Origin Story

It’s time explain the man behind my blogging name, as well the inspiration for the blog’s title.

Cato the Younger’s full name was Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis – but his friends just called him Cato. He was a Roman citizen born in the final century before Christ. He was a well-educated stoic who fought in the war against Spartacus, and who later served as a tribune. His fame, though, stems from his opposition to Julius Caesar. He was one of the leading voices calling for Caesar’s removal as preconsul, and unsuccessfully commanded forces in the civil war to beat back Caesar. Cato wound up in Utica, and in 46 BC committed suicide.

Cato’s name has passed through history as symbol of republicanism and opposition to tyranny. Several founding fathers used his name as a pseudonym writing political tracts in the pre-revolutionary era, and by anti-Federalists opposing the constitution.

The “letters” from Cato that inspired the name of this blog, however, were written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. The two men were “country” Whigs who wrote about corruption, the dangers of tyranny, freedom of religion, and other “libertarian” values.

Gordon and Trenchard wrote a series of 144 letters published in The Independent Whig from 1720-1723 under the name “Cato.” The original impetus for their letters was the bursting of the South Sea bubble and the financial crisis it precipitated. Thus their first few letters focused on the corruption of the English government, and attacked the speculators and financiers who imperiled the country’s finances through their backroom bargaining.

But the letters move beyond this subject into fierce polemics concerning basic premises of political philosophy. They delve into Lockean natural rights theory, but move beyond Locke into hearty defenses of civic republicanism. As I will discuss in later posts, they are both very concerned about civic virtue, thus contra Patrick Deneen, they promoted a brand of liberalism that was not at all indifferent to public morality. They were also low Church Protestants who wrote savagely of the Catholic Church – or rather the Papist sect, and I will also delve into that in later posts as well.

So why should we care? Many who have studied the foundations of American political thought, including Forrest McDonald, have written of the influence Cato’s Letters had on the founding generation. While the influence of this or that thinker on early American political thought is often overstated – never more so than with John Locke – it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Americans were indeed widely influenced by Cato, aka Gordon and Trenchard. Even though Gordon and Trenchard were themselves influenced by Locke, as already alluded to, they go beyond Locke and establish what I would term a brand of liberal civic republicanism, emphasizing the importance of property rights, freedom of speech, the right of revolution – and even the limits thereof.

Therefore, I think examining Cato’s Letters provides a clear distillation of both English and American republican thought in the 18th century. The next several posts will summarize the key elements in these letters, and what their influence on American thought means for our country’s origins.

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