Mencken: A Purge for Legislatures

The book A Mencken Chrestomathy contains a reprint of an article by H.L. Mencken called “A Purge for Legislatures”. The article, originally published in 1926, may be the first modern piece of advocacy for sortition. Thanks to Roger Knights for writing to draw attention to this article.

A MOOD of constructive criticism being upon me, I propose forthwith that the method of choosing legislators now prevailing in the United States be abandoned and that the method used in choosing juries be substituted. That is to say, I propose that the men who make our laws be chosen by chance and against their will, instead of by fraud and against the will of all the rest of us, as now. But isn’t the jury system itself imperfect? Isn’t it occasionally disgraced by gross abuse and scandal? Then so is the system of justice devised and ordained by the Lord God Himself. Didn’t He assume that the Noachian Deluge would be a lasting lesson to sinful humanity — that it would put an end to all manner of crime and wickedness, and convert mankind into a race of Presbyterians? And wasn’t Noah himself, its chief beneficiary, lying drunk, naked and uproarious within a year after the ark landed on Ararat? All I argue for the jury system, invented by man, is that it is measurably better than the scheme invented by God. It has its failures and its absurdities, its abuses and its corruptions, but taking one day with another it manifestly works. It is not the fault of juries that so many murderers go unwhipped of justice, and it is not the fault of juries that so many honest men are harassed by preposterous laws. The juries find the gunmen guilty: it is functionaries higher up, all politicians, who deliver them from the noose, and turn them out to resume their butcheries.

So I propose that our Legislatures be chosen as our juries are now chosen — that the names of all the men eligible in each assembly district be put into a hat (or, if no hat can be found that is large enough, into a bathtub), and that a blind moron, preferably of tender years, be delegated to draw out one. Let the constituted catchpolls then proceed swiftly to this man’s house, and take him before he can get away. Let him be brought into court forthwith, and put under bond to serve as elected, and if he cannot furnish the bond, let him be kept until the appointed day in the nearest jail.

The advantages that this system would offer are so vast and so obvious that I hesitate to venture into the banality of rehearsing them. It would in the first place, save the commonwealth the present excessive cost of elections, and make political campaigns unnecessary. It would in the second place, get rid of all the heart-burnings that now flow out of every contest at the polls, and block the reprisals and charges of fraud that now issue from the heart-burnings. It would, in the third place, fill all the State Legislatures with men of a peculiar and unprecedented cast of mind — men actually convinced that public service is a public burden, and not merely a private snap. And it would, in the fourth and most important place, completely dispose of the present degrading knee-bending and trading in votes, for nine-tenths of the legislators, having got into office unwillingly, would be eager only to finish their duties and go home, and even those who acquired a taste for the life would be unable to do anything to increase the probability, even by one chance in a million, of their reelection.

The disadvantages of the plan are very few, and most of them, I believe, yield readily to analysis. Do I hear argument that a miscellaneous gang of tin-roofers, delicatessen dealers and retired bookkeepers, chosen by hazard, would lack the vast knowledge of public affairs needed by makers of laws? Then I can only answer (a) that no such knowledge is actually necessary, and (b) that few, if any, of the existing legislators possess it. The great majority of public problems, indeed, are quite simple, and any man may be trusted to grasp their elements in ten days who may be — and is — trusted to unravel the obfuscations of two gangs of lawyers in the same time. In this department the so-called expertness of so-called experts is largely imaginary. My scheme would have the capital merit of barring them from the game. They would lose their present enormous advantages as a class, and so their class would tend to disappear.

Would that be a disservice to the state? Certainly not. On the contrary, it would be a service of the first magnitude, for the worst curse of democracy, as we suffer under it today, is that it makes public office a monopoly of a palpably inferior and ignoble group of men. They have to abase themselves in order to get it, and they have to keep on abasing themselves in order to hold it. The fact reflects itself in their general character, which is obviously low. They are men congenitally capable of cringing and dishonorable acts, else they would not have got into public life at all. There are, of course, exceptions to that rule among them, but how many? What I contend is simply that the number of such exceptions is bound to be smaller in the class of professional job-seekers than it is in any other class, or in the population in general. What I contend, second, is that choosing legislators from that population, by chance, would reduce immensely the proportion of such slimy men in the halls of legislation, and that the effects would be instantly visible in a great improvement in the justice and reasonableness of the laws.

Are juries ignorant? Then they are still intelligent enough to be entrusted with your life and mine. Are they venal? Then they are still honest enough to take our fortunes into their hands. Such is the fundamental law of the Germanic peoples, and it has worked for nearly a thousand years. I have launched my proposal that it be extended upward and onward, and the mood of constructive criticism passes from me. My plan belongs to any reformer who cares to lift it.

13 Responses

  1. This early proposal unbeknownst to me, I humbly submit my screenplay, *Random Takes Baltimore*, as an envisioning of a sortitionally selected city council in Menckens’ home town.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Heh – maybe you can write an updated version where Mencken gets credit for being the visionary who first came up with the proposal.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney Clark wrote The Commonwealth Reconstructed and The “Machine” Abolished and the People Restored to Power, which were published in the United States in 1878 and 1900, respectively. Clark calls for a “lot-drawn popular constituency” in both books. Clark mentions “the proposition of a member of the New York Constitutional Convention of 1846 to draw public functionaries by lot.”



    Liked by 4 people

  4. Mencken later wrote, in response to a reader’s letter, that executives like governors couldn’t be randomly selected, the risk of a genuine numbskull being drawn being too high.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Roger,

    Do you have a link or a citation for this exchange?


  6. Jonathan,

    Do you have access to those books? Through the links you posted I can only see tiny snippets.


  7. Another (presumably humorous) proposal for a lottery replacement of elections was proposed in 1768. I will paste a piece from my unpublished book manuscript below:

    From the earliest days of elected representative government, problems associated with elections have been readily evident. Candidates commonly passed out intoxicating spirits or meals to buy votes. Indeed, the disgust about the tumult and corruption of election campaigns prompted one anonymous subscriber to the English journal The Political Register and Impartial Review of New Books in 1768 to propose (presumably tongue in cheek) that elections for parliament be replaced by a lottery. Lottery tickets would be sold, with the winners getting seats in parliament. Five percent of proceeds would be set aside to buy “guzzle” for all the boroughs, with the remainder going to pay off the national debt; “by which scheme the noisy and expensive business of electioneering (which puts the whole kingdom in a ferment) will be over in two hours, many people have an opportunity of serving their country cheap, and much bribery and corruption prevented.” [Anonymous, J. Almon, ed., 1768, “Scheme of a Political Lottery, for the Peace of the Kingdom,” The Political Register and Impartial Review of New Books, volume 2, London, opposite Burlington-house, Piccadilly. pages 255-256.]

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Yoram, I have a hard copy of The “Machine” Abolished and the People Restored to Power (1900). From what I’ve seen, it repeats a lot (often verbatim) of what was in the earlier book.


  9. Jonathan,

    Could you post some highlights from the book’s discussion of sortition?


  10. I found an online version of the text of Clark’s “The ‘Machine’ Abolshed” here.

    I skimmed it and found a mention of selection by lot on page 73. However, it seems like the author is setting a very limited role for the lottery – as a way of mixing the electorate in one way or another. Interestingly, the author complains in the footnote that:

    The “lottery” feature of my system has been most mistakenly represented in the Atlantic, the Arena, the Review of Reviews, the Evening Post, and in fact almost everywhere, as the substance of my scheme. Indeed not a few of these instructors of their neighbors have made me choose all public officers by lot!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. “my system has been most mistakenly represented in the Atlantic, the Arena, the Review of Reviews, the Evening Post, ”

    It would be worth locating their comments on the matter, for historical purposes. Their opinions (presumably negative) of sortition might also be worth talking about.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Yoram, Thanks for the link! I was going to scan and post some excerpts, but the searchable link is even better.


  13. […] to say that with this review Macan establishes himself as an early modern advocate of sortition. Preceeding H. L. Mencken by over 35 years, Macan is, as far as I am aware, the earliest such advocate and the only one of the 19th […]


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