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Cato's Letter No. 115

The encroaching Nature of Power, ever to be watched and checked.

John Trenchard (Saturday, February 9, 1723)

SIR, Only the checks put upon magistrates make nations free; and only the want of such checks makes them slaves. They are free, where their magistrates are confined within certain bounds set them by the people, and act by rules prescribed them by the people: And they are slaves, where their magistrates choose their own rules, and follow their lust and humours; than which a more dreadful curse can befall no people; nor did ever any magistrate do what he pleased, but the people were undone by his pleasure; and therefore most nations in the world are undone, and those nations only who bridle their governors do not wear chains.

Unlimited power is so wild and monstrous a thing, that however natural it be to desire it, it is as natural to oppose it; nor ought it to be trusted with any mortal man, be his intentions ever so upright: For, besides that he will never care to part with it, he will rarely dare. In spite of himself he will make many enemies, against whom he will be protected only by his power, or at least think himself best protected by it. The frequent and unforeseen necessities of his affairs, and frequent difficulties and opposition, will force him for his own preservation, or for the preservation of his power, to try expedients, to tempt dangers, and to do things which he did not foresee, nor intend, and perhaps, in the beginning, abhorred.

We know, by infinite examples and experience, that men possessed of power, rather than part with it, will do any thing, even the worst and the blackest, to keep it; and scarce ever any man upon earth went out of it as long as he could carry every thing his own way in it; and when he could not, he resigned. I doubt that there is not one exception in the world to this rule; and that Dioclesian, Charles V, and even Sulla, laid down their power out of pique and discontent, and from opposition and disappointment. This seems certain, that the good of the world, or of their people, was not one of their motives either for continuing in power, or for quitting it.

It is the nature of power to be ever encroaching, and converting every extraordinary power, granted at particular times, and upon particular occasions, into an ordinary power, to be used at all times, and when there is no occasion; nor does it ever part willingly with any advantage. From this spirit it is, that occasional commissions have grown sometimes perpetual; that three years have been improved into seven, and one into twenty; and that when the people have done with their magistrates, their magistrates will not have done with the people.

The Romans, who knew this evil, having suffered by it, provided wise remedies against it; and when one ordinary power grew too great, checked it with another. Thus the office and power of the tribunes was set up to balance that of the consuls, and to protect the populace against the insolence, pride, and intrenchments of the nobility: And when the authority of the tribunes grew too formidable, a good expedient was found out to restrain it; for in any turbulent or factious design of the tribunes, the protest or dissent of any one of them made void the purposes and proceedings of all the rest. And both the consuls and tribunes were chosen only for a year.

Thus the Romans preserved their liberty by limiting the time and power of their magistrates, and by making them answerable afterwards for their behaviour in it: And besides all this, there lay from the magistrates an appeal to the people; a power which, however great, they generally used with eminent modesty and mercy; and, like the people of other nations, sinned much seldomer than their governors. Indeed, in any publick disorder, or misfortune, the people are scarce ever in the fault; but far on the other side, suffer often, with a criminal patience, the sore evils brought wantonly or foolishly upon them by others, whom they pay dear to prevent them.

This sacred right of appealing to the people, was secured to them by a very good and very severe law, which is found in Livy in these words:

Aliam deinde consularem legem de provocatione, unicum praesidium libertatis, decemvirali potestate eversam, non restituunt modo, sed etiam muniunt, sanciendo novam legem, ne quis ullum magistratum sine provocatione crearet: Qui creasset, eum jus fasque esset occidi: Neve caedes capitalis noxae haberetur.

The former consular law for appealing to the people (the first and only great support of liberty), having been overturned by the usurpation of the Decemviri, was now not only restored, but fortified by a new law, which forbad the creating of any magistrate without appeal, and made it lawful to kill any man that did so, without subjecting the killer to a capital penalty.

The Romans had but too good reason for these laws; for the Decemviri, from whom there was no appeal, had enslaved them.

And because the being frequently chosen into power, might have effects as bad as the long continuance in it, Cicero, in his book De Legibus, tells us, that there was an express law, Eundem magistratum, ni interfuerint decem anni, ne quis capito; “That no man should bear the same magistracy which he had borne before, but after an interval of ten years.” This law was afterwards strengthened with severe penalties. Hence Rutilius Censorius blamed the people in a publick speech for creating him twice censor: And Fabius Maximus would have hindered them from choosing his son consul, though possessed of every virtue proper for one, because the chief magistracies had been too long and too often in the Fabian family. And there are many instances in the Roman history, of magistrates, chief magistrates, being degraded for their pride, avarice, and maladministration; and those who were thus degraded, were by law disabled, like our late directors, from ever enjoying again any post or power. Nor were the Romans less careful to oblige their magistrates as soon as they came out of their offices and governments, to make up their accounts, and to give a strict account of their good behaviour; and for an ill one they were often condemned, and their estates confiscated. Besides all which, to be a Senator, or a magistrate, a certain qualification in point of fortune was required; and those who had run through their fortunes were degraded from the dignity of Senators. A reasonable precaution, that they who were entrusted with the interest of their country, should have some interest of their own in it.

In this manner did the Roman people check power, and those who had it; and when any power was grown quite ungovernable, they abolished it. Thus they expelled Tarquin, and the kingly government, having first suffered much by it; and they prospered as eminently without it. That government too had been extremely limited: The first Roman kings were little more than generals for life: They had no negative vote in the Senate, and could neither make war nor peace; and even in the execution of justice, an appeal lay from them to the people, as is manifest in the case of the surviving Horatius, who slew his sister. Servius Tullius made laws, says Tacitus, which even the kings were to obey. By confining the power of the crown within proper bounds, he gained power without bounds in the affections of the people. But the insolent Tarquin broke through all bounds, and acted so openly against law, and the people of Rome, that they had no remedy left but to expel him and his race; which they did with glorious success.

The dictatorial power was afterwards given occasionally, and found of great use; but still it was limited to so many months; and there are instances where even the dictator could not do what he pleased, but was over-ruled by the judgment of the people. Besides, when the Romans came to have great and distant territories, and great armies, they thought the dictatorial power too great and too dangerous to be trusted with any subject, and laid it quite aside; nor was it ever afterwards used, till it was violently usurped, first by Sulla, afterwards by Caesar, and then Rome lost its liberty.

T I am, &c.


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