Cato’s Letter #115: The Encroaching Nature of Power, Ever to be Watched and Checked

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This letter is among Cato’s best. Like Machiavelli in a few of his Discourses on Livy, Cato touches on the nature of despots, and the measures taken by the Roman Republic to hold on to liberty. The lesson for America 2016 is that we must take measures, as did the Romans, to restore free government.

The essence of republicanism is the checks the people put upon their governors. Keep the governors within certain bounds and nations are free. Without checks on government, men are slaves because the magistrates make their own rules and follow their lusts. Only those nations who bridle their governors do not wear chains.

Unlimited power is so wild and monstrous a thing, that no matter how natural it is to be desired, it is as natural to oppose it. No matter his intentions, unlimited power can never be entrusted to any mortal man. The nature of power is ever encroaching; it converts extraordinary powers granted at particular times for particular purposes, into an ordinary power to be used at all times. Emergency and occasional commissions sometimes become eternal.

Cato posits: “The Romans, who knew this evil, having suffered by it, provided wise remedies against it; and when one ordinary power grew too great, checked it with another.”

The Romans dealt head on with institutions that became corrupt or proved inadequate to their purposes. They didn’t dream that all would be well if they merely replaced the men in corrupt institutions. They played one institution off against another. Equivalently, they divided the sphere of power when necessary such that the possibility of tyranny was minimized. In time, when the existing institutions proved inadequate to serve their designed ends, new institutions were created to check them.

Early on, after dealing with kings and all-powerful decemviri, the Romans placed their trust in the nobility, a senate. Not long thereafter, the office of consul came about to deal with the shortcomings of senatorial rule. In time, the Romans next introduced people’s representatives in the form of Tribunes to counter the consuls and protect the populace from the arrogance of the senate. When the tribunate edged toward corrupt manners, the constitution was amended to allow a single tribune to frustrate the schemes of all the rest.

Since men naturally become comfortable with the powers of office, terms for elected positions were limited to a single year, and no man could serve in the same office again until after the passage of ten years. Upon leaving office, all were required to give account of their actions and expenditures. Any senator who had run through and spent his fortune was degraded from office. The idea was that only a wealthy man could have the requisite interest in the republic.

The Romans did not freeze their institutions. As problems emerged which threatened liberty, they adjusted existing institutions or invented new ones. By these measures, and being sufficiently covetous of liberty, the Roman Republic spanned some 450 years.

The great American experiment in popular government since the 17th Amendment of 1913 has proved to be detrimental to liberty. The essence of American republicanism, the limits and checks placed upon fellow citizens temporarily elevated to high office by the sovereign people through the compact of Constitution, is gone.

We must realize that our institutions no longer serve their free government purposes. To believe government will reform itself is silly. We must exercise our God-given societal right to do that which congress is incapable; reform our governing institutions beginning with repeal of the 17th Amendment.

We are the many; our oppressors are the few. Be proactive. Be a Re-Founder of the American Republic. Join Convention of States. Sign our COS Petition.