Cato's Letters

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Cato's Letters (1720–23) were English political essays that shaped Republicanism, demanding civic virtue and denouncing corruption. It had an enormous influence on the American Founding Fathers

To conceal their identities, the authors used the Roman statesman, Cato the Younger, as an alias.[1] These letters were actually written by political journalists John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon and published anonymously in a series of letters in the London Journal under the title "Cato's Letters". These 138 short essays appeared in 1720-23; with six new ones they appeared in book form in 1723.
All 144 essays were published between 1720-1723; and in 1775, a two-volume modernized sixth edition of the Cato's Letters was printed in London.


They expounded on republicanism. The Roman Republic was the ideal against which they judged all governance. The authors' knowledge of Roman history and literature is staggering; the text is liberally sprinkled with Latin quotations. (The Latin was translated in Hamowy's 1995 edition.)

The authors were staunch Protestants, obsessed with the danger posed by the Jacobites (the Catholic supporters of James II), who wanted to put the Stuarts back on the throne. One letter on "The Necessary Decay of Popish States Shewn from the Nature of the Popish Religion," lists every charge ever leveled against the Catholic Church: ostentatious wealth, licentious priests, riotous feast days, etc.

There was praise for Cincinnatus, early Rome's citizen-soldier.

"Government was not in those days [519 BC] a trade. The office he executed honestly and successfully, without the grimace and gains of a statesman. Nor did he afterwards continue obstinately at the head of affairs. As he came to it with universal consent, he resigned it with universal applause."

On tyranny

The essays condemned government tyranny and called for the advancement of civil liberties and unalienable rights with lower government intervention. Here are a few such quotes:

"The state of tyranny is a state of war."
"Tyranny is not government but a dissolution of it."
"It is wickedness not to destroy a destroyer."

On Luxury

[from #17] "They will promote luxury, Idleness, and Expence, and a general Depravation of Manners, by their own Example, as well as by Connivance and publick Encouragement. They will not only divert Mens Thoughts frown examining their Behaviour and Politicks, but likewise let them loose from all the Restraints of private and publick Virtue. From Immorality and Excesses they will fall into Necessity; and from thence into a servile Dependence upon Power. In order to do this, they will bring into Fashion Gaming, Drunkenness, Gluttony, and profuse and costly Dress. They will debauch their country with foreign Vices, and foreign Instruments of vicious Pleasures; and will contrive and encourage publick Revels, nightly Disguises, and debauched Mummeries.


The Letters greatly influenced the American Founding Fathers. Trenchard and Gordon's writings presented the core ideas of republicanism that were adopted by the Patriots in the American Revolution and form core American political values.

The Cato Institute is a prominent American libertarian think tank was founded in 1976[2] in honor of Cato's Letters" by Trenchard and Gordon. It serves as a public libertarian policy research organization.[3] The Cato Institute wrote,

"The Cato Institute owes its name to Cato’s Letters, a series of essays published in 18th century Great Britain that presented a vision of a society free from the tyranny of excessive government power. Those same ideals inspired the architects of the American Revolution and continue to inspire the work of the Cato Institute today."[4]

Mitchell (2004) argues that Cato's Letters fall squarely within a liberal republican tradition, embracing John Locke, Bernard Mandeville, and (later) David Hume, and Adam Smith and suggests that it was in this vein that they were read by the Founding Fathers.

Further reading

  • Hamowy, Ronald. "Cato's Letters" in Hamowy, ed. Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (2008) p. 54-55 online
  • Mitchell, Annie. "A Liberal Republican 'Cato'". American Journal of Political Science, July 2004, Vol. 48 Issue 3, p588-603, in EBSCO
  • Robbins, Caroline. The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (1961) online edition pp 115–24

Primary sources

  • Trenchard, John, and Thomas Gordon. Cato's Letters: Or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects, ed. and annotated by Ronald Hamowy. (1995); the Latin is translated
  • Trenchard, John, and Thomas Gordon. Cato's Letters: Or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects, (1723) online edition; Latin not translated
  • Trenchard, John, and Thomas Gordon. Cato's Letters: Or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects, (1724) online edition