Make your own free website on

Cato's Letter No. 132

Inquiry into the Doctrine of Hereditary Right.

John Trenchard (Saturday, June 8, 1723)

SIR, We have had a world of talk both in our pulpits and our addresses, about hereditary right, and I think that no one has yet fully explained what it means; I will therefore try whether I can unfold or cut asunder the Gordian knot. It is a divine, unalterable, indefeasible right to sovereignty, dictated or modified by the positive laws, and human constitutions or national governments. In France, Turkey, and the large eastern monarchies, it descends wholly upon the males. In the kingdom, or rather queendom of Achem, it falls only upon females. In Russia formerly it descended upon all the males jointly, and it would not operate upon the females at all. In Poland the nobility have an human right to confer part of this divine right, but not all of it, upon whom they please; and in old Rome the soldiery often made bold to confer it: But in England and other countries, all of it falls upon the male who chances to be born first; and so on to the next, according to priority of birth; and for want of males to the eldest female, contrary to other inheritances, which descend upon females equally. However, though this same right be absolute and unalterable, yet it is often limited and circumscribed by human laws, which ought not to be transgressed, yet may be transgressed with impunity, unless it interfere with another divine right, which is the divine right of the high clergy. In all other cases, it is boundless and unconditioned, though given and accepted upon conditions.

There is one circumstance particularly remarkable in the exercise of this divine right; namely, that it may make as bold as it thinks fit with other divine right (except as before excepted), of which we have a late and very pregnant instance, approved by very good churchmen, and all our able divines, who thanked God, publickly for thus exercising it; that is, when the Queen made that honourable peace which executed itself. Then the unalterable divine right of the dauphin to the kingdom of Spain was given to his younger son, and the indefeasible divine right of the present King of Spain, to the monarchy of France, was assigned over to a younger branch of the house of Bourbon; and sometime before, the divine right of the last Emperor to the Spanish dominions, was given to the present Emperor. Nay, it seems that this alienable, unalienable, indivisible right, is divisible too. The divine right to Sardinia, is given to the Duke of Savoy; that of Naples, Sicily, and Flanders, to the Emperor; and that of Gibraltar and Port Mahon to us, as long as we can keep it; which I hope we are now in a fair way to do. All the rest of this divine right, besides what is thus disposed of, remains where it was before, and where it should be.

But there are certain human ingredients, experiments, and operations, which are necessary to attain to this divine right. In most countries, and particularly in our own, the priests must have a finger in modelling the same; nor will it come down from above, and settle here below upon any prince whatsoever, unless they say certain words over the married couple, which they alone have the right to say: But in Turkey, India; and other Mahometan and pagan countries (heu Pudor! ), this same divine right is to be got without the benefit of their clergy, and will make its conveyance through the channel of a strumpet; yet in most nations all is not well, unless the clergy say grace over it; but then it is of no consequence who it is that gets the divine babe, so he be but born in wedlock; and in a late instance it appeared no ways necessary whether he were born in wedlock or not, or of whom he was born, so he were but born at all. Now, sir, you must know, that this is a mystery, and like some other mysteries, wholly inexplicable, yet may be explained by the Jacobite clergy; but then you are not to understand the explication, but are to take their words for it; and we all know that they are men of probity, and will not deceive you. From this divine right all other rights are derived, except their own, which comes down from above too; and if the possessors of these two divine rights can agree together, all is as it should be; otherwise, you are to take notice, that God is to be obeyed before man, and the regale is to bow down, like the sheaves in Joseph’s dream, before the pontificate.

But this is not all: There are some circumstances very particular and whimsical in this divine right. Though, as has been said, it may be conveyed away, yet nothing passes by the conveyance in many cases: Part of it may be granted and conceded to its subjects, and yet they have no right to keep what is so given, always excepting the high clergy, who may take it without being given. I had almost forgot another conveyance of this right, which is conquest, or, in other words, the divine right of plunder, rapine, massacre: But the right is never the worse for the wickedness of men; for howsoever they get possession of sovereign power, the right is that moment annexed to the possession, unless in special cases, still preserving a right to the Jacobite clergy, to give a right to whomsoever they else please. This same right is of so odd and bizarre a nature, that it receives no addition or diminution from the consent of men, or the want of that consent. It is lawful to swear to it, when there is an interest in doing so; yet it is no ways necessary to believe what you swear, or to keep your oath. It is not to be resisted; yet in particular cases it may be opposed. It is limited, and yet unlimitable. You may make laws to bind it, yet it is treason and damnation to defend those laws, unless you have the verbum sacerdotis on your side.

What contradictions, absurdities, and wickedness, are men capable of! We have a set of abandoned wretches amongst ourselves, who seem to have a design to destroy [the] human race, as they would human reason! Every doctrine, every opinion, which they advance, is levelled against the happiness of all mankind. Nothing conduces to virtue, to true religion, to the present or future interests of men, but is represented as destructive to piety. We are to be the vassals of tyrants, the dupes of impostors, the zanies of mountebanks, or else are in a state of damnation. Men, for whose sakes government was instituted, have no right to be protected by government. Religion which was given by Almighty God to make men virtuous here, and happy hereafter; has been made use of to destroy their happiness both here, and hereafter. Scarce any thing is discovered to be true in nature and philosophy, but is proved to be false in orthodoxy: What is found to be beneficial to mankind in their present state is represented hurtful to their future; nay, some are risen up amongst us, who are such implacable enemies to their species, that they make it sin to take proper precautions against the danger of the small-pox, even when they are advised by the most able physicians, and when these physicians are most disinterested.

What can be more cruel, wicked and detrimental to human society, or greater blasphemy against the good God; than to make government, which was designed by him to render men numerous, industrious, and useful to one another, designed to improve arts, sciences, learning, virtue, magnanimity and true religion, an unnatural engine to destroy the greatest part of the world? to make the rest poor, ignorant, superstitious and wicked; to subject them like cattle, to be the property of their oppressors; to be the tame slaves of haughty and domineering masters, and the low homagers of gloomy pedants; to work for, to fight for, and to adore those who are neither better nor wiser than themselves; and to be wretched by millions, to make one or a few proud and insolent? And yet we are told, that this is the condition which God has placed us in, and that it is damnation to strive to make it better.

All these mischiefs, and many more, are the inseparable consequences of an indefeasible hereditary right in any man, or family whatsoever; if it can never be alienated or forfeited: For if this be true, then the property of all mankind may be taken away, their religion overturned, and their persons butchered by thousands, and no remedy attempted: They must not mutter and complain; for complaints are sedition, and tend to rebellion: They must not stand upon their defence, for that is resisting the Lord’s anointed: They must not revile the ministers and instruments of his power; for woe be to the man who speaketh ill of him whom the king honoureth. And all this has been told us by those who have never shewn any regard to authority, either human or divine, when it interfered with their own interests. What shall I say; what words use to express this monstrous wickedness, this utter absence of all virtue, religion, or tenderness to the human species: What colours can paint it, what pen can describe it!

Certainly, if government was designed by God for the good, happiness, and protection of men, men have a right to be protected by government; and every man must have a right to defend what no man has a right to take away. There is not now a government subsisting in the world, but took its rise from the institution of men; and we know from history when, and how it was instituted: It was either owing to the express or tacit consent of the people, or of the soldiers, who first erected it; it could have no more power than what they gave it; and what persons soever were invested with that power, must have accepted it upon the conditions upon which it was given; and when they renounced those conditions, they renounced their government. In some countries it was hereditary; in others elective; in some discretionary; in others limited: But in all, the government must have derived their authority from the consent of men, and could exercise it no farther than that consent gave them leave. Where positive conditions were annexed to their power, they were certainly bound by those conditions; and one condition must be annexed to all governments, even the most absolute, that they act for the good of the people; for whose sake alone there is any government in the world. In this regard there can be no difference between hereditary and elective monarchies; for the heir cannot inherit more than his ancestor enjoyed, or had a right to enjoy, any more than a successor can succeed to it.

Then the wise question will arise, what if any man, who has no natural right, nor any right over his fellow creatures, accept great powers, immense honours and revenues, and other personal advantages to himself and his posterity, upon conditions either express, as in all limited constitutions, or implied, as in all constitutions whatsoever; and yet either by deliberate declarations, or deliberate actions, publickly proclaim, that he will no longer be bound by these conditions, that he will no longer abide by his legal title, but will assume another that was never given him, and to which he can have no right at all; that he will govern his people by despotick authority; that instead of protecting them, he will destroy them; and he will overturn their religion to introduce one of his own; and instead of being a terror to evil works, will be a terror to good: I ask, in such a case, whether his subjects will be bound by the conditions, which he has renounced? Do the obligations subsist on their part, when he has destroyed them on his? And are they not at liberty to save themselves, and to look out for protection elsewhere, when it is denied where they have a right to expect and demand it, and to get it as they can, though at the expence of him and his family, when no other method or recourse is left?

And now, O ye gloomy impostors! O ye merciless advocates for superstition and tyranny! Produce all your texts, all your knotty distinctions! Here exert all your quaint eloquence, your quiddities, your aliquo modo sit, aliquo modo non; appear in solemn dump, with your reverential robes, and your horizontal hats, with whole legions of phantoms and chimeras, and cart-loads of theology, broken oaths, and seditious harangues, and try whether you can maintain the battle, and defend the field against one single adversary, who undertakes to put all your numerous and fairy battalions to flight.

Let us hear what you can say for your abdicated idol. Distinguish, if you can, his case from that which I have represented: Shew that Almighty God gave him a divine right to play the Devil; or, if he had no such right, that his subjects had none to hinder him: Prove that kings are not instituted for the good of the people, but for their own and the clergy’s pride and luxury: But if they be instituted for the good of the people, then shew that they are left at liberty to act for their destruction, and that their subjects must submit to inevitable ruin, yet kiss the iron rod whenever his Majesty pleases: Shew that it was possible for the kingdom to trust themselves again to the faith and oaths of a popish prince, who, during his whole reign, did nothing else but break his faith and his oaths, and whose religion obliged him to do so; or that it was possible for them to place his son upon the throne which he had abdicated (if they had believed him to be his son), when he was in possession of the most implacable enemy of their country, or of Europe, or of the Protestant religion; and that it would not have been direct madness to have sent for him afterwards from France or Rome, enraged by his expulsion, educated, animated, and armed with French and popish principles; and shew too, that the poor oppressed people had any recourse, but to throw themselves under the protection of their great deliverer, who was next heir to their crown.

If you cannot do this, there is nothing left for you to do, but to shew, that the late King James did not violate and break the fundamental laws and statutes of this realm, which were the original contract between him and his people; and that he did not make their allegiance to him incompatible with their own safety, for the preservation of which he was entitled to their allegiance: Shew that he did not claim and exercise a power to dispense with their laws; that he did not levy the customs without the authority of Parliament; or that he called Parliaments according to the constitution which he had sworn to; and that when he intended to call one, he did not resolve to pack it, and closeted many of the gentlemen of England, and with promises and menaces endeavoured to make them practicable to his designs: Shew that he did not disarm Protestants, and arm papists; set up exorbitant and unlawful courts; cause excessive bail to be required, excessive fines to be imposed, and excessive punishments to be inflicted; that he did not prosecute members in the King’s-Bench for what they did in Parliament; and discharge others committed by Parliament; that he did not grant fines and forfeitures of persons to be tried, before their conviction; that he did not erect an ecclesiastical commission directly against an act of Parliament, and suspended, by virtue of it, clergymen, for not reading in their churches a proclamation, which he issued by his own authority, to give liberty of conscience to papists and Protestant dissenters: Shew that he did not imprison and try seven bishops for their humble petition against it, which petition they were empowered by law to make; that he did not combine with France and Rome to overthrow the Established Church, which he was bound to defend, and to introduce another in the room of it, which was worse than none; that, in order to it, he brought not professed papists into offices, both civil and military; sent not, nor received ambassadors to and from Rome, who were guilty of high treason by the laws of the land, and brought not from thence swarms of locusts, to devour and pollute every thing that it produced; turned not out the masters and fellows of Magdalen-College against law, for not doing what they were sworn not to do, nor substituted in their room, those who were not qualified by law to be there: And to make good all these breaches upon our liberties, that he did not raise a popish army in Ireland, and another in England, which had many papists in it, without authority of Parliament.

Shew, if you can, that he ever discovered the least inclination to reform these abuses; but on the contrary, when he could continue them no longer, that he did not desert his people: That he dared to trust himself to a free Parliament, after he had called it, and dissolved it not again, and did not foolishly throw his great seal into the Thames, that no other might be called; and when he resolved to leave his people, that he would suffer his pretended son to remain amongst us. Shew that you yourselves did not help to expel him; that you have not taken oaths, repeated oaths to this government, and abjurations of every other; and that you have adhered to either one or the other. When you have done this, I will allow you to be honest men, good Englishmen, and true Protestants.

T I am, &c.

 Cato's Letters

 Classical Liberals