Cato's Letter No. 51

Popularity no Proof of Merit

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, November 4, 1721)

SIR, Popularity is the fondness and applause of many, following the person of one, who, in their opinion, deserves well of them; and it must doubtless be a sensible pleasure to him who enjoys it, if he enjoy it upon good terms, and from reputable causes: But where it is only to be acquired by deceiving men with words, or intoxicating them with liquors, or purchasing their hearts with bribes, a virtuous man would rather be without it; and therefore virtuous men have been rarely popular, except in the beginning, or near the first rise of states, while they yet preserved their innocence.

Where parties prevail, a principal way to gain popularity is, to act foolishly for one side, and wickedly against the other: And therefore some publick talkers have grown popular, by calling those whom they disliked by bitter and ill-bred names; or by rioting and making a noise for some sounds, which they had taken a liking to; or by insulting and abusing those that affronted them, by being more sober and sensible than themselves: And some, to be revenged on those that never hurt them, have given themselves up a blind prey to certain leaders, who deluded them, and sold them, and yet earned popular applause of them for so serving them.

So that popularity is often but the price which the people pay to their chiefs, for deceiving and selling them: And this price is so implicitly paid, that the very vices and fooleries of a popular chief become popular too, and were perhaps amongst the first causes that made him so. Some gentlemen of this cast owe their figure to the weakness of their heads, or the strength of their barrels; and grow considerable by their having small parts, or by drinking away those that they have.

These are the instruments that cunning men work with; and therefore sometimes a knave, who is not popular, shall get a weak man, who is so, to do those things with applause, for which he himself would be hated and condemned: And the hand that executes shall be blessed, when the head that contrives would be cursed, for one and the same thing.

This shews that names are principal reasons to determine the multitude to popular love and hatred; and it proceeds not so much from their being untaught as ill taught: When they are instructed not to reason but to rage, not to judge but to mistake, a better discernment and wiser behaviour are not to be hoped from them.

Demetrius, and the other craftsmen, shrine-makers to Diana, at Ephesus, were more popular men than St. Paul, and raised a mob to confute his arguments for Christianity: For it had not yet entered into the heads of the people, that religion and rage were contradictory things, and that antiquity and reverence could not sanctify impiety, falsehood, and folly.

In like manner, Barabbas, a rioter and a murderer, had more votes to save him than our blessed Saviour had; who was thought by that zealous, deluded, and outrageous people, to be the greater criminal of the two, for having told them sober, and saving truth, which was new to them, though everlasting in itself; and therefore condemned because it was new.

Now, in neither of these instances were the people, though they acted thus impiously and madly, originally in the fault; but those who taught them; and who, having for religion taught them trifles, folly, and fury, were alarmed by the rational and prevailing doctrines of mercy, wisdom, and truth. They therefore blaspheme against the author of truth, yet charge him with blasphemy. As to the populace, they did as they were taught, and uttered the cry which was put into their mouths.

The people, when they are left to themselves, and their own understandings and observation, will judge of men by their good or bad actions, and are capable of separating vice from virtue, and the just from the unjust: And therefore, when their government is not corrupted, the best and most virtuous men will always be the most popular, and he who does best will be esteemed best: But when strong liquor, or money, or false terrors intervene, and government is turned into faction; the judgment of the people is vitiated, and worse than none. They then prefer the worst men to the best, if they have stronger drink, or more money, or are covered with any other false merit, by those whose word they take, and whose authority they submit to; and the most popular man is he who bribes highest, or imposes upon them best.

That these things are common, and almost universal, is not strange: Generally speaking, where-ever there is power, there will be faction; and where-ever there is money, there will be corruption: So that the heads of faction, and the promoters of corruption, have from their very characters, which ought to render them detestable, the means of popularity.

Who was better beloved at Rome than Spurius Melius, while he was meditating the slavery of the Roman people? Who could ever boast such potent parties, such numerous followers, such high applause and regard, such trophies and statues, as Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, Augustus and Anthony could boast; while they were overturning the state, oppressing mankind, butchering one half of the world, and putting shackles upon the other? And, in fine, who was ever a greater impostor, and more admired prophet, than Mahomet was? All these men were enemies to liberty, truth, and peace; the plagues and scourges of the earth: But they deceived and destroyed their people with their own consent, and by the highest wickedness gained the highest popularity.

The two Dukes of Guise, Francis and Henry, father and son, were the two most popular men that ever France saw, and grew so by doing it more mischief than ever two men till then had done. They were perpetually, during a course of many years, destroying its peace, violating its laws, usurping its authority, pushing at the crown, raising and carrying on rebellions, committing massacres, and filling it with blood and desolation: They had no one publick end, and did no one publick thing, but what was pernicious to France; yet France adored them.

Whoever is the author of a civil war, is author of all its cruel consequences; plunders, devastations, burnings, rapes, slaughters, oppression and famine. A frightful catalogue of crimes to line at one man's door! yet both these dukes had them all to answer for over and over, yet were vastly beloved. Even when they were dead, they continued the authors of long publick miseries, by leaving their destructive schemes and their party behind them; a fierce, lawless, and powerful party, that maintained the civil war long after them; and having destroyed Henry III was like to prove too hard even for the great Henry IV nor did he overcome it but by infinite courage, industry, and patience, and the renouncing of his religion: Nay, at last, his murder was owing to the spirit of the League, first concerted, and afterwards constantly headed and animated, by these two dukes successively.

Had ever any country two greater foes? yet were ever two men greater darlings of any country? For Henry, Duke of Guise, particularly, he had so much the hearts of the people, that their passion for him ran not only to dotage, but idolatry; and they blasphemed God, to do the duke honour: They worshipped his image; they invoked him in their prayers; they touched religiously the hem of his garment, and with the same spirit and design rubbed their beads upon his clothes; nay, following him in multitudes as he passed their streets, saluted him with hosannas to the son of David.

Thus they treated and adored this idol; a lewd man, a pub- lick incendiary and destroyer, but represented to them as their saviour. He had for the ends of ambition put himself at the head of the Catholick cause; the surest warrant in the world for mischief and homage!

Our good fortune, or our better constitution, has hitherto restrained us against our will from running into all these excesses of distraction and folly. But we have had our popular idols too; wretched idols, who could not furnish us from their parts or reputation with one reason for our stupidity in admiring them. Sometimes paltry and turbulent priests, destitute of all virtue and good- breeding, weak and immoral patricians, or loud and ignorant plebeians, have run away with our reverence, without being able to merit our esteem; without religion they have been popular in the cause of religion, and contended popularly for loyalty by faction and rebellion.

To every reader, instances of this nature will occur within his own memory and observation. To name them with the other great names above-mentioned, would be an honour too mighty for them, who were but small wicked men, though greatly popular.

I have often remembered, with compassion, an unfortunate great man still living, but utterly ruined by his popularity and false friends. His good-nature has been often mentioned, and is grown almost proverbial: Nor do I deny it; though by it he never served himself, his family, or the publick. On the contrary, it has proved his failing and his crime. If one were to enquire for the causes of his popularity in the probity of his life, the piety of his mind, his publick abilities, private oeconomy, or conjugal or domestick virtues, these are topicks upon which his friends do not extol him: And for his loyalty, take loyalty in what sense you will, he will be found to have given preposterous proofs of it, and to have been engaged in all the depths of rebellion and perjury, and is still engaged.

From what has been said, it will not seem strange that some of the most popular men in the world have been the most mischievous in their behaviour and opinions. What fighting and burning has there been for transubstantiation! what declaiming, damning, and rebelling, for passive obedience! what fierce contention, and how many foolish arguments for persecution! All which opinions are a contradiction to religion and scripture, an affront to common-sense, and utterly destructive of all civil and religious liberty, and of all human happiness: Nor would any of them, or any like them, have ever entered into the heart of any man, unless he were first deceived, or found his account in deceiving. But even crimes, contradictions, and folly, will be popular in a state, when they bring gain or selfish gratifications to those who are in possession of a power to render folly, contradiction, and crimes, advantageous to the pernicious pursuits which they are engaged in.

G I am, &c.

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