Cato’s Letters Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022


I Intend to entertain my Readers with Dissertations upon Liberty, in some of my succeeding Letters; and shall, as a Preface to that Design, endeavour to prove in this, that Liberty is the unalienable Right of all Mankind.

All Governments, under whatsoever Form they are administered, ought to be administred for the Good of the Society; and when they are otherwise administered, they cease to be Government, and become Usurpation. This being the End of all Government, even the most Despotick have this Limitation to their Authority: And, in this Respect, the only Difference between the most absolute Princes and limited Magistrates is, that in free Governments there are Checks and Restraints appointed and expressed in the Constitution it self; and in despotick Governments, the People submit themselves to the Prudence and Discretion of the Prince alone: But there is still this tacit Condition annex’d to his Power, that he must act by the unwritten Laws of Discretion and Prudence, and employ it for the sole Interest of the People, who give it to him, or suffer him to enjoy it, which they ever do for their own Sakes.

Even in the most free Governments, single Men are often trusted with discretionary Power: But they must answer for that Discretion to those that trust them. Generals of Armies, and Admirals of Fleets have often unlimited Commissions, and yet are they not answerable for the prudent Execution of those Commissions? The Council of Ten, in Venice, have absolute Power over the Liberty and Life of every Man in the State: But if they should make use of that Power to slaughter, abolish, or enslave the Senate and, like the Decemviri of Rome, to set up themselves; would it not be lawful for those, who gave them that Authority for other Ends, to put those Ten unlimited Traitors to Death, any Way they could? The Crown of England has been for the most part entrusted with the sole Disposal of the Money given for the Civil List, and often with the Application of great Sums raised for other publick Uses; and yet, if the Lord-Treasurer had applied this Money to the Dishonour of the King, and Ruin of the People, (tho’ by the private Direction of the Crown itself) will any Man say that he ought not to have compensated for his Crime, by the Loss of his Head and his Estate?

I have said thus much, to shew that no Government can be absolute in the Sense, or rather Nonsense, of our modern Dogmatizers, and indeed in the Sense too commonly practised. No barbarous Conquest: no extorted Consent of miserable People, submitting to the Chain to escape the Sword; no repeated and hereditary Acts of Cruelty, tho’ called Succession; no Continuation of Violence, tho’ named Prescription; can alter, much less abrogate these fundamental Principles of Government it self, or make the Means of Preservation the Means of Destruction, and render the Condition of Mankind infinitely more miserable than that of the Beasts of the Field, by the sole Privilege of that Reason which distinguishes them from the Brute Creation.

Force can give no Title but to Revenge, and to the Use of Force again: Nor could it ever enter into the Heart of any Man, to give to another Power over him, for any other End but to be exercised for his own Advantage: And if there are any Men mad or foolish enough to pretend to do otherwise, they ought to be treated as Idiots and Lunaticks; and the Reason of their Conduct must be derived from their Folly and Phrenzy.

All Men are born free: Liberty is a Gift: which they receive from God himself; nor can they alienate the same by Consent, tho’ possibly they may forfeit it by Crimes. No Man has Power over his own Life, or to dispose of his own Religion, and cannot consequently transfer the Power of either to any body else: Much less can he give away the Lives and Liberties, Religion or acquired Property of his Posterity, who will be born as free as he himself was born, and can never be bound by his wicked and ridiculous Bargain.

The Right of the Magistrate arises only from the Right of private Men to defend themselves, to repel Injuries, and to punish those who commit them: That Right being conveyed by the Society to their publick Representative, he can execute the same no further than the Benefit and Security of that Society requires he should. When he exceeds his Commission, his Acts are as extrajudicial as are those of any private Officer usurping an unlawful Authority, that is, they are void; and every Man is answerable for the Wrong he does. A Power to do Good, can never become a Warrant for doing Evil.

But here arises a grand Question, which has perplexed and puzzled the greatest part of Mankind: And yet, I think, the Answer to it is easy and obvious. The Question is, Who shall be Judge whether the Magistrate acts justly, and pursues his Trust? To this it is justly said, that if those who complain of him are to judge him, then there is a settled Authority above the chief Magistrate, which Authority must be itself the chief Magistrate; which is contrary to the Supposition; and the same Question and Difficulty will recur again upon this new Magistracy. All this I own to be absurd, and I aver it to be at least as absurd to affirm, that the Person accused is to be the decisive Judge of his own Actions, when it is certain he will always judge and determine in his own Favour; and thus the whole Race of Mankind will be left helpless under the heaviest Injustice, Oppression and Misery that can afflict humane Nature.

But if neither Magistrates, nor they who complain of Magistrates, and are aggriev’d by them, have a Right to determine decisively, the one for the other; and if there is no common establish’d Power, to which both are subject: Then every Man interested in the Success of the Contest, must act according to the Light and Dictates of his own Consience, and inform it as well as he can. Where no Judge is or can be appointed, every Man must be his own; that is, when there is no stated Judge upon Earth, we must have Recourse to Heaven, and obey the Will of Heaven, by declaring our selves on that which we think the juster Side.

If the Senate and People of Rome had differed irreconcileably, there could have been no common Judge in the World between them; and consequently no Remedy but the last: for that Government consisting in the Union of the Nobles and the People, when they differed, no Man could determine between them: and therefore every Man must have been at Liberty to provide for his own Security, and the general Good, in the best Manner he was able. In that Case the common Judge ceasing, every one was his own: The Government becoming incapable of acting, suffered a political Demise: The Constitution was dissolved, and there being no Government in Being, the People were in the State of Nature again.

The same must be true, where two Absolute Princes, governing a Country, come to quarrel, as sometimes two Caesars in Partnership did, especially towards the latter End of the Roman Empire; or where a Sovereign Council govern a Country, and their Votes come equally to be divided. In such a Circumstance, every Man must take that Side which he thinks most for the Publick Good, or chuse any proper Measures for his own Security. For, if I owe my Allegiance to two Princes agreeing, or to the Majority of a Council; when between these Princes there is no longer any Union, nor in that Council any Majority, no Submission can be due to that which is not; and the Laws of Nature and Self preservation must take place, where there are no other.

The Case is still the same, when there is any Dispute about the Titles of Absolute Princes, who govern independently on the States of a Country, and call none. Here too every Man must judge for himself what Party he will take, and to which of the Titles he will adhere; and the like private Judgment must guide him, whenever a Question arises whether the said Prince is an Idiot or Lunatick, and consequently whether he is capable or incapable of Government. Where there are no States, there can be no other Way of judging; but by the Judgment of private Men, the Capacity of the Prince must be judged, and his Fate determined. Lunacy and Idiotism are, I think, allowed by all to be certain Disqualifications for Government; and indeed they are as much so, as if he were deaf, blind, and dumb, or even dead. He who can neither execute an Office, nor appoint a Deputy, is not fit for one.

Now I would fain know, why private Men may not as well use their Judgment in an Instance that concerns them more; I mean that of a Tyrannical Government, of which they hourly feel the sad Effects, and sorrowful Proofs; whereas they have not by far the equal Means of coming to a Certainty about the natural Incapacity of their Governor. The Persons of great Princes are known but to few of their Subjects, and their Parts to much fewer and several Princes have, by the Management of their Wives, or Ministers, or Murderers, reign’d a good while after they were dead. In Truth, I think ’tis as much the Business and Right of the People to judge whether their Prince be good or bad, whether a Father or an Enemy, as to judge whether he be dead or alive; unless it be said (as many such wise Things have been said) that they may judge whether he can govern them, but not whether he does; and that it behoves them to put the Administration in wiser Hands, if he is a harmless Fool, but it is impious to do it, if he is only a destructive Tyrant; that Want of Speech is a Disqualification, but Want of Humanity none.

That Subjects were not to judge of their Governors, or rather for themselves in the Business of Government, which of all humane Things concerns them most, was an Absurdity that never entered into the Imagination of the wise and honest Ancients: Who, following for their Guide that everlasting Reason, which is the best and only Guide in humane Affairs, carried Liberty and humane Happiness, the legitimate Offspring and Work of Liberty, to the highest Pitch that they were capable of arriving at. But the above Absurdity, with many others as monstrous and mischievous, were reserved for the Discovery of a few wretched and dreaming Mahometan and Christian Monks, who, ignorant of all Things, were made, or made themselves, the Directors of all Things; and bewitching the World with holy Lies, and unaccountable Ravings, dressed up in barbarous Words and uncouth Phrases, bent all their Fairy-Force against common Sense and common Liberty and Truth, and founded a pernicious, absurd, and visionary Empire upon their Ruins. Systems without Sense, Propositions without Truth, Religion without Reason, a rampant Church without Charity, Severity without Justice, and Government without Liberty or Mercy, were all the blessed Handy-Works of these religious Madmen, and godly Pedants; who, by pretending to know the other World, cheated and confounded this. Their Enmity to common Sense, and Want of it, were their Warrants for governing the Sense of all Mankind: By Lying, they were thought the Champions of the Truth; and by their Fooleries, Impieties, and Cruelty, were esteemed the Favourites and Confidents of the God of Wisdom, Mercy, and Peace.

Categories: History