Cato's Letter No. 73

A Display of Tyranny, its destructive Nature, and Tendency to dispeople the Earth

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, April 21, 1722)

SIR, I intend to finish in this paper, what I have so largely handled in so many others, the subject of liberty and tyranny; a noble subject, superior to all others, and to the greatest genius, but fit for the consideration of every genius, and of every rank of men. It concerns the whole earth, and children ought to be instructed in it as soon as they are capable of instruction. Why should not the knowledge and love of God be joined to the knowledge and love of liberty, his best gift, which is the certain source of all the civil blessings of this life? And I have shewn that religion cannot subsist without it. And why should not the dread and hatred of Satan be accompanied with the dread and hatred of tyrants, who are his instruments, and the instruments of all the civil miseries in this life? I have often thought that the barbarians, who worship the Devil, must have borrowed their idea of him from the character and behaviour of their own princes. One might indeed defy any thing out of hell, or even in it, and all that are in it, to do half the mischief upon this earth that tyrants do.

They reduce mankind to the condition of brutes, and make that reason, which God gave them, useless to them: They deprive them even of the blessings of nature, starve them in the midst of plenty, and frustrate the natural bounty of the earth to men; so that nature smiles in vain where tyranny frowns: The very hands of men, given them by nature for their support, are turned by tyrants into the instruments of their misery, by being employed in vile drudgeries or destructive wars, to gratify the lust and vanity of their execrable lords, who suffer neither religion, nor virtue, nor knowledge, nor plenty, nor any kind of happiness, to dwell within the extent of their power.

Nothing that is good or desirable can subsist under tyrants, nor within their reach; and they themselves subsist upon nothing but what is detestable and wicked. They are supported by general ruin; they live by the destruction of mankind: And as fraud and villainy, and every species of violence and cruelty, are the props of their throne; so they measure their own happiness, and security, and strength, by the misery and weakness of their people; and continued oppression and rapine are their studied and necessary arts of reigning, as is every art by which they can render their people poor, abject, and wretched; though by such methods they do in effect render themselves so, and consequently become easy preys to the next invader. That wealth, which dispersed amongst their subjects, and circulated in trade and commerce, would employ, increase, and enrich them, and return often again with interest into their coffers, is barbarously robbed from the people, and engrossed by these their oppressors, and generally laid out by them to adorn their palaces, to cover their horses or elephants, or to embellish their own persons, and those of their concubines and attendants, or else locked up in dark caverns far from human sight and use.

Whilst it is yet in the mine, it is within the reach of pickaxes and shovels; and by the labour and industry of men, may be made useful and beneficial to men: But in the den of a tyrant, it is more securely, more irretrieveably buried and guarded from the use of men. Here are literally Pluto’s brass walls, and adamantine gates; here are thousands of real Cerberuses, who never sleep; all to encompass and secure this dead treasure, and to restrain a general gift of God from the use of his creatures: From thence it is rarely fetched, even upon the greatest emergencies, or for any purposes but ill ones, ‘till at last it becomes the prize and booty of a conquering enemy. Alexander found more riches in the Persian treasures, than in the hands of freemen would have conquered the world; and ‘tis thought that there are more at this day in that of the Great Mogul, than would purchase the greatest and wealthiest kingdom in Europe; and it has been computed that there are thirty millions of wealth buried in the secret vaults of the Turkish seraglio, the plunder of the people, or of those who plundered them; yet they are still plundered and miserably oppressed, to increase this dead, useless, and pernicious store.

By these and the like inhuman means, the countries of tyrants are come to be in the condition which I have elsewhere described, desolate and uncultivated, and proper receptacles for such savage monsters, and ravening beasts of prey, who rather choose to live in barren fields, unhospitable deserts, and in dispeopled and empty towns, than amongst freemen in happy climates, filled with rich and numerous cities, abounding in inhabitants who are possessed of liberty, and will be bold to defend it.

Now where can all this dismal ruin, this growing depopulation end? If a continued decay in the natural body certainly ends in the extinction of life; in what can a continued and hasty decay of mankind end, but in the extinction of men? So that if the world last many centuries more in its present wasting and mournful situation, there must be a dissolution of [the] human race, before the world is dissolved.

Several new tyrannies have sprung up, like so many new plagues, within the memory of man, and like them have laid waste, but with a more regular and continued ruin, countries once strong in liberty and people: And as tyranny, like every other full-grown mischief, becomes more and more insupportable every day, the condition of mankind under it must necessarily, and does actually, grow every day worse and worse, and they themselves fewer. And even when their numbers and their substances are lessened, or rather exhausted, the demands of the tyrant upon them are not lessened, nor his rapine abated, nor his expences and exactions restrained.

When a tyrant has reduced a million of people to half that number by his cruelty and extortions, he madly expects from the remaining half the same revenue and assistance of men, which he had from the whole; and like the rest, they must perish to make good his expectations; and he often increases his troops as fast as his people decrease. So that his expence is enlarged as there becomes less to support it; but he will be supported, and his poor perishing people must do it, though they destroy themselves.

Such is the pestilent, savage, and unsatiable nature of this sort of monster, whose figure, throne and authority is established upon the ruins of reason, humanity, and nature: He takes all that his subjects have, and destroys them to get more.

A late great prince, when he had lost and destroyed two millions of his people out of twelve, and reduced the whole to a degree of poverty and servitude scarce to be expressed, what impositions did he recall, what taxes abolish, what troops disband, for their relief? Not one. On the contrary, the swellings of his insolent heart continued, as did his merciless extortions upon his people, and his perfidious designs and encroachments upon his neighbours; and he lived and died the plague and curse of Christendom. Nor can it be shewn, that other princes who govern by the same authority, that is, according to their own whims and caprice, leave their subjects more plenty or happiness, or cheat or harass their neighbours less, according to the measure of their power. In truth, the whole tribe are perpetually taking advantages, and usurping upon one another, and are constant goads and thorns in one another’s sides, and in the sides of their people: nor can the subjects of a prince of this cast have one tolerable reason under the sun to defend him against another, but that he lives amongst them, and spends with them part of their own plunder, and probably the other would not: As his whole reliance must be upon his soldiers, he must increase them in proportion to his distrust of his people; which is a confession of mutual enmity: Neither is it enough that his soldiers oppress and famish his people, for his sake and their own (for both he and they are supported by the spoils of the people), but he must keep them as constantly employed as he can; because if they be not employed in plundering, invading, and shedding of blood, they will grow unfit for such beneficent and necessary work, and may probably degenerate into humanity and mercy; than which a more terrible change could not befall their royal master; so that in mere duty they must be constantly practising mischief and rapine at home or abroad.

Thus do these general destroyers proceed to lay waste the world: The best and most countries in it are already, many of them, almost desolate, and some of them altogether, as I have shewn in many instances; and the desolation gains ground daily: Nor, when some countries are dispeopled, are there sufficient recruits, or indeed any, to be had from others as formerly. The north, formerly the hive of nations, is now as much dispeopled as any of the southern countries, which some centuries ago, were peopled from it; and both north and south have been dispeopled by tyranny. Arabia, which once over-ran the world with multitudes, is now as desolate as the rest of the world which they overran. The country of the Chozari, which was a vast empire, within these four hundred years, is now quite uninhabited, though great part of it is a fertile and beautiful country; and in its last struggle with Tamerlane, brought five hundred thousand men into the field: Such a force of people were there so lately in a country where now there are none! I think Rubriquis says, that he travelled two months through it, and in all the time saw neither man nor beast, but many great ruinous towns and cities, particularly one which had eight hundred churches in it less than four hundred years ago, but now has not one inhabitant.

What can be more affecting than this instance! Not a single soul to be met with in a vast and noble country, which a few centuries ago was a potent empire, and contained millions! In all probability, countries and empires, which now make a great noise and bustle in the world, will be lying, two or three centuries hence, in the same woeful and silent solitude, if they last so long; for depopulation makes every-where, except in a few remaining free states, a prodigious and flying progress; even in Europe, as I have before proved in many instances. And in some of those free states, the seeds of servitude, the true cause of depopulation, and of every misery, seem to be sown deep. Alas! Power encroaches daily upon liberty, with a success too evident; and the balance between them is almost lost. Tyranny has engrossed almost the whole earth, and striking at mankind root and branch, makes the world a slaughter-house; and will certainly go on to destroy, till it is either destroyed itself, or, which is most likely, has left nothing else to destroy.

The bulk of the earth being evidently almost a desert already, made so by tyrants; it is demonstration that the whole must be so, and must soon be entirely so, if the growth of tyranny be not restrained; else if the general and wide waste goes on, men will become too few for the management of societies, and for cultivation and commerce; all which are supported by numbers; and then degenerating into absolute savages, they will live straggling and naked in the woods and wildernesses, like wild beasts, and be devoured by them; or, like them, devour one another, or perish with hunger. And thus there will be an end of men; unless those states that are yet free, preserve, in the midst of this general waste, their own liberties and people, and, like the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, fill the world again, in process of time, with colonies of freemen.

That there is such a terrible waste of people in the world, cannot be denied; and it is as evident, that tyrants, are the constant, regular, and necessary cause of it. They are indeed so manifestly the authors of all that is ruinous and wicked, that if God Almighty had left it to Satan to invent an engine for the destroying of the world, and for defacing every thing beautiful, good, or desirable in it, that minister of vengeance, and enemy to God and man, would doubtless have invented tyrants, who by their wonderful success in such ministration, have ever shewn, and do still shew, their eminent fitness for it. They shew every-where such a constant and strong antipathy to the happiness of mankind, that if there be but one free city within their ken, they are restless in their designs and snares against it, and never defend it but against one another, and practice the vilest and the meanest rogueries to become masters of it. There are instances in this age of free cities falling into the claws of tyrants, and of the miserable difference between their former opulency, and their present poorness: They have never since put off their mourning, which grows daily more black and dismal.

The breath of a tyrant blasts and poisons every thing, changes blessings and plenty into curses and misery, great cities into gloomy solitudes, and their rich citizens into beggars and vagabonds: I could name cities, which, while they governed themselves, could maintain armies, and now enslaved can scarce maintain the poor proud rogues who govern them. It is certain, that whatever country or place is subdued by a prince who governs by his will, is ruined by his government.

It is confessed, that the arbitrary princes in Europe have not yet, like those in Asia, declared themselves masters of the soil; and their people have a sort of property. How long this will continue, I know not precisely. This is certain, that the condition of their subjects, which was always bad, grows hourly worse; and their nobility, which were once rich and powerful, are now reduced very low, and greatly impoverished. These, who were the supports of royalty, having created jealousy as if they had eclipsed it, have felt the terrible effects of arbitrary power as well as others, though not so much. Besides, when the common people, already wholly exhausted, and starving under oppression, can supply the exorbitant demands of their prince no longer, the estates of the nobility will be the next resource; and, like the mastiff dog at the bee-hive, when he has sucked up all the honey, he will swallow the comb: And then most of Europe will be in the condition of Turkey, as many parts of it are at present not much better; and, like the Great Turk, most of its princes will be sole proprietors of the land, as they now make themselves of its product, which very near answers the same end. When tenants, exhausted by taxes, are unable to pay rent, the land yielding no profit, is as bad as none; and in some instances worse than none, as we are particularly told by the noble author of the Account of Denmark, where some landlords have begged the king upon their knees to ease them of their land, by taking it from them for good and all; for that it was taxed more than it was worth.

Most of the princes of Europe have been long introducing the Turkish government into Europe; and have succeeded so well, that I would rather live under the Turk than under many of them. They practice the cruelties and oppressions of the Turks, and want the tolerating spirit of the Turk; and if some unforeseen check be not thrown in their way, the whole polity of savage Turkey will be established by them in all its parts and barbarity; as if the depopulation which is already so quick, and taking such dreadful strides, were still too slow. It is not enough for tyrants to have consumed mankind so fast, that out of twenty parts, they have within these two thousand years destroyed perhaps nineteen (for so much at least I take to be the disproportion), but fresh machines of cruelty are still sought after, besides never laying aside any of the old, till the destruction be fully completed. They seem to think, that they shall have enemies as long as any men remain; which indeed is a reasonable apprehension: But it is astonishing at first view, that mankind should have so long borne these unrelenting slaughterers of mankind. But, alas! who knows not the force of corruption, delusion, and standing armies!

Oh liberty! Oh servitude! how amiable, how detestable, are the different sounds! Liberty is salvation in politicks, as slavery is reprobation; neither is there any other distinction but that of saint and devil, between the champions of the one and of the other.

And here I conclude this noble subject of liberty; having made some weak attempts to shew its glorious advantages, and to set off the opposite mischiefs of raging, relentless, and consuming tyranny: A task to which no human mind is equal. For neither the sublimest wits of antiquity, nor the brightest geniuses of late or modern time, assisted with all the powers of rhetoric, and all the stimulations of poetick fire, with the warmest and boldest figures in language, ever did, or ever could, or ever can, describe and heighten sufficiently the beauty of the one, or the deformity of the other: Language fails in it, and words are too weak.

Those who do not groan under the yoke of heavy and pointed vassalage, cannot possibly have images equal to a calamity which they do not feel: And those who feel it are stupefied by it, and their minds depressed; nor can they have conceptions large, bright, and comprehensive enough, to be fully sensible of their own wretched condition; and much less can they paint it in proper colours to others. We, who enjoy the precious, lovely, and invaluable blessing of liberty, know that nothing can be paid too dear to purchase and preserve it. Without it the world is a wilderness, and life precarious and a burden: Death is a tribute which we all owe to nature, and must pay; and it is infinitely preferable, in any shape, to an ignominious life: Nor can we restore our beings back again into the hands of our great Creator, with more glory to him, more honour to ourselves, or more advantage to mankind, than in defence of all that is valuable, religious, and praise-worthy upon earth, or include whatever is so.

How execrable then and infamous are the wretches, who, for a few precarious, momentary, and perhaps imaginary advantages, would rob their country, their happy country, for ever, of every thing that can render human life desireable; and for a little tinsel pageantry, and false and servile homage, unworthy of honest men, and hated by wise men, would involve millions of their fellow-creatures in lasting misery, bondage, and woe, and charge themselves with their just hatred and bitter curses! Such unnatural parricides, unworthy of the human shape and name, would fill up the measure of their barbarity, by entailing poverty, chains, and sorrow, upon their own posterity. And often it has happened, that such men have, unpitied, suffered in their own persons, the sad effects of those cruel counsels and schemes, which they intended for the ruin of all but themselves; and have justly fallen into that pit, which they had traitorously digged for others.

————Nec lex est justior ulla,

Quam necis artifices arte perire sua.

G I am, &c.

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