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Cato's Letters on Liberty and Property

October 20, 2003

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.  Many more followed, reflecting the ideas of John Locke, soon making it England's most influential newspaper, and leading to collections of Cato's Letters that were, according to Clinton Rossiter "the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period."

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. 

According to Ronald Hamowy, "From its first publication in the 1720s through the revolutionary era that ended the century, its impact on both sides of the Atlantic was enormous.  Its arguments against oppressive government and in support of the splendors of freedom were quoted constantly and its authors were regarded as the country's most eloquent opponents of despotism...[and] frequently served as the basis of the American response to the whole range of depradations under which the colonies suffered.  Freedom of speech and conscience, the rights possessed by all Englishmen both by virtue of their constitutional heritage and by their nature as human beings, the benefits of freedom, the natural restraints on government, the nature of tyranny, the right of men to resist oppressive government—all these notions found an eager reception in the colonies."

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...
  • ...brand those as enemies to human society, who are enemies to equal and impartial liberty.
  • Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together.
  • The defense of liberty is a noble, a heavenly office...
  • Few men have been desperate enough to attack openly, and barefaced, the liberties of a free people...Even when the enterprise is begun and visible, the end must be hid, or denied.
  • ...the people would constantly be in the interests of truth and liberty, were it not for external delusion and external force.
  • ...government executed for the good of all, and with the consent of all, is liberty; and the word government is profaned, and its meaning abused, when it signifies anything else.
  • ...the inestimable blessing of liberty.  Can we ever over-rate it... It is the parent of virtue, pleasure, plenty, and security... 
  • In all contentions between liberty and power, the latter has almost always been the aggressor.
  • ...I know not what treason is, if sapping and betraying the liberties of a people be not treason...
  • The people's jealousy tends to preserve liberty; and the prince's to destroy it.
  • Now, because liberty chastises and shortens power, therefore power would extinguish liberty; and consequently liberty has...cause to be exceeding jealous, and always upon her defense.
  • ...with the loss of liberty, shame and honor are lost.
  • In most parts of the earth there is neither light nor liberty..there being, in all places, many engaged, through interest, in a perpetual conspiracy against them.
  • Wherever truth is dangerous, liberty is precarious.
  • Only government founded upon liberty is a public blessing; without liberty, it is a public curse...
  • ...no nation ever lost its liberty, but by the force of foreign invaders, or the domestic treachery of its own magistrates
  • ...with liberty light has sprung in...We have learned that we are as fit to use our own understandings, as they are whose understandings are no better than ours...
  • ...all mankind will allow it a less crime in any man to attempt to recover his own liberty, then wantonly and cruelly to destroy the liberty of his country.
  • ...liberty is the unalienable right of all mankind.  All governments, under whatsoever form they are administered, ought to be administered for the good of the society; when they are otherwise administered, they cease to be government, and become usurpations.
  • 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.
  • True and impartial liberty is therefore the right of every man to pursue the natural, reasonable, and religious dictates of his own mind; to think what he will, to act as he thinks, provided he acts not to the prejudice of another; to spend his own money himself, and lay out the produce of his labor his own way; and to labor for his own pleasure and profits, and not for others who are idle, and would live...by pillaging and oppressing him, and those that are like him...
  • Free government is the protecting of the people in their liberties by stated rules: Tyranny is a brutish struggle for unlimited liberty to one or a few, who would rob all the others of their liberty, and act by no rule but lawless lust.
  • The love of liberty is an appetite so strongly implanted in the nature of all living creatures, that even the appetite of self-preservation...seems to be contained in it; since by liberty they enjoy the means of preserving themselves, and of satisfying their desires in the manner which they themselves choose and like best.
  • Where liberty is lost, life grows precarious, always miserable, often intolerable.  Liberty is to live upon one's own terms; slavery is to live at the mercy of another...
  • This passion for liberty in men, and their possession of it, is of that efficacy and importance, that it seems the parent of all the virtues...
  • Indeed liberty is the divine source of all human happiness...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.
  • ...all civil happiness and prosperity is inseparable from liberty...
  • Now the laws which encourage and increase virtue are the fixed laws of general and impartial liberty...Where liberty is thoroughly established, and its laws equally executed, every man will find his own account in doing as he would be done unto, and no man will take from another what he would not part with himself...The property of the poor will be as sacred as the privileges of the prince, and the law will be the only bulwark of both.  Every man's honest industry and useful talents, while they are employed for the public, will be employed for himself; and while he serves himself, he will serve the public...
  • ...the entering into society, and becoming subject to the government, is only the parting with natural liberty, in some instances, to be protected in the enjoyment of it in others.
  • Where there is liberty, there are encouragements to labor, because people labor for themselves, and no one can take from them the acquisitions which they make by their labor...
  • To live securely, happily, and independently, is the end and effect of liberty...Nor did ever any man that could live satisfactorily without a master desire to live under one...
  • ...all the advantages of liberty must be lost with liberty, and all the evils of tyranny must accompany tyranny.
  • ...liberty: You are our Alpha and Omega, our first and last resource; and when your virtue is gone, all is gone.
  • You are born to liberty, and it is in your interest and duty to preserve it...your governors have every right to protect and defend you, none to injure and oppress you.
  • ...make good use of this present dawn, this precious day of liberty...if you suffer it to be lost, will probably be forever lost.
  • Nothing is too hard for liberty...
  • This therefore is the worst of all prostitutions and most immoral of all sort of slavery...supporting servitude with the breath of liberty, and assaulting and mangling liberty with her own weapons.
  • ...liberty and tyranny... concerns the whole earth...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?
  • Liberty is salvation in politics...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 a doubt, every man has a right to liberty...
  • A free trade, a free government, and a free liberty of conscience, are the rights and the blessings of mankind.
  • It is madness in extremity, to hope that a government founded upon liberty...can be supported by other principles; and whoever would maintain it by contrary ones intends to blow it up, let him allege what he will.
  • ...a power inconsistent with liberty...will never be asked with an intention to make no use of it.
  • ...when a government is founded upon liberty and equal laws, it is ridiculous for those in the administration to have any hopes of preserving themselves long there, but by just actions...
  • Thus it is that liberty is almost everywhere lost: Her foes are artful, united and diligent: Her defenders are few, disunited, and inactive.
  • Truth has so many advantages above error, that she wants only to be shown...she breaks the bonds of tyranny and fraud...I would not destroy this liberty by methods which will inevitably destroy all liberty.
  • The cause of liberty, and the good of the whole, ought to prevail...This truth every man acknowledges, when it becomes his own case...
  • ...liberty...the people's zeal to preserve it has ever been called ingratitude by such as had designs against it...
  • You are born, Gentlemen, to liberty; and from it you derive all the blessings which you possess.
  • ...civil governments were instituted by men, and for the sake of men...men have a right to expect from them protection and liberty, and to oppose rapine and tyranny wherever they are exercised...

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. 
  • The people...the security of their persons and property is their highest aim...The same can rarely be said of great men, who, to gratify private passion, often bring down public ruin; who, to fill their private purses with many thousands, frequently load the people with many millions...
  • ...men have been knocked down for saying that they had a right to defend their property by force, when a tyrant attempted to rob them of it against law.
  • ...property, the preservation of which is the principal business of government...
  • The truth is; if the people are suffered to keep their own, it is the most that they desire: But even this is a happiness which in few places falls to their lot; they are frequently robbed by those whom they pay to protect them...
  • ...every man has a right and a call to provide for himself, to attend upon his own affairs, and to study his own happiness.
  • 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...
  • When a magistrate fancies he is not made for the people, but the people for him; that he does not govern for them, but for himself...the magistrate gives the name of sedition and rebellion to whatsoever they do for the preservation of themselves and their own rights.
  • Every plowman knows a good government from a bad one, from the effects of it; he knows whether the fruits of his labor be his own, and whether he enjoy them in peace and security.
  • ...one man is only safe, while it is in the interest of another to let him alone...
  • The two great laws of human society, from whence all the rest derive their course and obligation, are those of equity and self-preservation: By the first all men are bound alike not to hurt one another; by the second all men have a right alike to defend themselves.
  • Government therefore can have no power, but such as men can give...no man can give to another what is none of his own...
  • Nor has any man in the state of nature power...to take away the life of another, unless to defend his own, or what is as much his own, namely, his property.  This power therefore, which no man has, no man can transfer to another.
  • Nor could any man in the state of nature have a right to violate the property of another...as long as he himself was not injured by that industry and those enjoyments.  No man therefore could transfer to the magistrate that right which he had not himself.
  • No man in his senses was ever so wild as to give an unlimited power to another to take away his life, or the means of living...But if any man restrained himself from any part of his pleasures, or parted with any portion of his acquisitions, he did it with the honest purpose of enjoying the rest with greater security, and always in subservience to his own happiness, which no man will or can willingly and intentionally give away to any other whatsoever.
  • 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.  A character of which no man living can divest him but by usurpation, or by his own consent.
  • It is a mistaken notion of government, that the interest of the majority is only to be consulted...otherwise the greater number may sell the lesser, and divide their estates among themselves; and so, instead of a society, where all peaceable men are protected, become a conspiracy of the many against the minority...
  • Every man is in nature and reason the judge and disposer of his own domestic affairs...Government being intended to protect men from the injuries of one another, and not to direct them in their own affairs...
  • Let people alone, and they will take care of themselves, and do it best; and if they do not, a sufficient punishment will follow their neglect, without the magistrate's interposition and penalties...
  • True and impartial liberty is therefore the right of every man to pursue the natural, reasonable, and religious dictates of his own mind; to think what he will, to act as he thinks, provided he acts not to the prejudice of another; to spend his own money himself, and lay out the produce of his labor his own way; and to labor for his own pleasure and profits, and not for others who are idle, and would live...by pillaging and oppressing him, and those that are like him.
  • 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.
  • Now the laws which encourage and increase virtue are the fixed laws of general and impartial liberty; laws, which being the rule of every man's actions, and the measures of every man's power, make honesty and equity their interest.  Where liberty is thoroughly established, and its laws equally executed, every man will find his own account in doing as he would be done unto, and no man will take from another what he would not part with himself: Honor and advantage will follow the upright, punishment overtake the oppressor. The property of the poor will be as sacred as the privileges of the prince, and the law will be the only bulwark of both.  Every man's honest industry and useful talents, while they are employed for the public, will be employed for himself; and while he serves himself, he will serve the public...
  • Force is often dangerous; and when employed to acquire what is not ours, it is always unjust; and therefore men, to procure from others what they had not before, must gain their consent...
  • Where there is liberty, there are encouragements to labor, because people labor for themselves, and no one can take from them the acquisitions which they make by their labor...
  • To live securely, happily, and independently, is the end and effect of liberty...Nor did every any man that could live satisfactorily without a master desire to live under one...all men are animated by the passion of acquiring and defending property, because property is the best support of that independency...as happiness is the effect of independency, and independency the effect of property; so certain property is the effect of liberty alone, and can only be secured by the laws of liberty; laws which are made by consent, and cannot be repealed without it. 
  • All these blessings, therefore, are only the gifts and consequences of liberty, and only to be found in free countries, where power is fixed on one side, and property secured on the other; where one cannot break bounds without check, penalties or forfeiture, nor the other suffer diminution without redress...
  • ...chose whether you will be freemen or vassals; whether you will spend your own money and estates, or let others worse than you spend them for you: Methinks the choice should be easy.
  • ...while men are men, ambition, avarice, and vanity, and other passions, will govern their actions; in spite of all equity and reason, they will be ever usurping, or attempting to usurp, upon the liberty and fortunes of one another, and all men will be striving to enlarge their own.  Dominion will always desire increase, and property always to preserve itself; and these opposite views and interests will be causing a perpetual struggle: But by this struggle liberty is preserved...
  • This is not a dispute about dreams or speculations, which affect not your property; but it is a dispute whether you shall have any property, which these wretches throw away...
  • Would you allow the common laws of neighborhood to such as steal or plunder your goods, rob you of your money, seize your houses, drive you from your possessions, enslave your persons, and starve your families?  No, sure, you would not.
  • ...[pretending concern for the public good] will appear only to be a project for picking pockets, and getting away other people's money; which, in reality, at present makes, and ever did make, most of the squabbles which at any time have disturbed the world.
  • ...government is only the union of many individuals for their common defense...
  • ...to prevent the unfair gains and depredations of one another; which is indeed the business of the government; viz. to secure to every one his own...
  • A free trade, a free government, and a free liberty of conscience, are the rights and the blessings of mankind.
  • The first care which wise governors will always take is...to secure to them the possession of their property, upon which everything else depends.
  • ...the product of the whole people's labor and sustenance is not suffered to be devoured by a few...
  • ...political power...This is the greatest trust that can be committed by men to one another; and contains in it all that is valuable here on earth, the lives, the properties, the liberties, of your countrymen...This great trust, Gentlemen, is not committed to you for your own sakes, but for the protection, security and happiness of those whom you represent.

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. 

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Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him  MAIL, and see his Mises.org  Daily Articles Archive


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