Your servant Humpty has been hearing a great deal about the “will of the people” and an incoming President’s need for a “popular mandate.” Richard Nixon was the first president I recall claiming to have received a “mandate” as a result of the trouncing he administered to George MeGovern, but it was Ronald Reagan who used the concept of a “mandate” to override congressional opposition to his programs.

The word comes ultimately from the Latin mandare, which means both to entrust and to give instructions amounting to an order. A mandamus, for example, was a writ from the king’s bench commanding a person to do whatever he is told. In law, a mandate is topically the instructions given by a higher to an inferior authority, e.g., an order from sovereign to subject.

For thus the royal mandate ran

When first the human race began,

“The social friendly, honest man,

Whate’er he be

‘Tis he fulfills great Nature’s plan.

And none but he.”

After World War I, the League of Nations parceled out Germany’s and Turkey’s empires into “mandates” to be administered by the so-called “advanced nations.” The translation is supplied by Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: “In practice ‘advanced nations’ meant the victorious powers.” It still does. Whenever the U.N.-NATO-E.U. begins bragging about democratic human rights, it’s time to hide out in the bomb cellar.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the political use of “mandate,” as a blank check for an administration’s policies, comes by way of the French, the masters in the art of democratic lying. In this “elegant diction,” a mandate from the people compels the government to do whatever it is that a popular majority is inclined to do. Presidents and prime ministers are merely servants of the popular will, and if it is the will of the people to nationalize church property or compel other people’s children to attend government schools, then what can the poor politicians do but comply with their masters’ commands?

A “mandate,” then, is an expression of the sovereign will of the people who lend their authority to a regime’s political program. It is, in other words, the superstitious mumbo-jumbo of Rousseau’s General Will, the political manna that can justify any abuse of law, custom, morality, or constitutional order. A president with a mandate is not merely one dummy chosen out of a nation of 270 million dummies. With the support of, say, 26 percent of eligible voters, he is dumbness incarnate with a power to ruin the lives of his fellow citizens that Caesar or Cromwell could only dream of.