Cato's Letters are a series of 144 highly influential essays that were originally published between 1720 and 1723. They appeared first in the London Journal and later, from 1722, in the British Journal. In the history of Western political thought they stand at the cusp between classical republicanism and early classical liberalism. Their influence on American government in particular lies in their wide dissemination and excellent reception in the American colonies and the early American republic. The Letters' ideology of individual liberty, limited government, and the freedom of trade was powerfully inspiring in the colonies. Colonial leaders frequently cited Cato's Letters to justify their resistance to British colonial policies and, ultimately, to support declaring independence.
Cato's Letters were the collaborative project of two men, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Despite publishing pseudonymously, their identities appear to have been fairly well known to informed contemporaries. Of Gordon's early life we have relatively little information: he was born in Kirkcudbright, Scotland, in the late seventeenth century (the date is uncertain), and it is thought he received a law degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1716. John Trenchard was born to a wealthy family in 1662 and studied law at Trinity College, Dublin. His early political works included important writings against standing armies. Despots, he argued, raised standing armies and paid them through taxation (or plunder), but a free people could and should count instead on the local militia, whose members' vigor came from protecting their homes and families.
Appropriately, Trenchard and Gordon chose the pseudonym Cato after Cato the Younger ( 95 BCE–46 BCE ), a Roman statesman who worked tirelessly against government corruption in the late Republic. Trenchard and Gordon called for the prosecution of the South Sea Company's directors and the corrupt ministers who had enabled the scheme. Cato's sharp, principled denunciations of corrupt, state-entangled business brought a wide readership—as well as unwanted official attention, including a raid on the offices of the London Journal.
The two authors were undaunted, however. What began as a series of essays against the South Sea Company soon blossomed into an expansive plea for classical liberalism. The Letters celebrated the natural right of property, understood in broadly Lockean terms. They inveighed against arbitrary power, which they detected in the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Spain, and France. They commended religious toleration, the freedom of speech, and free trade. They argued against superstition, whose avatar they regarded above all as the pope.
Aside from the English philosopher John Locke, the intellectual influences behind the Letters came primarily from the commonwealthman tradition of English resistance to the Crown, as well as from ancient Stoic philosophy. Cato frequently quoted the English republican theorist Algernon Sidney ( 1623–1683 ); two of the Letters were little more than extended quotations from Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government. The Letters’ moral psychology is fascinating, and clearly owes much to Locke, while to a great degree it also anticipates the later moral psychology of the Scottish philosopher David Hume ( 1711–1776 ).
One of the key rhetorical and argumentative tactics deployed by both authors in the Letters was to argue for the practical, real-world advantages of individual liberty. Trenchard and Gordon provide numerous examples of how despotic countries suffer from a wide variety of ills: They are poor and depopulated. They are ignorant; the arts and letters suffer under tyrants. The morals of despotic countries become degraded. If far from court, the people grow vicious; if near the court, they grow debauched. Superstition flourishes everywhere. By contrast, liberty of religion brings true piety; liberty of expression brings great art and literature; liberty of trade brings wealth; and liberal government brings sincere patriotism while restraining human vices. Trenchard and Gordon made use of numerous travel narratives as well as ancient Roman history in support of these contentions.
Not everything in Cato's Letters is necessarily sympathetic to modern libertarianism, whose advocates commonly position themselves as the proper heirs to the classical liberal tradition; Trenchard and Gordon emphasized repeatedly that a free commonwealth, if it is to survive for long, needs at least a rough equality of property. They held a constitutional monarchy, such as they found in England, to be the best form of government. And they found no blame whatever in the continuance of the established Church.
Some scholars have emphasized the libertarian and undeniably Lockean aspects of the Letters, whereas others have preferred to link the Letters to the classical republican tradition, a considerably more communitarian strain of thought that emphasized the need for civic virtue. The latter school tends to emphasize the suspicion the Letters evinced of decadence and great concentrations of wealth.
One is not obliged of course to come down decisively on either side of this debate, but it should be stressed that the liberty advocated in the Letters is generally individualistic, not collective. The authors have little faith that they can directly exhort their compatriots to virtue. Rather, they advocate a restrained government under which the passions can do relatively little harm. This inclines them rather toward classical liberalism, in the vein of Locke, Hume, the Dutch philosopher Bernard de Mandeville ( 1670–1733 ), and the Scottish philosopher and political economist Adam Smith ( 1723–1790 ).
There has been little doubt among intellectual historians that Cato's Letters were profoundly influential in the American colonies. The chief historiographical debate has been about the precise nature of this influence. In The Origins of American Politics, Bernard Bailyn notes that Cato's Letters were “printed again and again, referred to and quoted in every possible context, in every colony in America” ( 1967, 54
Benjamin Franklin admired the Letters. In 1722 his New England Courant reprinted Cato's Letter no. 15, a frank defense of the freedom of speech: “Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech,” it begins.
Another notable appearance of the Letters came in the pages of the New-York Weekly Journal, the newspaper published by John Peter Zenger. Zenger's famous 1734 arrest and subsequent acquittal for seditious libel constituted a landmark case advancing press freedom in the American colonies. During its years-long dispute with the colonial government of New York, the New-York Weekly Journal reprinted in their entirety Cato's Letters nos. 15, 38, and 131, all of which dealt with press freedom. Zenger additionally published original material, also under the pseudonym Cato, in support of his cause. This was not an unusual practice for the time, and it allowed him to dwell on the particular ramifications of press freedom in his own time and place.
The great reverence for press freedom found in the American legal system and in American culture may fairly be placed at the feet of Trenchard and Gordon. In part thanks to their arguments, the United States remains one of the world's leaders in the liberty of the press, with protections for journalists, controversial speakers, and even hate speech that far outstrip those found in Western Europe.
The influence of the Letters did not end there, however. The Stamp Act Crisis of 1765 precipitated several anonymous reprintings of the Letters, particularly those that argued that self-interest was the mainspring of public happiness and that arbitrary taxation was inimical to it. This connection between private interest and public happiness was a signal idea of the Scottish Enlightenment; it had appeared almost contemporaneously to the Letters in Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees, and it would appear again most famously in Smith's The Wealth of Nations in 1776. That the American colonists would turn to the Letters in opposition to punitive taxation demonstrated the Letters' continued relevance as well as Americans' receptiveness to the idea that free markets coordinate disparate individual desires into an emergent and beneficial moral order. Like press freedom, the roots of American capitalism are perhaps to be found in Cato's Letters.
In recognition of this pervasive yet little-appreciated influence, the libertarian activist Murray Rothbard suggested naming the first American libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, a proposal that was carried out in 1977. Although today Cato's Letters are far from the familiar works that they were in the American colonies, their influence remains pervasive in American government and political life, both in the libertarian movement and also in many norms of governance that are all but universally shared.
SEE ALSO Capitalism ; Constitutionalism ; Liberalism ; Libertarianism ; Liberty ; Limited Government ; Republicanism .
Bailyn, Bernard. The Origins of American Politics. New York: Knopf, 1968.
Barry, Heather E. A Dress Rehearsal for Revolution: John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon's Works in Eighteenth-century British America. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007.
Mitchell, Annie. “A Liberal Republican ‘Cato.” ‘ American Journal of Political Science 48, no. 3 (2004): 588–603.
Trenchard, John, and Thomas Gordon. Cato's Letters, or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects. (1720–1723.) 4 vols. in 2. Edited by Ronald Hamowy. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1995.
Jason T. Kuznicki
The Cato Institute