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Cato's Letters


Between 1720 and 1723 John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, collaborating under the pseudonym of "Cato," published weekly essays in the London newspapers, popularizing the ideas of English libertarians, especially john locke. Gordon collected 138 essays in four volumes which went through six editions between 1733 and 1755 under the title, Cato's Letters: Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious.clinton rossiter, who rediscovered "Cato," wrote, "no one can spend any time in the newspapers, library inventories, and pamphlets of colonial America without realizing that Cato's Letters rather than Locke's Civil Government was the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period." The essays bore titles such as "Of Freedom of Speech… inseparable from publick Liberty," "The Right and Capacity of the People to judge of Government," "Liberty proved to be the unalienable Right of all Mankind," "All Government proved to be instituted by Men," "How free Governments are to be framed to last," "Civil Liberty produces all Civil Blessings," and "Of the Restraints which ought to be laid upon publick Rulers." Almost every colonial newspaper from Boston to Savannah anthologized Cato's Letters, and the four volumes were imported from England in enormous quantities. The most famous of the letters were those on the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Cato conceded that freedom posed risks, because people might express themselves irreligiously or seditiously, but restraints on expression resulted in injustice, tyranny, and ignorance. "Cato" would not prosecute criminal libels because prosecution was more dangerous to liberty than the expression of hateful opinions. The sixth edition is available in an American reprint of 1971.

Leonard W. Levy


Jacobson, David L. 1965 Introduction to The English Libertarian Heritage. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

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