Cato's Letter No. 97

How much it is the Interest of Governors to use the Governed well; with an Enquiry into the Causes of Disaffection in England.

John Trenchard (Saturday, October 6, 1722)

SIR No man, or small number of men, can support themselves in power upon their own proper strength, without taking in the assistance of a great many others; and they can never have that assistance, unless they take in their interests too, and unless the latter can find their own account in giving it: for men will laugh at bare arguments brought to prove that they must labour, be robbed of that labour, and want, that others may be idle, riot and plunder them. Those governments therefore, which are founded upon oppression, always find it necessary to engage interests enough in their tyranny to overcome all opposition from those who are tyrannized over, by giving separate and unequal privileges to the instruments and accomplices of their oppression, by letting them share the advantages of it, by putting arms in their hands, and by taking away all the means of self-defence from those who have more right to use them.

But when a government is founded upon liberty and equal laws, it is ridiculous for those in the administration to have any hopes of preserving themselves long there, but by just actions, or the appearance of just actions; and by letting the people find, or fancy that they find, their own happiness in their submission. It is certain, that people have so just a dread of publick disturbances, that they will bear a great deal before they will involve themselves in tumults and wars; and mankind are so prone to emulation and ambition, and to pursue their separate interests, that it is easy to form them into parties, and to play those parties in their turns upon one another; but all parties will at last confer notes, and find out, that they are made use of only as cudgels in the hands of wicked men, to assault each other by turns, till they are both undone. It is downright madness, to hope long to govern all against the interests of all; and such knight-errants have qualifications only to be sent to Bedlam, or to be shut up in some other mad-house.

People will for some time be dallied with, and amused with false reasonings, misrepresentations, and promises, wild expectations, vain terrors, and imaginary fears; but all these hopes and apprehensions will vanish by degrees, will produce a quite contrary effect, and no wise man will think it prudent to provoke a whole people. What could the late King James do against his whole people? His ministers betrayed him, his family deserted him, his soldiers revolted from him: And it was foolish to expect any thing else; for how could he hope, that those who could have no motive to stand by him, besides their own personal interest, and every motive to oppose him arising from conscience and honour, would not leave him when that interest changed, and when they could serve themselves better by serving their country?

I laugh at the stupid notions of those, who think that more is due from them to their patrons, who are trusted to dispose of employments for the publick benefit, than to their country, for whose sake, and by whose direction, those employments were first instituted, out of whose pockets the profits of them arise, and from whose confidence or credulity their pretended benefactors derive all their power to give them. Those who receive them, accept the gift upon the terms of the constitution; that is, to execute them faithfully for the publick good, and not to take the people’s money to destroy the people.

What did the whole power of Spain do against a few revolted provinces, when all the people were enraged by oppression? How many armies were lost, how many millions foolishly squandered, to recover by force what a few just concessions would have done at once? Her generals no sooner took one town, but two revolted; and they sometimes lost ten without striking a stroke, for one that they gained by the sword: What by the mutinies of her own soldiers, and other common events, which usually happen in such cases, they twice lost all together, and were forced to begin their game anew; and so destroyed a mighty empire, to oppress a little part of it, whose affections might have been regained by doing them but common justice.

It is senseless to hope to overcome some sorts of convulsive distempers, by holding the patient’s hands, and tying him with ropes, which will only increase the malady; whereas the softest remedies ought to be used: Violent methods may stop the distemper for a little time; but the cause of the grief remains behind, and will break out again the more furiously. What did King James get by all his bloody executions in the west, by his manacling us with chains, and keeping up a military force, to lock them on, but to frighten his friends, still more to provoke his enemies, and at last to unite them all against himself? And yet, I believe, I may venture to assert, that if, instead of throwing his broad seal into the Thames, and deserting his people, he had suffered his Parliament to sit, and given up some of the instruments of his tyranny, and had permitted them to have taken a few proper precautions to have hindered it for the future, he need not have been a fugitive through the world.

It is certain, that if King Charles had made at first, and with a good grace, but half of those concessions which were extorted from him afterwards, that bloody war, so fatal to himself and his family, had been prevented, and the ambition or malice of his personal enemies had been suppressed, or turned to their own confusion, and he himself might have reigned a happy prince, with as much power as he had right to by the constitution: Whereas, if my Lord Clarendon [is] to be believed, the whole kingdom (very few excepted) took part against the court at first, and continued to do so, till some leading men in the House of Commons discovered intentions to overturn the monarchy itself. nd I will add further, that if some men, whom I could name, had set themselves at the head of these prosecutions against the South-Sea directors, and their directors, agents, and accomplices, and had proposed, or shewn an inclination to have come into effectual methods to have paid off the publick debts, and to have lessened the publick expences, the name of a Jacobite had been as contemptible as it is now dreadful; and a few constables might possibly have saved the charge of a great many camps.

It is foolish therefore to be frightened with apprehensions which may be removed at pleasure: The way to cure people of their fears, is, not to frighten them further, but to remove the causes of their fears. If the kingdom be disaffected (as its enemies of all sorts would make us believe), let enquiry be made into the motives of that disaffection. It cannot be personally to his Majesty, who is a most excellent prince; and his greatest opponents neither do nor can object to him those vices, which too often accompany and are allied to crowns: Nor is there the least pretence to accuse him of any designs of enlarging his prerogative beyond its due bounds; but on the contrary it is said, that he was content by the Peerage Bill to have parted with a considerable branch of it in favour of his people, whatever use others intended to make of that concession. It is certain, that when he came to the crown, he had a large share in the affections of his people, and he himself has done nothing to make it less.

It cannot be to his title, which is the best upon earth, even the positive consent of a great and free nation, and not the presumptive consent of succession: Besides, all his subjects of any degree have sworn and subscribed to his title, and the ink is yet wet upon their fingers; nor can any formidable number of them (whilst they are governed justly and prudently) have any motives to call in a popish pretender, educated in principles diametrically opposite to their civil and religious interests.

Whence therefore should such disaffection arise, if there be any such, as I hope there is not? And it appears plainly, that there is not, or that it is not general, by the dutiful reception which his Majesty met with in all places throughout his late progress in the west. And the same loyal disposition would appear more and more every day, if those who have the honour to be admitted to his more immediate confidence would represent honestly to him, how acceptable his presence would always be to his people.

It is childish to say, that a few flies and insects can raise a great dust; or, that a small number of disappointed and unpreferred men can shake a great kingdom, with a wise prince at the head of it, supported with such powers and dependences. A great fire cannot be raised without fuel, and the materials which make it must have been combustible before. And if this be our case, we ought to ask, how they came to be so? and, who made them inflammable? Who laid the gunpowder? as well as, who fired, or intended to fire, it? When we have done this, we ought to remove the causes of the distemper, allay the heat of the fever by gentle lenitives, throw in no more fiery spirits to inflame the constitution, but do all that we can to soften and cool it.

Every country in the world will have many malcontents; some through want and necessity; others through ambition and restlessness of temper; many from disappointments and personal resentment; more from the fear of just punishment for crimes: But all these together can never be dangerous to any state, which knows how to separate the people’s resentments from theirs. Make the former easy, and the others are disarmed at once. When the causes of general discontent are removed, particular discontents will signify nothing.

The first care which wise governors will always take, is, to prevent their subjects from wanting, and to secure to them the possession of their property, upon which every thing else depends. They will raise no taxes but what the people shall see a necessity for raising; and no longer than that necessity continues: And such taxes ought to be levied cautiously, and laid out frugally. No projects ought to be formed to enrich a few, and to ruin thousands: for when men of fortune come to lose their fortunes, they will try by all means to get new ones; and when they cannot do it fairly, they will do it as they are able; and if they cannot do it at all, will throw all things into confusion, to make others as miserable as themselves. If people are poor, they will be desperate, and catch at every occasion, and join with every faction, to make publick disturbances, to shuffle the cards anew, and to make their own condition better, when they find it cannot be worse.

Wise statesmen will see all this at a distance; will use the best precautions, and most prudent measures, to procure general plenty, increase trade and manufactures, and keep the people usefully employed at home, instead of starving, and prating sedition in the streets. They will not be perpetually provoking them with constant injuries, giving them eternal occasions and reasons for dissatisfaction, and then quarrel with them for shewing it, and be still increasing their discontents, by preposterously endeavouring to put a stop to them by new shackles, armed bands, bribery and corruption, and by laying on them fresh burdens and impositions to maintain such oppressions; and so when they have raised resentment to the highest pitch, vainly hope to stop the tide with their thumbs. This is what the King of Spain did formerly in the Dutch provinces, and King James II lately in England, but what, I hope, will never be seen here again.

But it will be said, that people will be sometimes dissatisfied without any just provocations given to them by their governors: The necessities of all states will sometimes subject them to greater taxes and other seeming oppressions, than they can well bear; and then, like sick men, they will quarrel with their physicians, their best friends, and their remedies, and reproach all who have the direction of their affairs; as a countryman once cursed Cardinal Mazarine, when his ass stumbled (perhaps justly, for the oppressions of that minister might have rendered him unable to feed his ass, and to keep him in good heart).

When this happens to be the case, there ought to be double diligence used to prevent any ill consequences from such disaffection: No war ought to be continued longer than is absolutely necessary to the publick security; nor any new one to be entered into out of wantonness, ambition, or, indeed, out of any other motive than self-defence: No more money ought to be raised than is strictly necessary for the people’s protection; and they are to be shewn that necessity, and are to see from time to time, the accounts of what they give, that it is disbursed frugally and honestly, and not engrossed by private men, lavished upon minions, or squandered away in useless pensions to undeservers; and that the product of the whole people’s labour and substance is not suffered to be devoured by a few of the worst of the people. For (as it is said elsewhere)

What can be more invidious, than for a nation, staggering under the weight and oppression of its debts, eaten up with usury, and exhausted with payments, to have the additional mortification to see private and worthless men riot in their calamities, and grow rich, whilst they grow poor; to see the town every day glittering with new and pompous equipages, whilst they are mortgaging and selling their estates, without having spent them; to see blazing meteors suddenly exhaled out of their jakes, and their mud, as in Egypt, warmed into monsters?[*]
T I am &c.

[*] Considerations upon the state of the nation, and of the civil list; written by Mr. Trenchard.

 Cato's Letters

 Classical Liberals