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Cato's Letter No. 86

The terrible Consequences of a War to England, and Reasons against engaging in one

John Trenchard (Saturday, July 21, 1722)

SIR, I propose in this letter to shew, and I hope to do it unanswerably, that nothing can be a greater disservice to his Majesty’s interest, more fatal to his ministry, or more destructive to his people, than to engage them in a new war, if there be but a bare possibility of preventing it, let the pretences be what they will. A new fire seems to be now kindling in Italy, which in all likelihood will blaze out far and wide; and, without doubt, many princes will warm their hands at it, whilst their subjects will be burnt to death: But I hope we shall have wit enough to keep out of its reach, and not be scorched with its flames; but, like some of our wiser neighbours, lie still, and know how to make our markets of the follies and misfortunes of others. We have been heroes long enough, and paid the price of our gallantry and credulity. We are got near sixty millions in debt, and have nothing for it but Gibraltar and Port Mahon; and it is said, that some of our allies have had the presumption to expect these from us too; and I am sure, if they should be lost, or given away, we have nothing left wherewith to compensate any power which we shall vanquish hereafter.

I hope no man will be wild enough to make any proposition for a new war to us; nor can I guess at any one argument for it, but what I hope will be called treason to his sovereign and his country. Old threadbare reasons will hold no longer: People will not always deceive themselves, nor be deceived by others. We shall not bear being told again, that England need but send a message, or a bucket full of water, and the fire will be extinguished. That argument has already cost us the terror and expence of providing against two invasions, or intended invasions; has lost or spoiled several great fleets, destroyed numbers of our merchant ships, increased our national debts many millions, perhaps brought upon us that noble project to pay them off, and created the general want of trade, and, I doubt, that great disaffection which is so often complained of; and all the reward which we have met with, has been a struggle to keep what we were in possession of before, what was yielded to us by treaties, and what there was no pretence for demanding, if we had thought it our interest to have lain still.

I hope we shall never engage in a new war, before we have considered all the consequences which will necessarily or probably happen from such an engagement, and have thought how we shall get out of it, as well as how to get into it. The first step draws in all the rest; and when we are in, we must go through. We may begin with thousands, but must go on with millions. A message will produce a quarrel, but fleets and armies must end it.

We well know, and have long felt, the moderation of our allies. We can no sooner engage in their squabbles, but they become our own; and then we must pay them for doing their own business, and largely too, or else they threaten to leave the war upon us; and when it is ended through our means, always divide the spoil amongst themselves, and endeavour to make us pay likewise for the peace. I would be glad to know what any of them have ever done for us, or would suffer us to do for ourselves, in return for all that we have done for them; or what courtesy they have ever shewn to us Englishmen, as Englishmen: I hope therefore, that we too shall at last, in our turn, consider only our own interests, and what is best for ourselves; and not ruin ourselves yet further, and let others have the whole advantage. But if we had no occasion given us for these complaints, we have another and shorter answer to give to our good allies; namely, that by helping them so long, we are rendered incapable of helping them any longer; and that all treaties must cease and become void, when it is impossible to perform them without utter ruin to one of the parties, and without destroying all the ends for which these treaties were made.

Let us take a short prospect of the journey which we are to go, and consider what will be the result of such an undertaking. All naval armaments must be made at our charge, and employed at a great distance from home, to the ruin of our ships and our seamen, and the obstruction of our commerce: Armies must be sent abroad, or money, in the name of subsidies, found out to pay those which are there already: More armies must be kept at home to oppose invasions, and keep the people quiet: Great land-taxes must be raised, our publick funds be every year increased, the people frightened with perpetual alarms, which will sink the price of the old stocks, and consequently set an exorbitant price upon the raising of new ones: We shall lose a beneficial trade to Spain and the Mediterranean; and probably Portugal will take that opportunity to execute what they lately attempted. The Czar too may think it a favourable one to acknowledge some past obligations; and other nations may judge it a proper time to bite the stone that was thrown at them; and then we shall have little or no trade at all, all our commodities and manufactures will lie upon our hands, and the people be starved, or subsist by ways which no honest man can wish, and all men ought to dread.

If France engage on the different side, we must have her too for our enemy; if on the same side, there can be no need of our assistance. But if she think it her interest to lie still, she, who is the next neighbour to both the combatants, and is vastly more concerned in the event; what have we to do with them at this distance, we who are no wise concerned whether the emperor or Spain uses the Italians worst, or who has the Provinces contended for? When Spain had them, we suffered nothing by it; nor do I hear what we have got by the Emperor’s being in possession of them. I purposely avoid saying any thing of the States-General, because they will certainly have wit enough to hug themselves in the folly of others, and profit by it.

And what shall we get by such feats of knight-errantry, but the disinterested glory of serving others to our own disadvantage, and the character of pious Christians, in treating those kindly who despitefully use us? Oh, but some tell us, that we are bound by treaties to preserve the neutrality of Italy. Whether this be true, or the contrary be true, I know not: but if it be true, I doubt not but we shall be told how England came to be a party to such a treaty; what were the motives for making it; what equivalent we had for it; what interest of ours was served by it; or what other country, which we were concerned to preserve, was to reap the advantage of it. And we ought to enquire too, how treaties, made for our benefit, have been kept by our allies; because we are told (I hope falsely) that one of them had once in his custody the Pretender to the king’s throne, with several other traitors to the government; and yet, instead of delivering them up, set them at liberty: and lately one of them refused, or declined, to deliver up a much greater traitor, when earnestly requested by the Parliament, and, without doubt, importunately pressed by the king’s ministers.

I do not find that we have any thing to fear from the King of Spain, if we do not give him provocation; for the Secretary of State assured the Lord Mayor, in his letter since printed, that no foreign potentate abetted, or gave any countenance to, the last intended insurrection; and if he would not assist a conspiracy, actually, and, as we are told, deeply laid, there can be no reason to believe that he will form a new one against a state that intends him no harm, and can do him a great deal of good; and surely it is not our interest at this time of day to provoke him to do it in his own defence. If he and the Emperor have a mind to make a feast in Italy, let them bid whom they please to the banquet, which without doubt will be a long one, and many neighbouring princes will be gorged at it; but for us, we have no business there, unless to be caterers, to supply the greatest part of the provision, and to pay the reckoning for the rest. I once knew a wager of forty to one staked down to be spent. But instead of engaging our country in such expensive and wild whims, I hope we shall catch at so favourable an opportunity, when those who can most molest us are together by the ears, to do our own business, pay off our debts, settle our trade, and reform all the abuses of which we so justly complain.

But if such a war were ever so necessary, how shall it be supported? We find by woeful experience, that three shillings in the pound has not maintained the current expence of the government, but we have run still in debt. The money given for the Civil List has not defrayed that charge, but new and large sums have been given to pay off the arrears; which, it is said, are not yet paid off. New salaries and new pensions have been found necessary to satisfy the clamours of those who will never be satisfied; and the greater occasions which the courtiers have, and the greater necessities which they are in, the more will still be found necessary: for it is no news for artful men to engage their superiors in difficulties, and then to be paid largely for helping them out of them again. The customs and excise are anticipated and mortgaged almost beyond redemption: The salt, leather, windows, and almost every thing else that can be taxed, is already taxed, and some of them so high, as to lessen the produce, and they are appropriated to pay off debts due to private men.

What new sources will be found out to maintain a foreign war, and a much larger expence in our own country, which will be necessary to defend us against enemies abroad, whom we shall provoke, and against discontented people at home, who, it is to be feared, may say that they are oppressed and starved? One additional shilling in the pound upon land, if the Parliament can be persuaded to give, and the people be easy in paying it, will be but as a drop of water thrown into the ocean, whatever may be pretended at first; and then for all the remainder we must run in debt, if we can get any one to trust us; and, where shall we raise new funds? Here I doubt our publicans and inventors of new grievances will be at their wits’ end: It is certain that the greater the difficulty is in raising them, the greater must be the price for raising them; and the present stocks will be less valuable in proportion as new demands make more necessary.

But suppose, that, to the infinite dissatisfaction of the people, and the utter ruin and destruction of all trade, the little which is not already taxed could be taxed, and turned into funds, to create new markets for stock-jobbers, and enough could be raised to maintain a war two or three years; what shall we do next? It is most sure, that the difficulty of obtaining a peace will grow in exact proportion as we become less capable to carry on the war; and what assistance, think ye, my countrymen, shall we have from our good allies to obtain a peace? Without doubt we shall pay the piper at last, and they will parcel out the contended dominions amongst themselves, and attempt to make us give up Gibraltar and Port Mahon to bind the bargain; nay, to pay besides a large sum of money for the ships which we shall have destroyed, and the other mischiefs which we shall have done, and which we need not do. I hope it will never be our lot to assist some of our neighbours at a vast expence, and then reward them at a further expence for accepting our assistance; and to beat others of our neighbours, to our own loss as well as theirs, and pay them afterwards for having beat them: What would the world think of us in this case, but that as France had got the plague, England had got the frenzy; and that we were weakening ourselves as fast with our own hands, as the divine hand had weakened them?

But if, after all, we cannot get a peace, or shall think fit not to submit to the honourable conditions which our honest and faithful confederates shall judge good enough for hereticks, what shall we do then? They will have no motives to serve us when they have done their own business, or rather when we have done it for them: They have sufficiently shewn already what inclination they have to serve us; and if ever they have done it, they have been well paid for their pains. What condition shall we then be in to oppose one or more powerful neighbours, and perhaps victorious ones too, when we are enervated and exhausted, when our people are discontented at home, and we have no regular means to maintain fleets and armies, who must be forced to maintain themselves, if we cannot maintain them? These mischiefs (and terrible ones they are) may be easily foreseen, and ought to be prevented, if we would prevent absolute and conclusive ruin. What, think you, must, in such a circumstance of affairs, become of the funds? If we lie still, they are lost of course; and if we apply them to our necessary defence, thousands and thousands of innocent people must be undone and become desperate, and infinitely inflame the popular discontents, and still make more taxes, more oppressions, necessary: And yet who will be found so hard-hearted, as not to sacrifice the interests of thousands to the safety of millions, when no other resource is left?

Beware, my friends, of the first step, and know your whole journey before you move one foot; when you are up to the ears in mire, it will be too late to look back. At first we may be told by our confederates and their creatures, that we need only bounce a little, and make a shew of force, and every thing will go to our mind; but a burnt child will dread the fire: When we are engaged, we cannot retreat; one step will draw another; it will not depend upon ourselves, whether we shall go on or not; the game will be then in other hands, who will play it to their own advantage, without regarding ours; and what we begin in wantonness, will probably end in our confusion.

What then must we think of any men amongst us, who would draw all these mischiefs, these inevitable mischiefs, upon their country! They must certainly be egregiously foolish, or consummately wicked. I hope, and believe, there are no such; but if there be, without doubt they have taken their measures, and have thought how to save themselves, whatever becomes of their country; but in that too they may chance to be mistaken.

If it be necessary to the publick safety to keep eight or ten camps in readiness for action in times of full peace, when there is no outward appearance of publick disturbances, and no foreign power promotes or abets any such; how many camps will be necessary when we have enemies assaulting us from abroad, and combining and intriguing with our own native traitors at home; especially if the people should be made still more uneasy, by laying burdens upon them which they cannot bear nor stand under? For my own part, I can see no steady source or continuing cause for the disaffection so much complained of, but the great and heavy variety of taxes, of which our ancestors knew nothing, and which it is a sort of a science now to know; and I doubt that disaffection will not be cured by adding to the number.

We can never, therefore, behave ourselves with more true duty to his Majesty, give better advice and assistance to his ministry, or acquit ourselves with more fidelity to our country, than by opposing, in the most vigorous manner, such measures as threaten them all with ruin’ and by shewing the utmost resentment against any ill-designing persons, who would wickedly and traitorously sacrifice a great, free, and opulent kingdom, to mad whimsies, or the pitiful mean interests of little states.

T I am,&c.


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