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Cato's Letter No. 99

The important Duty of Attendance in Parliament, recommended to the Members.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, October 20, 1722)

SIR, I know not a more laudable ambition in any man, than that of procuring, by his credit with the people, a place in the legislature; and when it is procured this way, it is a testimony given by his country to his uprightness, and to his capacity to serve it. This is as high an honour as an Englishman can arrive at, and few but Englishmen can arrive at it; and the trust is still as high as the honour, and increases it. The liberty, the property, nay the virtue, credit, and religion of his country, are in his hands. Can heaven or earth afford stronger motives for diligence, probity, and attendance? When the happiness or misery, the security or bankruptcy, the freedom or servitude, of a nation, and all the good or evil which this life affords, depend upon his behaviour, he will find sufficient cause, from virtue, tenderness, and duty, to call up all his care, industry, and zeal.

But so it has often happened in the world, that all the activity and attendance, or most of it, have been on the wrong side; and as the evil that is in the world does infinitely over-balance the good, they who pull down are vastly more numerous, as well as more busy, than they who build up. Vice reigns amongst men, while virtue scarce subsists; and in many countries the publick has been as vigorously assaulted, as it has been slowly and faintly defended. Thus it is that liberty is almost every where lost: Her foes are artful, united, and diligent: Her defenders are few, disunited, and unactive. And therefore we have seen great nations, free, happy, and in love with their own conditions, first made slaves by a handful of traitors, and then kept so by a handful of soldiers: I mean a handful in comparison of the people, but still enough to keep them in chains.

So that in most nations, for want of this particular zeal in every man for his country, in which all men are comprised, the publick, which is every manís business, becomes almost any manís prey. It was thus under the first triumvirate, when Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar, three citizens of Rome, were, by the assistance of Roman armies, sharing out the Roman world among themselves: Nay, they procurred the authority of the Senate, and the sanction of the people, for this monstrous three-headed tyranny over Senate and people; and procured it by means that will always procure it: Some they bought, others they terrified, and all they deceived, corrupted, and oppressed. The tribunes of the people, who were the peopleís representatives, and should have been their protectors, they bribed; and the people were betrayed and sold by their tribunes.

Such is the misfortune of mankind, and so uncertain is the condition of human affairs, that the very power given for protection contains in it a sufficient power to destroy; and so readily does government slide, and often start into oppression! And only by watching and restraining power, is this monstrous and dreadful transition prevented. For this good purpose we have Parliaments, to whom our ministers are accountable; and by whom the administration is supported, and its limits and power fixed. And to our having Parliaments, it is owing that we are not groaning under the same vile vassalage with the nations round about us. They had once their parliaments as well as we; but in the room of parliaments their governors have substituted armies, and consequently formed a military government, without calling it so: but, whatever it be called, that government is certainly and necessarily a military government, where the army is the strongest power in the country: And it is eternally true, that a free Parliament and a standing army are absolutely incompatible, and can never subsist together.

By parliaments therefore liberty is preserved; and whoever has the honour to sit in those assemblies, accepts of a most sacred and important trust; to the discharge of which all his vigilance, all his application, all his virtue, and all his faculties, are necessary; and he is bound, by all the considerations that can affect a worthy mind, by all the ties that can bind a human soul, to attend faithfully and carefully upon this great and comprehensive duty: A duty, which, as it is honestly or faithfully executed, determines the fate of millions, and brings prosperity or misery upon nations.

Whatever has happened in former reigns, we have reason to hope, that none come now into Parliament, with an execrable intention to carry to market a country which has trusted them with its all; and it would be ridiculous to throw away reason upon such banditti, upon publick enemies to human society. Such men would be worse than cannibals, who only eat their enemies to satisfy their hunger, and do not sell and betray into servitude their own countrymen, who trust them with the protection of their property and persons. But, as I have heard that some men formerly, to whom this important trust has been committed, have been treacherous enough, through negligence, to sacrifice their duty to laziness or pleasure, I shall endeavour to shew the deformity of such conduct.

The name of a Member of Parliament has a great and respectful sound; his situation is attended with many privileges, and an eminent figure! All which make men ambitious of acquiring a seat there; though I am told that some of them have scarce ever appeared there. The glory and terror of the name was enough for them; which glory they tarnished, and converted into their crime and their shame, by neglecting the duty which was annexed to it, and alone produced it. Small and ridiculous must be the glory of that general, who never attends the duties of war, and is always absent upon the day of battle; or of a minister, who, while he should be making dispatches, or concerting schemes for the publick, is wasting his time at ombre, at chess, or with a mistress.

It would scarce be believed, if it had not been felt, that the insensibility of men, as to all that is good and honourable, should go so far as to carry the directors and guardians of the publick to a cock-match, a race, or a drunken bout, when a question has been upon the stage which has concerned the very being of the publick. This passion for pleasure is strangely preposterous upon such occasions, and to follow it is cruel; cruel and disloyal to our country, and ever to ourselves. All our happiness, and consequently all our reasonable pleasures, are contained in the general happiness; and when that is gone, or lessened, through our neglect, we need not be surprised, but may thank ourselves, if in the publick misfortunes and curse we find our own.

When a pernicious question has been carried, it is a poor apology to allege, and had better be left unalleged, that I was not there. Why were you not there? Was it not your duty to be there? And were you not bound, by the solemn and awful trust which you undertook, to have been there? Had you been there, perhaps it would not have been carried, perhaps not attempted; or if both, you would have acquitted your own soul, and had the honourable testimony of your country, and of a good conscience.

Every body knows, that in the pensionary Parliaments, in Charles IIís time, the session was almost always drawn out into a tedious length, on purpose to tire the members, and drive them all out of town, except the trusty creatures of the court, who were in Parliament with no other view than to make a penny of their betrayed principles, and to pick the publick purse, for the promise of having shares with those who set them on. Were not the absent members answerable, in a great degree, for the treachery of those staunch and patient parricides, by leaving them an opportunity to commit it, when they knew that they would commit it? When a man leaves his wife with a known ravisher, and his money in the hands of a noted thief, he may blame himself if he suffer loss and dishonour.

Members of Parliament are set in a high place, as publick stewards and guards (the best and only sure guards that a free country can have) to watch for the publick welfare, to settle the publick expences, and to defend publick and private property from the unclean and ravenous hands of harpies; and they are obliged, by every motive that can oblige, to adhere to their station and trust: When the major part neglect or desert it, who knows but in times to come there may be always enough remaining to give it up, and be remaining for that very end? He who does not prevent evil when he may, does in effect commit it, by leaving others to do so, who he cannot be sure will not do it.

I have heard that some of these truants from Parliament have boasted that they never voted wrong: But how often have they been out of the way when they should have voted right, and opposed voting wrong? And is not this omission of voting well the next crime to voting ill? And where it is habitual, is it not worse than even now and then voting ill? He who commits but two murders is less guilty, as to the community, than he who robs ten thousand pounds from the publick, is a more innocent man than he who suffers it to be robbed of an hundred thousand: Or, if he who does not prevent a great evil, be less guilty in his own eyes than he who actually commits a less; the publick, which feels the difference between ten and twenty, must judge far otherwise, and consider him as the more pernicious criminal of the two, as they who are traitors within the law are the most dangerous traitors of all.

How ridiculous is it to take a great deal of pains, and to spend a great deal of money, to come into Parliament, and afterwards come seldom or never there, but keep others out, who would perhaps give constant attendance? It is foolish to allege, that the adversary is so strong, that your attendance will be useless; for it has rarely happened, that any dreadful mischief has been carried in a full house, or indeed attempted; but opportunities have always been taken from the absence of the country members. Besides, how often has it happened, that one extravagant attempt has given a steady majority to the other side? The Pensionary Parliament itself, in King Charles IIís time, turned upon that corrupt court: King Jamesís first loyal and passive obedience Parliament did the same, when he declared for governing by armies; and in King Williamís time, the anti-court party, who for many years together could scarce ever divide above eighty or ninety, yet grew so very considerable, upon the attempt for a standing army, that the court, for several years after, could not boast of a much greater number of followers; and though I confess that this produced many real mischiefs to the publick, yet the courtiers had no one to blame but themselves for it. How absurd is it for men to bring themselves into such a dilemma, as either to submit to certain ruin, or, in some instances, to hazard their lives and estates to get rid of it, by an unequal struggle; when both may be easily prevented, by doing what they have promised to do, what is their duty, and ought to be their pleasure, to do, and what may be done without further expence, than making an honest use of two monosyllables?

The notions of honour generally entertained, are strangely wild, unjust, and absurd. A man that would die rather than pick a private pocket, will without blushing, pick the pockets of a million: And he who would venture his life to defend a friend, or the reputation of a harlot who has none, will not lose a dinner, or a merry meeting, to maintain the wealth and honour of his country. There have been gentlemen of this sort of honour, who really wished well to the publick; yet, rather than attend to a debate of the utmost consequence to the publick, would with infinite punctualness meet a company of sharpers, to throw away their estates at seven or eleven. So much stronger is pernicious custom than publick virtue and eternal reason, which alone ought to create and govern custom; and so much to the publick shame and misfortune are such wicked customs, from the influence of which even wise men are not entirely exempted! So weak and wild a thing is the nature of man!

It is observed of Cato the Younger, that he always came first to the Senate, and left it last. Pompey and his faction, finding that he would never be persuaded nor frightened into their execrable designs against their country, contrived a thousand treacherous devices to keep him out of the way: But he saw their ill arts, and disappointed them. He said, that he entered upon the business of the state, as the business of every honest man; that he considered the publick as the proper object of his care, zeal, and attendance, and not as a bank for his own private wealth, or a source of personal honours; that it was a hideous reproach for men who are guided by reason, and by it superior to all other creatures, to take less care of the society to which they belong, than such insects as bees and ants take of their hives and common stores; that he would never prefer private interest or pleasure to that of the publick, and that none of those considerations should ever with-hold him from attending faithfully in the Senate.

Here is a virtuous and illustrious example, which I would leave upon the minds of my readers, and particularly recommend to those who may most want it. When Caesar had, by all manner of wicked ways, by violence, by fraud, and by bribery, procured the government of Gaul and Illyricum for five years, with an army of four legions, with which he afterwards enslaved Rome itself; Cato could not reproach his own heart, that he had been absent when that fatal law passed: He opposed it with all his zeal and eloquence, and with the hazard of his life; and told those who made it, what they afterwards sadly felt, that they were placing an armed tyrant in their citadel.

Consider, for Godís sake, Gentlemen, the extent and sacredness of your trust: Your country and constitution are in your hands: One unjust, one rash law, may overturn both at once, and you with them, and cancel all law and all property for ever; and one good and wise law may secure them to your latest posterity. Can it be indifferent to you, whether the one or the other of these laws pass? And if it be not indifferent, will you avoid attending? Be but as assiduous against evil as others have been for it, and you have a fair chance to prevent it for ages. Why should not honour, virtue, and good conscience, be as active and zealous as falsehood, corruption, and guilty minds? Consider the injustice, the barbarity, the treachery, and the terrible consequences, of sloth and absence. Liberty, when once lost, is scarce ever recovered, almost as rarely as human life, when it is once extinguished.

G. I am,&c.

 Cato's Letters

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