Cato on the Evils of War and Standing Armies

To a classical historian, Cato refers to the Roman statesmen Cato the Elder (234—139 B.C.) and Cato the Younger (95—46 B.C.). To a fashion-conscious woman, Cato is a chain of clothing stores. To a beltway libertarian, Cato refers to the Cato Institute in Washington DC. But to the American colonists, Cato would have been a reference to the essays by John Trenchard (1662—1723) and Thomas Gordon (d. 1750) that condemned tyranny and corruption in government while advancing the principles of liberty.

Cato’s Letters is a collection of 144 essays by Trenchard and Gordon that appeared in the London Journal and the British Journal between 1720 and 1723. They were published together beginning in 1724 as Cato’s Letters: Or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects. The essays were signed with the pseudonym Cato, after Cato the Younger, the foe of Julius Caesar and champion of liberty and republican principles. Cato the Younger was the great-grandson of Cato the Elder. His daughter married Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar. Cato’s life was immortalized in the 1713 play, Cato: A Tragedy, by the English playwright and essayist Joseph Addison (1672—1719).

Cato’s Letters was not the first collaboration of Gordon and Trenchard. They also wrote and published anonymously the London political weekly, The Independent Whig, in 1720. Previous to this, they authored two pamphlets: The Character of an Independent Whig and Considerations Offered upon the Approaching Peace and upon the Importance of Gibraltar to the British Empire, being the Second Part of the “Independent Whig,” both published in 1719.

While Cato’s Letters were still being published in London, they began to be reprinted in the American colonies. Thirty-seven percent of library and booksellers’ catalogs surveyed in the fifty years preceding the American Revolution listed Cato’s Letters. Trenchard and Gordon were among the ten most quoted individuals during the period from 1760—1805. According to historian Clinton Rossiter, Cato’s Letters were “the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period.” Bernard Bailyn further notes that to the American colonists, Cato’s Letters “ranked with the treatises of Locke as the most authoritative statement of the nature of political liberty.”

In light of the current debacle in Iraq that the United States is engaged in, our particular concern here is the statements in Cato’s Letters relating to the evils of war and standing armies. Although Trenchard and Gordon did not say much, they said a mouthful. Their equally notable statements on liberty and property have already been examined elsewhere.

Cato on War

The classic statement on the evils of war appears in Cato’s Letters No. 87:

If we consider this question under the head of justice and humanity, what can be more detestable than to murder and destroy mankind, in order to rob and pillage them? War is comprehensive of most, if not all the mischiefs which do or ever can afflict men: It depopulates nations, lays waste the finest countries, destroys arts, sciences, and learning, butchers innocents, ruins the best men, and advances the worst; effaces every trace of virtue, piety, and compassion, and introduces confusion, anarchy, and all kinds of corruption in publick affairs; and indeed is pregnant with so many evils, that it ought ever to be avoided, when it can be avoided; and it may be avoided when a state can be safe without it, and much more so when all the advantages proposed by it can be procured by prudent and just methods.

In Cato’s Letters No. 17, as an example of “what measures have been taken by corrupt ministers, in some of our neighbouring countries, to ruin and enslave the people over whom they presided,” we read something strangely reminiscent of our own “leaders”:

They will engage their country in ridiculous, expensive, fantastical wars, to keep the minds of men in continual hurry and agitation, and under constant fears and alarms; and, by such means, deprive them both of leisure and inclination to look into publick miscarriages. Men, on the contrary, will, instead of such inspection, be disposed to fall into all measures offered, seemingly, for their defence, and will agree to every wild demand made by those who are betraying them. When they have served their ends by such wars, or have other motives to make peace, they will have no view to the publick interest; but will often, to procure such peace, deliver up the strong-holds of their country, or its colonies for trade, to open enemies, suspected friends, or dangerous neighbours, that they may not be interrupted in their domestick designs.

This theme is continued in Cato’s Letters No. 87:

I have often wondered at the folly and weakness of those princes, who will sacrifice hundreds of thousand of their own faithful subjects, to gain a precarious and slavish submission from bordering provinces, who will seek all opportunities to revolt; which cannot be prevented but by keeping them poor, wretched, and miserable, and consequently unable to pay the charges of their own vassalage; when, if the same number of men and the sums of money were usefully employed at home, which are necessary to make and support the conquest, they would add vastly more to their power and empire.

Cato preferred commerce to conquest:

All the advantages procured by conquest is to secure what we possess ourselves, or to gain the possessions of others, that is, the produce of their country, and the acquisitions of their labor and industry; and if these can be obtained by fair means, and by their own consent, sure it must be more eligible than to exhort them by force. This is certainly more easily and effectually done by a well regulated commerce, than by arms: The balance of trade will return more clear money from neighbouring countries, than can be forced from them by fleets or armies, and more advantageously than under the odious name of tribute. It enervates rival states by their own consent, and obligates them, whilst it impoverishes and ruins them: It keeps our own people at home employed in arts, manufactures, and husbandry, instead of murdering them in wild, expensive, and hazardous expeditions, to the weakening their own country, and the pillaging and destroying their neighbours, and only for the fruitless and imaginary glory of conquest.

Cato on Standing Armies

Like the American Brutus, Cato also spoke out against the evils of standing armies. This subject was a particular concern of John Trenchard. With Walter Moyle, Trenchard had previously written An Argument Shewing that a Standing Army is Inconsistent with a Free Government, and Absolutely Destructive to the Constitution of the English Monarchy (London, 1697). This was followed the next year by Trenchard’s A Short History of Standing Armies in England (London, 1698). He was also the author of the anonymously-published work, A Letter from the Author of the Argument Against a Standing Army, to the Author of the Ballancing Letter [an essay defending standing armies] (London, 1697).

Cato’s Letters No. 94 and 95 are both devoted to the subject of standing armies. The subject is also mentioned in another essay entitled “Considerations upon the Condition of an Absolute Prince.” Sometimes it is standing armies in general that are warned against:

Standing armies are standing curses in every country under the sun, where they are more powerful than the people. It is certain, that all parts of Europe which are enslaved, have been enslaved by armies; and it is absolutely impossible, that any nation which keeps them amongst themselves can long preserve their liberties; nor can any nation perfectly lose their liberties who are without such guests: And yet, though all men see this, and at times confess it, yet all have joined in their turns, to bring this heavy evil upon themselves and their country. I never yet met with one honest and reasonable man out of power who was not heartily against all standing armies, as threatening and pernicious, and the ready instruments of certain ruin: And I scarce ever met with a man in power, or even the meanest creature of power, who was not for defending and keeping them up: So much are the opinions of men guided by their circumstances! Men, when they are angry with one another, will come into any measures for revenge, without considering that the same power which destroys an enemy, may destroy themselves; and he to whom I lend my sword to kill my foe, may with it kill me. Great empires cannot subsist without great armies, and liberty cannot subsist with them. As armies long kept up, and grown part of the government, will soon engross the whole government, and can never be disbanded; so liberty long lost, can never be recovered. Is not this an awful lesson to free states, to be vigilant against a dreadful condition, which has no remedy.

At other times the reference is specific and contemporary:

When, in King William’s reign, the question was in debate, Whether England should be ruled by standing armies? The argument commonly used by some, who had the presumption to call themselves Whigs, and owned in the Ballancing Letter (supposed to be written by one who gave the word to all the rest), was, that all governments must have their periods one time or other, and when that time came, all endeavours to preserve liberty were fruitless; and shrewd hints were given in that letter, that England was reduced to such a condition; that our corruptions were so great, and the dissatisfaction of the people was so general, that the publick safety could not be preserved, but by increasing the power of the crown: And this argument was used by those shameless men, who had caused all that corruption, and all that dissatisfaction. I should be glad to know in what situation of our affairs it can be safe to reduce our troops to the usual guards and garrisons, if it cannot be done now. There is no power in Europe considerable enough to threaten us, who can have any motives to do so, if we pursue the old maxims and natural interest of Great Britain; which is, to meddle no farther with foreign squabbles, than to keep the balance even between France and Spain. And once again it is commerce that “saves the trouble, expence, and hazard, of supporting numerous standing armies abroad to keep the conquered people in subjection; armies, who, for the most part too, if not always, enslave their own country, and ever swallow up all the advantages of the conquests.”

The current U.S. policies of militarism and interventionism are directly contrary to the wisdom of Trenchard and Gordon in Cato’s Letters. If the Founding Fathers considered these essays to be so important, why doesn’t Bush and Company think likewise?

[All quotations from Cato’s Letters are taken from the Liberty Fund edition edited by Ronald Hamowy, which is also available online]