Cato's Letter No. 10

The Iniquity of late and new Projects about the South-Sea considered. How fatally they affect the Publick

John Trenchard & Thomas Gordon (Tuesday, January 3, 1721)

SIR, When we compare one nation with another, and balance the power of both, we are not to consider alone the number of people, or the wealth diffused amongst the people; though number and wealth are undoubtedly the first elements of power in a commonwealth; no more than we are to consider the mere extent of territory, or the mere fertility of soil: But we are chiefly to consider, how much of that wealth can be brought together, how it may be most frugally managed, and how most skilfully applied to the publick emolument and defence.

If, in taxing labour and manufactures, we exceed a certain proportion, we discourage industry, and destroy that labour and those manufactures. The like may be said of trade and navigation; they will bear but limited burdens: And we find by experience, that when higher duties are laid, the product is not increased; but the trade is lost, or the goods are run.

Nor can more be extorted from the gentleman and freeholder, than he can spare from the support of his family, in a way suitable to his former condition.

When impositions exceed these bounds, the history of all ages will convince us, that their produce is only bitterness, murmurings, universal discontents; and their end, generally, rebellion, and an overthrow of the then present establishment, or of public liberty.

If therefore one state, for example, possessed of five times as much true, but scattered, wealth, as another state, cannot for all that, from a defect in its constitution, collect so much from the people as the poorer state can; or, if when collected, does yet trust the same to the disposal of blood-suckers and traitors, who intercept the national wealth, and divert it to private purses; or if it be appropriated, before it be raised, to the payment of former debts; or if it be embezzled in pensions and salaries to mercenary men, for traitorous ends; then is such a state really weaker than the other poorer state, and less capable of defending itself against the other, so much its inferior in outward shew and intrinsick power.

This was the state of Spain for near two hundred years; Spain, the mistress of so many nations, and of a new world, richer in silver and gold than the old; Spain, that from terrifying all Christendom with chains, and from threatening all Europe with universal slavery, reduced itself, by mortgaging its publick revenues, to such a despicable condition, that we have seen, in our days, that once formidable kingdom contended for by two small armies of foreigners, within its own bowels: In which contest the natives themselves were little more than spectators; as is very justly observed by the author of a pamphlet printed last year, and written with a spirit which I pretend not to imitate. Had that pamphlet been generally read, and well weighed, it would have prevented most of the mischiefs which we now lamentably labour under. It is entitled, Considerations upon the State of the Publick Debts in general, and of the Civil List in particular. I would recommend it to the reading of every one, who is not ashamed of being an honest man.

It is certain, that all the powerful nations of Europe, who were parties in the two last bloody and expensive wars, were reduced, by mortgaging their publick revenues, to the same low and abject condition; and nothing saved any one of them from all the rest, but that all the rest were in the same state of impotence and distress. They were all miserably weak. That people, therefore, who can soonest discharge their publick burdens, will give laws to the rest; and either reduce them to subjection and vassalage, or to a necessity of seizing their mortgaged funds.

There are in the world but two ways of clearing a nation of its publick engagements: The one is, by paying them off; the other is, not to pay them at all. When the one cannot be practised, a small skill in politicks will tell us, that the other must.

It is a jest for any man to flatter himself, that any state will not save the whole people, by the ruin of a part of the people, when the ruin of a part is absolutely necessary to the preservation of the whole. This consideration should, methinks, be worth the attention of the gentlemen inhabitants of the Alley. In truth, nothing would exercise their thoughts more, were it not that every one hopes to save one, by cheating another into a hard and knavish bargain. Will men never have done hoping? They forget how they were caught last year in the South-Sea, with all their hopes and their wisdom about them.

It is, doubtless, the last misfortune to a nation, to be beholden to a sponge for the payment of its debts; such a necessity must be a heavy necessity, attended with many sorrowful circumstances, and much sore distress. Nothing but the certain fear of foreign force, or domestick tyranny, can justify it. But even a great calamity is eligible, in comparison of a greater. Every person, therefore, who is a creditor to his country, and has demands upon the publick, is nearly concerned to prevent such great and personal, and indeed general misery; which cannot be at all prevented, but by putting the national debts into a method of being honourably discharged. This is the concern of every honest man; this ought to be the care of every worthy citizen; this will be the task of every guiltless great man.

All innocent men, throughout the world, find a private blessing in the general felicity of the publick; and none but mock-patriots, who foolishly or deliberately can lead kingdoms into ruin; desperate hard-hearted parricides, who can wantonly suck out the vitals of their country, whose fortunes are often the plunder of the publick, whose creatures are conspirators, hired against the publick; I say, none but such traitors can find private joy in publick confusion, or their own security in the slavery of their country. Those, it is true, who earn vengeance by committing mighty crimes, would, doubtless, go on to resemble themselves, and to avoid it, if they could, by committing crimes still more mighty. If any amongst us should be capable of practising such great wickedness to get enormous wealth, such persons, if not prevented, might still practise greater to keep it. A fox pursued by the full cry of the hounds, will run into the dog-kennel for shelter; as at the battle of La Hogue, the French fleet fled through the race of Alderney, and ventured rocks and shelves, to escape from the conquering enemy.

It is a folly, and indeed an infatuation, in any persons interested in the publick funds, to form any schemes, or to fall into any schemes for increasing those funds, or for continuing in them, any longer than is absolutely necessary to pay them their debts: When our neighbouring nations have cleared theirs, we too must clear ours, or we are undone. íTis said, indeed, that a revolution in government would certainly and effectually do it, and do it at once; and this I take to be the true reason why so many unthinking men appear to wish it; though I hope it is in vain. God avert so dreadful a catastrophe!

Spain has already discharged itself of its publick burdens, by a general sweep: And behold the effect of this! It again shews its head in the world; again it carries its armies into new countries. Holland lies still, free from new broils, and fresh expence: It politically pleads poverty: It takes all ways in its power to recover its losses; and questionless laughs in its sleeve to see another nation grow more mad, and more in debt every year; to see it every year mortgaging new revenues, and every year engaging in wild wars, to support the interests of a state of no concernment to it.

But the most terrible instance of all, is that of France: That government, though to the ruin of great multitudes of other people, has almost, if not quite, got rid of its incumbrances and engagements. The whole wealth of that great kingdom is now got into the hands of the publick. From which formidable situation of theirs, is there not room to fear, that as soon as the present confusion is a little abated,they will renew their designs for empire, and throw Europe into arms again? This is an alarming reflection! And what do the gentlemen of the Alley expect from us, under such an ill-boding circumstance? Trade is already burdened as much as it can bear, and perhaps more than it ought to bear: There is scarce a commodity that can be taxed, but is already taxed. We are marked, we are mortgaged from head to foot. They do not surely expect that the Parliament will give ten shillings in the pound upon land, or that it could be raised if they did.

What therefore are we to do in such a calamitous case? Are we to save ourselves at the expence of the gentlemen of the Alley? Or are we to perish together with them? The choice is easy. Can they be so weak, as to form a pretended necessity, to bring their country into such unhappy circumstances; and yet not fear that wise and honester men may take advantage of a real necessity, to get out of such unhappy circumstances?

There is but one thing to be done, to save themselves and their country together; and that is, to put the debts into a method of being certainly and speedily paid off. The present establishment may be saved, though they are undone: But if, through folly or knavery, the establishment sink, they must sink with it. I hope therefore, that they will not be decoyed into any traitorous designs of desperate men: Men, whose characters are but faintly expressed by that of parricides; men, who, had they studied the art of making us miserable, could not have been more accomplished in their trade, nor boast of compleater success. Where is our trade, by which we so long flourished? It is lost. Where is our publick faith, once our own boast, and the envy of foreign nations? It is fled; and one man has no longer any faith in another. Where is our money? Where are our current millions? The people have none. The most part find it hard to buy bread; and many find it impossible. Every man whom you meet complains that he is undone. All our coin is engrossed, pocketed by vile jobbers, their prompters and confederates; publick robbers, who, to keep what they have got, and to escape deserved punishment (if such punishment can possibly be found), would deliver up the wealth and power of England into the griping and polluted hands of a new conspiracy of stock-jobbers, worse than the last, by being more numerous and potent. With these they would combine for common defence, and for publick destruction; with these, contrive new ways to enlarge our miseries, shorten our enjoyments still more, and grind us still smaller; with these, they would form into such a confederacy against their common country, and against common honesty, as would mock even the endeavours of a legislature to dissolve it. Good God! what implacable men! thus mercilessly bent to ruin the very ruins of their country!

What Briton, blessed with any sense of virtue, or with common sense; what Englishman, animated with a publick spirit, or with any spirit, but must burn with rage and shame, to behold the nobles and gentry of a great kingdom; men of magnanimity; men of breeding; men of understanding, and of letters; to see such men bowing down, like Joseph's sheaves, before the face of a dirty stock-jobber, and receiving laws from men bred behind counters, and the decision of their fortunes from hands still dirty with sweeping shops!

Surely we shall never suffer this to be our case, and therefore shall never see it. It is ridiculous to think that a nation, free as we are, and bold by being so, will ever submit to such indignities: It is therefore easy to foresee, if once we foolishly take the first step, what will necessarily be the next. One oppression cannot be supported but by another, and a greater; and force and violence alone can do what reason cannot and will not do. These hardships will produce new wants, and new necessities for money; which money, if such men can have their will, will only be to be had from these companies, and from them only upon hard conditions, and in exchange for new privileges, still tending to the detriment of general trade, and ending in the total ruin of the nation.

The nation will be provoked in proportion as it is distressed; ill usage will be returned with rage: And then, I doubt not, when these projectors have rendered the people distracted, they will tell us, that it will not be safe to venture them with another election. They will do every thing in their power to make the kingdom disaffected; and then urge that disaffection as a good reason not to trust them.

This conduct will produce necessarily more and higher discontents; discontents will make armies necessary; armies will inflame those discontents still more vehemently. I dare think no further. But sure there is no one who loves King George, and his government, but will endeavour to prevent these dismal mischiefs, before it be too late.

No man living laments the calamities brought upon his country, more than I do those brought upon mine: Yet I freely own, that I think the paying off the nation's debts, and restoring, by that means, the kingdom to its power, its grandeur, and its security again, was an end worth all the evils which we have yet suffered; an end which ought, if possible, to have been purchased with greater than we have yet suffered, if it could not otherwise have been purchased. I think that it ought to have been done, though attended with many ill circumstances; and might have been done, even upon those hard terms, with justice to private men, and honour to the nation. We are not a people without it; nor is it worth while to dispute about the best cabin in a ship that is sinking.

This prospect gave me some pleasure, and some relief to my thoughts, made anxious by the melancholy and importunate clamours of thousands and ten thousands of my distressed countrymen: But when I was told that a project was formed by men of figure, power, and fortune, to give back all, and the only advantage which we were to reap, or could reap, from so many miseries, and which could alone palliate or excuse such a wild and desperate attempt; though this was the only excuse which was ever offered, or can yet be suggested by the wisest men in behalf of it; I confess that I was seized with horror and confusion from such news, and could see nothing before my eyes but total desolation and final ruin.

To tell us, that this is to be done out of tenderness to the miserable, is adding contempt to the injury: It is insulting our understandings, and playing with the publick misfortunes; it is first to make us beggars, then to treat us like idiots. With as much modesty did a grand monarch, who was known to make himself sport, for about half a century, with the lives of men, pretend to ground his desire of peace upon a conscientious inclination to prevent the effusion of Christian blood.

Those who have true compassion, virtue, and tenderness, will shew it upon the properest objects; they will prefer the security and welfare of many millions to the security and welfare of some thousands, though they should be many thousands; especially if the latter prove to have been covetous and unthinking men, caught in the snare which they spread for others: For by these wild bargains no man is undone, but he who intended the favour of being undone to somebody else. These gentlemen, pretending to so much tenderness and compassion, will not at least sacrifice those who always foresaw the mischief, and always opposed it, to the relief of such who contributed to it; who made corrupt applications for an early admittance into the advantage of the secret; who swallowed plumbs in their imaginations, and ridiculed as fools or beggars all that kept at a wise and honest distance.

Pity and compassion are charming and engaging sounds, when rightly applied; but pity and compassion do not consist in protecting criminals from justice, and in suffering the devourers of a nation to go off with the plunder of a nation; nor in oppressing the people over again, to make the loser amends: Neither do they consist in giving away the publick treasure of nations to private men, for no reason, or for very bad reasons; nor in engaging a kingdom in wild and romantick expences, to serve wild and romantick purposes; neither do they consist in sacrificing the trade and manufacture of a whole people, and in consequence the bread of a whole people, to the destructive interests of societies of stock-jobbers, combined with publick plunderers for mutual defence.

Our wise and disinterested legislature mean other things; they have told us, that they will not relieve one part of the distressed and deluded bubbles, to the detriment of others, who have as much pretence to relief as themselves; and it is impossible to imagine that they will give up the unoffending and almost despairing people (whose interests they are chosen to assert) to repair the losses of unwary men, and to put thirty millions in the pockets of twenty stock-jobbers.

Can it be supposed, that the Parliament will refuse to make void hasty and private bargains, founded in corruption and fraud, and made without any one honest consideration? And shall this refusal be made for the publick good? And yet shall that very Parliament be thought capable of making void a publick bargain, made for the publick good, with the greatest deliberation, and upon the weightiest motives in the world? Which bargain was indeed the chief, if not the only cause, that drew upon us our present great calamities.

But we are told by the projectors, that the company is not able to pay the publick the sum stipulated; and the King must lose his right, where his right is not to be had. This is impudently as well as stupidly said; for the security is already in the hands of the publick: The nation owes the company near forty millions, and nothing is necessary but to stop the payment of seven.

But it is farther urged by the projectors, that the company will be undone, if so much be stopped from them; and I aver, that the nation is undone, if it be not stopped.

Here a very pleasant observation offers itself: For this very same project, which would mercifully remit to the South-Sea Company the seven millions due by them to the publick, is intended to raise a hundred pounds of their capital stock to three or four hundred pounds in value, I will suppose only to three hundred; and even then their present capital being about twenty-six millions, the whole will be worth about eighty millions; and surely, if the publick give them such an immense advantage, they may well afford to pay the small sum of seven millions due to the publick out of it. Our own laws, and the laws of every country in the world, give precedence to the prerogative, in the business of debtor and creditor; and always secure the debts due to the publick, whatever becomes of those due to private men. Surely we shall not reject the wisdom of nations, and invert the maxims of government, that while we confirm the bargains of particular men, we destroy those made for the benefit of all the men in the kingdom.

But there is yet something more absurd in this project: For the bargain was made with the old company, who were to give three millions and a half, certain, to the publick; and about three millions more, if they could purchase in the annuitants: Which sum they could have afforded to the publick, if they could but have raised their stock thirty per cent upon the whole stock so united: But we have, in fact, seen its imaginary value increased, at one time, more than two hundred millions; which has enabled those in the secret to carry off more than twenty, if not thirty millions.

Valuing the stock, at present, at two hundred, which is less than the stock sells for, the old capital alone is advanced near twelve millions above its first value, and consequently is able to pay seven, without the assistance of the new subscribers: And, if the projectors of the scheme advance the stock to three or four hundred, as they pretend that they will; then the first contractors, and those who stand in their places, will double or treble their capital; though they alone were to pay the publick the poor consideration which has enabled them to do so.

Hard fate of poor England, to be thus the last regarded, even in schemes and deliberations which purely regard England! Private men, who have been bubbled, are to be pitied, but must private men, who have contributed to the publick ruin, and their own, be regarded preferably to the publick? And must publick compassion be shewn to private dupes, rather than to the publick itself?

Poor England! What a name art thou become! A name of infatuation and misery! How art thou fallen! how plundered! And those that have done it, would, to keep their spoil, agree to assist others to squeeze out thy last dregs, and to suck out thy remaining blood. How passive do they think thee! How tame would they make thee! An easy prey for devourers; who, while they hold thee fast, and gripe thee hard with iron claws, aggravate thy misery, by mocking it, and insolently talk of compassion.

What keener indignities can they do us, than thus to jest with us, while we are gasping, while we are expiring, in the midst of the pangs and convulsions into which they have wantonly and wickedly thrown us!

Odd is that compassion which arises from guilt and avarice; and with how much modesty would they christen, with the deluding title of pity, that conduct, which would prove in effect to be only impunity to the murderers of our prosperity, and the manglers of their country! Thus would they insult our understanding, and deal with us as if we had none.

How long shall we suffer under this pungent usage? this painful disgrace to our sense and our spirit? Patience under indignities, invites fresh indignities. We see our parricides do, as it were, take pains to invent new miseries for us. A hard task! considering those that they have already accomplished. Nay, they act as if they despaired of making us desperate.

They may be mistaken. And indeed, in the whole string of their politicks, I could never discover any one symptom of their skill in human nature, except that which they learned from brokers and pedlars in stocks.

In truth, matters are come to that pass, that an endeavour to make them worse, may probably make them better: Res nolunt male administrari. All men suffer; all men are alarmed: Resentment rages high, and gathers thick from all quarters; and though it may seem big with some terrible event, yet it may be prevented by anticipation.

Our eyes are upon the Parliament, and so are the eyes of Europe. We have begun to conceive hope from the bold and upright spirit which appears in our representatives to right us and to revenge us. They have, indeed, a great and unprecedented opportunity given them, of securing to themselves, in the hearts of all Englishmen, a monument of grateful praise and publick spirit, and of perpetuating that praise in the memory of every Briton, till time shall be no more.

T and G. I am, &c.

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