Cato's Letters

John TRENCHARD   |   Thomas GORDON

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(AMERICAN REVOLUTION) [GORDON, Thomas and TRENCHARD, John]. Cato's Letters: Or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects. London: W. Wilkins, et al., 1737. Four volumes. 12mo, contemporary full brown speckled calf rebacked, raised bands, red morocco spine labels, renewed endpapers.

Early and scarce fourth edition of these famous essays, an extremely important early influence on the American Revolution, “ranked with the treatises of Locke as the most authoritative statement of the nature of political liberty and above Locke as an exposition of the social sources of the threats it faced” (Bailyn, 36). All early editions are quite rare and desirable.

Trenchard and Gordon published their weekly "Cato's Letters" in the London Journal and later the British Journal from November 1720 through December 1723. In these 144 essays, the authors explored and popularized the philosophical and revolutionary ideas of personal and political liberty. They believed that liberty was constantly plagued by conspiracies of power-seekers and best protected by broad-based property ownership; that executive political power and standing armies were pernicious; and that luxury corrupted virtue. Furthermore, "it was Trenchard and Gordon who first gave unreserved endorsement to free speech as being indispensable to 'Liberty, Property, true Religion, Arts, Sciences, Learning, Knowledge' and who were willing to extend the privilege to all, including those who disagreed with them" (McDonald, 47). They chose 'Cato' as their pseudonym after the Roman Senator Cato the Younger, a critic of Julius Caesar and a champion of republican principles.

These important and influential essays "had a profound impact on Revolutionary ideology" in America (Library of Congress 3922). "Cato's Letters" were promptly reprinted and so widely distributed, plagiarized, and imitated that they "gave rise to what might be called a 'Catonic' image, central to the political theory of the time," best exemplified by Washington's public displays of virtue. They directly influenced many of the founding fathers and the important writings of the American Revolution, including Benjamin Franklin's Silence Dogood, John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer, William Livingstone's Independent Reflector, John Adam's Novanglus, John Peter Zenger's landmark defense against libel, the concept of "power" employed in The Federalist, and the popular vision of an agrarian republic. Their influence is also palpable in the rhetoric of conspiracy in the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson owned the 1748 edition), the restrictions on national power and definition of individual rights in the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, as well as the desire to use the public domain to create a nation of yeoman farmers. In the course of American political development during the 18th century, Trenchard and Gordon were "the most important… spokesmen for extreme libertarianism" (Bailyn, 35-44). This copy is the fourth edition, corrected; the first complete collection of "Cato's Letters" was issued soon after Trenchard's death in December 1723, and all of the early editions are rare. "Trenchard's articles are signed 'T,' the conjoint articles 'T and G.' Some are simply signed 'G'" (DNB). Lowndes, 392. Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson 2738 (fifth edition). Early owner signature in Volumes I and II.

Faint marginal dampstain in first two volumes, text generally clean. Light rubbing to corners. An extremely good copy.

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