Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, aka Cato, covered a lot of ground in three years, but several themes kept-emerging, and would sound familiar to students of early American political thought. This post will cover Cato’s musings on the origins of civil society, and the purposes for which man consents to be governed by others.
There are certainly echoes of John Locke in Cato’s writings, though neither Gordon or Trenchard delve as deeply into the concept of the state of nature as does Locke or even Hobbes. But Cato sees the origins of government in Lockean terms. In the 11th letter, Cato (here Gordon) writes*:
Salus populi suprema lex esto: That the benefit and safety of the people constitutes the supreme law, is an universal and everlasting maxim in government; It can never be altered by municipal statutes: No customs can change, no positive institutions can abrogate, no time can efface, this primary law of nature and nations. The sole end of men entering into political societies, was mutual protection and defence; and whatever power does not contribute to those purposes, is not government, but usurpation.
This minimalist interpretation of the origins of political society is certainly in accord with a Lockean conception of government. Yet Cato concedes that governments may retain the power to punish transgressions which are not statutorily unlawful. Rogues may devise ways to violate “the laws of God and nature” that nations do not have the foresight to prevent. Nations should not be powerless to punish these transgressions, as England’s legislature has done, though only in extraordinary circumstances. “Jove’s thunderbolts were only launched against such as provoked the thunderbolts of Jove.”
Nonetheless, punishing transgressors of the law is the primary purpose for which governments are instituted, a sentiment repeated in the 20th letter: “Parcere subjectis & debellare superbos; to pay well, and hang well, to protect the innocent, and punish the oppressors, are the hinges and ligaments of government, the chief ends why men enter into societies.”
Considering the limited aims of government, personal liberty is at a maximum in Cato’s conception of civil society. In future posts we’ll look more closely at Cato’s views on freedom of speech and religion, but for now we’ll just look at the principles Cato lays down, best expressed in letter 62:
By Liberty, I understand the Power which every Man has over his own Actions, and his Right to enjoy the Fruit of his Labour, 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 Pretence for Magistracy in the world. In order to this good End, the Magistrate is intrusted 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 domestick 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 publick Person, being for the Sake of Society, must refer to it, and answer the Ends of it.
This is perhaps an even more libertarian conception of government than Locke’s. Indeed, later on this letter Cato develops a very narrow view of permissible governmental action.
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 domestick Affairs; and, according to the Rules of Religion and Equity, every Man must carry his own Conscience. So that neither has the Magistrate a Right to direct the private Behaviour of men; nor has the Magistrate, or any body else, any manner of Power to model People’s Speculations, no more than their Dreams. 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 domestick Concerns are exempted intirely from its Jurisdiction: In Truth, Mens Thoughts are not subject to their own Jurisdiction.
Idiots and Lunaticks indeed, who cannot take Care of themselves, must be taken Care of by others: But whilst Men have their five Senses, I cannot see what the Magistrate has to do with Actions by which the Society cannot be affected; and where he meddles with such, he meddles impertinently or tyrannically. Must the Magistrate tie up every Man’s Legs, because some Men fall into Ditches? Or, must he put out their Eyes, because with them they see lying Vanities? Or, would it become the Wisdom and Care of Governors to establish a travelling Society, to prevent People, by a proper Confinement, from throwing themselves into Wells, or over Precipices; Or to endow a Fraternity of Physicians and Surgeons all over the Nation, to take Care of their Subjects Health, without being consulted; and to vomit, bleed, purge, and scarify them at Pleasure, whether they would or no, just as these established Judges of Health should think fit? If this were the Case, what a Stir and Hubbub should we soon see kept about the established Potions and Lancets? Every Man, Woman, or Child, though ever so healthy, must be a Patient, or woe be to them! The best Diet and Medicines would soon grow pernicious from any other Hand; and their Pills alone, however ridiculous, insufficient, or distasteful, would be attended with a Blessing.
It’s easy to see why the Cato Institute may have chosen its name. Essentially, according to Cato, as long as a man is not harming anyone else, government should not interfere in his actions. Considering this narrow prescription, governments that step outside of their lawful authority become illegitimate. Circling back to the 59th letter, Cato writes:
All governments, under whatsoever form they are administered, ought to be administered for the good of the society; when they are otherwise administered, they cease to be government, and become usurpation. This being the end of all government, even the most despotick have this limitation to their authority: In this respect, the only difference between the most absolute princes and limited magistrates, is, that in free governments there are checks and restraints appointed and expressed in the constitution itself: In despotick governments, the people submit themselves to the prudence and discretion of the prince alone: But there is still this tacit condition annexed to his power, that he must act by the unwritten laws of discretion and prudence, and employ it for the sole interest of the people, who give it to him, or suffer him to enjoy it, which they ever do for their own sakes.
Man is naturally born in a state of liberty, and he cannot alienate this freedom by consent. The magistrate has a narrow scope under which he can punish.
The right of the magistrate arises only from the right of private men to defend themselves, to repel injuries, and to punish those who commit them: That right being conveyed by the society to their publick representative, he can execute the same no further than the benefit and security of that society requires he should. When he exceeds his commission, his acts are as extrajudicial as are those of any private officer usurping an unlawful authority, that is, they are void; and every man is answerable for the wrong which he does. A power to do good can never become a warrant for doing evil.
This is, once again, a fairly Lockean conception of government. We enter into civil society and convey to the magistrate the right to punish transgressors of the law – those who violate the property and personal rights of others. Beyond this, the magistrate’s power is quite constrained.
This brings us to the precipice of a central question: what recourse do citizens have if the magistrate exceeds his rightful authority? Cato’s answer to this question is one which would reverberate decades later in colonial America, and we’ll address that in the future as well. In the meantime, observe what Cato has to say on restraining the natural impulse of magistrates to exceed their authority in letter 60:
The only Secret therefore in forming a Free Government, is to make the Interests of the Governors and of the Governed the same, as far as human Policy can contrive. Liberty cannot be preserved any other Way. Men have long found, from the Weakness and Depravity of themselves and one another, that most Men will act for Interest against Duty, as often as they dare. So that to engage them to their Duty, Interest must be linked to the Observance of it, and Danger to the Breach of it. Personal Advantages and Security, must be the rewards of Duty and Obedience; and Disgrace, Torture, and Death, the Punishment of Treachery and Corruption.
Cato will repeat this theme frequently in his letters. If rulers govern for their own sake, and care only for their own gain, then they will be prone to abusing their authority. As long as magistrates are concerned primarily with the common good, then the governed will have less to fear.
What’s notable about these letters and their conceptions of the origin of government is how much they presage the Framers. It is impossible not to hear echoes of Publius in these words, or in the words quoted further up above regarding “checks and restraints appointed and expressed in the constitution itself.”
These are radical words: perhaps more radical than Locke, and certainly more radical than Hobbes. This is a libertarian vision of government in which the sovereign authority is extremely constrained, and where checks and limits of said authority are ingrained in the constitution. Hobbes would not have countenanced such a limit on the sovereign’s authority, whereas Cato has made clear that abuses of the sovereign authority justify revolution. But more on that next time.
* The text I am using has kept much of Cato’s original grammatical structure.