Cato's Letter No. 118

Free states vindicated from the common Imputation of Ingratitude.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, March 2, 1723)

SIR, It is a common objection against free states, that they are ungrateful: But I think that I shall be able to shew the contrary, that they are much more grateful than arbitrary princes; and are rarely ungrateful but to those who use them ungratefully, and forfeit by it any obligation which they had laid upon them.

It is the chief and first ambition of free states, to preserve themselves; and such as contribute most to that end amongst them, are generally placed by them in the first stations of figure and power. But as men generally over-rate their own merit, publick rewards, however great, are rarely so great as are the expectations and pretensions of men to these rewards. So that such as are preferred for serving, or for a capacity of serving, the publick, are seldom preferred so high as they think they deserve; and, being neither pleased with the measure nor duration of their power, where it is not boundless and perpetual, are apt to be struggling to make it so, though to the ruin of those who gave it for their own preservation, and to the overthrowing of every purpose for which it was given. When this is the aim, as it too often is, the people grow presently very ungrateful, because they will not become slaves to their own servants. And here is the source of most of the contentions in the world between the governors and governed. The people provoke their rulers by a very heinous and ill-bred crime, that of distinguishing between protection and oppression: For this they are ungrateful. They are ready enough almost everywhere to give their governors too much; but that will not do. Nero, after he put off the hypocrite, never conferred any office upon any man, but he always gave him these short instructions: “You know what I have occasion for: let it be your care and mine that nobody else have any thing.” Nor was Nero the last that made a power to protect property a warrant for seizing it.

Gratitude is, doubtless, due from the obliged to those who oblige them as long as they do not pretend to measure or force their own reward, nor to use the others ill, upon the pure merit of having used them well. There is such a thing as the cancelling an obligation in publick as well as in private life; as when it is turned into an injury, by being made the means of oppression, or a pretence for contempt or calumny. I would rather not be obliged, than ill used for having been obliged; and believe most men are of my mind.

A state may sometimes over-pay a benefactor; but scarce any subject can do more for the state than he owes it. We owe all things to our country, because in our country is contained every thing that is dear to us, our relations, our fortunes, and ourselves: And our labours, our studies, and our lives, are all due, upon occasion, to our country, which protects us in them all. But when we have dedicated all these to the state, it is far from being true, that the state ought to sacrifice itself, or venture any part of its security, to make us recompence. To save it from others, in order to seize it ourselves, is so far from entitling us to any reward but that of resentment and death, that, as it is adding the base crimes of treachery and ingratitude to the cruel crime of usurpation, no foreign foe can be half so wicked and detestable as such an intestine traitor, who calls himself a friend.

Spurius Melius thought himself an unquestionable benefactor to the Roman people, for having bestowed on them gratis a large quantity of corn in a time of dearth; by which false bounty he gained the hearts of the many, who saw not into his design of bribing and feeding them, in order to enslave them: but Servilius Ahala, who killed him, was a much greater and real benefactor; because in Melius he slew their most dangerous enemy. T. Manlius defended the Capitol bravely and generously; but when, not content with the many honours that were done him for a worthy action, he would have unworthily oppressed Rome itself for having saved part of it, he was justly thrown headlong from that very Capitol.

Caesar and Marius were the most ungrateful monsters that ever lived: They had done brave things not for the state, as the event shewed, but for themselves; and the state covered them with honours, adorned them with magistracies and triumphs, loaded them with benefits, and pursued them, even to profusion, with all publick and splendid marks of respect. But all this could not satisfy these shameless great men, unless they had a power granted them perpetual and enormous, a power destructive of all liberty, and of the state that gave it. And so they barbarously oppressed the state that exalted them.

On what side, in this instance, did the ingratitude lie? Is there a pretence for charging that generous people with this base vice, or for acquitting these parricides from the blackest? If the Prince of Orange, having at the head of the Dutch troops driven the invading French out of the Seven Provinces, had enslaved the States with their own forces, because, perhaps, they had refused to deliver up their government to his will and pleasure, and to give him a power to oppress them, as a reward for having defended them; who would have been ungrateful in this case, the prince or the States? They for refusing to be slaves, or he for making them slaves?

The people lose much more by their generosity to their benefactors, than the benefactors lose by the ingratitude or stinginess of the people, whose fault is almost always on the other side. By giving them too much, they often tempt and enable them to take all; as in the cases of Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Pisistratus, Agathocles, Oliver Cromwell, the late kings of Denmark and Sweden, and many more. But suppose it had happened sometimes (which has rarely happened) that a worthy man should not meet a proper reward from his countrymen, for publick services done them; it is still better that he has too little, or even none, than too much; and a worthy man will never seek revenge upon his country, for a mistake in his merit; a mistake which may be easily committed, and is at worst pardonable. But a man who has served his country, and then turns it upside down, because that it has not, or he thinks that it has not, given him reward enough, shews that he deserved none.

Sometimes a man’s ill deeds balance his good, and then he pays himself; or overbalance them, and then he is entitled more to punishment than reward; and both rewards and punishments ought to be faithfully paid: though there is generally more crime and insecurity in not punishing well, than in not paying well; a fault too frequent in free states, who, dazzled with great benefits, are often blind to greater offences, or overlook them, and reward before they enquire.

The dearest and most valuable things are most apt to create jealousies and fears about them; and the dearest of all being liberty, as that which produces and secures all the rest, the people’s zeal to preserve it has been ever called ingratitude by such as had designs against it; and others, ignorant of its value, and indifferent about it, have promoted and continued the false charge. Shakespear, in the tragedy of Timon of Athens, makes Alcibiades, who was banished by the state, cry out with indignation, “Oh the ungrateful spirit of a commonwealth!” And I have seen a loud and vehement clap raised upon it by those who were angry at the word commonwealth, though they lived under a free government: For every free state is, in a large sense, a commonwealth; and I think our own the freest in the world. In my opinion Alcibiades, though a brave man, was justly exiled as an ambitious and dangerous man, who behaved himself turbulently in that city, was perpetually creating or inflaming factions in it, and against it; and shewed too plainly, that he aimed at overturning it for the sake of that uncontrollable power, which he could not have while its government subsisted. The citizens of Athens treated him with great distinction, and gave him great authority and eminent commands; and only banished him, out of fear of him, for which they had too much ground.

States have been often destroyed by being too generous and too grateful; and where they are really ungrateful, they are only so through error; to which, however, they are not so subject as absolute princes, who generally destroy their greatest men, and prefer the vilest, and in their courts pimps often ruin patriots. I think that those who most dislike free governments, do not pretend to shew above four or five instances of ingratitude in the Roman people, from the beginning of their commonwealth to the end of it, for several hundred years; and Coriolanus and Camillus are two of those instances.

As to Coriolanus, he was justly banished, as a declared enemy to the equality of the government, and engaged in an open design to oppress the people; which design he executed with all fierceness and contempt, and even outrage, surrounded like a monarch with guards of the young hot-headed nobility: And though the people did him no injustice, yet, to be revenged upon them, he invaded his country at the head of a foreign enemy.

Camillus was guilty of the same partiality, though not in the same degree, towards the nobles, and had broke his word with the people; for both which he was banished: But by saving his country afterwards, he gloriously cancelled all past faults, and was gratefully styled the second founder of Rome, and highly honoured, and even adored, to the end of his life, by that grateful people, in every instance where they could shew it. And indeed all the ingratitude that can be charged upon them, was, their opposing, in their own defence, the encroachments of the nobility; and the excellent laws produced by that opposition shewed its reasonableness and necessity.

Scipio Africanus is likewise mentioned as another great instance of ingratitude of the Romans. He was a great and glorious commander: He had forced Hannibal, the most dangerous foreign foe that the Romans ever had, out of Italy, which he had ravaged successfully many years; he had conquered the same Hannibal in battle, subdued Carthage and Africa, and assisted his brother Asiaticus in conquering the great King Antiochus. For which extraordinary services and merit he was the darling of the people; who were so far from being ungrateful to him, that they violated the laws of Rome, and of their own security, to do him honour;

and not only made a youth their chief magistrate, but renewed the dignity so often, that the precedent proved pernicious to them. The extraordinary steps taken by him and them, and by them for his sake, were of dangerous example and consequence; and, without his intending it, shook the foundations of Rome, and made way for the violent proceedings and usurpations of Marius, and afterwards of Caesar.

Scipio did likewise another thing, which ought by no means to have been suffered in a free state. When he was cited to answer before the people to the crimes with which he was charged, he refused to answer. “Upon this very day, my countrymen,” says he, “I vanquished Hannibal”; and tearing the papers that contained the charge, walked haughtily out of the assembly. This was disowning or contemning the supreme authority of Rome; yet the people were so personally fond of the man, that they would decree nothing severe against him. He retired to his own country-house, where he lived peaceably all the rest of his honourable life.

G I am, &c.

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