Cato's Letter No. 6

How easily the People are bubbled by Deceivers. Further Caution against deceitful Remedies for the publick Sufferings from the wicked Execution of the South-Sea Scheme

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, December 10, 1720)

SIR, No experience or sufferings can cure the world of its credulity. It has been a bubble from the beginning; nor is it a bit wiser for this discovery, but still runs into old snares, if they have but new names, often whether they have or no.

Self-love beguiles men into false hopes, and they will venture to incur a hundred probable evils, to catch one possible good; nay, they run frequently into distracting pains and expences, to gain advantages which are purely imaginary, and utterly impossible.

Were the passions properly balanced, men would act rationally; but by suffering one passion to get the better of all the rest, they act madly or ridiculously.

Our prevailing passions in England, of late, have been hope, avarice, and ambition; which have had such a headlong force upon the people, that they are become wretched and poor, by a ravenous appetite to grow great and rich. Our fear and caution were postponed; and by a sanguine struggle for what we had not, we lost what we had. Could such courage be inspired by stock-jobbing? A cowardly science of mean tricks and lies!

Every adventurer in this mighty lottery foresaw that many must be losers, and that what was got by one must be lost by another; but every man hoped that fate would be kinder to him in particular, than to a thousand others; and so this mad hope became general, as are the calamities which it has produced.

This shews the little power that reason and truth have over the passions of men, when they run high. In the late revolution in the Alley, figures and demonstration would have told them, and the directors could have told them, that it was phrenzy; that they were pursuing gilded clouds, the composition of vapour and a little sunshine; both fleeting apparitions! Common sense could have told them, that credit is the most uncertain and most fluctuating thing in the world, especially when it is applied to stock-jobbing; that it had long before been exalted higher than it could well stand, even before it was come to twenty above par; and therefore always tottered, and was always tumbling down at every little accident and rumour. A story of a Spanish frigate, or of a few thieves in the dark dens in the Highlands, or the sickness of a foreign prince, or the saying of a broker in a coffee-house; all, or any of these contemptible causes were able to reduce that same credit into a very slender figure, and sometimes within her old bounds: But particularly, they might have seen, that it was now mounted to such an outrageous height, as all the silver and gold in Europe could not support; and therefore, when people came in any considerable number to sell (and to sell was the whole end of their buying), it would have a dreadful fall, even to the crushing of the nation. This has since dolefully happened: Our hopes, which were our ruin, are gone; and now we behold nothing but the face of the mourner.

But in spite of this mischief, produced by credulity, by manifest and ill-grounded credulity, it is much to be feared that some little art and big promises would make us repeat it, and grow mad again. This seems evident, not only from the folly and feebleness of human nature, ever the prey of craft, and ever caught with shadows; but from our endless gaping after new projects, and our eagerness to run into them. We have been bruised in a mortar, but we are not wiser; while one ruin is yet upon us, we are panting after another, perhaps worked up by the same hands, or by other hands with the same views.

O the weakness and folly of man! It is like a whirlpool, which destroys and drowns not by halves, but when a part is drawn in, the whole follows.

Surely the pleasure is as great,
Of being cheated, as to cheat!

Else men would not be such dupes, as every where they are. Whoever would catch mankind, has nothing to do, but to throw out a bait to their passions, and infallibly they are his property. This secret is well known to corrupt courts, who flatter or frighten their obeying believing vassals into all the excesses of misery and obeisance. By this, standing armies have been maintained; by this, wild wars have been waged; by this, an idle, expensive, absurd, and cruel popish hierarchy has been supported.

Once more, O wretched man! Thou willing instrument of thy own bondage and delusion; even mountebanks know this secret of cajoling thee, and picking thy pocket; nay, worse than mountebanks, stock-jobbers know it.

When a people are undone, it is some consolation to reflect, that they had no hand in their own ruin, or did all that they could to prevent it, by the best counsels that they could take, or by the bravest defence that they could make. But alas, poor England! thou hast not that consolation: Thou hast not fallen by able traitors; thou art not the victim of deep design, or artful treason; nor art thou the price of victory in the field; neither art thou out-witted by the subtile dealers in mystery and distinction, nor in this instance deceived by their false alarms.

No, we have no such palliating reflection to reconcile us to our misery, or to abate its pangs: To our deathless shame, we are the conquest, the purchase of stock-jobbers. The British lions crouch to a nest of owls! Can we survive the remembrance without revenge?

But all this is complaining, will some say; and we want remedies, rather than complaints: To bewail our calamities, is indeed natural; but to extricate ourselves out of them, is necessary. Here are two hundred millions of imaginary property lost, and at least twenty millions of real property plundered from the honest and industrious, and given to sharpers and pick-pockets: Shall these rooks be suffered to enjoy it? And shall the bubbles be redressed out of other men's estates, no ways chargeable with the mischief? Or must we prostitute the publick honour of the nation to draw in other people (no way concerned) to take the bold bargains of rash men and dupes off their hands? But if none of these methods be taken, our cullies must sit down with their loss, or the traitors be forced to disgorge.

If we make new schemes, or diversify the old, till doom's-day, there will be no paying twenty millions without twenty millions, or without what is equivalent to twenty millions; which will be the same thing to the nation as the parting with twenty millions.

The payment therefore will either be a real payment or a sham payment; and in this case, if caveat emptor (let the buyer look to it) be a good general rule in the business of bargains and sale, it will be a good rule here too.

If we have any state chemists, who have art enough to make millions evaporate into smoke; yet I must beg leave to doubt their skill at consolidating smoke into gold.

I hope that I shall not be understood, by what I have said, to oppose an attempt to redeem us out of our present wretched condition. On the contrary, I shall be the first to vote that man a statue of gold, who can strike out an honest and skilful expedient for our recovery, which I own is far past my own skill: I am no candidate for the golden statue.

By all this, I would only caution my countrymen not to be caught again; let them beware of new snares. As to the losers, they have not a great deal to expect; and I can say no more to them here, than that in the countries where the plague rages, the preservation of the whole is the principal care; the infected are, for the most part, left to take care of themselves; and I never heard it suggested, that nine millions of people ought to be exposed to the mortal contagion of that distemper, to preserve a few individuals.

G. I am, &c.

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