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Cato’s Letters – An Introduction

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,”

Cato’s Letters

Cato’s Letters – An Introduction

Writing of Cato’s (Letters) reception in colonial America, one historian has concluded, “No one can spend any time in the newspapers, library inventories, and pamphlets of colonial America without realizing that Cato’s Letters rather than Locke’s ‘Civil Government’ was the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period.”

Editorial by Boyd Evan White

There is a reason for that; they are astute and forceful; every patriot should read them. I purchased my hard copies in 2005 and they stayed in shrink wrap for a decade until I concluded that learning what they had to say was not going to be obtained by osmosis…so I read them.

The impetus for Cato’s Letters, written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, was the South Seas Bubble in 1720. The British economy and monetary system was severely hurt with multitudes of people losing their savings, property and capability to make a gainful living. It was due to Corporate Officer’s mismanagement exacerbated with the collusion of government officials by propping up the stock value which amounted to pouring money into a deep endless pit. And who was hurt? The Corporate Officers? No, they fled the country and avoided prosecution. The government officials? No, they were immune from prosecution. It was the common people who suffered. And thus, the palpable righteous indignation of Cato’s Letters. Imagine this being printed today:

“…you may, at present load every gallows in England with directors and stock-jobbers, without the assistance of a sheriff’s guard, or so much as a sigh from an old woman, though accustom’d perhaps to shed tears at the untimely demise of a common felon or murderer. A thousand stock-jobbers, well trussed up, besides the diverting sight, would be a cheap sacrifice to the Mane’s of trade.”

Cato’s Letters were first printed in two newspapers in London from 1721 through 1723, then, published in book form in 1724. There are 144 articles in 2 books with 4 volumes and 994 pages. How many of the United States of America’s founders read them?

Besides the content of the articles themselves there is another fascinating aspect rarely found in other books. These books are full of Latin quotes, with English translations, from the old Roman empire. It is like a time machine from now to 1720 and then viewing farther on back to people from old Rome expressing ideas and thoughts seldom talked about these days. The adage, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” is doubly reinforced by examples from the South Seas Bubble crisis and Cato’s Letter rebukes which used historical examples from old Rome as their historical benchmark.

For instance, the below quote is extracted from a letter written by Brutus, an assassin of Julius Caesar, to Cicero denouncing Cicero’s petitioning August Caesar to pardon the assassins, and used in one of Cato’s Letters to make a point.

“As if the nature of servitude were changed, by changing names and persons. No, we do not dispute about the qualifications of a master; we will have no master.”

The content of the letters is extremely insightful; their span covers much more than just the Souths Seas Bubble crisis. There are many references to Islam and the Turkish and Moroccan Caliphates and how they were viewed by staunch Englishmen. This was printed in May 21st, 1721 (#31):

“The Turks place great devotion in releasing captive birds from their cages, in feeding indigent and mangey dogs, and building hospitals for them,, and in paying a religious reverence to camels: But at the same time that they thus use birds and beasts like men and Christians, they use men and Christians worse than they do beasts; and with them it is a lighter offense to deny bread to a poor Christian, who is famished in his chains, that to the dogs of the street, which are fit for nothing but to breed infection. They will load a poor Christian with irons, cover him with stripes, and think that they do well and religiously in it; yet make it a matter of conscience not to overload a beast of burden.”

The extent of the Global Trade and how it was viewed was fascinating. Consider how this compares with the USA’s relationship with Chinese imports today:

“Tis said too, that the trade of this (East India) company may be enlarged; I suppose they mean, by bringing in more India manufactures, to the ruin of our own.”

…and..

“The Dutch make other advantages of their forts and garrisons,…by which means they have almost the monopoly of the spices of the world; of which, it is said, they every year burn mountains to keep up the price, as all exclusive companies will ever do.”

Sadly, price manipulation, in relation to supply and demand, is an unsavory aspect of free enterprise, then and now.

And the below Cato Letter, if you don’t use invective or slander, must be the grand whopper of all politically incorrect letters printed in a newspaper. It is based on hardcore self-interest; unfortunately, it is also based on a pitiless approach to the general education of a society. However, it does serve a more poignant purpose in our era; if you have ever been condemned as cold, heartless, cruel, or politically incorrect for just the mere shred of rationality and value of solvency you should…nay, you must read this letter #133…then you will have some comparison as to what cold, heartless, cruel and politically incorrect self-interest really sounds like.

NO. 133. SATURDAY, JUNE 15, 1723. Of Charity, and Charity-Schools.

“Every country can maintain but a certain number of shop-keepers, or retailers of commodities, which are raised or manufactured by others; and the fewer they are, the better; because they add nothing to the publick wealth; but only disperse and accommodate it to the convenience of artificers, manufacturers and husbandmen, or such who live upon their estates and professions; and serve the publick only by directing and governing the rest; but as there must be many retailers of other men’s industry, and the greatest part of them will be but just able to support themselves, and with great pains, frugality, and difficulty, breed up their families, and be able to spare small sums out of their little substance to teach their children to write and cast account, and to put them out apprentices to those of their own degree; so those employments ought to fall to the share of such only; but now are mostly anticipated, and engrossed by the managers of the charity-schools; who, out of other people’s pockets, give greater sums than the other can afford, only to take the lowest dregs of the people from the plough and labour, to make them tradesmen, and by consequence drive the children of tradesmen to the plough to beg, to rob, or to starve.”

This editorial is just an introduction to Cato’s Letters. More will follow concentrating on specific topics and themes found in Cato’s Letters.

Free Online Edition:
John Trenchard, Cato’s Letters, 4 vols. in 2 (LF ed.) [1724]

Purchase Books:
Cato’s Letters or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects : Four Volumes in Two

Every country can maintain but a certain number of shop-keepers, or retailers of commodities, which are raised or manufactured by others; and the fewer they are, the better; because they add nothing to the publick wealth; but only disperse and accommodate it to the convenience of artificers, manufacturers and husbandmen, or such who live upon their estates and professions; and serve the publick only by directing and governing the rest; but as there must be many retailers of other men’s industry, and the greatest part of them will be but just able to support themselves, and with great pains, frugality, and difficulty, breed up their families, and be able to spare small sums out of their little substance to teach their children to write and cast account, and to put them out apprentices to those of their own degree; so those employments ought to fall to the share of such only; but now are mostly anticipated, and engrossed by the managers of the charity-schools; who, out of other people’s pockets, give greater sums than the other can afford, only to take the lowest dregs of the people from the plough and labour, to make them tradesmen, and by consequence drive the children of tradesmen to the plough to beg, to rob, or to starve.”

 

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