Learning Locke: An Introduction to Cato’s Letters

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Thomas Jefferson famously adapted key passages of John Locke’s Second Treatise in his draft Declaration of Independence. An 18th century gentleman could hardly regard himself as learned without the ability to quote a few Lockean passages from memory.

Yet, what of the average colonial? Books were expensive imports. How were the yeomanry educated well enough in Lockean concepts to readily understand and accept this radical document, the Declaration of Independence?

Through newspapers.

Like modern Americans, our colonial forebears were also political junkies. Freewheeling editorials, letters to the editor that criticized parliamentary and colonial governments were standing features of public life.

On November 5th 1720, the opposition newspaper London Journal began a series of entertaining, sarcastic, biting and accurate letters which hammered the corruption of the English government surrounding the collapse of the South Sea Company. Without getting into detail here which can be Wikied by anyone, suffice to say the damage done by the South Sea Company bubble and collapse was equivalent to the 2006 US Housing Crash. Like the US Housing Crash, the South Sea debacle enriched politicians, members of parliament, the royal court and their cronies at public expense.

The authors of Cato’s Letters*, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, exposed high political crimes and embarrassed numerous leading men. Men of the era were schooled in Roman history, and reference to Cato the Younger (95-46 BC), the implacable foe of Julius Caesar and champion of republicanism, appealed to their sense of honor and virtue. Of the 138 published letters, only twelve were devoted to the South Sea crisis; the remainder examined other areas of public morality: the ideas of liberty and the nature of tyranny. Considered all together, Trenchard and Gordon brought the philosophy of John Locke to the masses in a thoroughly engaging manner.

Cato’s Letters were published as a collection in 1724. Five more editions appeared through 1755. Copies soon appeared in colonial book seller’s catalogues and thereafter in American newspapers well into the Revolution.

The late historian Clinton Rossiter** wrote that no one can spend any time in colonial newspapers without realizing the presence of Cato’s Letters and how Cato, rather than Locke’s Two Treatises, was the quotable, most popular source of political ideas in the colonial period. As noted by Ronald Hamowy, “From its first publication through the revolutionary era that ended the century, its impact on both side 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.”

Cato wrote that the foundation of tyranny in all countries is essentially the same; there is too much force in the hands of one man, or a few unaccountable magistrates, and power without balance. Can it be a crime to write against great evil? Ask the conservative groups stymied by Lois Lerner’s IRS. The sum of the question is whether mankind have a right to be happy and oppose their own destruction. What man has the right to make another miserable?

Since mankind and America circa 2016 have a right to be happy and oppose their own destruction, it follows that we must take means appropriate to this noble end. Nothing is more appropriate than the peaceful means outlined in Article V to limit the power and jurisdiction of Washington DC, to restore free government.

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*John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Edited by Ronald Hamowy, Volume I. Cato’s Letters: Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, And other Important Subjects. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995. Book.

**Rossiter, Clinton. 1787 The Grand Convention. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1966. Book.