Ronald Hamowy. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. 2008. Sage Publication.
Cato’s Letters comprise a series of 138 letters originally published in the British press between 1720 and 1723 and written under the pseudonym “Cato,” after Cato the Younger, the steadfast opponent of Julius Caesar and defender of Roman liberty. They offer a vigorous defense of freedom of speech and conscience and are implacable in their attacks on public corruption and unrestrained government. Most of the letters appeared in the London Journal; however, in the fall of 1722, the journal underwent a shift in editorial policy when the Walpole administration succeeded in bribing the journal’s owner into supporting the government. As a result, beginning with Letter No. 94 dated September 15, 1722, subsequent letters appeared in the British Journal. Over the course of the 3 years that they were published, the letters dealt with a broad range of contemporary social and political issues, in addition to a number of theoretical discussions concerning the authority of the clergy, the idea of liberty, and the nature of tyranny.
The letters were originally occasioned by the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, which precipitated a financial crisis of huge proportions in the early autumn of 1720. In the 30 years following the accession of William and Mary in 1689, England had engaged in a series of wars that led to a spectacular growth in the nation’s long-term debt. In seeking to relieve the government of the burden of servicing this massive debt, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, then Chancellor of the Exchequer under Queen Anne, conceived a scheme whereby a new company, the South Sea Company, would relieve the government of its debt by distributing its stock to those prepared to surrender their government annuities in return for South Sea stock. In return, the South Sea Company would be granted certain monopoly privileges. In this instance, the company was awarded the Asiento (a contract with the King of Spain to act as the supplier of 4,800 slaves per year to the Spanish possessions in America) and was granted a monopoly of all trade “to the South Seas,” that is, to Spanish America. Ultimately, both of these “privileges” proved of no value whatever; the Spanish colonial system effectively closed off English trade to the area, and the Asiento, during the brief period when the company was able to take advantage of it, lost money. In return for these worthless grants from the British government, the South Sea Company not only assumed the whole of the national debt of £31,000,000, but also agreed to pay the government an annuity of £550,000.
The company was empowered to issue one share of South Sea stock, at a par value of £100, for each £100 of debt converted. If the market share of the stock were higher than its par value, the company would be in a position to issue that much more stock. The directors of the company could, and regularly did, create stock on the company’s books, which it then “sold” back to the company at inflated prices. The effect was that large profits could be made, some of which were distributed in the form of bribes to persons of influence. Inasmuch as the company possessed no tangible assets, the holders of government debt agreed to surrender their government annuities for South Sea stock solely because they expected to make large capital gains. Indeed, a few stockholders, including the company’s directors, were able to make substantial fortunes, having sold their stock early enough. However, like all financial pyramids, the scheme’s collapse was inevitable and its effects extensive. Between September 1 and October 14, 1720, the company stock fell from £775 to £170, and large numbers of people, including some of the leading families in England and Scotland, were wiped out or brought to the brink of bankruptcy.
Disclosures regarding the manipulation of stock, of bribery, and of other corrupt practices by the South Sea directors implicated not only government ministers and members of the Lords and Commons, but members of the royal household. It was this alliance between the manipulators of credit and a duplicitous Court that was the primary object of censure in Cato’s Letters, whose authors saw the intervention of government in the marketplace as a sure source of political corruption. It is a mistake to read the letters as indicting commerce and the instrumentalities of finance that began to flower at the beginning of the 18th century. What Cato so fervently condemned was the dishonesty of our magistrates when they seek their private interests instead of the public welfare that has been entrusted to them.
Although the letters were originally published anonymously, it was fairly well known that they were written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Whig publicists of impeccable credentials. Indeed, when the letters appeared in book form some years after the death of Trenchard, Gordon confirmed the letters’ authorship when he added his and Trenchard’s names to the collection and marked each letter as to author. Trenchard and Gordon had earlier collaborated in writing and publishing an anonymous weekly titled The Independent Whig, which dealt with the dangers posed to English liberty by Jacobites and papists and argued in ringing terms that the individual conscience had precedence over ecclesiastical authority. This theme was again taken up in several of Cato’s letters, in which the authors maintained that our religious convictions were subject only to God himself and were immune from all governmental jurisdiction. Indeed, they held, freedom of conscience was the first of our natural rights. In an age of Jacobite plots and conspiracies following the Revolutionary Settlement of 1688, Trenchard and Gordon’s Low Church sympathies were an integral element of radical Whig doctrine, when Popery was seen as an instrument for restoring Stuart despotism.
Gordon had originally met Trenchard at a London coffee house in 1719, when Trenchard, who was far older than Gordon, had already obtained a reputation as a defender of radical Whig views. Trenchard, who was extremely wealthy, was impressed with the style and wit that Gordon had displayed in several recently published essays attacking the pretensions of the clergy, and he offered to hire the younger man as his secretary. This relationship quickly led to their collaboration, first on The Independent Whig and then on Cato’s Letters. Trenchard died in 1723 while Gordon survived for another 27 years, having soon after Trenchard’s death abandoned his political beliefs in return for a substantial bribe from Prime Minister Walpole. He died rich and corpulent, having married Trenchard’s widow, and he devoted his remaining days to a translation and commentary on Sallust and Tacitus.
The letters bear the unmistakable stamp of John Locke’s political philosophy and constitute a vigorous libertarian defense of limited government and individual freedom. Natural law and natural rights play a critical role in the structure of Cato’s argument respecting the nature of political society and the limits of political authority. The authors maintained that man is possessed of inalienable rights and that the liberty to which all Englishmen are entitled is theirs not solely by virtue of the historical development of English law and custom, but a product of man’s nature. “All Men are born free,” Cato writes. “Liberty is a Gift from God himself, nor can they alienate the same by Consent, though possibly they may forfeit it by Crimes.” The authority of the civil magistrate rests on no foundation other than consent and derives from our inherent right to defend ourselves against those who seek to trespass against our lives, liberty, or property. It is this function alone that circumscribes legitimate political authority. Our liberty, which government is obligated to protect, consists in the right we have over our actions and over all our property of whatever sort and is limited only in that we are precluded from infringing on a similar right in others. The idea that the laws of nature and the contract by which civil society is established constrain the sovereign to safeguarding the lives and estates of his subjects, is the central legacy of Lockean theory and pervades 18th-century radical Whig thought in general and the views reflected in Cato’s Letters in particular.
The letters proved immensely popular, not only when they originally appeared, but throughout the 18th century. Of the more than 40 weeklies published in England in the 1720s, the London Journal’s, circulation soon surpassed all its competitors in influence and importance as a consequence of Cato’s contributions. They were so well received that even while new letters were appearing, groups of earlier letters were published in collected form by several London presses. In addition, the whole collection appeared in six separate editions by 1755. The letters appear to have been as well received in the colonies as in Britain. Selected letters were republished in the American press, and American newspapers frequently quoted from them. In 1722, even while the letters were still appearing in London, the Philadelphia American Weekly Mercury began reprinting them in defense of the rights of free men. They were so highly thought of in the colonies that, during their struggles with the Crown, they were constantly invoked in response to the whole range of depredations under which the colonists suffered. Freedom of speech and conscience, the rights possessed by Englishmen both by virtue of their traditional laws and by their nature as human beings, the benefits of freedom, the nature of tyranny, and, above all, the right of men to resist tyranny, all found an eager reception in the colonies. Indeed, as the American historian Clinton Rossiter has noted, Cato’s Letters were “the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period.” They continue to constitute one of the most eloquent disquisitions against despotism written in the English language.