Lessons On Liberty

Commentary by Pete du Pont

School children across the country begin their annual trek back into our nation's classrooms this month. As they open up their history textbooks they are likely to read about names like Washington and Jefferson, Adams and Madison, Franklin and Paine, Trenchard and Gordon.

Who? When the Founding Fathers created the American Republic, they didn't just make up the rules out of thin air. Many of the ideas that informed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were part of the intellectual ferment of the period known as the Enlightenment, and many had their antecedents in English thought of the 17th century.

But while well-known names like John Locke are often credited with swaying Jefferson and Adams toward the kind of government we have today, a fair amount of the credit goes to John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, two Englishmen who lived in the early 18th century who wrote collectively under the pen name Cato. The two journalists wrote a series of letters for two London newspapers between 1720 and 1723, sparked by a massive financial swindle involving some government ministers and members of the royal court that ruined thousands of investors.

Yet while the scandal inspired the writing, only about a dozen of the more than 130 essays dealt specifically with the scandal in the end. The others dealt with topics ranging from natural law, property rights, free speech and tax policy, to the separation of powers and the importance of limited government. By far the most important, however, was the discourse about the clash between liberty (Cato's ideal) and tyranny, its evil mirror image.

"Cato's Letters on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects" was reprinted many times in the American colonies during the 18th century, and as historian Bernard Bailyn has written, they were quoted in every colonial newspaper from Boston to Savannah. The irony is that while Trenchard and Gordon, as radical Whigs, were never more than peripheral figures in British politics, their influence in America was profound. And while North Americans admired a number of writers who espoused a variety of related philosophies, as historian Clinton Rossiter once noted, "the greatest of these were Trenchard and Gordon."

Unlike many of the tales of our nation's founding that fill our history textbooks, Cato's lessons of liberty are every bit as relevant today as they were in the time of Adams, according to a book from the National Center for Policy Analysis. "Notes on Freedom: Individual Liberty vs. Government Tyranny 18th Century and Today, A Study of Cato's Letters" puts Cato's analysis of public policy problems side-by-side with current questions of policy, statecraft and political philosophy, and should be required reading of every high school senior.

We live in a time where our political class increasingly looks to create government programs to protect us from the dangers of everyday life, and regulate the risk out of getting up in the morning. Cato, meanwhile, is a reminder that government exists to protect people from the depredations of each other, not from themselves.

While political leaders today often seem (and act) like a ruling class, Cato points out repeatedly that government is a compact freely entered into by governors and the governed, and that politicians are the employees of the public who serve at their pleasure - not an American version of royalty.

And importantly, Cato reminds us that the best government is one that has checks and balances that limit power, because governmental power, once secured, is rarely given up. In one of his many wise observations, Cato notes, "All men are for confining power when it is over them; and for extending it when they are in it."

Trenchard and Gordon are equally modern and perceptive when commenting on the value of free trade, the importance of low taxes and the value of limited government. They offer a dose of realism when it comes to restraining government, not because government is inherently evil, but because it's a human creation.

The Founders believed in a government of laws, not of men. That belief could have come straight from Cato, who understood that there is nothing so terrible that human nature isn't capable of it, thus, "the making of laws supposes that all men are naturally wicked; and the surest mark of virtue is the observation of laws that are virtuous."

Trenchard and Gordon were wise observers in the 18th century. They're worth rediscovering today.