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Learning From The British Election Of 1722

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Submitted by Gary Galles via The Mises Institute,


It has become commonplace to note that the 2016 election campaign is unlike any America has seen before. Whether it is the issues brought to the fore, the number of scandals, or the intensity of the personal invective, it is hard to believe we are now within the bounds of what our founders had in mind.


In fact, we can make that statement going back more than half a century before our founding. The reason is that one of the greatest influences on colonial American political thought was Cato’s Letters, in which John Trenchard and Robert Gordon echoed John Locke in the early 1720s. According to Ronald Hamowy, its


arguments against oppressive government and in support of the splendors of freedom were quoted constantly and its authors were regarded as the country’s most eloquent opponents of despotism…[and] frequently served as the basis of the American response to the whole range of depredations under which the colonies suffered.


Of particular note in regard to our current election choices are Cato’s Letters 69 and 70, which addressed British voters about the choice of representatives they faced in their fiercely fought general election of 1722. Those letters bring us back to how far we have moved from what George Washington described as “the sacred fire of liberty…staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People,” making some of its insights worth reconsideration today:


  • "Our country abounds with men of courage and understanding; nor are there wanting those of integrity and public spirit: There is an ardent desire and diffusive love of liberty…and many begin to be tired, sick, and ashamed of party-animosities, and of quarrelling…to gratify the pride, the ambition, and rapine of those who only sell and betray them. It is yet in our power to save ourselves."
  • "Let us not again be deluded with false promises and deceitful assurances; but let us judge what men will do by what they have done."
  • "Throw your choice upon such who will neither buy you, nor sell you."
  • "In corrupt administrations, your superiors of all kinds make bargains, and pursue ends at the public expense, and grow rich by making the people poor."
  • Think what you are doing, while you are raising hue and cry after men who will betray you…for a poor momentary share of their infamous plunder.
  • Know, Gentlemen, how you are used above, by those who think it worth their time to flatter you below, and to your faces…It depends now upon yourselves, whether you will deserve these base and reproachful names, or not; show that you are men.
  • Liberty: You are our Alpha and Omega, our first and last resource; and when your virtue is gone, all is gone…you may choose whether you will be freemen or vassals; whether you will spend your own money and estates, or let others worse than you spend them for you.
  • "You are born to liberty, and it is your interest and duty to preserve it…your governors have every right to protect and defend you, none to injure and oppress you…But it depends upon yourselves alone to make these rights of yours…of use to you."
  • "All men desire naturally riches and power; almost all men will take every method, just or unjust, to attain them. Hence the difficulty of governing men."
  • "While men are men, ambition, avarice, and vanity, and other passions, will govern their actions; in spite of all equity and reason, they will be ever usurping, or attempting to usurp, upon the liberty and fortunes of one another, and all men will be striving to enlarge their own. Dominion will always desire increase, and property always to preserve itself; and these opposite views and interests will be causing a perpetual struggle: But by this struggle liberty is preserved."
  • "The interest of the body of the people is to keep people from oppression, and their magistrates from changing into plunderers."
  • "Nor can there be any security in the fidelity of one [representative], who can find it more his interest to betray you than to serve you faithfully."
  • "Choose not therefore such who are likely to truck away your liberties for an equivalent to themselves, and to sell you to those against whom it is their duty to defend you."
  • "This is not a dispute about dreams or speculations, which affect not your property; but it is a dispute whether you shall have any property, which these wretches throw away."
  • "Do you not know how much you are at the mercy of their honesty…whether you are to be freemen or slaves…Would you allow the common laws of neighborhood to such as steal or plunder your goods, rob you of your money, seize your houses, drive you from your possessions, enslave your persons, and starve your families? No, sure, you would not."
  • "Consider what you are about…We are all in your hands, and so at present are your representatives; but very quickly the scene will be shifted, and both you and we will be in theirs…think what they are like to be, when they are no longer under your eye…These humble creatures, who now bow down before you, will soon look down upon you."


Cato’s Letters 69 and 70 focused on the British election of 1722. But they also provide a useful civics primer for the principles American voters concerned with the progressive evisceration of liberty should consider this November, almost three centuries later. However, those principles seem to disqualify both major party candidates, neither of whom exhibits more than a lukewarm commitment for defending our freedoms. No wonder so many are torn about who to hold their nose and vote for. But that begs the question: Is voting for anyone whose positions are so at odds with our founding defensible, if one believes in liberty?





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