So You Say You Want a Revolution

Getting back to my series on Cato’s Letters, written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, we’re going to take a deeper dive into the subject matter which may have had the most influence on America’s revolutionary generation.

In the previous post, I discussed Cato’s writings about the origin of government. These writings had clear Lockean overtones. Cato’s views on revolution also had a very Lockean tone to them, though Gordon and Trenchard develop and build upon Locke’s theories and present a wide-ranging justification for revolution.

In the 25th letter, Cato writes about arbitrary power: “There is something so wanton and monstrous in lawless power, that there scarce ever was a human spirit that could bear it; and the mind of man, which is weak and limited, ought never to be trusted with a power that is boundless.” Cato adds, “The state of tyranny is a state of war.” For Cato, tyranny is a description of lawless governance where the ruler governs not for the good of his subjects, but for personal advancement. Even good men can become tyrants if they set themselves above the law. In other words, tyranny describes governance based on the arbitrary whims of the ruler rather than in observance of the laws.

Following the Lockean model, if men only enter into political society to guarantee their safety, arbitrary and tyrannical governance does not not merit obedience. While lawful rulers do merit loyalty, tyrants are assured of no such loyalty. From Letter 36:

To obey a prince, who does himself obey the laws, is confessed on all hands to be loyalty: Now, from hence, one would naturally think, that, by every rule of reason, it might be inferred, that to obey one who obeys no law, is a departure from all loyalty, and an outrage committed upon it; and that both he who commands, and he who obeys, are outlaws and disloyalists: And yet these same ungodly pedants shall maintain it to your face, that though loyalty consist in obeying a good prince, it also consists in the very contrary, and in obeying a wicked prince; who, though he be an enemy to God, is the vicegerent of God; and though he commit all wickedness, yet does it by divine right; and though it be a sin to obey him, yet it is a damnable sin to resist him: In short, that all the instruments and partners of his crying crimes are loyalists; and all who defend law, virtue, and mankind, against such monsters, are rebels, and assuredly damned, for preventing or resisting actions which deserve damnation: And thus men become rebels, by acting virtuously against the worst of all rebels, who are restrained by no consideration, human or divine.

In the 42nd letter, Cato would add there is no duty to obey unjust laws.

The violation therefore of law does not constitute a crime where the law is bad; but the violation of what ought to be law, is a crime even where there is no law. The essence of right and wrong does not depend upon words and clauses inserted in a code or a statute-book, much less upon the conclusions and explications of lawyers; but upon reason and the nature of things, antecedent to all laws.

This is language that would be echoed by our Framers, and all the way through the civil rights movement. Bad law, or law which violates natural rights, is no law at all.

He expands on this later in the letter:

But every man, who consents to the necessary terms of society, will also consent to this proposition, that every man should do all the good, and prevent all the evil, that he can. This is the voice of the law of nature; and all men would be happy by it, if all men would practice it. This law leads us to see, that the establishment of falsehood and tyranny (by which I mean the privilege of one or a few to mislead and oppress all) cannot be justly called law, which is the impartial rule of good and evil, and can never be the sanction of evil alone.

Then he writes:

The two great laws of human society, from whence all the rest derive their course and obligation, are those of equity and self- preservation: By the first all men are bound alike not to hurt one another; by the second all men have a right alike to defend themselves: Nam jure hoc evenit, ut quod quisque ob tutelam corporis suifecerit, jure fecisse existimetur [“For this comes from the law: that which someone does for the safety of his body, let it be regarded as having been done legally.”], says the civil law; that is, “It is a maxim of the law, that whatever we do in the way and for the ends of self defence, we lawfully do.” All the laws of society are entirely reciprocal, and no man ought to be exempt from their force; and whoever violates this primary law of nature, ought by the law of nature to be destroyed. He who observes no law, forfeits all title to the protection of law. It is wickedness not to destroy a destroyer; and all the ill consequences of self-defence are chargeable upon him who occasioned them.

This is, dare I say, revolutionary stuff. Cato (specifically in this case, Gordon) ties the first principles of government and argues that man is not obligated to follow laws which would do harm to his natural rights. Moreover, man has an affirmative obligation to overthrown an unjust ruler. Here he lays out, in clear language, that we have a natural right to revolution.

Many mischiefs are prevented, by destroying one who shews a certain disposition to commit many. To allow a licence to any man to do evil with impunity, is to make vice triumph over virtue, and innocence the prey of the guilty. If men be obliged to bear great and publick evils, when they can upon better terms oppose and remove them; they are obliged, by the same logick, to bear the total destruction of mankind. If any man may destroy whom he pleases without resistance, he may extinguish the human race without resistance. For, if you settle the bounds of resistance, you allow it; and if you do not fix its bounds, you leave property at the mercy of rapine, and life in the hands of cruelty.

In a sense, not only do we possess the right to rebel against unlawful authority, we have an obligation to do so lest further injustices are committed. He writes:

The law of nature does not only allow us, but oblige us, to defend ourselves. It is our duty, not only to ourselves, but to the society; Vitam tibi ipsi si negas, multis negas, says Seneca:[“If one denies life to oneself, one denies it to many.”] If we suffer tamely a lawless attack upon our property and fortunes, we encourage it, and involve others in our doom. And Cicero says, “He who does not resist mischief when he may, is guilty of the same crime, as if he had deserted his parents, his friends, and his country.”

The idea that revolution is a duty, not just a right, is a step beyond anything written by Locke. Locke justified the right of revolution, but only within very narrow parameters. Cato broadens Locke’s conception of the right of revolution to intimate that subjects are duty bound to resist unlawful tyrants. This would certainly have great reverberations fifty years later in the colonies. Indeed, if one considers what was at issue in the American Revolution, Gordon and Trenchard would seem to be of greater applicability than Locke. It is certainly a broader justification for the right of revolution than what is expressed even in the Second Treatise of Government.

Later on, in his 55th letter, Cato looks back on history to justify the overthrow of tyrants. Specifically, he lauds those who assassinated Julius Caesar. “Every body, I believe, will own, that when he first made war upon his country, his country had a right to make war upon him; and to destroy him, who fought to destroy them.” Not only were Caesar’s assassins meritorious, the greatest men in history have been those who slayed tyrants, and in doing so saved millions from abject servitude.

If we read the stories of the most celebrated heroes of antiquity (men of whom the present world is not worthy) and consider the actions that gained them their highest reverence and renown, and recommended their names to posterity with the most advantage; we shall find those in the first rank of glory, who have resisted, destroyed, or expelled tyrants and usurpers, the pests, the burdens, and the butchers of mankind. What can be more meritorious, what more beneficent to the world, than the saving of millions of men at the expense of one grand murderer, one merciless and universal plunderer? And can there be any better or other reason given for the killing of any guilty man, but the preserving of the innocent?

These ideas could certainly prove dangerous. Who gets to decide when a ruler is governing arbitrarily? Isn’t this an open invitation to anarchy?

In his 59th letter (already discussed in some detail in the previous post), Cato addresses this concern directly:

But here arises a grand question, which has perplexed and puzzled the greatest part of mankind: Yet, I think, the answer to it easy and obvious. The question is, who shall be judge whether the magistrate acts justly, and pursues his trust? To this it is justly said, that if those who complain of him are to judge him, then there is a settled authority above the chief magistrate, which authority must be itself the chief magistrate; which is contrary to the supposition; and the same question and difficulty will recur again upon this new magistracy. All this I own to be absurd; and I aver it to be at least as absurd to affirm, that the person accused is to be the decisive judge of his own actions, when it is certain that he will always judge and determine in his own favour; and thus the whole race of mankind will be left helpless under the heaviest injustice, oppression, and misery, that can afflict human nature.

But if neither magistrates, nor they who complain of magistrates, and are aggrieved by them, have a right to determine decisively, the one for the other; and if there be no common established power, to which both are subject; then every man interested in the success of the contest, must act according to the light and dictates of his own conscience, and inform it as well as he can. Where no judge is nor can be appointed, every man must be his own; that is, when there is no stated judge upon earth, we must have recourse to heaven, and obey the will of heaven, by declaring ourselves on that which we think the juster side.

These words have a certain resonance in our age. Rulers themselves cannot be the arbiters of the merits of their own actions. It thus comes down to the informed reason of subjects to judge for themselves. Their actions, in turn, will be judged by the Ultimate Judge: God Himself.

Cato (in this case, now Trenchard) thus argues that the governed have the right and duty to judge their rulers.

In truth, I think it is as much the business and right of the people to judge whether their prince be good or bad, whether a father or an enemy, as to judge whether he be dead or alive; unless it be said (as many such wise things have been said) that they may judge whether he can govern them, but not whether he does; and that it behoves them to put the administration in wiser hands, if he be a harmless fool, but it is impious to do it, if he be only a destructive tyrant; that want of speech is a disqualification, but want of humanity, none.

It’s instructive to note that in subsequent letters Cato writes forcefully against the idea of the “divine right of kings.” Kings were not appointed by God to rule over men. Instead, rulers were appointed by men to rule over men. If that is the case, then it is only right and natural that these same men can judge their rulers to be tyrants and lawfully overthrow them.

Cato further outlines what he deems to be arbitrary rule in the 63rd letter:

Such are arbitrary princes, whose laws are nothing but sudden fury, or lasting folly and wickedness in uncertain shapes. Hopeful rules these, for the governing of mankind, and making them happy! Rules which are none, since they cannot be depended upon for a moment; and generally change for the worse, if that can be. A subject worth twenty thousand pounds today, may, by a sudden edict issued by the dark counsel of a traitor, be a beggar tomorrow, and lose his life without forfeiting the same. The property of the whole kingdom shall be great, or little, or none, just at the mercy of a secretary’s pen, guided by a child, or a dotard, or a foolish woman, or a favourite buffoon, or a gamester, or whoever is uppermost for the day; the next day shall alter entirely the yesterday’s scheme, though not for the better; and the same men, in different humours, shall be the authors of both. Thus in arbitrary countries, a law aged two days is an old law; and no law is suffered to be a standing law, but such as are found by long experience to be so very bad, and so thoroughly destructive, that human malice, and all the arts of a tyrant’s court, cannot make them worse. A court which never ceaseth to squeeze, kill, and oppress, till it has wound up human misery so high, that it will go no further. This is so much fact, that I appeal to all history and travels, and to those that read them, whether in arbitrary countries, both in Europe and out of it, the people do not grow daily thinner, and their misery greater; and whether countries are not peopled and rich, in proportion to the liberty which they enjoy and allow.

Arbitrary rule is, in a sense, no rule at all. It is governance by the arbitrary whims of the king or prince rather than by the rule of law. Arbitrary rule being no just rule at all, once again, men are simply under no obligation to obey such a rule.

All men own, that it is the duty of a prince to protect his people; And some have said, that it is their duty to obey him, when he butchers them. An admirable consequence, and full of sweet consolation! His whole business and office is to defend them, and to do them good; therefore they are bound to let him destroy them. Was ever such impudence in an enlightened country? It is perfectly agreeable to the doctrines and followers of Mahomet: But shall Englishmen, who make their own laws, be told, that they have no right to the common air, to the life and fortune which God has given them, but by the permission of an officer of their own making; who is what he is only for their sakes and security, and has no more right to these blessings, nor to do evil, than one of themselves? And shall we be told this by men, who are eternally the first to violate their own doctrines? Or shall they after this have the front to teach us any doctrine, or to recommend to us any one virtue, when they have thus given up all virtue and truth, and every blessing that life affords? For there is no evil, misery, and wickedness, which arbitrary monarchies do not produce, and must produce; nor do they, nor can they, produce any certain, general, or diffusive good.

TL:DR version: Men do not have to obey the ruler who is harming them.

Having said all this, it would seem Gordon and Trenchard have delivered an open invitation to perpetual strife. As witnessed in our modern age, it is easy enough for individuals to claim they are being unjustly ruled. This would make all defiance of the law permissible so long as the individual claimed conscience protection.

Not quite. Gordon and Trenchard expect people to reach reasonable conclusions, and therefore they must be guided by right reason before deciding to rebel. More than a year after the letters outlined above were written, there was a period of turmoil as certain clergy and other disaffected religious minorities began clamoring for change within the Established Church. In his 129th letter, Cato firmly slams the door on the idea that any of their murmurings for revolution were in any way justified.

For God’s sake, Gentlemen, think what you are doing: Your lives, your estates, your religion, your conscience, your trade, your country, your honour, are all at stake, and you are wantonly throwing them all away; you are pursuing a false and miserable shadow; and it would be happy for you, were it only a shadow: In reality, you are going to catch in your embraces, superstition, beggary, and servitude. I approve your love and pursuit of liberty, which ever was, and ever will be, a grateful and charming sound in my ears; and I will be always ready to lead you, or to follow you, in that virtuous and noble pursuit. This is wisdom! This is honour! But honour is to be acquired by honourable means, and not by rapine, perjury, and murder.

In this particular case revolution would subject the people of Great Britain to worse rule. He urges the audience to recognize how blessed they are to be citizens of a free and prosperous country.

You are born, Gentlemen, to liberty; and from it you derive all the blessings which you possess. Pray, what affection have these your leaders ever shewn to the cause of liberty? It is plain that they have never taken the sacred sound into their mouths, but to profane it; nor pretended to cherish it, but in order to destroy it, and make it an unnatural ladder to tyranny. As often as dominion has been in their own hands, liberty became a crime, and a sign of sedition; and as often as they wanted to destroy power, that is, as often as they were out of it, they prostituted the spirit of liberty to the service of treason. Hence their late cries for liberty, to animate you against a government that protected it; and under the pretence of affecting liberty, to introduce a tyranny that would destroy the soul, body and property. They could, however, have made no dangerous progress in this mischief and hypocrisy, if those who have always professed, and whose interest it would have been always to have supported and practised, free and beneficent principles, had not deserted those principles, and armed by that desertion the enemies to all that is good and virtuous, with an opportunity of turning liberty upon herself. Let the real friends to the government support the maxims upon which it stands, and upon which only it can stand, and they have nothing to fear from the well or ill-grounded popularity of its enemies.

Though addressing a specific situation, Cato tempers the revolutionary spirit. It is not enough to merely feel downtrodden. One must soberly reflect upon his current situation. Then, and only then, can an individual or a people make a reasoned decision about revolution. Given the context of Great Britain at the time, any calls for revolution were thus unreasonable.

It can certainly be objected that Gordon and Trenchard have not adequately addressed concerns about the abuse of this right of revolution. They are leaving too much up to the arbitrary whims of subjects themselves. I would suspect that they would respond that a consequence of liberty is for people to get it wrong, but that the alternative would be far worse as it would be an invitation to continued tyrannical rule with no opportunity for redress.

Having said all that, I would argue that these words, more than any except those written by Thomas Paine, are the most important inspiration for the American revolutionaries.


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