I’ve been re-reading Cato’s Letters, or Essays on Liberty Civil and Religious and Other Important Subjects (Complete), a series of essays published by “The Library of Alexandria” and compiled by two characters using the nom de plumes John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. The essays were first published from 1720 to 1723 and formed a strong influence on the thinking of many of our Founding Fathers.
Named for the famous Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato, he of the staunch republican opinions, the notorious Stoic who opposed the tyranny of Caesar unto his last breath, the Letters are a pioneering set of statements in favor of the principles of liberty, and of limits on and accountability of government.
From Wikipedia: The Letters are considered a seminal work in the tradition of the Commonwealth men. The 144 essays were published originally in the London Journal, later in the British Journal, condemning corruption and lack of morality within the British political system and warning against tyranny.
I can’t recommend this work strongly enough. A statement you’ll see just over to the right, one of the two founding sentiments of this blog, is from the Letters: Nisi forte non de serveitute, sed de conditione serviendi, recusandum est a nobis or, in English, “We do not dispute about the qualifications of a master, for we will have no master.”
A few interesting excerpts follow.
From No. 11, The Justice and Necessity of punishing great Crimes, though committed against no subsisting Law of the State.
Laws, for the most part, do not make crimes, but suit and adapt punishments to such actions as all mankind knew to be crimes before. And though national governments should never enact any positive laws, never annex particular penalties to known offences; yet they would have a right, and it would be their duty to punish those offences according to their best discretion; much more so, if the crimes committed are so great, that no human wisdom could foresee that any man could be wicked and desperate enough to commit them.
In other words, one of the few legitimate roles of government is protecting citizens from being deprived of their property by force or by fraud; but, should government fail in that task, the citizen has a moral right to redress by other means.
From No. 15, Of Freedom of Speech: That the same is inseparable from publick Liberty.
Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds which it ought to know.
The only limits to freedom of speech, then, are that one may not cause physical or financial harm to another. Thus incitements to violence are not protected, nor is slander or libel. But “hate speech,” by which term many today choose to define as “speech I don’t agree with” not only is protected, but must be protected, else the very concept of freedom of speech is meaningless.
From No. 33, Cautions against the natural Encroachments of Power.
It is nothing strange, that men, who think themselves unaccountable, should act unaccountably, and that all men would be unaccountable if they could: Even those who have done nothing to displease, do not know but some time or other they may; and no man cares to be at the entire mercy of another. Hence it is, that if every man had his will, all men would exercise dominion, and no man would suffer it. It is therefore owing more to the necessities of men, than to their inclinations, that they have put themselves at last that he might do what he would, he let loose his appetite for blood, and committed such mighty, such monstrous, such unnatural slaughters and outrages, as none but a heart bent on the study of cruelty could have devised.
To simplify: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It’s important to remember the context of the times in which these essays were written. The early 18th century was a time when slavery was broadly accepted, when pirates were hanged without trials, when women were excluded from government altogether. But the Letters are nonetheless an opening shot in the battle which continues today, here in the United States, where encroachments on liberty are daily proposed.
Go, then, and read these works. You can get a free Kindle app for a PC and the Kindle version (linked above) is only four bucks. You could hardly find a better way to spend four bucks.