Trenchard and Gordon: Cato's Letters

December 09, 2004

Cato's Letters: or Essays on Liberty, Civil and religious, and other Important Subjects
John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon
Ronald Hamowy, ed.
Four volumes in two
Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 1995
Originally appeard 1720-1723 in the London Journal

The Liberty Fund is really really good at taking classics of Anglo-American political thought, getting a talented but not high-priced academic to edit them, and publishing them in a durable affordable paperback edition. I disagree with their politics, but I love their books.

Cato's Letters is a classic of eighteenth-century political thought. In fact, while some educated men read Locke and friends in the originals, most American colonists got their ideas of compact theory, religious toleration, and the need for a vigilant defence of liberty, from Trenchard and Gordon. They were the vessel through which Whigh politics and enlightenment political theory were transmitted to much of the colonies, and they were also a well-regarded model of style and power.

I read these back in October, but never got around to blogging them. The letters are all short essays, the first dozen or so inspired by the scandal of the South Seas Company, the last few rather odd little rants, but most of them short essays on political theory or political concerns. All are worried about the corrupting aspects of power, and all warn that wealth and privilege lead a governing class to act for their own interest and not the national interest. As such, it was enlightening to read them during the tail end of the recent Presidential election, for I kept finding bits and pieces that I wanted to cut and paste and send off to the newspaper as op-ed pieces against Bush and Cheyney.

The irony, of course, is that those same bits and pieces could easily have been sent in by Republicans as op-ed pieces during Bill Clinton's two terms.

I won't get into the details of the letters - there are a lot of them - but I will say that I like them. I should add that my students do not like them. I assigned Cato 42, on the difference between natural law and statute law, and I think it was one of the readings with the lowest completion rate of the entire syllabus. Trenchard and Gordon like nice fat multi-clause 18th-century sentences, and our reading habits to day are closer to "See Jane run."

Good stuff.

Posted by Red Ted at December 9, 2004 03:32 PM | TrackBack
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