The Declaration of Independence in American – by H. L. Mencken – 1921
The Declaration of Independence in American – by H. L. Mencken – 1921
For Mencken’s reason for making this “translation” of the Declaration of Independence (apart, that is, from humour) see below. I’ve made this version because it’s helpful to compare the original text with Mencken’s “translation”. I particularly enjoy Mencken’s versions of 4, 7, 16.4 and 16.8. For more information about the Declaration of Independence go here.
To ignore the preamble, and go down this page to just read the original declaration and Mencken’s “translation” click here.
But: Mencken’s language was of its time (1921) and in particular three words used by Mencken in his “translations” of sections  and  – the numbering is mine, not an official one – are very offensive nowadays. I originally intended to reproduce Mencken’s text unaltered, but on reflection I’m going delete those three words, and slightly change Mencken’s text in those sections so the slightly amended version still reads well. To do that I’ve:
* changed one word from Mencken’s version of , and I apologise in advance to anyone – French or not – who objects to me using “frenchies”; for what it’s worth I’d point out to anyone considering that I’m endorsing their view of the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” that:
** from 1914 to 1916-1917 on the Western Front the French army held firm against the German army, admittedly with the large help of the Russians on the Eastern Front, and with the increasingly large help of the British and parts of the Commonwealth and the British Empire, not forgetting the Italians on the Italian Front (I use 1916-1917 rather than 1918 because from 1916-1917 to 1918 it’s arguable that on the Western Front the British and their associated armies were effectively the main forces fighting the German army, although the French army was still a very important factor, and the Americans were making their presence felt)
** a small but significant part of the French population was in the resistance to the occupying Nazi forces, and I doubt that had the Nazi forces been occupying the UK (practically very unlikely: there was no real prospect that the Nazi forces could have successfully invaded Britain – the military and logistical difficulties of crossing the English Channel in sufficient force were too great) or the USA (literally impossible) that the proportion of the population that actively resisted the Nazis would have been all that different to the proportions that actively resisted in the countries that were actually invaded and occupied by the Nazis
* replaced seven words with one word in Mencken’s version of 
I’ve shown where the changes are by using “[***]” instead of “**” to indicate Mencken’s version, and used [*change*] to show where the omitted words were and the changes are.
I’ve left Mencken’s gratuitous insult to South Americans in  because I think – possibly wrongly – that it’s less offensive than the other three words
My guess is that Mencken would not have approved of this, but if you want to read exactly what Mencken wrote go to the links just below (my judgment is that you’ll miss very little if you don’t) or just search the internet – Mencken’s original text is readily available: indeed, the text on mencken.org is slightly different to that on xroads.virginia.edu.
* Text of the Declaration of Independence taken from: archives.gov
* Mencken’s THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE introductory note and text taken from: xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr
* Mencken’s Baltimore Evening Sun introductory note taken from: mencken.org
When this was reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy, the author added the following note:
From THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE. THIRD EDITION, 1923, pp. 398-402. First printed, as Essay in American, in the Baltimore Evening Sun, Nov. 7, 1921. Reprinted in THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE, SECOND EDITION, 1921, pp. 388-92. From the preface thereof: ‘It must be obvious that more than one section of the original is now quite unintelligible to the average American of the sort using the Common Speech. What would he make, for example, of such a sentence as this one: “He has called together bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures”? Or of this: “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolution, to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise.” Such Johnsonian periods are quite beyond his comprehension, and no doubt the fact is at least partly to blame for the neglect upon which the Declaration has fallen in recent years, When, during the Wilson-Palmer saturnalia of oppressions [1918-1920], specialists in liberty began protesting that the Declaration plainly gave the people the right to alter the government under which they lived and even to abolish it altogether, they encountered the utmost incredulity. On more than one occasion, in fact, such an exegete was tarred and feathered by shocked members of the American Legion, even after the Declaration had been read to them. What ailed them was simply that they could not understand its Eighteenth Century English.’ This jocosity was denounced as seditious by various patriotic Americans, and in England it was accepted gravely and deplored sadly as a specimen of current Standard American.”
Baltimore Evening Sun – 1921-11-07 – page 10 – Essay in American
The following attempt to translate the Declaration of Independence into American was begun eight or ten years ago, at the time of of my first investigations into the phonology and morphology of the American vulgate. I completed a draft in 1917, but the publication was made impossible by the Espionage act, which forbade any discussion, however academic, of proposed changes to the canon of the American Koran. In 1920 I resumed the work and have since had the benefit of the co-operation of various other philologists, American and European. But the version, as it stands, is mine. That such a translation has long been necessary must be obvious to every student of philology. And this is Better Speech Week.
The great majority of Americans now speak a tongue that differs materially from standard English, and in particular from the standard English of the eighteenth century. Thus the text of the Declaration has become, in large part, unintelligible to multitudes of them. What, for example, would the average soda-fountain clerk, or City Councilmen, or private soldier, or even the average Congressman make of such a sentence as this one: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures”? Or this one: “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise”? Obviously, such sonorous Johnsonese is as dark to the plain American of 1921 as so much Middle English would be, or Holland Dutch. He may catch a few words, but the general drift is beyond him.
This fact, I believe, is largely responsible for the disaster which overtook those idealists who sought to wrap the Declaration around them during and immediately after the war. The members of the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan and other patriotic societies, unable to understand the texts upon which the libertarian doctrines of such persons were based, set them down as libelers of the Declaration, and so gave them beatings. I believe that that sort of faux pas might be avoided if the plain people, civil and military, could actually read the Declaration. The version which follows is still far from perfect, but it is at all events in sound American, and even the most advanced admirers of the Hon. Mr. Harding, I am convinced, will find it readily intelligible.
Mencken’s apparent suggestion in his Baltimore Evening Sun introduction that the “Ku Klux Klan” was a patriotic society is almost certainly ironic – for example read:
Baltimore Sun in 1991
But from Wikipedia I learn that Mencken had views on race and elitism which I mostly flatly disagree with. Later in the Wikipedia article Mencken’s opinions on science are described, and I consider that at least when it comes to mathematics and physics Mencken was way out of his depth, and should have known that he was. The following extracts from Wikipedia summarise this. In the interests of brevity I’ve omitted some nuances where Mencken has a point (for example on Oliver Lodge’s belief in spiritualism): to make up your own mind read Wikipedia and/or a biography of Mencken.
Mencken supported biology and the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin, but spoke unfavorably of physics and mathematics. In Charles Angoff’s record, Mencken said:
[Isaac Newton] was a mathematician, which is mostly hogwash, too. Imagine measuring infinity! That’s a laugh.
In response, Angoff said: “Well, without mathematics there wouldn’t be any engineering, no chemistry, no physics.” Mencken responded: “That’s true, but it’s reasonable mathematics. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, fractions, division, that’s what real mathematics is. The rest is baloney. Astrology. Religion. All of our sciences still suffer from their former attachment to religion, and that is why there is so much metaphysics and astrology, the two are the same, in science.”
Elsewhere, he spoke of the nonsense of higher mathematics and “probability” theory, after he read Angoff’s article for Charles S. Peirce in the American Mercury. “So you believe in that garbage, too – theories of knowledge, infinity, laws of probability. I can make no sense of it, and I don’t believe you can either, and I don’t think your god Peirce knew what he was talking about.”
Mencken also ridiculed Einstein’s theory of general relativity, saying “in the long run his curved space may be classed with the psychosomatic bumps of Gall and Spurzheim”.
It’s possible that Einstein’s theory of general relativity will one day be replaced, but perhaps only in the way that it replaced Newton’s theory of gravitation, that is Newton’s theory and Einstein’s theory essentially agree in their predictions for many cases, but in some cases Einstein’s theory works and Newton’s doesn’t. I can imagine a hypothetical mathematically and physically competent Mencken mocking the actual Mencken for comparing the theory of general relativity to phrenology, by asking when did phrenology explain an anomaly in the precession of the orbit of Mercury, or make two predictions (gravity deflecting light and red-shifting light) which were subsequently confirmed by observations and experiments.
The Declaration of Independence – in American
In the following plain text was written by the American 1776 revolutionaries (or by others, or by me!), and the “translation” by Mencken is in italics.
1: In Congress, July 4, 1776. – The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
** When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody.
2: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
[***] All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man them rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to give it the bum’s rush and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day like them South American yellow-bellies, or every time some jobholder goes to work and does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them [*frenchies*], and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I.W.W.’s (*) would say the same. But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal so much, and then watch them.
((*) I.W.W. refers to the Industrial Workers of the World, a now almost defunct trades union)
3: Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
** This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the start, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled:
4: He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
** He vetoed bills in the Legislature that everybody was in favor of, and hardly nobody was against.
5: He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
** He wouldn’t allow no law to be passed without it was first put up to him, and then he stuck it in his pocket and let on he forgot about it, and didn’t pay no attention to no kicks.
6: He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
** When people went to work and gone to him and asked him to put through a law about this or that, he give them their choice: either they had to shut down the Legislature and let him pass it all by himself, or they couldn’t have it at all.
7: He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
** He made the Legislature meet at one-horse tank-towns, so that hardly nobody could get there and most of the leaders would stay home and let him go to work and do things like he wanted.
8: He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
** He give the Legislature the air, and sent the members home every time they stood up to him and give him a call-down or bawled him out.
9: He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
** When a Legislature was busted up he wouldn’t allow no new one to be elected, so that there wasn’t nobody left to run things, but anybody could walk in and do whatever they pleased.
10: He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
[***] He tried to scare people outen moving into these States, and made it so hard for a man [*…*] to get his papers that he would rather stay home and not try it, and then, when he come in, he wouldn’t let him have no land, and so he either went home again or never come.
11: He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
** He monkeyed with the courts, and didn’t hire enough judges to do the work, and so a person had to wait so long for his case to come up that he got sick of waiting, and went home, and so never got what was coming to him.
12: He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
** He got the judges under his thumb by turning them out when they done anything he didn’t like, or by holding up their salaries, so that they had to knuckle down or not get no money.
13: He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
** He made a lot of new jobs, and give them to loafers that nobody knowed nothing about, and the poor people had to pay the bill, whether they could or not.
14: He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
** Without no war going on, he kept an army loafing around the country, no matter how much people kicked about it.
15: He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
** He let the army run things to suit theirself and never paid no attention whatsoever to nobody which didn’t wear no uniform.
16: He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
** He let grafters run loose, from God knows where, and give them the say in everything, and let them put over such things as the following:
16.1: For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
** Making poor people board and lodge a lot of soldiers they ain’t got no use for, and don’t want to see loafing around.
16.2: For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
** When the soldiers kill a man, framing it up so that they would get off.
16.3: For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
** Interfering with business.
16.4: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
** Making us pay taxes without asking us whether we thought the things we had to pay taxes for was something that was worth paying taxes for or not.
16.5: For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
** When a man was arrested and asked for a jury trial, not letting him have no jury trial.
16.6: For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
** Chasing men out of the country, without being guilty of nothing, and trying them somewheres else for what they done here.
16.7: For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
** In countries that border on us, he put in bum governments, and then tried to spread them out, so that by and by they would take in this country too, or make our own government as bum as they was.
16.8: For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
** He never paid no attention whatever to the Constitution, but he went to work and repealed laws that everybody was satisfied with and hardly nobody was against, and tried to fix the government so that he could do whatever he pleased.
16.9: For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
** He busted up the Legislatures and let on he could do all the work better by himself.
17: He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
** Now he washes his hands of us and even goes to work and declares war on us, so we don’t owe him nothing, and whatever authority he ever had he ain’t got no more.
18: He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
** He has burned down towns, shot down people like dogs, and raised hell against us out on the ocean.
19: He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
** He hired whole regiments of Dutch, etc., to fight us, and told them they could have anything they wanted if they could take it away from us, and sicked these Dutch, etc., on us.
20: He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
** He grabbed our own people when he found them in ships on the ocean, and shoved guns into their hands, and made them fight against us, no matter how much they didn’t want to.
21: He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
** He stirred up the Indians, and give them arms and ammunition, and told them to go to it, and they have killed men, women and children, and don’t care which.
21.1: In Thomas Jefferson’s original draft this passage now appears:
he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
* I don’t really understand what Jefferson is saying here, especially the second half, but it looks dangerously like a slave-owner complaining that he’s being enslaved, which might be one of the reasons why Congress struck out the whole of this passage in making the actual Declaration of Independence. This seems to be a mis-reading, but the correct reading doesn’t seem much better: Wikpedia on Slavery and the Declaration:
… The apparent contradiction between the claim that “all men are created equal” and the existence of American slavery attracted comment when the Declaration was first published. As mentioned above, Jefferson had included a paragraph in his initial draft that strongly indicted Great Britain’s role in the slave trade, but this was deleted from the final version. Jefferson himself was a prominent Virginia slave holder, having owned hundreds of slaves. Referring to this seeming contradiction, English abolitionist Thomas Day wrote in a 1776 letter, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.” …
There’s also an article at the New York Public Library,which includes:
… The section regarding the slave trade, or ‘reprobating the enslaving of the inhabitants of Africa’ is found in the list of grievances against the King. This section is on the third page of the ‘fair copy’ draft. It is interesting that Jefferson thought slavery had been foisted upon the Colonies only as they were designed to bring economic gain to England. The specific words about slavery were later removed by Congress. In his Autobiography, Jefferson wrote:
“The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with still haunted the minds of many. For this reason, those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offense. The clause, too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under these censures, for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”
22: In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
** Every time he has went to work and pulled any of these things, we have went to work and put in a kick, but every time we have went to work and put in a kick he has went to work and did it again. When a man keeps on handing out such rough stuff all the time, all you can say is that he ain’t got no class and ain’t fitten to have no authority over people who have got any rights, and he ought to be kicked out.
23: Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
** When we complained to the English we didn’t get no more satisfaction. Almost every day we give them plenty of warning that the politicians over there was doing things to us that they didn’t have no right to do. We kept on reminding them who we was, and what we was doing here, and how we come to come here. We asked them to get us a square deal, and told them that if this thing kept on we’d have to do something about it and maybe they wouldn’t like it. But the more we talked, the more they didn’t pay no attention to us. Therefore, if they ain’t for us they must be agin us, and we are ready to give them the fight of their lives, or to shake hands when it is over.
24: We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
** Therefore be it resolved, That we, the representatives of the people of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, hereby declare as follows: That the United States, which was the United Colonies in former times, is now a free country, and ought to be; that we have throwed out the English King and don’t want to have nothing to do with him no more, and are not taking no more English orders no more; and that, being as we are now a free country, we can do anything that free countries can do, especially declare war, make peace, sign treaties, go into business, etc. And we swear on the Bible on this proposition, one and all, and agree to stick to it no matter what happens, whether we win or we lose, and whether we get away with it or get the worst of it, no matter whether we lose all our property by it or even get hung for it.
Signed by 56 representatives of the 13 states.