Between 1720-1723 in England, a popular weekly pamphlet became a thorn in the government’s side for viciously criticizing the corruption and greed of politicians. This pamphlet was known as Cato’s Letters, written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon consisted of over a hundred “letters” on topics such as freedom of speech, religious toleration, the benefits of liberty, and the right to resist tyrannical governments. Their writings became extremely popular not only in England but also in America. Throughout the American Revolution Cato’s Letters were quoted as an esteemed authority of the nature of freedom and the nightmare of tyranny.
Cato’s Letters: 300 Years, written by Chris Edwards
The Legacy and the Ideas Behind Cato’s Letters, written by Paul Meany
Cato’s Letters, Encyclopedia of Libertarianism
00:00 Paul Meany: On November 5th, 1720, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon published a letter entitled Reasons to prove that we are in no Danger of losing Gibraltar, with both men writing under the pseudonym Cato. These letters later became to be known as Cato’s Letters. Despite their obscurity to modern readers, Cato’s Letters became a thorn in the side of the British government of the 1720s. They lamented the corruption of politicians with fire and inspiring invective.
00:28 Paul Meany: During the South Sea Bubble controversy, in which a large number of politicians were implicated for bribes and in corruption, their impassioned attack upon the Walpole government made them extremely popular in England, with their letters being read by huge audiences. At first their work focused on current affairs. However their letters quickly evolved from polemics and current affairs to more fundamental investigations into the nature of liberty and power. Over the next three years, the duo published nearly 150 letters on a wide range of topics. They discuss the blessings of liberty, how to prevent tyranny, freedom of speech, the separation of church and state and the right to resist tyrannical governments. From these letters a clear and comprehensive theory of politics emerges. One which later came to be highly influential in colonial America on the cusp of revolution.
01:11 Paul Meany: John Trenchard was born into a prominent family in 1662. He attended Trinity College Dublin and lived a very comfortable life. His uncle and parents left him a considerable amount of property through inheritance and then he married into an even more affluent family. Thanks to this wealth, Trenchard could comfortably dedicate his life to writing. And in 1690, Trenchard had been an ardent opponent of England forming a standing army. He believed that standing professional armies would be used in wars of conquest abroad and subdue the populous at home. Instead he advocated for a citizen militia. Unlike John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon is a much more obscure figure in his early life. Little is known about his life before he started writing, although he was born sometime around 1691 in Scotland. Textual evidence suggests that he might have attended college to study law but this is extremely hard to confirm. Gordon began his career of writing light-hearted essays, which he compiled in 1720 into a collection entitled The Humorist. Jokingly, he dedicated it to the Man in the Moon.
02:07 Paul Meany: Gordon and Trenchard first came into contact due to what is now known as the Bangorian Controversy. Benjamin Hoadly, the Bishop of Bangor, in a highly controversial sermon, denied the divine right of kings and argued that on the topic of religion, people should be free to make up their own minds without outside interference from the government. Many criticized Hoadly for questioning the traditional authority of both the king and the church. Gordon, writing in favor of Hoadly, defended religious toleration and attacked the church’s pernicious influence on the state. Gordon’s enthusiasm caught the eye of Trenchard and the pair eventually met in 1719 in London. The duo then decided to write a weekly pamphlet entitled The Independent Whig. This publication lasted for a year and it mainly focused upon religious issues such as toleration of other religions 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. First they decided to cover a broader variety of topics.
03:01 Paul Meany: But why did they use the pseudonym Cato? The name Cato refers to Cato the Younger, a Roman statesman from the first century BC, who defied the tyrant Julius Caesar. Throughout his life, Cato was an honest, wise and prudent statesman, as well as a dedicated 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 hatred of tyranny. The British playwright Joseph Addison wrote a play entitled Cato a Tragedy, which became hugely popular in both Britain and the American colonies as it vindicated Cato as a tragic hero for liberty. 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 head of the Roman state, which brought the republican period of Roman history to an abrupt end. Cato committed suicide rather than accepting a pardon from Caesar. A final act of defiance that immortalized him for future generations. But Caesar was known for his liberality. He pardoned many who opposed him and welcomed them back into Rome, with open arms.
04:03 Paul Meany: Admittedly a mistake he would later pay for dearly on the Ides of March. However, Cato rejected this offer of clemency. Perhaps the best answer to why Cato committed suicide can be found in Joseph Addison’s words. “A day, an hour of virtuous liberty is worth a whole eternity in bondage.” By adopting Cato as their name, Trenchard and Gordon had adopted a widely-recognized symbol of political descent. It was also an appeal to the public fascination with Greco-Roman antiquity. Throughout Cato’s letters, Trenchard and Gordon liberally quoted various classical works such as Cicero, Tacitus and Sallust, but the purpose of their work was not merely to show off their intellect. 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 America revolutionaries.
04:54 Paul Meany: From this point on, for simplicity sake, I will refer to Trenchard and Gordon collectively as Cato as a single person. So to analyze the political philosophy of Cato, we have to begin with a vital question of political philosophy. What is a state established to achieve? What is it meant to do ideally? This is a foundational question with many different answers throughout history. Now if you want to analyze Cato’s political thought, this is a good starting point.
05:17 Paul Meany: 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 much less fancy terms, human happiness, which consists mainly 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 the government divinely ordained. Instead it is a wholly human creation. Cato explains that all people are born equal. None are naturally superior to others. No man was ever born above the rest nor below them all. Therefore, no group are destined to rule over another unless by consent. Since all men are equal, no man has natural authority over the other. Legitimate government must therefore be founded on consent, not force or fraud. For Cato, all people are born free with an inalienable right to liberty.
06:10 Paul Meany: Cato defines liberty simply as the power which every man has over his own actions and has a right to enjoy the fruit of his labor as far by he hurts not the society. This resembles a thought of John Stuart Mill. Cato would, argued in favor of what libertarians today call the harm principle, which is the idea that the actions of individuals should only be limited if they harm others. Cato was influenced by the political thought of John Locke, who’d argued 30 years beforehand that the government exists to protect life, liberty and property. Everyone has an inalienable right to liberty. That is self-evident, but that doesn’t mean that people will not interfere and come into conflict with each other. We are not all moral saints. Humanity is not naturally benevolent, kind or even altruistic, according to Cato.
06:48 Paul Meany: Instead he believed that humanity is naturally selfish. Every man loves himself better than he loves his whole species. Because of this, people have no qualms taking advantage of others through theft, fraud or even force if given the opportunity. Even worse, because by nature they’re greedy, inquisitive, and self-centered, men will never think they have enough whilst they can take more. As Cato pessimistically explains, “As long as humanity exists, so too shall greed, ambition and vanity.” Cato was saying that all of humanity is the same, the essence of human nature is a passion for self-love. Many contemporaries were calling for moral education and reform to perfect the debased population, however, Cato saw this is ultimately futile. No mental philosophy, religion or moral lecturing can change our fundamental nature.
07:33 Paul Meany: So instead of attempting to change our nature Cato decided to build a system of politics based around our natural depravity because we are selfish by our nature, if we consent to any law that limits our actions we expect others also be bound by its dictates no matter who they are. Cato states that it is 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 it by 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. Our desire to hold on to what is ours and our fear of others we mutually bind ourselves to laws which keep us from infringing, upon others. But the establishment of law introduces a new problem, the power of the state if we are to enforce and create laws, we need representatives and a bureaucracy to do so.
08:22 Paul Meany: If Cato was right about human nature won’t politicians be the exact same as everyday people in their depravity. Given that people are rapacious, greedy, and vain, how can we trust those in power not to be the same? Cato says that those in powers are not a different species to those who are not, worse yet, for Cato, all men would be tyrants if given the opportunity, those in power equally likely if not more so as the common people to dupe, steal and commit violence upon those they rule over simply because they have the opportunity to do so.
08:51 Paul Meany: Power is not checked, arbitrary tyranny reign supreme. Living under liberty is living by the rule of law, which is mutually applied to all. Liberty consists in fair, consistent application of rules. Tyranny, in the other hand is the unequal and adhoc application of laws, it is arbitrary, biased and fundamentally unfair. It is unlimited liberty for some and subordination for the rest. Cato believes that tyranny is unlimited power, and that tyranny always leads to slavery. By slavery, Cato does not mean that we’ll all be forced to work in plantations or coal mines against our will, instead, he means that even if we live comfortable or prosperous lives under tyrants, we live with them at the mere mercy of a ruler invested with absolute power who could change his mind at the drop of a hat, and cause a reversal of fortune at a moment’s notice. For Cato, even a gilded cage is still a cage. Therefore, any country which desires liberty must avoid concentrating power in the hands of one person at all costs.
09:45 Paul Meany: No matter how attractive concentrating power may be in the short term it will always end the same way with slavery. The best way to preserve our fragile liberty, for Cato, is to establish robust institutions which limit power. Mainly, constitutional restraints, the separation of powers and free speech. 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. 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. To this end, and his day Cato argued for frequent elections, term limits and more representatives in Parliament.
10:31 Paul Meany: Secondly, constitution restraints also implies a separation of powers. By dividing powers between those in the government who possess different interests and incentives, we stop power from becoming centralized or concentrated. The separation of power is in fact, decentralized and divides power stopping any one person or any particular group from completely dominating the rest. By creating conflict in the government, it stops any one person or party gaining too much power or sway.
10:55 Paul Meany: Thirdly, for Cato, and possibly most importantly is protecting the ability to freely criticize one’s government. What we today call “free speech”. Cato believed “free speech” or the ability to criticize one’s government is inseparable from public liberty. Freedom of speech is so essential, like Cato famously refers to as “The great bulwark of liberty.” Cato believes that if one was an aspiring tyrant, the most important first step to dominating the populace will be to subdue the freedom of speech, silencing any dissent and opposition, and creating the illusion of harmony. Cato believed that the people would rise up to resist encroachment of illegitimate power.
11:27 Paul Meany: Normally patriotism, or civic virtue is conceived of as a citizen prioritizing their country’s interest over their own public over private interest. Cato disagreed, and thought about public and private interests could be reconciled and unique brand of selfish patriotism. He believed that people’s interest would ultimately lead them to overthrow unjust or illegitimate power. Government exists to defend people’s rights and property therefore it is quite simple to differentiate a good government from a bad government. You don’t need a PhD in political philosophy to figure out that America is a better place to live than North Korea. As Cato says, every ploughman knows a good government from a bad one. You know if your property is secure. You know, if your life is being encroached upon. The people are to be trusted in their judgements, getting that whatever they’re 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.
12:22 Paul Meany: When people’s right are violated Cato believes that 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 scuffed. Cato did not rely upon virtue, to preserve liberty, but realistic self-interest. Since government is legitimated by the trust of people, it can also be dissolved when it loses this trust. According to Cato, we all have a robust natural right to oppose tyrannical government and defend our liberty. Cato was not an anarchist by any stretch of the imagination, he believed that we needed a government in order to preserve our natural rights. However government means some degree of power needs to exist. According to Cato, power is like fire: It warms, it scorches or destroys, according as it is watched, provoked or increased. The dilemma that Cato wish to solve is how liberty could co-exist with power. Liberty cannot exist without power, but sadly, as we have seen through our history, power can comfortably exist without liberty.
12:47 Paul Meany: This is the central tension which makes Cato’s letter so compelling, and relevant to this day. The publication of Cato’s letter sadly ended after British government convinced the London journal to end the series which had dragged their names through the mud. In December of 1723, Trenchard died at the age of 61. Gordon’s criticisms of government quickly lost their veracity when he took a position as a commissioner of wine licenses, which he held until his death in 1750. Oddly enough, Gordon remarried Trenchard’s widow and spent the rest of his days translating classical authors such as Tacitus and Sallust. Harkening back to his days as Cato, Gordon wrote his classical works with lengthy prefaces on the nature of politics. However famous Cato’s letters were in Britain it became an even larger hit in the American colonies were Gordon and Trenchard became household names in both libraries and private collections throughout the colonies. Some historians have even argued that Cato’s letters were as influential as John Locke’s writings on the revolutionary generation.
14:06 Paul Meany: Cato’s writings influenced several of the founding fathers, especially the letters on freedom of religion, free speech and resisting tyranny. A young Benjamin Franklin riding under the ironic pseudonym Silence Dogood liberty quoted Cato’s letters on free speech. The future governor of New Jersey, William Livingston, founded a journal named The Independent Reflector a reference to Trenchard and Gordon’s independent wake. When Josiah Quincy II a Sons of Liberty member and a good friend of John Adams died. He left his son a collection of books, which he believed contain the spirit of Liberty among them was Cato’s letters. By 1770, John Adams concluded that the writings of Trenchard and Gordon had become fashionable reading. Cato’s letters was much a work of political philosophy as it was of political science.
14:48 Paul Meany: Political philosophers such as John Locke set out a framework for natural rights and government by consent. But by taking the approach of assuming the worst of people Cato aimed to create a rational framework for governance. Unfortunately, Cato depravations about state power and corruption remain all too relevant for the modern state today. Thanks so much for listening. I hope you enjoyed this podcast. And if you did you can subscribe on Apple podcast, Spotify and wherever else you may listen to podcasts. Visit the website www.libertarianism.org to find more podcast like this one. I hope to see you next time.