Cato's Letter No. 106

Of Plantations and Colonies.

John Trenchard (Saturday, December 8, 1722)

SIR, I intend, in this letter, to give my opinion about plantations; a subject which seems to me to be understood but by few, and little use is made of it where it is. It is most certain, that the riches of a nation consist in the number of its inhabitants, when those inhabitants are usually employed, and no more of them live upon the industry of others (like drones in a hive) than are necessary to preserve the oeconomy of the whole: For the rest, such as gamesters, cheats, thieves, sharpers, and abbey-lubbers, with some of their betters, waste and destroy the publick wealth, without adding any thing to it. Therefore, if any nation drive either by violence, or by ill usage and distress, any of its subjects out of their country, or send any of them out in foolish wars, or useless expeditions, or for any other causes, which do not return more advantage than bring loss, they so far enervate their state, and let out part of their best heartís blood.

Now, in many instances, men add more to the publick stock by being out of their country, than in it; as ambassadors, publick ministers, and their retinues, who transact the affairs of a nation; merchants and tradesmen, who carry on its traffick; soldiers, in necessary wars; and sometimes travellers, who teach us the customs, manners and policies, of distant countries, whereby we may regulateand improve our own. All, or most of these, return to us again with advantage. But, in other instances, a man leaves his country, never, or very rarely to return again; and then the state will suffer loss, if the person so leaving it be not employed abroad in such industry, in raising such commodities, or in performing such services, as will return more benefit to his native country, than they suffer prejudice by losing an useful member.

This is often done by planting colonies, which are of two sorts: One to keep conquered countries in subjection, and to prevent the necessity of constant standing armies: a policy which the Romans practised, till their conquests grew too numerous, the conquered countries too distant, and their empire too unwieldy to be managed by their native force only; and then they became the slaves of those whom they conquered. This policy for many ages, we ourselves used in Ireland, till the fashion of our neighbours, and the wisdom of modern ages, taught us the use of armies: And I wish that those who come after us may never learn all their uses. I must confess, that I am not wise enough to enter into all the policy made use of formerly in governing that country; and shall in proper time communicate my doubts, in hopes to receive better information. In the mean time, I cannot but persuade myself, that when our superiors are at leisure from greater affairs, it may be possible to offer them a proposition more honourable to the crown, more advantageous to each kingdom, and to the particular members of them, and vastly more conducive to the power of the whole British empire, than the doubtful state which they are now in. But as this is not the purpose of my present letter, I shall proceed to consider the nature of the other sort of colonies.

The other sort of colonies are for trade, and intended to increase the wealth and power of the native kingdom; which they will abundantly do if managed prudently, and put and kept under a proper regulation. No nation has, or ever had, all the materials of commerce within itself: No climate produces all commodities; and yet it is the interest, pleasure, or convenience, of every people, to use or trade in most or all of them; and rather to raise them themselves, than to purchase them from others, unless in some instances, when they change their own commodities for them, and employ as many or more people at home in that exchange, such as would lose their employment by purchasing them from abroad. Now, colonies planted in proper climates, and kept to their proper business, undoubtedly do this; and particularly many of our own colonies in the West Indies employ ten times their own number in Old England, by sending them from hence provisions, manufactures, utensils for themselves and their slaves, by navigation, working up the commodities that they send us, by retaining and exporting them afterwards, and in returning again to us silver and gold, and materials for new manufactures; and our northern colonies do, or may if encouraged, supply us with timber, hemp, iron, and other metals, and indeed with most or all the materials of navigation, and our neighbours too, through our hands; and by that means settle a solid naval power in Great Britain, not precarious, and subject to disappointments, and the caprices of our neighbours; which management would make us soon masters of most of the trade of the world.

I would not suggest so distant a thought, as that any of our colonies, when they grow stronger, should ever attempt to wean themselves from us; however, I think too much care cannot be taken to prevent it, and to preserve their dependences upon their mother-country. It is not to be hoped, in the corrupt state of human nature, that any nation will be subject to another any longer than it finds its own account in it, and cannot help itself. Every manís first thought will be for himself, and his own interest; and he will not be long to seek for arguments to justify his being so, when he knows how to attain what he proposes. Men will think it hard to work, toil, and run hazards, for the advantage of others, any longer than they find their own interest in it, and especially for those who use them ill: All nature points out that course. No creatures suck the teats of their dams longer than they can draw milk from thence, or can provide themselves with better food: Nor will any country continue their subjection to another only because their great-grandmothers were acquainted.

This is the course of human affairs: and all wise states will always have it before their eyes. They will well consider therefore how to preserve the advantages arising from colonies, and avoid the evils. And I conceive, that there can be but two ways in nature to hinder them from throwing off their dependence; one to keep it out of their power, and the other out of their will. The first must be by force; and the latter by using them well, and keeping them employed in such productions, and making such manufactures, as will support themselves and families comfortably, and procure them wealth too, or at least not prejudice their mother-country.

Force can never be used effectually to answer the end, without destroying the colonies themselves. Liberty and encouragement are necessary to carry people thither, and to keep them together when they are there; and violence will hinder both. Any body of troops considerable enough to awe them, and keep them in subjection, under the direction too of a needy governor, often sent thither to make his fortune, and at such a distance from any application for redress, will soon put an end to all planting, and leave the country to the soldiers alone; and if it did not, would eat up all the profit of the colony. For this reason, arbitrary countries have not been equally successful in planting colonies with free ones; and what they have done in that kind has, either been by force, at a vast expence, or by departing from the nature of their government, and giving such privileges to planters as were denied to their other subjects. And I dare say, that a few prudent laws, and a little prudent conduct, would soon give us far the greatest share of the riches of all America, perhaps drive many of other nations out of it, or into our colonies, for shelter.

If violence, or methods tending to violence, be not used to prevent it, our northern colonies must constantly increase in people, wealth, and power. Men living in healthy climates, paying easy or no taxes, not molested with wars, must vastly increase by natural generation; besides that vast numbers every day flow thither from our own dominions, and from other parts of Europe, because they have there ready employment, and lands given to them for tilling; insomuch that I am told they have doubled their inhabitants since the Revolution, and in less than a century must become powerful states; and the more powerful they grow still the more people will flock thither. And there are so many exigencies in all states, so many foreign wars, and domestick disturbances, that these colonies can never want opportunities, if they watch for them, to do what they shall find their interest to do; and therefore we ought to take all the precautions in our power, that it shall never be their interest to act against that of their native country; an evil which can no otherwise be averted than by keeping them fully employed in such trades as will increase their own, as well as our wealth; for it is much to be feared, if we do not find employment for them, they may find it for us.

No two nations, no two bodies of men, or scarce two single men, can long continue in friendship, without having some cement of their union; and where relation, acquaintance, or mutual pleasures are wanting, mutual interests alone can bind it: But when those interests separate, each side must assuredly pursue their own. The interest of colonies is often to gain independency; and is always so when they no longer want protection, and when they can employ themselves more advantageously than in supplying materials of traffick to others: And the interest of the mother-country is always to keep them dependent, and so employed; and it requires all their address to do it; and it is certainly more easily and effectually done by gentle and insensible methods than by power alone.

Men will always think that they have a right to air, earth, and water, a right to employ themselves for their own support, to live by their own labours, to apply the gifts of God to their own benefit; and, in order to it, to make the best of their soil, and to work up their own product: And when this cannot be done without detriment to their mother-country, there can be but one fair, honest, and indeed effectual way to prevent it; which is, to divert them upon other employments as advantageous to themselves, and more so to their employers; that is, in raising such growth, and making such manufactures, as will not prejudice their own, or at least in no degree equal to the advantage which they bring: And when such commodities are raised or made, they ought to be taken off their hands, and the people ought not to be forced to find out other markets by stealth, or to throw themselves upon new protectors. Whilst people have full employment, and can maintain themselves comfortably in a way which they have been used to, they will never seek after a new one, especially when they meet encouragement in one, and are discountenanced in the other.

As without this conduct colonies must be mischievous to their mother-country, for the reasons before given, so with it the greatest part of the wealth which they acquire centers there; for all their productions are so many augmentations of our power and riches, as they are returns of the peoplesís labour, the rewards of merchants, or increase of navigation; without which all who are sent abroad are a dead loss to their country, and as useless as if really dead; and worse than so, if they become enemies: for we can send no commodities to them, unless they have others to exchange for them, and such as we find our interest in taking.

As to our southern plantations, we are in this respect upon a tolerable foot already; for the productions there are of so different a nature from our own, that they can never interfere with us; and the climates are so unhealthy, that no more people will go or continue there than are necessary to raise the commodities which we want; and consequently they can never be dangerous to us: But our northern colonies are healthy climates, and can raise all or most of the commodities, which our own country produces. They constantly increase in people, and will constantly increase; and, without the former precautions, must, by the natural course of human affairs, interfere with most branches of our trade, work up our best manufactures, and at last grow too powerful and unruly to be governed for our interest only: And therefore, since the way lies open to us to prevent so much mischief, to do so much good, and add so much wealth and power to Great Britain, by making those countries the magazines of our naval stores, I hope we shall not lose all these advantages, in compliment to the interests of a few private gentlemen, or even to a few countries.

We have had a specimen of this wise conduct in prohibiting the Irish cattle, which were formerly brought to England lean, in exchange for our commodities, and fatted here; but are now killed and sent abroad directly from Ireland: And so we lose the whole carriage and merchantsí advantage, and the vent of the commodities sent to purchase them. And lately we have made such another prudent law, to prevent the importing their woollen manufacture; which has put them upon wearing none of ours, making all or most of their own cloth themselves; exporting great quantities of all sorts by stealth, and the greater part of their wool to rival nations; and, by such means it is that we are beholden to the plague in France, to their Mississippi Company, and their total loss of credit, that we have not lost a great part of that manufacture. It is true, we have made some notable provision to hedge in the cuckoo, and to make all the people of that kingdom execute a law, which it is every manís interest there not to execute; and it is executed accordingly.

I shall sometime hereafter consider that kingdom in relation to the interest of Great Britain; and shall say at present only, that it is too powerful to be treated only as a colony; and that if we design to continue them friends, the best way to do it is, to imitate the example of merchants and shopkeepers; that is, when their apprentices are acquainted with their trade and their customers, and are out of their time, to take them into partnership, rather than let them set up for themselves in their neighbourhood.

T I am, &c.


 Cato's Letters

 Classical Liberals