Cato's Letter No. 20

Of publick Justice, how necessary to the Security and Well-being of a State, and how destructive the Neglect of it to the British Nation. Signal Instances of it

John Trenchard (Saturday, March 11, 1721)

SIR, Parcere subjectis, & debellare superbos; to pay well, and hang well, to protect the innocent, and punish the oppressors, are the hinges and ligaments of government, the chief ends why men enter into societies. To attain these ends, they have been content to part with their natural rights, a great share of their substance and industry: To quit their equality, and submit themselves to those who had before no right to command them: For this millions live willingly in an innocent and safe obscurity, to make a few great men, and enable them, at their expence, to shine in pomp and magnificence.

But all this pageantry is not designed for those who wear it. They carry about them the dignity of the commonwealth: The honours which they receive are honours paid to the publick, and they themselves are only the pillars and images upon which national trophies are hung; for when they are divested of these insignia, no more respect and homage is due to them, than what results from their own virtue and merit. Yet such is the depravity of human nature, that few can distinguish their own persons from the ensigns and ornaments which they wear, or their duty from their dignity: There seems to be a judgment upon all men in certain stations, that they can never think of the time when they have been, or may again be, out of them.

A good magistrate is the brightest character upon earth, as being most conducive to the benefit of mankind; and a bad one is a greater monster than ever hell engendered: He is an enemy and traitor to his own species. Where there is the greatest trust, the betraying it is the greatest treason. The fasces, the judge, and the executioner, do not make the crime, but punish it; and the crime is never the less, though it escape the vengeance due to it. Alexander, who robbed kingdoms and states, was a greater felon than the pirate whom he put to death, though no one was strong enough to inflict the same punishment upon him. It is no more just to rob with regiments or squadrons, than by single men or single ships; for unless we are determined by the justice of the action, there can be no criterion, boundary, or fixed mark, to know where the thief ends, and the hero begins.

Must little villains then submit to fate,
That great ones may enjoy the world in state?

Shall a poor pick-pocket be hanged for filching away a little loose money; and wholesale thieves, who rob nations of all that they have, be esteemed and honoured? Shall a roguery be sanctified by the greatness of it; and impunity be purchased, by deserving the highest punishment? This is inverting the nature of things, confounding virtue and vice, and turning the world topsy-turvy.

Men who are advanced to great stations, and are highly honoured and rewarded at the publick cost, ought to look upon themselves as creatures of the publick, as machines erected and set up for publick emolument and safety. They ought to reflect, that thousands, ten thousands of their countrymen, have equal, or perhaps greater, qualifications than themselves; and that blind fortune alone has given them their present distinction: That the estate of the freeholder, the hazard of the merchant, and the sweat of the labourer, all contribute to their greatness; and when once they can see themselves in this mirror, they will think nothing can be too grateful, nothing too great or too hazardous to be done for such benefactors.

They will consider, that no uncommon application, or distinguishing abilities, will justify this superiority; that many of their fellow-subjects, possessing equal merit, take much more pains for much less considerations; nay, that the business of their own employment is mostly executed by inferior officers, for small rewards; and, consequently, that their great appointments are given to secure their fidelity, and put them far above and out of the reach of bribery and corruption: They ought not to have a thought which is mean or little: Their minds are not to be in the dirt, whilst their heads are in the clouds: They ought to infuse and inspire virtue, resolution, and publick spirit, into the inactive mass, and be illustrious examples of every great and noble quality.

But if they can sink so low beneath themselves; if they can so far descend from the dignity of their characters; if they can choose so to grovel upon the earth, when they may ascend to the heavens; and be so poor and abject, as to combine and confederate with pick-pockets and common rogues; betray their most solemn trusts, and employ all their power and credit to destroy that people, whom they have every motive which heaven and earth can suggest to protect and defend: Then, I say, such wretches ought to be the scorn and detestation of every honest man; and new kinds of vengeance, new tortures, and new engines of misery ought to be invented to make their punishments as much exceed common punishments, as their crimes exceed those of the worst sort of common malefactors, and as their rewards surpass those of the best and worthiest citizens in other stages of life and circumstances of fortune.

There is no analogy between the crimes of private men and those of publick magistrates: The first terminate in the death or sufferings of single persons; the others ruin millions, subvert the policy and oeconomy of nations, and create general want, and its consequences, discontents, insurrections, and civil wars, at home; and often make them a prey to watchful enemies abroad. But amongst the crimes which regard a state, peculatus, or robbing the publick, is the greatest; because upon the careful and frugal administration of the public treasure the very being of the commonwealth depends. It is what my Lord Coke calls it, tutela pacis, & firmamentum belli; and the embezzling of it is death by the civil law, and ought to be so by all laws. It is the worst sort of treason, as it draws all other sorts of treason after it: It disconcerts all the measures of government, and lays the ground-work of seditions, rebellions, and all kinds of publick miseries.

But these, as well as all other crimes which affect the publick, receive their aggravation from the greatness of the persons who commit them; not only as their rewards are larger, and their temptations less, but as their example recommends, and, as it were, authorizes and gives a licence to wickedness. No one dares to punish another for an offence which he knows, and the other knows, that he every day commits himself. One great man, who gets an hundred thousand pounds by cheating the publick, must wink and connive at ten others who shall wrong it of ten thousand pounds each; and they at ten times as many more, who shall defraud it of one thousand; and so on in lesser progression, till the greatest part of the publick revenue is swallowed and devoured by great and little plunderers.

It is therefore of the utmost importance to the security and happiness of any state, to punish, in the most exemplary manner, all those who are entrusted by it, and betray that trust: It becomes the wisdom of a nation, to give ten thousand pounds to purchase a head, which cheats it of six-pence. Valerius Maximus calls severity the sure preserver and avenger of liberty: It is as necessary for the preventing of tyranny, as for the support of it. After the death of the sons of Brutus, executed by the command of their own father, and in his presence, we hear no more of any conspirators in Rome to restore the Tarquins; and had Marius, Caesar, and other corrupters of the people, met with the same punishment, that glorious commonwealth might have subsisted to this day. Lenity to great crimes is an invitation to greater; whereas despair of pardon, for the most part, makes pardon useless. If no mercy were shewn to the enemies of the state, no state would be overturned; and if small or no punishment be inflicted upon them, no state can be safe.

Happy, happy had it been for this unhappy people, if these important and essential maxims of government had been duly regarded by our legislators at the Revolution (and I wish too, that the sincere and hearty endeavours of our present legislators to punish the betrayers of the late unfortunate Queen had met the desired success): For I doubt that all our misfortunes have flowed from these sources, and are owing to these disappointments.

All Europe saw, and all good men in it lamented to see, a mighty nation brought to the brink of destruction by weak and con-temptible instruments; its laws superseded, its courts of justice corrupted, its legislature laid aside, its liberties subverted, its religion overturned, and a new one almost introduced, and a violent and despotick government assumed, which was supported by legions and an armed force: They saw this brave people rise under the oppression, and, like Antaeus, gather strength by their late fall: They called for the assistance of the next heir to the crown, to avenge himself and them; and when they had, by his assistance, removed the usurpation, they rewarded him with the immediate possession of the crown. But when they had all the desired success, and subdued all that they had fought with; they soon found, that, by the treachery and corruption of their leaders, they had lost all that they had fought for.

Instead of compleating their deliverance, and punishing the authors of their calamities, and sacrificing them to the Manes of their once lost liberties; upon the most diligent search, there was not a guilty person to be found; not one who had contributed to their misfortunes. Three kingdoms had been undone by mal-administra-tion, and no body had a hand in it. This tergiversation gave fresh heart and courage to the despairing faction: Some imputed it to weakness and fear; others to a consciousness of guilt for what we had done; and all cried out aloud, that if there were no criminals, there could be no crimes; whilst all honest men stood amazed and covered with shame and confusion at these proceedings.

All the while our new betrayers rioted in their sun-shine, laughed at the unseasonable simplicity and folly of a few Whimsi-cals, who did not know what a revolution was good for: They would not make a rod for themselves: On the contrary, numberless were their projects and stratagems to amass riches, and increase their power. They encouraged and protected a general prodigality and corruption, and so brought the kingdom into the greatest necessities; then took advantage of those necessities: They got publick money into their hands, and then lent that money to the publick again for great premiums, and at great interest, and afterwards squandered it away to make room for new projects: They made bargains for themselves, by borrowing in one capacity what they lent in another; and, by a use of their prior intelligence, and knowledge of their own intentions, they wholly governed the national credit, and raised and depressed it at their pleasure, and as they saw their advantage; by which means they beggared the people, and mortgaged all the lands and the stock of the kingdom, though not (like the righteous Joseph) to their master, but to themselves.

Thus the Revolution and the principles of liberty ran backwards again. The banished Tarquin conceived new hopes, and made new attempts for a restoration: All who had shared in the benefits of the former wicked administration; all those who had ever been avowed enemies to an equal government, and impartial liberty; all the grim inquisitors, who had assumed an uncontrollable sovereignty over the free and ungovernable mind, men who have ever pretended a divine right to roguery, united in his interest: With these joined the riotous, the debauched, the necessitous, the poor deluded bigots, as well as all such who had not received rewards equal to their fancied merit, and would not bear to see others revel in advantages, which their own ambition and covetousness had before swallowed for themselves.

This formidable party combined against the new established government, made earnings of the miscarriages and corruptions of those miscreants, who, by their vile and mercenary conduct, betrayed the best prince and best cause in the world, and several times had almost overturned the new restored liberty; but that the gratitude and personal love of the people to that great prince, and the fresh and lively remembrance of the evils which they have suffered, or had been like to have suffered, from the abdicated family, still preserved him upon the throne, in spite of all attempts to the contrary. However, proper advantages were not taken, neither in this nor the following reign, from the many defeats of this restless faction, to settle the Revolution upon such a basis, as not to be shaken but together with the foundations of the earth. There was always a lion in the way; the figure or the number of the conspirators, or the difficulty of discovery, or their interest, alliance, or confederacy with men in power, were the reasons whispered; but the true one was concealed, namely, that one guilty person durst not heartily prosecute another: The criminals had stories to tell, secrets not to be divulged; for an innocent and virtuous man alone dares undertake to bring a great villain to deserved punishment: None but a Brutus could have destroyed Brutus's sons.

Nothing was ever done to rectify or regulate the education of youth, the source of all our other evils; but schools of literature were suffered to continue under the direction of the enemies to all sound literature and publick virtue: Liberty, being deserted by her old friends, fell of course into the hands of her enemies; and so liberty was turned upon liberty: By these means the discontents were fomented, the evils still increased, and the conspirators still went on. They had now got new tools to work with, just forged, and sent glowing hot from the universities: A new generation arose and appeared upon the publick stage, who had never seen or felt the misfortunes which their fathers groaned under, nor believed more of them than what they had learned from their tutors: So that all things seemed prepared for a new revolution; when we were surprized by a voice from heaven, which promised us another deliverance.

We have at last, by the bounteous gift of indulgent providence, a most excellent King, and a wise and uncorrupt Parliament; and yet—but what shall I say, or what shall be left unsaid? I will go on. We have a prince, I say, who is possessed of every virtue which can grace and adorn a crown; a Parliament too, than whom England has never chosen one better disposed to do all those things which every honest man in it wished, and called for; and yet—by the iniquity of the times, or the iniquities of particular men, we are still to expect our deliverance; though I hope that we shall not expect it long.

Publick corruptions and abuses have grown upon us: Fees in most, if not in all, offices, are immensely increased: Places and employments, which ought not to be sold at all, are sold for treble values: The necessities of the publick have made greater impositions unavoidable, and yet the publick has run very much in debt; and as those debts have been increasing, and the people growing poor, salaries have been augmented, and pensions multiplied; I mean in the last reign, for I hope that there have been no such doings in this.

Our common rogues now scorn little pilferings, and in the dark; ‘tis all publick robbery, and at noon-day; nor is it, as formerly, for small sums, but for the ransom of kings, and the pay of armies: Figures of hundreds and thousands have lost their use in arithmetick: Plumbs[*] alone are thought worth gathering; and they no longer signify hundreds of thousands, but millions: One great man, who is said in a former reign to have plundered a million and a half, has made his successors think as much to be their due too: Possession of great sums is thought to give a title to those sums; and the wealth of nations is measured out and divided amongst private men, not (as by the West-India pirates) with shovels, but by waggons.

The dregs of the people, and the scum of the Alley, can buy Italian and German sovereigns out of their territories; and their levees have been lately crowded with swarms of dependent princes, like Roman consuls, and Eastern monarchs; and I am told, that some of them have been seen ascending to, and descending from, their chariots, while they leaned upon the necks of prostrate grandees. Oh liberty! stop thy flight. Oh virtue! be something more than a name and empty sound: Return, oh return! inspire and assist our illustrious legislators in the great work which they have so generously undertaken! Assist, assist, if it be but to save those who have always devoutly worshipped thee, and have paid constant incense at they altars.

But what shall be done! Where is the remedy for all these evils? We hope for it, we expect it, we see it; and we call for it, from the healing hands of our most gracious King, and his dutiful Parliament. There is a crisis in the health of governments, as well as of private persons. When distempers are at the worst, they must mend, or the patient die: And when the case is desperate, bold and resolute methods must be taken, or he will be suffered to die, for fear of his dying. What then is the remedy? We must begin with letting out some of our adulterate and corrupt blood, one drop of which is enough to contaminate the ocean: We must first take full vengeance of all those whom we can discover to be guilty, and use them as citizens do shoplifters; that is, make those who are caught pay for all that is stolen. Let us not, oh let us not suffer the sins of all Israel to be at this time of day laid upon the head of the scape-goat!

When we have taken this first and necessary step, to prevent an apoplexy or malignant eruptions, let us prescribe strong emeticks, proper sudorificks, and effectual purgatives, to bring up or throw off the noxious juices and morbifick matter that oppresses us, and so wholly to eradicate the causes of our distemper. But, above all, let us avoid the beginning with lenitives and palliating medicines, which will only cover and foment our evils, make them break out more violently, at last perhaps turn into dangerous swellings and epidemical plague sores; and by such means spread a general infection: Let us not suffer any of our great or little rogues to escape publick vengeance.

When we have, by these vigorous methods, removed the peccant humors which are the springs and sources of our distemper, let us use proper applications, gentle remedies, and wholesome diet, to correct and rectify the mass of remaining blood, to invigorate and renew our constitution, restore it to its first principles, and make it sound and active again: Let us see where it abounds, and where it wants; whether the sanguine, the phlegmatick, or the bilious predominates, and reduce them all to a proper balance: Let us look back and examine strictly, by what neglect, by what steps and gradations of intemperance or folly, we are brought into the present condition, and resolve to avoid them for the future.

Let us try no more projects, no more knavish experiments; let us have no more quacking, no more to do with empiricks. Let us act openly and above-board for the publick interest, and not hang out false colours, to catch unwary preys. Let us plainly tell at first what we mean, and all that we mean: If it be honest and advantageous, every good man will defend it, and assist in it; if otherwise, it ought not to be defended at all.

This is the way, and the only way, to preserve and continue the inestimable blessing of our present establishment: Let the people see the benefit of the change, and there is no fear that they will be against their own interest; but state-quacks may harangue and swear till they are black in the face, before they will persuade any one to believe that he is in perfect health, who feels himself sick at heart. Men in such circumstances are always restless, always tumbling about from side to side, changing every posture for present ease; and so often bring death upon themselves, by trying preposterous remedies to avoid it.

T. I am, &c.



[*] A cant word, known to mean an hundred thousand pounds.

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