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Cato's Letter No. 68

Property and Commerce secure in a free Government only; with the consuming Miseries under simple Monarchies

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, March 3, 1722)

SIR, I here send you what I have to say further upon arts, industry and population. To live securely, happily, and independently, is the end and effect of liberty; and it is the ambition of all men to live agreeably to their own humours and discretion. Nor did ever any man that could live satisfactorily without a master, desire to live under one; and real or fancied necessity alone makes men the servants, followers, and creatures of one another. And therefore all men are animated by the passion of acquiring and defending property, because property is the best support of that independency, so passionately desired by all men. Even men the most dependent have it constantly in their heads and their wishes, to become independent one time or other; and the property which they are acquiring, or mean to acquire by that dependency, is intended to bring them out of it, and to procure them an agreeable independency. And as happiness is the effect of independency, and independency the effect of property; so certain property is the effect of liberty alone, and can only be secured by the laws of liberty; laws which are made by consent, and cannot be repealed without it.

All these blessings, therefore, are only the gifts and consequences of liberty, and only to be found in free countries, where power is fixed on one side, and property secured on the other; where the one cannot break bounds without check, penalties or forfeiture, nor the other suffer diminution without redress; where the people have no masters but the laws, and such as the laws appoint; where both laws and magistracy are formed by the people or their deputies; and no demands are made upon them, but what are made by the law, and they know to a penny what to pay before it is asked; where they that exact from them more than the law allows, are punishable by the law; and where the legislators are equally bound by their own acts, equally involved in the consequences.

There can be no good, where there are none of the causes of good; and consequently all the advantages of liberty must be lost with liberty, and all the evils of tyranny must accompany tyranny. I have in my last taken a view of the eastern monarchies, with regard to the miserable decay of their people and arts; I shall in this confine myself, for instances, to Europe, and begin with Muscovy, by far the greatest empire for territory in Christendom: And because the best short account that I have seen of that government, is given by Giles Fletcher, who was there in the latter end of Queen Elizabeth's time, I shall here recite part of that account.

Talking of the many wicked and barbarous arts used by the late czars of Russia, to drain and oppress their people, he says;

"They would suffer their people to give freely to the monasteries (as many do, especially in their last wills), and this they do, because they may have the money of the realm more ready at hand, when they list to take it, which is many times done; the friars parting freely with some, rather than lose all.

"John Basilowitz pretended to resign the crown to the Prince of Cazan, and to retire for the rest of his life to a monastery: He then caused this new king to call in all the ecclesiastical charters, and to cancel them. Then pretending to dislike this fact, and the misrule of the new king, he resumed the sceptre, possessed as he was of all the church lands; of which he kept what he would, and gave new charters for the rest. By this he wrung from the ecclesiasticks a vast sum; and yet hoped to abate the ill opinion of his government, by shewing a worse.

"When they want to levy a new tax, they make a shew of want, as was done by Duke Theodore; who, though left very rich by his father, yet sold most of his plate, and coined the rest, that he might seem in necessity: Whereupon presently came out a new tax upon his people.

"They would sometimes send their messengers into the provinces to forestall and engross the commodities of the country, taking them at small prices, what they themselves listed, and selling them again at excessive prices to their own merchants, or to strangers. If they refuse to buy them, then they force them into it: The like they do, when any commodity thus engrossed, foreign or native, such as cloth of gold, broad cloth, and the like, happens to decay, by lying upon hand; it is forced upon the merchants at the emperor's price, whether they will or no.

"Besides the engrossing of foreign commodities, and forcing them upon the merchants, they make a monopoly for a season of all such commodities as are paid the prince for rent or custom; and this they do to enhance the price of them: Thus they monopolize furs, corn, wood, &c. during all which time none must sell of the same commodity, till the emperor's be all sold.

"The above-mentioned John Basilowitz sent into Permia (a country of the poor Samoides) for certain loads of cedar, though he well knew that none grew there; and the inhabitants returned answer, that they could find none. Whereupon he taxed the country in twelve thousand rubles. Again, he sent to the city of Moscow to provide for him a measure full of fleas, for a medicine. They answered, that the thing was impossible; and if they could get them, yet they could not measure them, because of their leaping out. Upon which he set a mulct upon them of seven thousand rubles.

"To these may be added, their seizures and confiscations upon such as are under displeasure, and the connivance at the oppression and extortions of the governors of the provinces, till their time be expired; and then turning all their wicked plunder into the emperor's treasury, but never a penny back again to the right owner, how great or evident soever the injury be.

"As to the people, they are of no rank or account, and esteemed no better than villains; and so they subscribe themselves in all their writings to any of the nobility, as they of the nobility do to the emperor: And indeed, no bond slaves are kept more in awe and subjection, than the common people are, by the nobility, officers, and soldiers; so that when a poor mousick (one of the commonalty) meets any of them upon the highway, he must turn himself about, as not daring to look them in the face, and fall down with his head to the very ground.

"And as to the lands and goods of these miserable people, they are so exposed to the rapine of the nobility and soldiers, besides the taxes, customs, and seizures, and other publick exactions laid upon them by the emperor, that they are utterly discouraged from following their trades and professions; because the more they have, the more danger they are in, not only of their goods, but even of their lives: And if they happen to have any thing, they convey it into monasteries, or hide it in woods or under ground, as men do when they are in fear of a foreign invasion. So that many villages and towns are entirely without inhabitants; and in the way towards Moscow, betwixt Volaghda and Yareslave, for about an hundred English miles, there are least fifty villages, some half a mile long, some a whole mile long, that stand wholly desolate, without a single inhabitant. The like desolation is seen in all other places of the realm, as I have been told by those that travelled the country.

"In every great town the emperor hath a drinking-house, which he rents out: Here the labouring man and artificer many times spends all from his wife and children. Some drink away all that they wear about them, to their very shirts, and so walk naked; and all for the honour of the emperor. Nay, while they are thus drinking themselves naked, and starving their families, no body must call them away, upon any account, because he would hinder the emperor's revenue.

"The capital punishments upon the people are very cruel; but if theft or murder be committed upon them by one of the nobility, he is seldom punished, or so much as called to account for it, because the people are the slaves of the nobility: Or if these crimes are committed by a gentleman soldier, perhaps he may be imprisoned at the emperor's pleasure, or perhaps fined—and that is all."

I make this quotation chiefly upon memory, having only taken down some hints when I read it; but I can assert it to be a just one, and almost wholly in the Doctor's words.

I know much has been said of the improvements made by the present Czar, and of his many projects in favour of arts and trade: And it is very true, that he is a prince of a very active and inquisitive genius. But though he has made himself a more powerful prince than any of his predecessors were, I do not find that the numbers of his people are increased, or their general wretched condition much mended. He has a vast army constantly on foot; he keeps vast numbers of his poor subjects constantly employed in making havens and canals; great taxes are raised, great and daily waste is made of his people, who are likewise miserably oppressed by his boyars, to whom he still leaves the raising of money, and the direction of trade: So that the general oppression remains; trade is deadened and distressed; the people burdened beyond measure; sudden and arbitrary duties are laid upon commodities imported; the old way of monopolies is continued; the state of the exchange, and the allay and uncertain value of the current coin, are as bad as they can be; arts and ingenuity are really discouraged, and those who have skill in any art must conceal it, to avoid working for nothing; there are grievances without number, and like to be, for he who complains is certainly undone, and petitions are answered with stripes, sometimes with death itself. In short, the condition of the Russian people is much upon the same foot as it was in Dr. Fletcher's time; and whoever doubts it, may find full conviction from Captain Perry's state of Russia, under the present Czar.

In Poland, nothing can be more miserable than the condition of the peasants, who are subject to the mere mercy of the great lords, as to life and death and property; and must labour five days in a week, nay sometimes six, for these lords; and if they cannot subsist themselves and their families upon one day's labour in seven, they must famish. The state of the other northern kingdoms is, with respect to the people, as wretched as any yet named: They have many soldiers, endless taxes, dreadful poverty, few people, and gaudy courts. It is indeed said of some arbitrary princes in some parts of Europe, that they are merciful to their subjects, and do not use them barbarously; that is, they do not deliberately butcher them, but only take all that they have, and leave them to starve peaceably upon the rest: All the riches of the country are to be seen at court, and the people are wretchedly poor. Cantabit vacuus. A countryman once complained to General Kirk, that his soldiers had plundered him of all that he had in the world: "Thou art a happy man," says the General, "for then they will plunder thee no more."

The woeful decay of people and plenty in many states in Italy is so astonishing, that were it not obvious to every eye that sees it, and so well attested to those who have not seen it, by those who have, it would seem beyond all belief.

"When I came into the Pope's territories at Pont Centino, says Dr. Burnet, "there was a rich bottom all uncultivated, and not so much as stocked with cattle: But as I passed from Montifiascone to Viterbo, this appeared yet more amazing; for a vast champaign country lay almost quite deserted. And that wide town, which is of so great compass, hath few inhabitants, and those looked poor and miserable. When I was within a day's journey of Rome, I fancied the neighbourhood of so great a city must mend the matter; but I was much disappointed: For a soil that was so rich, and lay so sweetly, that it far exceeded any thing I ever saw out of Italy, had neither inhabitants in it, nor cattle upon it, to the tenth part of what it could bear. The surprize this gave me increased upon me, as I went out of Rome on its other side, chiefly all the way to Naples, and on the way to Civita Vecchia; for that vast and rich champaign country, which runs all along to Terracina, which from Civita Vecchia is a hundred miles long, and is in many places twelve or twenty miles broad, is abandoned to such a degree, that as far as one's eye can carry one, there is often not so much as a house to be seen. The severity of the government hath driven away the inhabitants; and their being driven away hath reduced it to such a pass, that it is hardly possible to people it."

He adds, that in Rome itself, "it is not possible for the people to live and pay taxes; which has driven, as it is believed, almost a fourth part of the people out of Rome during this pontificate."

He tells us elsewhere, that the Pope buys in all the corn of St. Peter's patrimony.

"He buys it at five crowns their measure, and even that is slowly and ill paid. So that there was eight hundred thousand crowns owing upon that score when I was at Rome. In selling this out, the measure is lessened a fifth part, and the price of the whole is doubled; so that what was bought at five crowns, is sold out at twelve; and if the bankers, who are obliged to take a determined quantity of corn from the chamber, cannot retail out all that is imposed upon them, but are forced to return some part of it back, the chamber discounts to them only the first price of five crowns."

It is observed by another noble author of our country, that Mario Chigi, brother to Pope Alexander the Seventh, by one sordid cheat upon the sale of corn, is said within eight years to have destroyed above the third part of the people in the ecclesiastical state; and that that country, which was the strength of the Romans in the Carthaginian wars, suffered more by the covetousness and fraud of that villain, than by all the defeats received from Hannibal.

The country of Ferrara was formerly very populous, and the lands being fertile, were well cultivated; but since the Pope has got possession of it, it is almost depopulated; the lands are nigh desolate; and, for want of people, it is like the rest of the ecclesiastical state, unhealthy to live in. His Holiness has reduced the inhabitants from above an hundred thousand, to about twelve thousand. In the city itself, grass grows in the streets, and most of the houses are empty.

The Great Duke's dominions lie much in the same dismal solitude. When Sienna and Pisa were free states, they swarmed with people, and were rich in trade and territory: Sienna alone was computed to have had above half a million of subjects; but in a matter of an hundred and fourscore years, during which time it has been in the possession of his Highness of Tuscany, they are sunk below twenty thousand, and these miserably poor. The same is the abject condition of Pisa, Pistoja, Arezzo, Cortona, and many other great towns. Florence, his capital particularly, which, in the days of liberty, could, by the ringing of a bell, bring together, of its own citizens and the inhabitants of the valley Arno, a hundred and thirty-five thousand well armed men in a few hours' time, is now so poor and low, that it could not bring together three tolerable regiments in thirteen months.

The city of Pisa alone was reckoned, when it was free, to have had a hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants, all happy in liberty and commerce; and now they are about ten thousand, without liberty, and commerce, and bread. Formerly an hundred of its citizens could fit out an hundred galleys, and maintain them during a war, at their own charge; and now the whole city could not furnish out nor maintain one. Their stately palaces are desolate, like their territory; or let out for stables, or any other sorry use, at three or four pounds a year rent. Their streets are covered with grass; their territory, by being waste, is grown unwholesome; and their few remains of people are starving. And that great state, which the Great Duke could not master without the armies of Spain, are not now able to contend with his infamous crew of tax- gatherers. The people are famished slaves, their houses are ruins, their trade is gone, their land unmanured, and yet their taxes are not lessened; and if there be any plenty amongst them, ’tis only plenty of beggars.

The same is the condition of the Milanese, and other countries under the same sort of government; the people starve in the best soils: Whereas in Switzerland, and in the territories of Genoa, Lucca, and the Grisons, they are numerous, and live happily in the worst. "The people in France" (says the author of the supplement to Dr. Burnet's travels), "especially the peasants, are very poor, and most of them reduced to great want and misery; and yet France is an extraordinary good country. The people of Switzerland (which is a country of mountains) cannot be said to be very rich, but there are very few, even of the peasants, that are miserably poor. The most part of them have enough to live on. Every where in France, even in the best cities, there are swarms of beggars; and yet scarce any to be seen throughout all Switzerland. The houses of the country people in France are extremely mean; and in them no other furniture is to be found, but poor nasty beds, straw chairs, with plates and dishes of wood and earth. In Switzerland, the peasants have their houses furnished with good featherbeds, good chairs, and other convenient household-stuffs; their windows are all of glass, always kept mended and whole; and their linen, both for bedding and their tables, is very neat and white."

This was written above thirty years ago, when France was in a much better condition than it has been since. The glory of their late Grand Monarch cost them much misery, and many myriads of people. And yet even thirty years ago their miseries were great and affecting! "As I came from Paris to Lyons" (says Dr. Burnet), "I was amazed to see so much misery as appeared not only in villages, but even in big towns; where all the marks of an extreme poverty shewed themselves, both in the buildings, the clothes, and almost in the looks of the inhabitants. And a general dispeopling in all the towns, was a very visible effect of the hardships under which they lay."

What blessed circumstances that great kingdom is in now, Mr. Law, who is amongst us, can best tell; though we all pretty well know. It is really a science, and no easy one, to know the names, numbers, and quality of their taxes; which are so many, so various, and so heavy, that one of their own writers calls them, inventions proper to impoverish the people, and to enrich the dictionaries. Bulion, treasurer to Louis XIII, told his master, that his subjects were too happy, they were not yet reduced to eat grass. And the cruel spirit and politicks of that minister were afterwards so well improved, that I am apt to think their present felicity is no part of their misfortunes.

Such instances shew what hopeful methods such governors take to increase people, trade, and riches.

As to the politer arts, I own several of them have flourished under some of the Popes themselves, and some other arbitrary princes; such as painting, architecture, sculpture, and musick. But these arts, and the improvements of them, were so far from owing any thing to that sort of government, that by liberty alone, and the privileges given to the professors of them, they came to excel in them; nor would they ever have excelled upon the common foot and condition of their other subjects: So that to make them excellent, they made them free. And thus even tyrants, the enemies of liberty, were, for their furniture, luxury, pomp, pleasure, and entertainment, forced to be beholden to liberty; and for those particular purposes, they gave it to particular men. But for the rest of their subjects, they were left by them in the condition of brutes, both in point of livelihood and knowledge; For it is liberty more than shape, that makes the difference; since reason without liberty proves little better, and sometimes worse, than none. Servitude mars all genius; nor is either a pen or a pencil of any use in a hand that is manacled.

G I am, &c.

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