The Libertarian Cato

In the previous posts I explored Gordon and Trenchard’s writings regarding the origins of government and the justifications for revolution. In this post I’ll examine what I would describe as their more libertarian writings. Cato’s musings on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are perhaps the most important in reference to the American founding.

Cato consistent advocates a broad grant of freedom to speak one’s mind. Freedom of speech, Cato would write in the 15th letter, is essential to free government:

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds which it ought to know.

This sacred privilege is so essential to free government, that the security of property; and the freedom of speech, always go together; and in those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call any thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of the nation, must begin by subduing the freedom of speech; a thing terrible to publick traitors.

Later on in the same letter, Cato would write that “freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty.” A free society would die if it did not grant citizens the ability to speak without fear of censorship or imprisonment. Tyrants feared the pens of great thinkers, and tyranny flourished where these great minds were shut up.

Rulers have stifled this essential liberty by contending that they are often libeled. Cato argues that a good ruler need not fear libel, writing at the conclusion of his 32nd letter:

The best way to escape the virulence of libels, is not to deserve them; but as innocence itself is not secure against the malignity of evil tongues, it is also necessary to punish them. However, it does not follow that the press is to be sunk, for the errors of the press. No body was ever yet so ridiculous to propose a law for restraining people from travelling upon the highway, because some who used the highway committed robberies.

It is commonly said, that no nation in the world would allow such papers to come abroad as England suffers; which is only saying, that no nation in the world enjoys the liberty which England enjoys. In countries where there is no liberty, there can be no ill effects of it. No body is punished at Constantinople for libelling: Nor is there any distinction there between the liberty of the press, and the licentiousness of the press; a distinction ever to be observed by honest men and freemen.

Honest rulers don’t have to fear a malignant press, and should suffer the slings and arrows lest they suppress a fundamental right. Well at least the Framers understood the truth of this concept. 

In the 81st and 82nd letters, Cato would employ similar logic in arguing for the rights of religious dissenters. First of all, many of the religious dissenters, especially the Quakers, have no desire to hold ecclesial power – after all, they don’t even have any priests. The Episcopal Establishment would therefore have nothing to fear in granting such groups liberty to worship. Others, like the Presbyterians, are too small in number to threaten the Established Church. These dissenting sects merely want to govern themselves, and pose no threat to the established order.

While this may not seem like a very principled argument for religious freedom, Cato consistently pushes back against the Episcopal Establishment. I’ll cover more about Cato and religion in another post, but both Gordon and Trenchard themselves were not members of the established church, and would certainly oppose efforts to force conformity.

If freedom of speech and religion are vital natural rights, what mechanisms can ensure a liberty-loving government protective of those rights? In the 61st letter, Cato would lay out a few essential principles which should sound familiar to American ears: frequent elections and rotation in office.

So that I can see no means in human policy to preserve the publick liberty and a monarchical form of government together, but by the frequent fresh elections of the people’s deputies: This is what the writers in politicks call rotation of magistracy. Men, when they first enter into magistracy, have often their former condition before their eyes: They remember what they themselves suffered, with their fellow-subjects, from the abuse of power, and how much they blamed it; and so their first purposes are to be humble, modest, and just; and probably, for some time, they continue so. But the possession of power soon alters and vitiates their hearts, which are at the same time sure to be leavened, and puffed up to an unnatural size, by the deceitful incense of false friends, and by the prostrate submission of parasites. First, they grow indifferent to all their good designs, then drop them: Next, they lose their moderation; afterwards, they renounce all measures with their old acquaintance and old principles; and seeing themselves in magnifying glasses, grow, in conceit, a different species from their fellowsubjects; and so by too sudden degrees become insolent, rapacious and tyrannical, ready to catch at all means, often the vilest and most oppressive, to raise their fortunes as high as their imaginary greatness. So that the only way to put them in mind of their former condition, and consequently of the condition of other people, is often to reduce them to it; and to let others of equal capacities share of power in their turn: This also is the only way to qualify men, and make them equally fit for dominion and subjection.

A rotation therefore, in power and magistracy, is essentially necessary to a free government: It is indeed the thing itself; and constitutes, animates, and informs it, as much as the soul constitutes the man. It is a thing sacred and inviolable, where-ever liberty is thought sacred; nor can it ever be committed to the disposal of those who are trusted with the preservation of national constitutions: For though they may have the power to model it for the publick advantage, and for the more effectual security of that right; yet they can have none to give it up, or, which is the same thing, to make it useless.

These two concepts thus go hand-in-hand. Frequent elections and rotation in office will mitigate the potentially negative consequences of office-holders being stuck in the same position for years and years. These ideas would be echoed years later, perhaps more so by anti-Federalists, who felt the terms of Congressmen were far too long.

In letter number 70, Cato would turn to the notion of mixed forms of government, and would contend that mixed forms of government were essential to preserve liberty.

All men desire naturally riches and power; almost all men will take every method, just or unjust, to attain them. Hence the difficulty of governing men, and of instituting a government equally proper to restrain them and protect them; and hence the insufficiency of simple forms of government, to provide for the happiness and security of societies. An arbitrary prince will quickly grow into a tyrant; the uncontrolled dominions of the nobles will as certainly produce oligarchy, or the tyranny of a few; that is, pride, combination, and rapine in the sovereigns, and misery and dejection in the many; and the unrestrained licentiousness of the multitude will beget confusion and anarchy. To provide against these certain and eternal evils, mixed forms of government were invented; where dominion and liberty are so equally tempered, and so mutually checked one by another, that neither of them can have interest and force enough to oppress the other.

In language that would be echoed in another famous, pseudonymous letter, Cato lays out the advantages of this mixed form of government:

The nature and reason of this sort of government, is to make the several parts of it control and counterpoise one another; and so keep all within their proper bounds. The interest of the magistracy, which is the lot and portion of the great, is to prevent confusion, which levels all things: The interest of the body of the people, is to keep people from oppression, and their magistrates from changing into plunderers and murderers; the interest of the standing senate, which is, or ought to be, composed of men distinguishable for their fortunes and abilities, is to avoid ruin and dissolution from either of these extremes: So that, to preserve liberty, all these coordinate powers must be kept up in their whole strength and independency.

One might say ambition is to counteract ambition.

It is clear from the letters I’ve discussed thus far that the themes Cato touches upon would resonate for our liberty loving founders. In the next post, I’ll look at some letters which temporize this libertarian streak to some degree, and also in a way which would resonate years later in America.

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