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Nov 1, 2019

The Legacy and the Ideas Behind Cato’s Letters

The Cato Institute does not derive its name from the notoriously staunch ancient Roman Cato the Younger. Instead, it is a reference to Cato’s Letters, a collection of 138 essays written in England during the 18th century.

Those with some knowledge of ancient history might assume that the Cato Institute derives its name from the notoriously staunch ancient Roman Cato the Younger. But it does not; instead, it is a reference to Cato’s Letters, a collection of 138 essays written in England during the 18th century. 

On November 5th 1720, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon published a letter titled Reasons to prove that we are in no Danger of losing Gibraltar, with both men writing under the pseudonym Cato. At first, their work focused on contemporary events such as the South Sea bubble, which exposed rampant corruption in the government. However, these essays quickly evolved from polemics on current events to more fundamental investigations into the nature of liberty and power. Over the next three years, the two men would publish 138 letters on a wide range of topics. They discussed the blessings of liberty, how to prevent tyranny, freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, and the right to resist tyrannical governments.

Cato’s Letters were an instant hit and became extremely popular in both England and the American colonies. Five decades later, the views encapsulated in Cato’s Letters gave American revolutionaries the intellectual ammunition needed to justify their revolt against their British oppressors.

Trenchard and Gordon’s lives

John Trenchard was born into a prominent family in 1662. He attended Trinity College Dublin (as it so happens, my own alma mater). Trenchard lived a very comfortable life; his uncle and parents left him a considerable amount of property through inheritance and he married into an even more affluent family. 

Thomas Gordon is a more obscure figure. Little is known about his life before he started writing, though was born sometime around 1691 in Scotland. Textual evidence suggests he might have attended college to study law, but this is hard to confirm. Gordon began his career writing lighthearted essays, which he compiled in 1720 into a collection entitled the Humorist, jokingly dedicated to “the Man in the Moon.” 

The Pair Meet

Gordon and Trenchard first came into contact due to the Bangorian controversy. Benjamin Hoadley, the Bishop of Bangor, denied the divine right of kings and argued in favour of freedom of conscience. Many criticised Hoadley for questioning the authority of the church and arguing that people should be free to make up their own minds on religious matters. Gordon, writing in favour of Hoadley, defended religious toleration and attacked the church’s influence on the state.

Gordon’s enthusiasm caught the eye of Trenchard, and the pair met in 1719 in London. The duo wrote a weekly pamphlet entitled The Independent Whig. This publication lasted for a year and mainly focused upon religious issues such as toleration and the separation of church and state. After writing a total of 53 essays for the Independent Whig, Gordon and Trenchard began writing for The London Journal, for which they decided to cover a broader variety of topics. 

Why the Name “Cato”?

They wrote under the pseudonym Cato, which referred to Cato the Younger, a Roman statesman from the 1st century BC who had defied the tyrant Julius Caesar. Throughout his life, Cato had been an honest, wise, and prudent statesman as well as a Stoic; he had defended traditional Roman liberties and viciously attacked corruption in the government. By the 18th-century Cato was associated with a love of liberty and a hatred of tyranny. During the fall of the Roman Republic, Cato sided with the senate against Julius Caesar. When civil war broke out, Caesar eventually overcame his foes and became the de facto Roman head of state, which brought the republic to an end. Cato committed suicide rather than accepting a pardon from Caesar, an act that was immortalized by future generations of republicans. In the 18th-century British playwright Joseph Addison wrote a play titled, Cato, A Tragedy, which became hugely popular in both Britain and the American colonies.  

By adopting Cato as their nom de plume, Trenchard and Gordon had adopted a widely recognized symbol of political dissent. It was also an appeal to public fascination with Greco-Roman antiquity that had been sparked by archeological discoveries in the preceding decades. Throughout Cato’s Letters, Trenchard and Gordon liberally quoted various classical works, showing their affinity for the ancients.But the purpose of the work was not merely to show Trenchard and Gordon’s erudition. They expressed a coherent political philosophy; indeed, the liberal views of “Cato” formed the ideological bedrock of the radical Whigs in England and would later influence the American Revolutionaries.

[From this point on I will refer to Trenchard and Gordon as Cato and as a single person for simplicity’s sake.] 

Where Does the State Come From?

The origins and ends of the state are foundational questions in political philosophy. For example, Aristotle conceptualized humans as political animals who need politics and cannot live without it, therefore for a person to fully flourish they must engage with politics. Therefore the end of the state is to promote the moral development of its citizens. English Republicans inherited a tradition of civic republicanism from writers such as Aristotle. This tradition stressed the importance of civic virtue and political participation as essential elements in creating a free republic.

This contrasted with contemporary conservatives, who believed that the authority of the state was based upon Divine right. God chose monarchs and thus we have a duty to obey their commands as representatives of God on earth. Robert Filmer’s book De Patriarcha encapsulated these conservative arguments in favour of a God-given monarchy.

For Cato, the state is not instituted to promote the moral flourishing of people. Instead, he argues that the end of the state is “temporal Felicity” or, in less fancy terms, human happiness which consists of comfort and security rather than moral or philosophical virtue. The state is not a tool for educating people on how to live; rather it is best kept as a guardian of our rights which allow us to pursue the lives we personally wish to lead while not harming or being harmed by others.

Nor is government divinely ordained; instead, it is a wholly human creation. Cato explains that “men are naturally equal, and none ever rose above the rest but by force or consent: No man was ever born above all the rest, nor below them all.” Since all men are equal, no one man has natural authority over the other. Legitimate government must then be founded on consent. Cato believed if there was to be a monarch, it ought to be a constitutional monarch. He was dismissive of theories justifying an unlimited use of arbitrary power.

For Cato, all people are born free with an inalienable right to liberty. Cato defines liberty comprehensively as “the power which every man has over his own actions, and his right to enjoy the fruit of his labour, art, industry, as far as by it he hurts not the society, or any members of it, by taking from any member, or by hindering him from enjoying what he himself enjoys.” A century before John Stuart Mill, Cato had argued in favour of what libertarians today call the harm principle, which is the idea that actions should only be limited if they harm others.

Human Nature

Cato wrote in the tradition of John Locke, who had argued thirty years before that government exists to protect life, liberty and property. Everyone has an inalienable right to liberty, but that doesn’t mean that people will not interfere and come into conflict with each other. Humanity is not naturally benevolent, kind, or altruistic. According to Cato “Every man loves himself better than he loves his whole species.” Because of this, people will have no qualms in taking advantage of others through theft, fraud or force. Even worse, “men will never think they have enough, whilst they can take more” because by nature they are greedy, acquisitive and self-centred. As Cato pessimistically explains, “Whilst men are men, ambition, avarice, and vanity, and other passions, will govern their actions…they will be ever usurping, or attempting to usurp, upon the liberty and fortunes of one another.”

A Solution to Human Nature

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cato did not ascribe these vices solely to the men of his day. Instead, he was saying that all of humanity is the same. The essence of human nature is a passion for self-love and because this passion cannot be quelled, “men will be men, in spite of all the lectures of philosophy, virtue, and religion.” Despite this pessimistic picture of human nature, Cato believes that human nature’s depravity is useful.

Because we are selfish by our nature, if we consent to any law that limits our actions,  we expect others also to be bound by its dictates. Cato states that “it is the common interest of all, who unite together in the same society, to establish such rules and maxims for their mutual preservation, that no man can oppress or injure another, without suffering by it himself.” Our mutual fear of one another forms the basis of law, which is defined by Cato as nothing more than “checks upon the unruly and partial appetites of men.” From our desire to hold onto what is ours and our fear of others, we mutually bind ourselves to laws which keep us from infringing upon others.

Those In Power

But binding law introduces a new problem, the power of the state. If Cato is correct, is the state not just an artifice made of flawed people? Given that people are rapacious, greedy and vain, how can we trust those in power not to be the same? Cato affirms that those in power are not a different species to those who are not.  For Cato “all men would be tyrants,and do what they please.” Those in power are equally likely (if not more so) as the common person to dupe, steal, and commit violence upon those they rule over.

If power is not checked, arbitrary tyranny reigns supreme. Living under liberty is living by the rule of law that is mutually applied to all. Tyranny, on the other hand, is the unequal and ad-hoc application of laws; it is arbitrary, biased, and unfair. It is unlimited liberty for some and subordination for the rest. For Cato, tyranny is slavery, which is living “at the mere mercy of another.” Life under slavery is “a continual state of uncertainty and wretchedness, often an apprehension of violence, often the lingering dread of a violent death.” Free people must avoid slavery at all costs.

Preserving Liberty

Consistent in his realistic attitude of human nature, Cato states, “We must not judge of men by what they ought to do, but by what they will do.” Instead of expecting representatives to be virtuous, he argues we should implement institutions to safeguard fragile liberty, namely constitutional restraints, the separation of powers, and free speech. 

Constitutional Restraints

Firstly, Cato argues for constitutional restraints on state power. No matter how virtuous a person might be, power corrupts. Cato refers to lawless or unlimited power as monstrous. Human nature cannot possibly wield unlimited power with restraint,“the mind of man, which is weak and limited, ought never to be trusted with a power that is boundless.” Therefore we must put constitutional restraints on power. Cato explains that “considering what sort of a creature man is, it is scarce possible to put him under too many restraints, when he is possessed of great power.”  

Separation of Powers

Secondly, constitutional restraint means the separation of powers. By dividing power between those within the government, who possess different interests and incentives, we stop power from becoming concentrated. As Cato explains, a regime designed with separation of powers creates paranoia among state representatives, who then limit each other’s power. Cato notes that “their emulation, envy, fear, or interest, always made them spies and checks upon one another.” The separation of powers decentralizes and divides power, stopping any one person or group from completely dominating the rest.

Free Speech

Thirdly, for Cato the ability to freely criticize one’s government is “inseparable from publick liberty.” Freedom of speech is so essential that he refers to it as “the great bulwark of liberty.” Being able to criticize those in power helps rally communities to protest against encroachments upon liberty. Cato believes that if one was an aspiring tyrant, the most important first authoritarian step would be to subdue freedom of speech, silencing any dissent or opposition and creating the illusion of harmony. 

Selfish Patriotism

But what if all of these methods of checking power do not work, what then? Cato believed that the people would rise up to resist the encroachment of illegitimate power. But how could this be the case as Cato states himself that “I think it impossible for any man to act upon any other motive than his own self-interest.” How could anyone expect patriotic and virtuous civic resistance if people are so selfish?

It is because Cato believes that the selfishness inherent in human nature was a crucial element for preserving liberty.  

Government exists to defend people’s rights and property. Therefore it is quite simple to differentiate a good from a bad government. As Cato says, “Every Ploughman knows a good Government from a bad one, from the Effects of it; he knows whether the Fruits of his Labour be his own, and whether he enjoy them in Peace and Security.” The people are to be trusted in their judgements given that what they are deciding upon is a matter for common sense.

Because it is simple to tell when the government is acting poorly, Cato believes people will rise and defend their rights when they are violated. He does not believe they will do this out of an abstracted vision of patriotism, but, instead, out of their own self interest. In the context of the people, he explains that “the Security of their Persons and Property is their highest Aim.” When people’s rights are violated, Cato believes they would “make Virtue of their present anger” and protest and hound officials out of office.  If he had heard JFK’s famous aphorism “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” he would have scoffed. Cato did not rely upon virtue to preserve liberty but upon realistic self-interest. 

When all Else Fails, Resist Tyranny

According to Cato,“no government ought to take away men’s natural rights, the business and design of government itself being to defend them.” But what if the government deprives people of their natural rights, despite all institutional safeguards and the protests of self-interested citizens? In this final case, Cato advocates for resisting tyranny; the people must decide, according to their own consciences, whether or not the tyrannical actions justifies revolt. Since government is legitimated by the trust of the people, it can also be dissolved when it loses that trust. According to Cato we all have a natural right to oppose tyrannical government and to defend our liberty.

However, Cato was not an anarchist; he believed that we need a government in order to preserve our natural rights. However, a government means power and according to Cato “power is like fire; it warms, scorches, or destroys, according as it is watched, provoked, or increased.” The dilemma that Cato wished to solve was how liberty could coexist with power. Liberty cannot exist without power, but as we have seen throughout history, power can exist without liberty.

The Legacy of Cato’s Letters

The publication of Cato’s Letters ended after the British government convinced the London Journal to discontinue the troublesome series. In their own day, Cato’s Letters attracted both a great deal of praise and criticism. But however famous Cato’s Letters were in Britain, they became an even larger hit in the American colonies, where Gordon and Trenchard became household names. Historians such as Caroline Robbins, Bernard Bailyn, and Robert Shalhope have commented upon the frequency of Cato’s Letters appearing both in libraries and private collections throughout the colonies. Some historians have argued he was as influential as John Locke on the revolutionary generation.

Cato’s writings appealed greatly to the colonists, including several future founding fathers, especially the letters on freedom of religion, free speech, and resisting tyranny. A young Benjamin Franklin, writing under the pseudonym Silence Dogood, liberally quoted Cato’s Letters on free speech. William Livingston, before he became the governor of New Jersey, founded a journal named the Independent Reflector, a reference to Trenchard and Gordon’s Independent Whig. When Josiah Quincy II, a Sons of Liberty member and good friend of John Adams, died, he left his son his collection of books which he believed contained “the spirit of liberty”; among them was Cato’s Letters. John Adams himself said that the writings of Trenchard and Gordon had become “fashionable reading” by 1770.  

Sadly, Cato’s Letters are rarely read outside of academic circles. Yet the letters are passionate, insightful, and still deeply relevant. Cato’s observations on the selfishness of human nature and how it can be fruitfully channeled are timeless and will appeal to anyone who disdains the high minded yet empty rhetoric of contemporary politicians. Thankfully, Cato’s Letters can all be read online for free on the Liberty Fund’s project the Online Library of Liberty.

Cato’s Letters was as much a work of political philosophy as it was of political science. Political philosophers such as John Locke set out a framework for natural rights and government by consent. Cato contributed to this tradition by delving into the practicality of how to maintain liberty in a world where the scales are tipped in favour of tyranny. By taking the approach of assuming the worst of people, Cato aimed to create a rational framework for governance.

It should now be clear why the Cato Institute was named after Gordon and Trenchard’s work. The themes that run throughout Cato’s Letters—inalienable rights, harnessing self-interest, and preserving liberty through limited government—are core libertarian affirmations three centuries later. Unfortunately, Cato’s observations about state power and corruption remain all too relevant to the modern reader.