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Cato's Letter No. 76

The same Subject continued

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, May 12, 1722)

SIR, How cautiously and partially men in power are to be trusted, and how much to be restrained, appears from hence, that almost every civil evil begins from courts, and the redress of every civil evil from an opposition to the pretensions and excesses of courts. This is so universally true, that no nation ever continued happy, whose chief magistrate was its absolute master; and no nation miserable, whose supreme power was properly checked and divided. Nations are then free, when their magistrates are their servants; and then slaves, when their magistrates are their masters: The commonwealth does not belong to them, but they belong to the commonwealth. Tacitus says with great truth, Nec unquam satis fida potentia ubi nimis est: "Power without control is never to be trusted." Every nation has most to fear from its own magistrates; because almost all nations have suffered most from their own magistrates.

Cicero, mentioning the condition of Cilicia, of which he was proconsul, in a letter to Appius Pulcher, says, that he was "moved by pity, as well as justice, to relieve from their miseries the undone provincial cities; undone chiefly by their own magistrates." It seems Cicero was that sort of whimsical man, that he had really at heart to do good to the people whom he governed: An odd and impracticable character; which, had he lived since, would have rendered him utterly unfit for any manner of preferment. He did not so much as know that he was to make the most of his place and his power, let what would become of the people. A lesson which other governors have amply learned.

Aristotle makes it the great argument and proof of liberty, that they who command do also obey; and indeed all legal and just power being but a trust, whoever executes the same, does an act of obedience as well as command: And every trust is best executed, where those who have it are answerable for it, else it never will be executed; but, where it is great and publick, is much more likely to be abused, violated, and turned to the destruction of those, who, for their own preservation, gave it. Nor is a people to be told, that such as want to be trusted with extraordinary power of any kind, have always been enemies to arbitrary power; for so are all men when they have it not, and expect no advantage from it. Who was a greater patriot than Sir Thomas Wentworth? And who was a more arbitrary minister than Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford? All men are for confining power when it is over them; and for extending it when they are in it. Oliver Cromwell was once heartily in the principles of liberty, and afterwards more heartily in those of tyranny: And I could name two great parties in England, who, when they were out of power, seemed to place the sum of publick spirit, in intrenching upon the royal authority; and when they were in power, to know no other law but the prerogative royal. So unlike is the same man to himself in different situations; and yet still very consistent with the genius of human nature!

Men sometimes do actually good, in order to do evil, Sejanus, incipiente adhuc potestate, bonis consiliis notescere volebat: "Sejanus, in the beginning of his administration, would found the reputation of a good minister in laudable measures." But there never proved a worse minister than Sejanus. Solyman, the Turkish emperor, used to say, that a prince, to be well served by any minister, must never use any minister above once: And this saying is thus far true generally, that men, the longer they grow in power, the worse they grow. I think it is Tacitus who says, Superbire homines etiam annua designatione; quid si honorem per quinquennium agitent? "If an annual election to power make men insolent; what must be their pitch of insolence, if they hold it five or seven years?" Aristotle finds great fault with the senate of Sparta, for being perpetual; and I think he says, that an unchanged or an hereditary senate falls into dotage.

Many of the ecclesiasticks have been for trusting their favourite princes (and no other) with unlimited power over others: But in every thing that regarded themselves and their interest, they have never failed to stipulate for the strictest limitations upon all princes, even upon those whom over the rest of the world they wished arbitrary, and endeavoured by every means to make so. Nor did ever any man give up the freedom of his country, but he meant to preserve his own; and hoped to continue a freeman; as a reward of his helping to make other people slaves; and no man ever set up a tyrant, but in hopes of going shares in his tyranny: And upon these terms and expectations alone it is, that any body of men, or indeed any army, is brought to aid and establish any usurper. Passive obedience was always intended for other people than those who preached it. Interest cannot lie; though he does, who says that he will submit to servitude, when he can avoid it.

Who would establish a bank in an arbitrary country, or trust his money constantly there? In Denmark, the ministers and minions of the prince, think their money safest out of his dominions, and generally transmit the same to Hamburgh, and other free cities, where the magistrates have no divine right to lay violent hands upon what is none of theirs. Even what we gain by rapine in a land of oppression, we are willing to save by the just laws of liberty, in a country of liberty. In England itself, and in our own free constitution; if the Bank of England were put under the absolute direction and power of the court, I doubt stock would soon grow very cheap, and sellers multiply very fast. Or if the government of the Bank, which is purely republican, were improved into monarchical; I fancy our highest monarchy-men would rail at the change, and hasten to sell out, notwithstanding their inviolable attachment to the divine right of monarchy: Unless perhaps they think that absolute monarchy does best protect their power, but a free state their money. I am indeed of opinion, that upon such a change, the Bank would be broke, and shut up in three days.

All this shews, that even men who are against liberty in general, contend for it in particulars, and in all particulars which affect themselves. Even Lauderdale, a Tyrconnel, or a Jefferies, who were all for making the crown absolute, as long as they could be as they were, the absolute ministers of oppression under it, would none of them, I dare say, have encouraged the maxim of the prince’s rewarding his ministers and faithful oppressors with the bow-string; as well as they themselves were entitled to that reward, and as much as the Turkish genius of government did in other instances suit their own!

When we hear any sort of men complain, as some sort of men do frequently complain, that the crown wants power; we should ask them, whether they mean over themselves? And if they answer, no; as certainly they will, if they speak truth; we may further ask them, Why should they judge for themselves any more than others; or claim to themselves a liberty and an exemption which they will not allow to others? The truth is, they who complain thus, only want to increase the power of the crown, because by it their own would be increased, and other advantages acquired.

The fox in the fable, wanting to rob a hen-roost, or do some such prank, humbly besought admittance and house-room only for his head; but when he got in his head, his whole body presently followed: And courts, more crafty, as well as more craving, than that designing animal, have scarce ever gained an inch of power, but they have stretched it to an ell; and when they have got in but a finger, their whole train has followed. Pisistratus, having procured from the city of Athens fifty fellows armed only with cudgels, for the security of his person from false and lying dangers, improved them into an army, and by it enslaved that free state. And I have read somewhere, of the States of a country, who having wildly granted to their prince a power of raising money by his own authority, in cases of great necessity; every case, ever afterwards, was a case of great necessity; and his necessities multiplied so fast, that the whole wealth of the country was swallowed up to supply them: As it always will be in every country, where those who ask are suffered to judge what ought to be given. A practice contrary to common sense, and which renders liberty and property perfectly precarious; and where it is continued, will end in taking without asking.

I have heard of a court somewhere abroad, which having asked upon a particular occasion four hundred thousand pounds of the States, found ways and means of stretching that sum to two millions. It was observed of the same court, that it had the art of raising mole-hills into mountains, and of sinking mountains into mole-hills; of disbanding armies without breaking them; of increasing debts by the means of paying them; of being engaged in an expensive war during a profound peace; of gaining for the country at a vast charge, advantages which the country never reaped, nor saw; of employing money obviously against the interest of that nation, and yet getting the nation to pay it; of purchasing other countries at the expence of their own, and against its interest; of procuring from the country at one time a great sum, without telling why it was wanted, but promising to tell, and yet never telling; and, in fine, after many other the like feats, of obtaining, by an arret of security, remission for all their past faults, without owning any, and yet going on to commit more: For as Tully well observes, Qui semel verecundiae fines transierit, eum bene & naviter oportet esse impudentem. Cicer. epist. ad Lucceium, Quinti fil.

But these things concern not us; and I only bring them for examples, like other old stories of Greece and Rome. I hope that we shall never fall into the like misfortunes and mismanagements ourselves.

G I am, &c.


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