black property owners in particular surfaced in Baltimore to be taxed in defense of the city, and they appear to have sustained a presence on the subsequent tax rolls, some of whom, as Christopher Phillips points out, became substantial property owners. While he cites only a few examples such as Thomas Green, and makes the overall argument that there were only 58 free Blacks who owned their own houses, with the tax lists, bank records-especially the Savings Bank of Baltimore, and probate records it is not only possible to know who they were and what they accomplished for themselves and their families, but also that the number of Black owners of housing was quite likely considerably higher. For example in 1815, Phillips located only 58 Black owners, but this volume identifies about 250 Black property owners paying taxes on lots and improvement between 1813 and 1818, of whom approximately 64 were assessed with property worth $100 or more. Isaac Whipper who lived on Tyson Street, owned four brick houses. Moreover of the total number of Black property owners, there were 36 women assessed in their own right. Whether or not they all owned their own houses is not easy to ascertain for certain because of the ground rent system and the loss of the Baltimore City chattel records but it is clear that black property ownership increased dramatically between 1813 and 1818. In all 47 individuals were taxed with lots in 1813, of whom 25 reappeared on the 1818 tax list. In 1818 204 individuals were taxed with lots. Where this property was concentrated is also apparent from the tax lists.

For much of the pre-Civil War period actual black ownership of housing is obscured by a complex ground rent system for which Baltimore is well known and that today remains a title quagmire that the legislature and the courts are still attempting to resolve. In essence the problem is that the original title to land in the city is rooted in land grants called patents. In developing Baltimore City those who held title under a land grant for the most part did not sell their land outright, but leased it out for development on what is known as ground rents. That freed up the capital that otherwise the lessee/renter would have to sink into the acquisition of the land outright if he or she was required to pay full market value of the land. Instead he or she paid about 6% of the value of the land at the time of the rental as an annual fee for the duration of the lease (often 99 years). The renter was then free to build on the land and in turn sell the building with the ground rent requirement to whomever he or she pleased. Over time many ground rents were subleased and sub-subleased (even sub-sub-sub leased) on often long term leases (99 years). While White owners were able to pass their ground rent holdings on to their heirs through probate, it is not clear whether or not Blacks were able to do likewise with any frequency, but as long as they lived and paid the ground rent the houses they acquired were their own.

The clues to Black ownership of housing are the tax records supplemented by land records.. For the period covered by this volume, take for example Honey Alley, later Hughes Street in West Baltimore. All the lots along Honey Alley between South Charles and Light Street were originally part of Luns Lot, a large tract purchased by Colonel John Eager Howard and renamed Howard’s Addition to Baltimore. Colonel Howard had the addition surveyed into 937 lots which he in turn leased out on ground rents. As late as 1831 his estate was still collecting the ground rents on a significant portion of the original addition, although some of the ground rents had been sold. In the portion of Honey Alley bounded by Charles and Light, some of the ground rents to the numbered lots had been subleased to developers such as John McDonogh who in turn subleased portions of the lots he leased from Colonel Howard to Black owners of the houses on the lots who in turn he made responsible for all municipal taxes. Such was the case of Benjamin Ennis of Honey Alley who lived in his frame house on the north side of the alley for at least 33 years. Benjamin Ennis, probably a veteran of the American Revolution, appears first on the municipal tax list of 1813 as Benjamin Annis which is corrected to Ennis by 1818. In both lists he is charged with a lot and improvements. In 1808 Benjamin Annis/Ennis (both names are used in the land records relating to his property) leased a portion of Howard lot 874 on Honey Alley which had been subleased by John Eager Howard to John McDonogh in 1794. In that year John McDonogh subleased the adjoining lots 880, 877, and part of lot 874 (on which Benjamin Ennis’s house would be built). It is not clear whether Mcdonogh built the two story frame house, or Ennis did, but in 1808 it was Ennis’s on a 99 year ground rent lease payable to McDonogh with a provision that all taxes would be paid by Ennis and that failure to pay the ground rent to McDonogh or his assignee within 60 days of the due date could result in the loss of Ennis’s lease and improvements on it. In other words, Benjamin Ennis owned his house as long as he paid the ground rent to McDonogh, while McDonogh was responsible for paying the original ground rent to Colonel Howard. Even if McDonogh failed to pay his ground rent to Colonel Howard, Ennis would still own the house he occupied, as long as he paid the ground rent owed specified in the lease from McDonogh, and the taxes owed the city. After Ennis died it would appear that his heirs failed to pay the ground rent and the property reverted to the person to whom Ennis had owed the ground rent. 6It would take a court case and a land patent to resolve who owned the property, but in the end the Ennis family did not.

A further problem is that apparently Free Blacks rarely appear in probate (wills, inventories, and administration accounts of estates) prior to the Civil War and possibly took pains to hide their wealth. The evidence is anecdotal so far, but it may be that Free Blacks generally kept their liquid assets as cash hidden from view. For example one wealthy Free Black who lost his first fortune in a failed bank, lost his second to robbery. The robber was caught and sent to prison, but it is not known if the money was recovered. Some free blacks, particularly women, did avail themselves of bank accounts, particularly with the Savings Bank of Baltimore which asserted that it was color blind. A forthcoming study of blacks and property owners before the Civil War, including the depositors at the bank by Marcus Allen will illuminate who those depositors were and the extent of their banking wealth. It probably will never be known how many of the over 17,000 free blacks in Baltimore City by the time Frederick Douglass left in September 1838 were owners of their own homes, nor will we fully understand the extent of their personal wealth. It can only be assumed that the tax collector’s net captured most and that the bulk of the free black population were renters who moved with some frequency about the city, although some, like James Mingo, the host of the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society to which Frederick Douglass belonged, apparently lived out his adult life with his family on Happy Alley, in the same frame house without ever making it into the tax lists. If he owned his house, it is obscured by the ownership of the groundrents who happened to be the descendants/heirs of the original owners of Fell’s Point. Tracing such details has been made nearly impossible by the much regretted destruction of the Baltimore City Chattel records which recorded the sale and transfer of such personal property as slaves and ground rents. In James Mingo’s case the 1813/1818 tax records merely suggest that the Fell family heirs owned the land on which his house was situated and that they owed any taxes due.

With the exception of Leroy Graham’s Black Baltimore, little has been done to tell the life stories of those Free Blacks who remained to live and work in Baltimore in the years prior to that fateful day in November, 1864, when Maryland abolished slavery. Charles Steffen in The Mechanics of Baltimore provides insight into the interaction among slaves, Free Blacks and white workers, including an analysis of the free and slave laborers at the Despeaux shipyard in Fells Point, not far from where Frederick Douglass lived and worked as a caulker, but who those Free Blacks were and what can be known about their lives, let alone what they looked like remains a challenge. The profiles in this volume are an excellent beginning. The authors have provided brief notices of the lives of both slave owners and free blacks found in the tax lists. While far from complete, it is intended to demonstrate what can be done to bring substance to the lives of people, especially free blacks and slaves who contributed so much to the economic and cultural growth of Baltimore City. Sadly there are few images of the pre-Civil War black community. The most famous are of those who left, including Reverend Daniel Coker, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Reverend Darius Stokes. The only known Black portrait painter in Maryland in the antebellum years, Joshua Johnson, a resident of Fells Point, painted only two known portraits of Black residents of Baltimore, both probably pastors, and the one identified, emigrated to Liberia. Indeed the most photographed individual in 19th century America was Frederick Douglass who fled the city, rather than face the uncertainty of a promise of future freedom (in six years) offered by his master.

Bethel Congregation


Black Churches were the focal point of Black Culture in the city and were the primary place of religious and secular education. The only known image of the interior of a Baltimore Black church and its congregation (1845) is symbolic of the difficulty of putting faces to the Free Black community. For the most part the women are obscured by their bonnets, while all but a few of the men are hidden in the crowd. The presiding pastor, Darius Stokes, a Baltimore born drayman by trade, who became a Methodist minister, proved to be an aggressive leader of the Black community centered on Bethel Church, the largest Black congregation in Baltimore. Yet he found the tensions within his congregation too great to bear, especially after one community meeting in which he was bloodied by an angry woman. Rather than emigrate to Liberia or Haiti, he chose to follow the American dream to California with the Gold Rush where he served a number of Black Methodist congregations including one in the capital Sacramento. He was described as a “colored preacher who makes a respectable sermon, and is probably as upright as the majority of Americans.” As to his congregation in Sacramento, he lamented that “the few of our brethren who were here, were rushing too madly on in pursuit of mammon.” Darius’s brother, Reverend Eli Worthington Stokes, for whom there is no known image, fled in the other direction to New England where he became a popular preacher in the Episcopal Church, and died in 1867 as a Protestant Episcopal missionary in Liberia.

Old Hagar, 1834 by Samuel Smith, artist, Hamilton row, Hamilton street, Baltimore, courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, and Moses Small, Newsvendor, 1858 by Thomas Waterman Wood, courtesy of the

San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts

Until the black men of Baltimore became soldiers in the Union Army there appear to be no family portraits of the Antebellum Free Blacks of Baltimore. A few Blacks including children are featured as individuals in the paintings of white artists of the 1840s and 50s, but most such images are usually slaves and without identification. Apparently the singular exceptions found to date are Moses Small the newspaper vendor, and Hagar, a former slave, who was said to have lived to 104 when her wooden house in Apple Alley was consumed by fire. Neither Moses, who died venerated by the white community in 1861, nor Hagar who died in 1834, appears in these tax lists, although both were adults and working in the city at the time. While Moses was married and they raised a family, he apparently never owned a home of his own, nor did he have sufficient visible personal property to be taxed, even though he was one of the subscribers to John Fortie’s efforts to fund private education for Free Black children in 1838. Indeed literacy among the Free Black population deserves re-thinking, especially among the female population. Again the evidence to date is sparse and largely anecdotal. Only one letter is known to have survived from a Baltimore house slave and that is from 1861, but the Sabbath and possibly the day schools were not limited to males. William Watkins provided Frances Ellen Watkins Harper with a well rounded education which enabled her to begin publishing her poetry which she probably began composing when she was a Free Black domestic servant in Baltimore, while Reverend Stokes and Reverend Fortie, among others saw to it that their congregations had Sabbath and day schools that taught reading and writing. Still, with works such as this, it is possible to begin to systematically piece together the stories of the lives of one of, if not the, the largest urban Free Black communities in the United States before the Civil War. Through collaborative genealogy and profilography (an awkward term I coined for collective biography) in an online setting, mining census schedules, tax lists, city directories, newspapers, court records, and, it will be possible to acquire a better appreciation of those men and women who struggled to maintain their modicum of freedom in a slave state, deciding not to flee, but to stay, making the most of what the City of Promise, no matter how limited to Free Blacks, had to offer.

©Edward C. Papenfuse,

Maryland State Archivist, retired

Sunday, October 15, 2017

H. L Mencken and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Gridiron Club, 1934

At the Gridiron Club in 1934:

H.L. Mencken, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Petition of Right

It is common knowledge, at least among Mencken devotees, that on December 8, 1934, H. L. Mencken addressed the Gridiron club at the Willard Hotel in Washington D. C. as the spokesman of the 'loyal opposition,' there being no other obvious candidate able, or perhaps willing, to take on the Administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In November, the Republican Party had suffered another defeat in the Congressional elections, losing nine seats in the Senate and nine in the House. On paper at least, there was very little that the Democrats could not do. They controlled 72% of the Senate and nearly 76% of the House of Representatives.

It is also common knowledge that President Roosevelt had the last word of the evening as the Guest of Honor. Both speeches were off the record and the 490 guests in attendance were expected not to break the rule.[1]The festivities started at 7:20 in the evening (according to Mencken's Diary) and ended only after the President finished his remarks which he began about 11:30.[2] The program opened with the president of the Gridiron Club, James L. Wright, the correspondent of the Buffalo Evening News, delivering "the keynote of the ... show," in darkness as tradition dictated, except for the glow of a lighted gridiron.

Tonight, my friends, [he said], we train our field glasses on the pompoms of the political pageant, on fantastic floats and floating fantasies. Colorful events of recent months will pass quickly in review.

Since we last met beneath the golden gridiron, there have been many changes. The Washington Monument has been washed down and the Republican Party washed up.

Dinner followed with Terrapin Maryland as a featured course, not in honor of Mencken,[3] but as a tradition 'since the early days' of the club , interspersed with skits, songs, and the two main speeches.[4] The opener was a Santa Claus skit on the New Deal in which

Every stocking was filled ere the saint turned to go,

And the manna had fallen as thick as the snow;

And they heard him exclaim, as he flew out of sight:

"Merry Christmas to all --- and be sure you vote right!"

to which the chorus sang:

You better watch out, you better be good,

Better not pout, but vote as you should ---

Santa Claus is comin' to town.

He's making a list and checking it twice,

Gonna find out who's treating him nice,

Santa Claus is comin' to town.

No one knows for certain all of what the President said that night. The only person present to write extensively on his speech claims he began by referring to the night's skits and the "the temperateness of" "My old friend Henry" Mencken's "remarks and criticisms", and then launching into a vicious attack on the Washington Press Corps and Journalists in general.[5]

The notes for FDR's speech survive at Hyde Park with his handwritten annotations. Given the outline in his own hand, I suspect that the President did begin with a comment that the customs of the Gridiron Club seemed to be changing, from an opening crash off stage of broken crockery being dropped from one tin container to another, to a more hopeful Santa Claus skit. He probably observed that his old friend Henry's appearance on behalf of the opposition was not unlike the Prodigal Sun (spelled SUN in reference to Mencken's recently joining the management of the Sun papers) coming back to father. He may have even quoted Jim Watson who said "When you can't Like 'em, join 'em." But what everyone remembers best is what the President said about the Press, although no one is certain that he forewarned his audience that the words were not his own.

Most of the evils that continue to beset American journalism today, in truth, are not due to the rascality of owners nor even to the Kiwanian bombast of business managers, but simply and solely to the stupidity, cowardice and Philistinism of working newspaper men. The majority of them in almost every American city, are still ignoramuses, and proud of it.


I have myself been damned as a public enemy for calling attention, ever and anon, to the intolerable incompetence and quackery of all save a small minority of the Washington correspondents.[6]

Third-rate men, of course, exist in all countries, but it is only here that they are in full control of the state, and with it of all the national standards.xxxx

That the United States is essentially a common-wealth of third-rate men -- that distinction is easy here because the general level of culture, of information, of taste and judgment, of ordinary competence is so low.[7]

At this point in his remarks, the President may well have informed his audience, if they had not been told already, that he had been quoting from his "old friend Henry."

He may even have continued with the remainder of the excerpts he had collected. They were certainly embarrassing enough, especially given audience and the role Mencken had assumed for the evening:

In his "Notes on Democracy", Mr. Mencken says:

"Politics under democracy consists almost wholly of the discovery, chase and scotching of bugaboos. The statesman becomes, in the last analysis, a mere witch-hunter, a glorified smeller and snooper, eternally chanting "Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum'. It has been so in the United States since the earliest days.xxxx

"Government under democracy is thus government by orgy, almost by orgasm. Its processes are most beautifully displayed at times when they stand most naked -- for example, in war days. The history of the American share in the World War is simply a record of conflicting fears, more than once amounting to frenzies. The mob, at the start of the uproar, showed a classical reaction; it was eager only to keep out of danger."

"In Defense of Women", published in 1918, Mr. Mencken says, in part:

"What we need, to ward off mobocracy and safeguard the Constitution and a republican form of government, is more of this sniffing. What we need -- and in the end it must come -- is a sniff so powerful that it will call a halt upon the navigation of the ship from the forecastle, and put a competent staff on the bridge, and lay a course that is describable in intelligible terms."

In the Fifth Series of "Prejudices", Mr. Mencken makes this statement:

"A Washington correspondent is one with a special talent for failing to see what is before his eyes. I have beheld a whole herd of them sit through a national convention without once laughing.xxxxx

"I know of no American who starts from a higher level of aspiration than the journalist. He is, in his first phase, genuinely romantic. He plans to be both an artist and a moralist -- a master of lovely words and a merchant of sound ideas. He ends, commonly, as the most depressing jackass in his community -- that is, if his career goes on to what is called success."

In "Making a President", by Henry L. Mencken, the author made the following political prophecy:

"Roosevelt will probably carry all the Southern States that Al lost in 1928, despite the difficulties that the repeal plank is bound to raise in some of them, but he will certainly lose New York, and there is little chance that he will carry Massachusetts and its tributaries. He may win nevertheless, but if he does it will be by a kind of miracle."

In the same publication, subsequent to the Chicago Convention, Mr. Mencken said: "But Roosevelt won, and now the party begins the campaign with a candidate who has multitudes of powerful and implacable enemies, and is in general far too feeble and wishy-washy a fellow to make a really effective fight." [Roosevelt papers, Hyde Park].

Edgar Kemler writes that the President also read an even worse Menckonian indictment of the press,

There are managing editors in the United States who have never heard of Kant or Johannes Muller and never read the Constitution of the United States; there are city editors who do not know what a symphony is or a streptococcus, or the Statute of Frauds; there are reporters by the thousands who could not pass the entrance examination for Harvard and Tuskegee, or even Yale."[8]

but there is no record of it in the Hyde Park papers.

Whatever the President actually read of Mencken's words that evening, the performance did not sit well with their author. The entry in Mencken’s diary for December 9 contains no reflections on either his own or the President’s remarks, although two days later he does mention missing a radio talk by Edwin C. Hill who was present at the dinner in which Hill "apparently gave the impression that the affair was much more serious than it was in fact."[9] In a letter written the same day to his friend Sara Mayfield he was somewhat more truthful. "I got in a bout with a High Personage at the dinner and was put to death with great barbarity. Fortunately, I revived immediately and am still full of sin." [quoted by Brayman, p. 19; Mayfield, p. 210].

Possibly even Roosevelt felt he had gone too far in humiliating Mencken before his peers. Marion Rodgers quotes a letter of FDR's to Arthur Bisbane written two weeks after the dinner in which the President claimed that he

did not really intend to be quite so rough on Henry Mencken but the old quotations which I dug up were too good to be true, and I felt in view of all the amazing but cynically rough things which Henry had said in print for twenty years, he was entitled to ten minutes of comeback.[10]

But what about Mencken's speech that night? Despite what the President did to him, was there anything of value, anything of lasting humor in what H. L. Mencken had to say?

At 9 p.m. (according to Carl Bode), or at 10:30 p.m. (according to Edgar Kemler), following a skit set in the lobby of a New Deal Hotel in which prominent New Deal officials were paid off, either for helping the Democrats win in their home states or, like Rexford Tugwell, by asking them to remaining abroad until the Congressional elections were over, Mr. Mencken rose to speak. Perhaps he had some inkling that the President was looking forward to the last word, although there is no proof, as some have asserted that his remarks had to be submitted in advance to the White House. Just before the banquet Mencken had encountered Roosevelt in the dressing room and noted later in his diary that "he called to me and we had a pleasant meeting. He was extremely cordial, bathed me in his Christian Science smile and insisted on calling me by my first name." But If Mencken was worried, he did not show it. He had worked hard at drafting what he wanted to say.

In contrast to what the President may have said, the text of Mencken's remarks is well documented. Carl Bode discovered three versions among his papers at the Pratt, two of which also found their way into the files of the Gridiron Club. That he had been chosen to be the spokesman for the Republican Party is not surprising. In 1932 Mencken voted for Roosevelt as the lesser of two evils. As the plans for the New Deal unfolded he became increasingly wary and outspoken in his opposition to the growth of government and the abuse of executive power. He had never favored big government.

In the only autograph letter of his owned by the Maryland State Archives Mencken responded to Governor Ritchie's plan for reorganizing State Government in 1921 with the observation that he would be:

delighted to read the report on State Reorganization. I hear that it is a fine piece of work. We have been running on aimlessly in Maryland, adding wing after wing to the house until it now looks like a train of freight cars. I hope you manage to lop off at least 50% of the state boards. A board is inevitably inefficient. One man can always do the work better than two, and two better than three, and so on forever.

Nor did his faith in one man extend to unilateral government by a President, as he made clear in the Evening Sun on March 13, 1933, when he reflected upon President Roosevelt's inaugural address:

Mr. Roosevelt's appeal to the American people ... to convert themselves into "a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline," and his somewhat mysterious demand, immediately following, that they "submit" their LIVES as well as their property to "such discipline" ... have met with a hearty response, and almost all of us are now looking forward confidently to that "larger good" which he promised in the same breath. ... But just what the eminent speaker meant by his mention of lives is not clear. ... We have had two dictatorships in the past, one operated by Abraham Lincoln and the other by Woodrow Wilson. Both were marked by gross blunders and injustices. At the end of each the courts were intimidated and palsied, the books bristled with oppressive and idiotic laws, thousands of men were in jail for their opinions, and great hordes of impudent scoundrels were rolling in money. The natural consequences of the Wilson dictatorship still afflict us ... Thus I hesitate to go with Dr. Roosevelt all the way. My property, it appears, is already in his hands, but for the present, at least, I prefer not to hand over my life.

By May, 1933, Mencken felt the only recourse was to propose Roosevelt for King and let the people decide:

... the state of affairs thus confronting the country prompts me to make a simple suggestion. It is that a convention be called under Article V of the Constitution, and that it consider the desirability of making Dr. Roosevelt King in name as well as in fact. There is no constitutional impediment to such a change, and it would thus not amount to a revolution. The people of the United States are quite as free, under Article V. to establish a monarchy as they were to give the vote to women. Even if it be held, as some argue, that the bill of Rights is inviolable and cannot be changed by constitutional amendment, it may be answered that there is nothing in the Bill of Rights requiring that the national government shall be republican in form.

Indeed, a three years later, on the eve of an even greater disaster for the Republican Party than the defeat they had suffered in 1934, he would write in despair

Soon or later, of course, a true conflict will have to be joined, but apparently the time is not yet. It may be, indeed, that the Rooseveltian or anti-Jeffersonian concept of the government as a milch cow with 125,000,000 teats still has many years to go. Challenging it today, in the full glory of its heyday, is certainly not an enterprise that promises much of a harvest. Later on, after the cow has begun to dry, it should be measurably easier, but there is not much chance that it will ever become anything properly describable as a cinch.[11]

There is no record of how Mencken felt about a being invited to speak to the Gridiron Club, although Marion Rodgers suggests[12] that he was uncomfortable with giving speeches and practiced his address "before Sara, trying in vain to memorize it, until she advised him to read it instead."

The two drafts and the final copy are brief, but vintage Mencken,and provide insight into the process by which the 54 year old sage of Baltimore honed what he hoped would be an appropriate gridiron roast of the President and all he stood for. The first draft, three and a quarter doubled spaced pages would end up as two and a half pages that might take as much as five minutes to deliver. Each successive draft was somewhat less colloquial and anything that seemed even slightly risque was edited out. Gone were the references to a New Deal which "tackles all its problems, whether soluble or insoluble, in the manner of a young fellow necking a new girl," or to good-humored Americans who "thanks to the public schools ... are more ignorant, and hence happier" than Europeans who "seem to be oppressed by a sense of tragic futility, like a blind man in a nudist camp."

What Mencken did say was tastefully humorous, laced with a warning to the New Dealers not to take themselves too seriously. Like Lincoln at Gettysburg, he chose to be brief and to the point:

Mr. President, Mr. Wright, and Fellow Subjects of the Reich:-

Put up this evening to speak for the Rotten Rich, I find myself under considerable embarrassment, mainly of a pecuniary nature. The fact is that we millionaire newspapers reporters have gone downhill like the rest of you, and I question that the net liquid assets of the Gridiron Club at this minute would be enough to make a pint of alphabet soup. The only thing we have left is liberty to doubt what we are told, and that isn't worth much any more, for what we are told is often incomprehensible and hence unanswerable, and even when we can understand it we are told the exact contrary the next day.

But this is not the time to complain, and indeed there is nothing to complain of. For if the flow of ideas is somewhat confusing, it must still be admitted that the show that goes with it is a very good one. Here we come upon one of the really sound and salient merits of the American republic. It is the most amusing country ever heard of in history. Amusing and good-humored. It tackles all of its most horrible problems in the manner of a young fellow necking a new girl, and even its wars produce quite as many comedians as heroes.

When I sit down with a European, which is very often, I am always struck by his solemnity. And when I go to Europe, which is more seldom, I am depressed by the general gloom. The people over there take politics very seriously and indeed tragically, though even the World War seems to have left many of them more or less alive, and more or less able to eat, drink and curse the government. But in this country we take it more lightly. Every American is born with full confidence that it will probably get well, even if you pick it. No matter how wildly he kicks up, he knows that the judge is likely to be lenient in the morning. And if, by any mischance, he finds himself in the hoosegow or even the deathhouse, he know that he has an inalienable constitutional right to bust out.

I often hear people speculating about how long the New Deal will last. As I go about the country preaching in the Sunday-schools and visiting what we Baltimorons calls the kaifs, I am asked the question constantly. I always answer by advising everyone who asks it trust in Providence, which has always fooled us in the past. Or in the Constitution, which is still to be found in the National Museum, stuffed with excelsior and waiting for the Judgment Day. No doubt the bankers are there too, but what they are waiting for a don't know. I could name some other inmates, but refrain on advice of counsel. Which recalls that a learned judge called me up the other day to say that he had found an article of the Bill of Rights that was still in working order. I put his wild talk down to insomnia, the old curse of the judiciary, but he actually read it to me. It was Article III, reading as follows: "No soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner". Certainly this is something. Small oaks from little acorns grow. Some of these days the Constitution may stage a come-back.

But probably not yet. We are still on a honeymoon, and that honeymoon, for all I know, may last a geological epoch. There seems to be a high mortality in the Brain Trust, but its brains apparently renew themselves like the lost claws of a Chesapeake crab. Their functions, also, are not altogether dissimilar. Maybe we are in the darkness before the dawn. Maybe we are out on a limb. Maybe we are still going up. Maybe we have been up, and are now coming down. Maybe we don't know where we are, or how we got there, or how we are ever going to get back.

Some time ago, while Congress was in session, I had the pleasure of showing my pastor over Washington. I took him to the White House, and then down to the Capitol. He listened while both Houses jawed away, and he peeped into the dreadful refrigerator of the Supreme Court. Then he said to me: "My boy, you cherish a chimera if you ever hope to see the smart fellows who now run this great republic turned out. They are ace high at the White House, and they carry the two Houses of Congress in their two vest pockets. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they influence the courts, but nevertheless you may be sure that the judges have heard of them, and know that they pack a wallop. The overwhelming majority of the American people are with them. Rid your mind of any notion that you will ever see them on their way. They will stick until the last galoot's ashore, and then go on sticking until the shore itself sinks beneath the waves of the sea, and is resolved into its prim? hydrogen, ptomaines and manganese. When you lift on ?? at such colossi you make yourself ridiculous. You'll be 10,000 years old before they let go their hold and fade away.

The pastor's words made a powerful impression on me, and for a couple of weeks I kept off politics and devoted myself to writing about moral science. To this day I often think of them. But maybe I should add something. There were uttered a little less than three years ago, in the forepart of the year 1932, and the camorra that the pastor referred to was not the Brain Trust by the Anti-Saloon League.

It's not what is said but what people think was said that too often is remembered, and even then time distorts meaning and perspective. Mencken was thought to have been demolished that night as the national spokesman for the Republican Party. Even he may have thought so at the time. But what of the substance of Mencken's tasteful criticism of the Administration. How accurate were they as tested by time? How well does the biting humor of what he said resonate among some Americans today? In 1921 Mencken agreed that a proliferation of State Government was a waste. In 1933 he questioned the use of a zealous army of New Dealers, and at the Gridiron club he semi-seriously pointed to the third Amendment of the U. S. Constitution which protected the citizenry from the quartering of troops in their homes. That Mencken should point to that provision of the Constitution as the last vestige of rights not yet assailed by the New Deal suggests his profound concern about a Government that not only spent more than it could ever afford (thus milking the cow dry), but also about a government that would trample the rights of its citizens in violation of a principle at least as old as the Petition of Right of 1628. There is no evidence that Mencken had ever heard of the Petition of Right which was presented to King Charles I by Parliament in 1628, but the language of that Petition was worked into the very fabric of English and American Constitutional law, first as a humble plea that King not quarter soldiers in the homes of his people and then as explicit language in the constitutions written for the states and the nation between 1776 and 1790 that carefully set forth the rights Mencken felt were so forcefully challenged by the New Deal.

The Nation may have thought that H.L.Mencken was on the wrong track in 1934, but was he? Franklin D. Roosevelt may have won the battle of wits late that evening in December 1934, but perhaps H.L. Mencken had the last word after all. Perhaps his concerns about government and the course of unrestrained Federal spending and intrusion to the fabric of American society were not so far off the mark. What solace he might have taken in clipping a 1993 article in the SUN about Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton, headlined "Clinton opens war on waste." What fun he might have had with such quotes as "this government is broke, and we intend to fix it," Mr. Clinton said," or “President [Bush], if you want to know why government doesn't work,

look behind you."[13]

Indeed perhaps it is time to look behind us to H. L. Mencken's speech of 1934, and to his other humorous attempts to focus the public's attention on the fundamentals of what makes for good government. Perhaps it was not an accident that the only humor in the Constitution that Mencken could find for his speech that night was the third amendment to the Constitution, a right so widely accepted that it has never been tested in the Courts, yet when it was first proposed by Sir Edward Coke in 1628 in the Petition of Right, reflected the reality of the King's troops quartered in private homes. Although perhaps it would be going too far to heap upon the Mencken the praise that that other great Maryland Iconoclast, Luther Martin lavished upon Sir Edward Coke for sacrificing "his vanity, his ambition and his avarice." Those characteristics were so much a part of Mencken's being that no manner of public recognition, improved sales of his publications, or government reform could have ever persuaded him to be otherwise.

©Edward C. Papenfuse, State Archivist, retired

[1] the number of guests is taken from Mencken's Diary. Other authorities say 400. (Bode)

[2] one authority says 11:15 p.m., but does not indicate where he got his information. (Carl Bode)

[3] as Carl Bode asserts

[4] Brayman

[5] Brayman

[6] ["Prejudices", Sixth Series:]

[7] ["Prejudices", Third series:]

[8] [Kemler, p. 271]

[9] [Fecher, p. 77]

[10] [Marion Rodgers, Mencken and Sara, p. 511, no source cited.]

[11] [Evening Sun, October 26, 1936, quoted by Mayo DuBasky, Gist of Mencken, p. 470]

[12] [without documentation]

[13] [Baltimore Sun, September 8, 1993.]