"Almost a generation before Washington, Henry, and Jefferson were even born, two Englishmen, concealing their identities with the honored ancient name of Cato, wrote newspaper articles condemning tyranny and advancing principles of liberty that immensely influenced American colonists. The Englishmen were John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Their prototype was Cato the Younger (95–46 B.C.), the implacable foe of Julius Caesar and a champion of liberty and republican principles. Their 144 essays were published from 1720 to 1723, originally in the London Journal, later in the British Journal. Subsequently collected as Cato's Letters, these "Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious" became, as Clinton Rossiter has remarked, "the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period."
This new two-volume edition offers minimally modernized versions of the letters from the four-volume sixth edition printed in London in 1755.
"On November 5, 1720, the first letter from Cato (pseudonym for John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, honoring Cato the Younger, whose dedication to principles of liberty led him to oppose Julius Caesar) appeared in the London Journal.
As one of the letters said, "it is and has been the great design of this paper to maintain and expose the glorious principles of liberty, and to expose the arts of those who would darken or destroy them..." That theme was what made it so important to our heritage as Americans.
It is worth revisiting Cato's Letters' devotion to liberty, its central theme, which so powerfully influenced our founding as a nation. Consider some of its memorable insights (in the order of their appearance):
• ...general liberty...is certainly the right of all mankind...
• Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together.
• The defense of liberty is a noble, a heavenly office...
• ...government executed for the good of all, and with the consent of all, is liberty; and the word government is
• All men are born free; liberty is a gift which they receive from God himself...
• ...the nature of government does not alter the natural right of men to liberty, which is in all political societies their due.
• By liberty, I understand the power which every man has over his own actions, and his right to enjoy the fruits of his labor, art and industry, as far as by it he hurts not the society, or any members of it, by taking from any member, or hindering him from enjoying what he himself enjoys. The fruits of a man's honest industry are the just rewards of it, ascertained to him by natural and eternal equity, as is his title to use them in the manner which he thinks fit: And thus, with the above limitations, every man is sole lord and arbiter of his own private actions and property...no man living can divest him but by usurpation, or by his own consent.
On the subject of property, the Letters are equally eloquent:
• ...the security of property and the freedom of speech always go together...where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call anything else his own.
• ...property, the preservation of which is the principal business of government...
• As the preservation of property is the source of national happiness; whoever violates property, or lessens or endangers it...he is an enemy to his country...
• Indeed liberty is the divine source of all human happiness. To possess, in security, the effects of our industry, is the most powerful and reasonable incitement to be industrious: And to be able to provide for our children, and to leave them all that we have, is the best motive to beget them. But where property is precarious, labor will languish. The privileges of thinking, saying and doing what we please, and of growing rich as we can, without any other restriction, than that by all this we hurt not the public, nor one another, are the glorious privileges of liberty; and its effects, to live in freedom, plenty, and safety.
Cato's Letters, widely echoed by our founding fathers, was a central inspiration behind what became America, and a light of liberty to the rest of the world. As we pass the anniversary of its first appearance, it merits revisiting that commitment to liberty which we are all now beneficiaries of, and asking ourselves whether we, or our government, are still as committed to liberty.
(Mises Daily: Monday, October 20, 2003 by Gary Galles)
John Trenchard (1662-1723) was a radical Whig and Commonwealthman who, along with his collaborator Thomas Gordon, were important voices defending constitutionalism and individual liberty in the 1720s in England. Trenchard came from a prominent family, went to Trinity College, Dublin, and briefly served in the House of Commons. He worked as a journalist in the 1690s writing works criticising the idea of standing armies and the political power of the established church. Trenchard co-wroteThe Independent Whig (1720-21) and Cato’s Letters (1720-23) with Gordon. He was a defender of the idea of liberty against political corruption, imperialism and militarism in the early 18th century. Their writings, especially Cato’s Letters, were also much read in the American colonies.
Thomas Gordon (1692–1750) was a British writer and Commonwealthmen. He was a Scot who attended the University of Aberdeen.
Along with John Trenchard, he published The Independent Whig, which was a weekly periodical. From 1720 to 1723, Trenchard and Gordon, wrote a series of 144 essays entitled Cato's Letters, condemning corruption and lack of morality within the British political system and warning against tyranny. The essays were published as Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, at first in the London Journal and then in the British Journal. These essays became a cornerstone of the Commonwealthmen tradition.