Cato’s Letters Taught America’s Founders about Liberty
So influential were Cato’s Letters that many of our founder’s most moving words echoed it closely.
The 2016 campaign has been notable for its abundance of accusations, character assassination and other political invective. However, in the vast war of words, to anyone familiar with America’s founding, there has been one central issue strikingly ignored: liberty. Not only has liberty not been given serious attention, the word itself has barely been mentioned.
This tacit political conspiracy to ignore liberty makes some sense, in that both major party candidates propose to reduce liberty. For instance, one promises to reduce Americans’ economic freedom by forcing unwilling taxpayers to give others free college, the other by invading their right of association by way of severe protectionism. One promises to reduce freedom of speech (which the First Amendment says no law shall be passed to restrict) by overturning Citizens United, the other by making it easier to sue people who say things about him he finds offensive.
However, the deliberate omission of liberty from current political discussion puts us almost immeasurably far from our founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, who advocated that we “Fortify the public liberty by every possible means,” and Thomas Paine, who wrote “The American constitutions were to liberty what a grammar is to language: they define its parts of speech and practically construct them into syntax.”
In fact, Americans’ heritage of liberty traces much farther back before the revolutionary period. As Richard Ebeling recently emphasized, John Locke was the source of many of those ideas (so much so that Richard Henry Lee accused Thomas Jefferson of plagiarizing Locke in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence). Jim Powell has also insightfully discussed those issues. However, while Locke’s ideas were incredibly formative for what became America, the language our founders employed was perhaps even more influenced by another source.
Linking Locke and the Founders
That source was Cato’s Letters, which was “the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period,” according to Clinton Rossiter. Beginning in 1720, Cato (pseudonym for John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, in honor of Cato the Younger’s opposition to Julius Caesar on behalf of liberty) began writing “to maintain and expose the glorious principles of liberty, and to expose the arts of those who would darken or destroy them,” putting Locke’s ideas to work on the political issues of the day.
So influential were Cato’s Letters that many of our founder’s most moving words echoed it closely. For example, when George Washington allegedly wrote (as is frequently, if uncertainly attributed to him), “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master,” he didn’t go far from Cato’s “Power is like fire; it warms, scorches or destroys, according as it is watched, provoked, or increased. It is as dangerous as it is useful.” Similarly, when John Adams wrote that “an enemy to liberty [is] an enemy to human nature,” he could have been paraphrasing Cato’s assertion that we should “brand those as enemies to human society, who are enemies to equal and impartial liberty.”
One consequence of America’s pedigree in Locke, by way of Cato’s Letters, is that at a time candidates are fighting tooth and nail to get more votes by proposing ever-more strategic violations of liberty, revisiting Cato’s insights, even though it is now almost three centuries later, offers a valuable antidote to being swept away with rhetoric and promises that would sweep away our liberty.
Let People Alone
While a great deal can be gleaned from studying Cato’s Letters more thoroughly, as indicated by the fact that my Lines of Liberty chapter dealing with it is the longest in the book, it is of particular importance to consider Letter 62, “An Enquiry into the Nature and Extent of Liberty; with its Loveliness and Advantages, and the vile Effects of Slavery,” because it brings us back to the core of what is being threatened today.
By liberty, I understand the power which every man has over his own actions, and his right to enjoy the fruit of his labor, art, and 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. The fruits of a man’s honest industry are the just rewards of it, ascertained to him by natural and eternal equity, as is his title to use them in the manner which he thinks fit: and thus, with the above limitations, every man is sole lord and arbiter of his own private actions and property–a character of which no man living can divest him but by usurpation, or his own consent.
The entering into political society, is so far from a departure from his natural right, that to preserve it was the sole reason why men did so; and mutual protection and assistance is the only reasonable purpose of all reasonable societies. To make such protection practicable, magistracy was formed, with power to defend the innocent from violence, and to punish those that offered it; nor can there be any other pretense for magistracy in the world. In order to this good end, the magistrate is entrusted with conducting and applying the united force of the community; and with exacting such a share of every man’s property, as is necessary to preserve the whole, and to defend every man and his property from foreign and domestic injuries. These are the boundaries of the power of the magistrate, who deserts his function whenever he breaks them. By the laws of society, he is more limited and restrained than any man amongst them; since, while they are absolutely free in all their actions, which purely concern themselves; all his actions, as a public person, being for the sake of society, must refer to it, and answer the ends of it.
It is a mistaken notion in government, that the interest of the majority is only to be consulted, since in society every man has a right to every man’s assistance in the enjoyment and defense of his private property; otherwise the greater number may sell the lesser, and divide their estates amongst themselves; and so, instead of a society where all peaceable men are protected, become a conspiracy of the many against the minority…and violence may be sanctified by mere power.
And it is as foolish to say, that government is concerned to meddle with the private thoughts and actions of men, while they injure neither the society, nor any of its members. Every man is, in nature and reason, the judge and disposer of his own domestic affairs; and…every man must carry his own conscience. So that neither has the magistrate a right to direct the private behavior of men… government being intended to protect men from the injuries of one another, and not to direct them in their own affairs, in which no one is interested but themselves; it is plain, that their thoughts and domestic concerns are exempted entirely from its jurisdiction…where [the magistrate] meddles with such, he meddles impertinently or tyrannically.
Let people alone, and they will take care of themselves, and do it best; and if they do not, a sufficient punishment will follow their neglect, without the magistrate’s interposition and penalties. It is plain, that such busy care and officious intrusion into the personal affairs, or private actions, thoughts, and imaginations of men, has in it more craft than kindness; and is only a device to mislead people, and pick their pockets, under the false pretense of the public and their private good.
True and impartial liberty is therefore the right of every man to pursue the natural, reasonable, and religious dictates of his own mind; to think what he will, and act as he thinks, provided he acts not to the prejudice of another; to spend his own money himself, and lay out the produce of his labor his own way; and to labor for his own pleasure and profit, and not for others who are idle, and would live…by pillaging and oppressing him, and those that are like him.
Magistracy, amongst a free people, is the exercise of power for the sake of the people; and tyrants abuse the people, for the sake of power. Free government is the protecting of the people in their liberties by stated rules. Tyranny…would rob all others of their liberty.
By liberty [people] enjoy the means of preserving themselves, and of satisfying their desires in the manner in which they themselves choose and like best.
2016 offers Americans candidates who both seriously threaten our liberties. That is, they both pose a clear and present danger to the ideas that brought America into being, since as John Adams said, “The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.” Effective recourse requires returning to our first principles. For that, there are few better places to turn than Cato’s Letters, which applied John Locke’s ideas to underlying issues that still threaten Americans today.
Gary M. Galles
Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network. In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).
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Read Cato’s Letters.
Of Liberty and Necessity
(No. 110, Saturday, January 5, 1723; by John Trenchard)
Considerations on the Weakness and Inconsistences of Human Nature
(No. 31, Saturday, May 27, 1721; by Thomas Gordon)
Of the Passions: That They Are All Alike Good or All Alike Evil, According As They Are Applied
(No. 39, Saturday, July 29, 1721; by Thomas Gordon)
Considerations on the Restless and Selfish Spirit of Man
(No. 40, Saturday, August 5, 1721; by Thomas Gordon)
Of the Weakness of the Human Mind; How Easily It Is Misled
(No. 105, Saturday, December 1, 1722; by John Trenchard)
Inquiry into the Source of Moral Virtues
(No. 108, Saturday, December 22, 1722; by John Trenchard)
Liberty Proved to Be the Unalienable Right of All Mankind
(No. 59, Saturday, December 30, 1721; by John Trenchard)
All Government Proved to Be Instituted by Men, and Only to Intend the General Good of Men
(No. 60, Saturday, January 6, 1722; by John Trenchard)
An Enquiry into the Nature and Extent of Liberty; with Its Loveliness and Advantages, and the Vile Effects of Slavery
(No. 62, Saturday, January 20, 1722; by Thomas Gordon)
Of Freedom of Speech: That the Same Is Inseparable from Publick Liberty
(No. 15, Saturday, February 4, 1721; by Thomas Gordon)
The Rights and Capacity of the People to Judge of Government
(No. 38, Saturday, July 22, 1721; by Thomas Gordon)
EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.
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