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Cato's Letter No. 65

Military Virtue produced and supported by Civil Liberty only

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, February 10, 1722)

SIR, I have shewn in my last, that trade and naval power are produced by liberty only; and shall shew in this, that military virtue can proceed from nothing else, as I have in a good measure shewn already.

In free countries, as people work for themselves, so they fight for themselves: But in arbitrary countries, it is all one to the people, in point of interest, who conquers them; they cannot be worse used; and when a tyrant's army is beaten, his country is conquered: He has no resource; his subjects having neither arms, nor courage, nor reason to fight for him; He has no support but his standing forces; who, for enabling him to oppress, are sharers in his oppression; and fighting for themselves while they fight for him, do sometimes fight well: But his poor people, who are oppressed by him, can have no other concern for his fate, than to wish him the worst.

In attacks upon a free state, every man will fight to defend it, because every man has something to defend in it. He is in love with his condition, his ease, and property, and will venture his life rather than lose them; because with them he loses all the blessings of life. When these blessings are gone, it is madness to think that any man will spill his blood for him who took them away, and is doubtless his enemy, though he may call himself his prince. It is much more natural to wish his destruction, and help to procure it.

For these reasons, small free states have conquered the greatest princes; and the greatest princes have never been able to conquer free states, but either by surprizing them basely, or by corrupting them, or by forces almost infinitely superior, or when they were distracted and weakened by domestick divisions and treachery.

The Greeks thought scarce any number of Persians too great for their own small armies, or any army of their own too small for the greatest number of Persians. Agesilaus invaded the great Persian Empire, the greatest then in the world, at the head of no more than ten thousand foot, and four thousand horse, and carried all before him; he defeated the Asiatick forces with so much ease, that they scarce interrupted his march; he subdued their provinces as fast as he entered them, and took their cities without sitting down before them: And had he not been recalled by his countrymen to defend his own city against a confederacy of other Greek cities, much more terrible foes than the greatest armies of the great king, it is very probable that that brave old Spartan would have soon robbed him of his empire.

And not long before this, when Cyrus made war upon his brother Artaxerxes for the crown, thirteen thousand auxiliary Greeks entertained by him for that end, routed the emperor's army of nine hundred thousand men, and got the victory for Cyrus, had he outlived the battle to enjoy it. And though they had now lost the prince they fought for, and afterwards Clearchus their general, who with other of their officers was treacherously murdered by the Persians when they had brought him to a parley; though they were in great straits, destitute of horses, money, and provisions, far from home, in the heart of an enemy's country, watched, and distressed by a great army of four hundred thousand men, who waited for an occasion to cut them off in their retreat, if they attempted it: yet these excellent soldiers, excellent by being freemen, commanded by the famous Xenophon, made good that retreat of two thousand three hundred miles over the bellies of their enemies, through provinces of Persians, and in spite of a vast host of Persians, who coasted and harassed them all the way.

Alexander of Macedon, with his free Greeks, attacked the Persians, and beat them at all disadvantages in the open fields, when they were five, ten, nay, twenty times his number; and having, passed the Hellespont, with not fifteen thousand pounds in his treasury, and not above thirty-five thousand men in his army, he made himself master of that great and overgrown empire, with as much expedition as he could travel over it; and though he fought three battles for it, he scarce lost in them all one regiment of his men.

Leonidas, at the head of four thousand Greeks, fought Xerxes at the head of six and twenty hundred thousand Persians, according to Herodotus, in the straits of Thermopylae for two days together, and repulsed them at every assault with vast slaughter; nor did they at last get the better of him, till being led by a treacherous Greek a secret way over the mountains, they fell upon him in the rear, and surrounded him with their numbers; neither did he then desert his post, though all his men retreated, except three hundred Spartans, who resolutely stood by him, and were all slain with him upon the spot, with twenty thousand Persians round them.

The Romans, enjoying the same liberty, and animated by it, vanquished all the enslaved nations of the known world, with the same ease, and upon the same unequal terms. The subduing of free countries cost them long labour and patience, great difficulty, and a world of blood; and they suffered many defeats before they got a decisive victory: The inhabitants being all freemen, were all brave, all soldiers, and were exhausted before their states could be conquered: And the Volscians, Aequians, Tuscans, and Samnites, preserved their liberties, as long as they had men left to defend them. The Samnites particularly declared in their embassy to Hannibal, that having often brought great numbers of men into the field against the Romans, and sometimes defeated the Roman armies, they were at last so wasted, that they could not resist one Roman legion.

But when the Romans came to war against great and arbitrary kings, they had little else to do but to shew their swords; they gained battles almost without fighting, and two or three legions have routed three or four hundred thousand men. One battle generally won a kingdom, and sometimes two or three. Antiochus was so frightened with one skirmish with Acilius at Thermopylae, that he ran away out of Greece, and left all that he possessed there to the Romans; and being beaten afterwards by Scipio, the brother of Africanus, he quitted to them all his kingdoms and territories on this side Mount Taurus. And Paulus Aemilius, by one battle with Perseus, became master of Macedonia. Tigranes, Ptolemy, and Syphax, all monarchs of mighty territories, were still more easily vanquished. So that the great kingdoms of Asia, Aegypt, Numidia, and Macedon, were all of them much more easily overcome, and suffered much fewer defeats, than the Samnites alone, though inhabiting a small barren province.

The only dreadful foes which the Romans ever found, were people as free as themselves; and the most dreadful of all were the Carthaginians. Hannibal alone beat them oftener, and slew more of their men in battle, than all the kings in the world ever did, or could do. But for all the great and repeated defeats which he gave them; though he had destroyed two hundred thousand of their men, and many of their excellent commanders; though, at the same time, their armies were cut off in Spain, and with them the two brave Scipios; and though they had suffered great losses in Sicily, and at sea, yet they never sunk nor wanted soldiers, nor their soldiers courage; and as to great commanders, they had more and better than ever they had before: And having conquered Hannibal, they quickly conquered the world.

This vast virtue of theirs, and this unconquerable spirit, was not owing to climate or complexion, but to liberty alone, and to the equality of their government, in which every Roman had a share: They were nursed up in the principles of liberty; in their infancy they were instructed to love it; experience afterwards confirmed their affections, and shewed them its glorious advantages: Their own happy condition taught them a contempt and indignation for those wretched and barbarous governments, which could neither afford their subjects happiness nor protection: And when they attacked such governments and their wretched people, they found themselves like lions amongst sheep.

It is therefore government alone that makes men cowardly or brave: And Boccalini well ridicules the absurd complaint of the princes of his time, that their subjects wanted that love for their country which was found in free states, when he makes Apollo tell them, that no people were ever in love with rapine, fraud, and oppression; that they must mend their own administration, and their people's condition; and that people will then love their country, when they live happily in it. The old Romans were masters of mankind; but the present race of people in Rome are not a match for one of the Swiss cantons; nor could these cantons ever be conquered, even by the united forces of the house of Austria. Charles Duke of Burgundy was the last that durst invade them; but though he had been long a terror and constant rival to Louis XI of France, a crafty, politick, and powerful monarch, and often too hard for him; he paid dear for his bravery in attacking the Switzers, and lost by doing it three armies, and his own life. They were a free people, and fought in their own quarrel; the greatest incitement upon earth to boldness and magnanimity. The Switzers had a property, though in rocks; and were freemen, though amongst mountains. This gives them the figure which they make in Europe; such a figure, that they are courted by the greatest princes in it, and have supported some of them in their wars, when their own native slaves could not support them.

The Dutch, having revolted from the greatest potentate then in Europe, defended themselves against all his power for near a hundred years, and grew rich all the time, while he grew poor; so poor, that Spain has never yet recovered its losses in that war: And though they are in their constitution more formed for trade than war, yet their own bravery in their own defence is astonishing to those that know not what the spirit of liberty can do in any people: Even their women joined to defend their walls; as the women of Sparta once did, and as the women of Barcelona more lately did, though the united force of the two monarchies of France and Spain had at last the honour to take that city, especially when we, who had engaged them in the war, had also given them up.

These same Dutch in that war, when they were closely besieged in one of their towns by the Spanish Army, let in the sea upon their country, trusting rather to the mercy of that element, than to the mercy of an invading tyrant; and the sea saved them. It must be remembered too, that they had the power of the Emperor, as well as that of Spain, to contend with; both these mighty monarchs having joined their counsels and arms to subdue seven little provinces, which yet they never were able to subdue: The city of Ostend alone cost them a three years siege, and an hundred and thirty thousand men; and when they took it, they only took a heap of rubbish, to which it was reduced before it was surrendered.

In free states, every man being a soldier, or quickly made so, they improve in a war, and every campaign fight better and better. Whereas the armies of an absolute prince grow every campaign worse; especially if they be composed of his own subjects, who, being slaves, are with great difficulty and long discipline made soldiers, and scarce ever made good ones; and when his old troops are gone, his new ones signify little. This was eminently shewn in the late war with France, which degenerated in arms every year; while the English and Dutch did as evidently mend. And doubtless, if the French barrier of fortified towns had been quite broken through, as it was very near, one battle would have completed the conquest of France, and perhaps it would not have cost a battle.

And if free states support themselves better in a war than an absolute prince, they do likewise much sooner retrieve their losses by it. The Dutch, when they had been beaten twice at sea by Cromwell's admirals and English seamen, with great slaughter and loss of ships, did notwithstanding, in two months time, after the second great defeat, fit out a third fleet of a hundred and forty men of war, under the famous Van Trump: Upon this Lord Clarendon observes, that, "there cannot be a greater instance of the opulency of that people, than that they should be able, after so many losses, and so late a great defeat, in so short a time, to set out a fleet strong enough to visit those who had so lately overcome them."

This is what no arbitrary prince in Europe, or upon the face of the earth, could have done; nor do I believe, that all the arbitrary monarchs in Europe, Africa, and Asia, with all their united powers together, could do it at this day. The whole strength of the Spanish monarchy could not fit out their famous armada, without the assistance of money from the little free state of Genoa; and that invincible armada, being beaten by the English, and quite destroyed, Spain has never been able, with all her Indies, and her mountains of silver and gold, to make any figure at sea since, nor been able to pay that very money which equipped that its last great fleet.

The little city of Tyre gave Alexander the Great more resistance, and cost him more labour to take it, than to conquer the great monarchy of Asia; and though, when with infinite labour and courage he had taken it, he burnt it to the ground, slew eight thousand Tyrians in the sackage of their town, crucified two thousand more, and sold all the rest for slaves; yet some of the citizens, with their wives and children, having escaped to Carthage (a colony of their own), and others being conveyed away and saved by their neighbours the Sidonians during the siege, they returned and rebuilt their desolated city; and in so small a time as nineteen years afterwards, endured another siege of fifteen months from Antigonus, the most powerful of all Alexander's successors; nor could he take it at last, but upon honourable terms. What an instance of the blessings and power of liberty and trade!

From the moment that the Romans lost their liberty, their spirit was gone, and their valour scarce ever after appeared. In the beginning of Augustus's reign, the best and bravest of them perished by the sword, either in the civil war, where, Romans fighting against Romans, multitudes were slain, with Brutus and Cassius, the last brave men that ever drew a sword for the commonwealth; or in the bloody proscriptions that followed, in which all the excellent men and assertors of liberty, who escaped the battle, were gleaned up and murdered by soldiers and informers, and, amongst the rest, the divine Cicero. Afterwards, when Augustus had got the world to himself, jura omnium in se traxit; flatterers were his only favourites, and none were preferred to magistracy, but the servile creatures of his power; liberty was extinct, and its spirit gone; and though there was a universal peace, yet the power of the empire continually decayed. Augustus himself was so sensible of this, that the loss of two or three legions under Varus in Germany, frightened him, and had almost broke his heart; not from any tenderness in it, for he had butchered myriads, and enslaved all; but he knew that now Roman legions were hard to be got, and scarce worth getting. Having destroyed so many brave Romans, and made the rest base by slavery, and by the corruptions which support it, he knew the difficulty of forming a Roman army.

His successors were worse; they went on in a perpetual series of slaughters, dreading and destroying every thing that had the appearance of virtue or goodness; and even so early as Tiberius's reign, that emperor, says Tacitus, knew magis fama quam vi stare res suas, that his empire was supported more by the reputation of Roman greatness, than by the real strength of the Romans, who grew every day more and more weak and wretched; and though they had now and then a little sun-shine in the reign of a good emperor, yet the root of the evil remained: They were no longer freemen, and for far the most part, their government was nothing else but a constant state of oppression, and a continual succession of massacres. Tyrants governed them, and soldiers created and governed the tyrants, or butchered them if they would not be butchers.

As to military virtue, it was no more: The Praetorian bands were only a band of hangmen with an emperor at their head; Italy and the provinces were exhausted; the Roman people were nothing but an idle and debauched mob, that cared not who was uppermost, so they had but a little victuals, and saw shews; The provincial armies were foreign hirelings, and there was not a Roman army in the Roman empire. Inops Italia, plebs urbana imbellis nihil in exercitibus validum praeter externum. This was said not long after the death of Augustus; nor do I remember an instance of one great Roman captain after Germanicus and Corbulo; the first murdered by Tiberius, his uncle and father by adoption; and the other by Nero, for whom he reconquered and settled the East; and after Vespasian and Titus, every Roman emperor of remarkable bravery was a foreigner, and every victory gained by them, was gained by foreigners; who, being all mercenaries, were perpetually setting up and pulling down their own monarchs. At length, being possessed of the whole power of the empire, they took it to themselves; and thus it ended, and became dismembered by several nations, and into several governments, according to their fortune; and it is remarkable, that though those nations had frequent wars amongst themselves about the countries which they invaded, yet they had nothing to apprehend from the Romans while they were seizing Roman provinces.

Tyrants are so sensible, that when they have lost their army, they have lost all, that amongst their other destructive expedients to preserve themselves, whatever becomes of their people, one of their methods is, to lay whole countries waste, and to keep them waste, to prevent an invader from subsisting; and their best provinces are by this means turned often into wildernesses. For this reason a march to Constantinople is scarce practicable to an enemy from any quarter.

I will conclude with answering an objection: It may be said, that the armies of tyrants often fight bravely, and are brave; and I own it to be true in many instances: But I desire it may be remembered, that in arbitrary countries nothing flourishes except the court and the army. A tyrant must give his spoilers part of the spoil, or else they will fight but faintly for it, or perhaps put him to death if he do not. The most absolute princes must therefore use their soldiers like freemen, as they tender their own power and their lives; and under the greatest tyrants the men of war enjoy great privileges, even greater than in free states. The privileges and immunities which they enjoy, constitute a sort of liberty, dear to themselves, but terrible always to the subject, and often pernicious to the prince: It being the certain condition of a tyrant, that to be able to oppress his people, or plague his neighbours, he must empower his soldiers to destroy himself.

The chief forces therefore of an arbitrary prince consist of freemen: Such were the Praetorian bands of the Roman emperors, and such are the Turkish janizaries; and both of them, though they maintained the tyranny, have frequently killed the tyrants; and such are the Grand Seignior's zaims, timariots, or horsemen, who have lands given them in the provinces, and are the only nobility and gentry there: And such too were the Mamalukes of Egypt, which country at last they usurped for themselves, having put the king their master to death. I might mention here the Swiss Guards, and gendarmes of a neighbouring prince, which are his janizaries. As to the Turkish janizaries, I own the Sultan may put particular men of them to death, but no sultan dares touch their privileges as a body; and two or three of their greatest emperors were deposed and destroyed by them for attempting it.

Mere slaves can defend no prince, nor enable him even to rule over slaves: So that by giving liberty, or rather licentiousness, to a few, the slavery of all is maintained.

All this does, I think, fully prove, that where there is no liberty, there can be no magnanimity. It is true, enthusiasm has inspired armies, and most remarkably of all the Saracen armies, with amazing resolution and fury; but even that was fierceness for liberty of opinion to themselves, and for subduing all men to it; and besides, this courage of enthusiasm is rarely eminent, except in the first rise of states and empires.

G I am, &c.


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