Cato's Letters were essays by British writers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, first published from 1720 to 1723 under the pseudonym of Cato (95–46 BCE), the implacable foe of Julius Caesar and a famously stubborn champion of republican principles (mos maiorum).
The Letters are considered a seminal work in the tradition of the Commonwealth men. The 144 essays were published originally in the London Journal, later in the British Journal, condemning corruption and lack of morality within the British political system and warning against tyranny and abusing power.
The Letters were collected and printed as Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious. A measure of their influence is attested by six editions printed by 1755. A generation later their arguments immensely influenced the ideals of the American Revolution. According to Peter Karsten's Patriot-Heroes in England and America, Cato's Letters were the most common holdings on the bookcases of the founding fathers.
These letters also provided inspiration and ideals for the American Revolutionary generation. The essays were distributed widely across the Thirteen Colonies, and frequently quoted in newspapers from Boston to Savannah, Georgia. Renowned historian Clinton Rossiter stated "no one can spend any time on the newspapers, library inventories, and pamphlets of colonial America without realizing that Cato's Letters rather than John Locke's Civil Government was the most popular, quotable, esteemed source for political ideas in the colonial period."
Other pseudonymous "Cato letters"
Unrelated to the Trenchard and Gordon letters, two different letter-writers in eighteenth-century America also used Cato as a pseudonym in writing political letters for publication.
One "Cato" wrote a series of essays arguing against American independence in the Pennsylvania Gazette, which were published in April 1776. According to Thomas Paine biographer Moncure D. Conway, this "Cato" was Reverend Dr. William Smith, an influential Anglican minister in Philadelphia. His views were opposed in letters signed by "The Forester," apparently Paine.
Cato was later used as a pseudonym in a series of letters to the New York Journal in 1787 and 1788 opposing James Madison's views and urging against ratification of the United States Constitution (the view known as Anti-Federalism). Many historians attribute these letters to George Clinton, though their authorship has not been definitively proven. Alexander Hamilton published responses to these letters under the pseudonym "Caesar."
- John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects. ed. and annotated by Ronald Hamowy. 2 vols. (Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 1995). The standard modern edition.
- Karsten, Peter. 1978. Patriot-Heroes in England and America. The University of Wisconsin Press. Pages 34-5.
- Mitchell, Annie (July 2004). "A Liberal Republican "Cato"". American Journal of Political Science. 48. doi:10.1111/j.0092-5853.2004.00089.x.
- Rossiter, Clinton (1953). Seedtime of the Republic: the origin of the American tradition of political liberty. New York: Harcourt, Brace. pp. 141.
- Cato Institute, "About Cato", undated, accessed January 2008.
- The Writings of Thomas Paine, Collected and Edited by Moncure Daniel Conway (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894). Vol. 1 (XVII.: THE FORESTER’S LETTERS). Available at Online Library of Liberty, https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/343#lf0548-01_label_083: "'Cato' was the Rev. Dr. William Smith, a Scotch clergyman of the English Church, Provost of the College of Philadelphia, and the most influential preacher in that city until his fall with the royalist cause which he had espoused. The letters of these disputants were widely copied in the country, and the controversy was the most exciting and important immediately preceding the Declaration of Independence. The proposal of such a Declaration was really the issue. It was vehemently opposed by the wealth and aristocracy of Philadelphia, headed by Dr Smith, and the discussion was almost a battle. This may explain its acrimony, on which neither writer, probably, reflected with satisfaction in after years. The 'Cato' letters are not included in the collected Works of Dr. Smith (Philadelphia, 1803), nor have the letters of 'The Forester' appeared hitherto in any edition of Paine’s Writings." (editor's note)
- "The Anti-Federalists and their important role during the Ratification fight - National Constitution Center". National Constitution Center – constitutioncenter.org. Retrieved 2019-08-08.
- "U.S. Senate: George Clinton". www.senate.gov. Retrieved 2019-08-08.
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