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Cato’s Letter Number 8

December 24, 1720
The Arts of able guilty Ministers to save themselves. The wise and popular Conduct of Queen Elizabeth towards publick Harpies; with the Application
Thomas Gordon
Published in the London Journal:
Saturday, December 24, 1720

SIR, There is not in politicks a more established rule, than, (That when a corrupt and wicked ministry intend to pillage a nation, they make use of vile and contemptible instruments, to gather in their plunder, and allow the miscreants part of it; and when the cry for justice becomes strong and universal, they always hang up their faithful rogues.) By this means they stop the people’s mouths, and yet keep the money.

But they act by no rule of good policy, but are, in truth, chargeable with folly, or rather with phrenzy, who dream that they can prevent this cry, by the means that first raised it, and by means that will ever produce it. As well might they attempt to prevent the spreading of a deluge, by damming it up; which would prove the direct method to make a whole country its conquest; for it will then know no bounds, but bear down men, beasts, and cities before it; whereas its force and mischief are easily prevented, if proper channels be opened for it, and its torrent be skilfully directed.

The simple multitude, when most provoked, are easily appeased, if they have but fuel for their rage: They will scarce feel their miseries, if they do but fancy that justice is done upon the authors of their miseries. And whatever they suffer; the hanging of a few sorry knaves, who are but the working-tools of a few greater, will hush all the tumult of their spirits, and reconcile them to patience and wretchedness.

The expedient, therefore, to please them, is constantly practised by all wise traitors, by all able oppressors. But when, through the ignorance of their pillagers, the course of justice is entirely stopped; when the abused and enraged people can have no remedy, either real or imaginary, nor one victim to their fury, they will naturally and necessarily look higher; and then who can foresee where their vengeance will end?

If a pirate, who robs upon the sea, be hanged for his robbery, every body is satisfied with the death of the offender: But if the action be avowed, and he produce a commission, the state that gave it becomes answerable.

All these secrets in government were excellently understood by Queen Elizabeth’s ministry. Out of her history I have therefore copied the following passage, and the following speech.

“The Queen, upon her return from a progress, held a Parliament at Westminster; wherein, among other things, several good laws were made for the relief of the poor, and of maimed and disabled soldiers and seamen; against fraudulent guardians and trustees; the cheats and impositions of clothiers; and the robberies and outrages committed upon the borders of the kingdom towards Scotland. But whereas great complaints were made in the lower house, relating to the engrossing practice:”

(for it seems there were some, who, under the colour of public’ good, but, in reality, to the great damage of the kingdom, had got the Queen’s letters patents, for the sole privilege and liberty of vending some particular sorts of wares):

“The Queen therefore, to forestall them, published a proclamation, declaring those grants to be null and void; and also left them to be tried at common law. A method which was so acceptable to the lower house, that eighty of that body were appointed to wait upon her Majesty with their humble thanks, which the Speaker was to present in the name of them all. She received them very graciously, and gave her answer in the following speech:


“‘I owe you my best thanks and acknowledgments for your respect towards me; not only for your good inclination, but those clear and public’ expressions thereof, which have discovered themselves in retrieving me from a mistake, into which I have been betrayed; not so much by the faults of my will, as the error of my judgment. This had unavoidably drawn a blemish upon me, (who account the safety of my people my chief happiness) had you not made me acquainted with the practice of these lewd harpies and horse-leeches. I would sooner lose my heart or hand, than ever consent to allow such privilege to engrossers, as may turn to the detriment of my people. I am not so blinded with the lustre of a crown, as to let the scale of justice be weighed down by that of an arbitrary power. The gay title of a prince may deceive such as know nothing of the secret of governing; as a gilded pill may impose upon the patient: But I am not one of those unwary princes; for I am very sensible, that I ought to govern for the public’ good, and not to regard my own particular; and that I stand accountable to another, a greater tribunal. I account myself very happy, that, by God’s assistance, I have enjoyed so prosperous a government in all respects, and that he has blessed me with such subjects, for whom I could be contented to lay down my crown and life. I must entreat you, that let others be guilty of what faults or misdemeanors soever, they may not, through any misrepresentation, be laid at my door. I hope the evidence of a good conscience will, in all respects, bear me out. You cannot be ignorant, that the servants of princes have, too often, an eye to their own advantage; that their faults are often concealed from their notice; and that they cannot, if they would, inspect all things, when the weight and business of a whole kingdom lies on their shoulders.'”

Here is a speech, worthy of the occasion, worthy of a wise prince, worthy of a free people; a speech that has truth, and sense, and spirit in it. We may be sure from the frankness and vigour of it, that the ministers who advised it were no sharers in the guilt and oppression of which it complains: If they had, they would have chosen words more faint and equivocal; they would have shuffled in their assertions; they would have talked more cowardly; they would have kept off from particulars: They could not have hid their guilt and fears. But here their boldness is the effect of their innocence, and prompted by it.

Her Majesty frankly owns, that she was drawn into an error; but that it was only an error of her judgment, she makes manifest by her alacrity and forwardness to punish those harpies and horse-leeches, who, in her name, had abused the public’: She owns it just, that those engrossers should suffer: She owns that the art and end of reigning, is to advance the public’ good; and when that good is not attained, she consigns to punishment those rooks and traitors, through whose fault it is not attained. She owns that she has been abused by her servants; who, under her authority, and in the name of the law, had sought their own vile advantages; and she removes from herself all guilt, by giving up the guilty.

Happy Queen! happy in her own qualifications; happy in those of her counsellors: But wise and good as she was, she could not have talked thus, if her ministry had been weak or wicked: Had this been her misfortune, in spite of her sincerity, wisdom and resolution, her speech would have been false, faint, and silly. But her counsellors were able and faithful, and made England prosper; and if we except some rebellions, and some persecutions, both the doings of hot-headed bigots, her people saw nothing during her whole reign but felicity and sunshine.

This has entailed blessings upon her memory, and praise upon that of her counsellors: And, indeed, the happiness or misery of a people will always be the certain measure of the glory or infamy of their rulers, whenever such happiness or misery is evidently deducible from their management.

The above passage out of Queen Elizabeth’s history, I thought not impertinent to our present times: Her people had suffered from harpies and horse-leeches: This shews, that the corruption had not reached the court; the hands of her ministers were clean, else her speech would have taken another turn.

Has England suffered less, in this our day, from harpies and horse-leeches? Surely no: All our losses, pillages, and oppressions, since the Conquest, do not balance the present great calamity: From a profusion of all things, we are reduced to a want of every thing: Heaven avert the pestilence and the famine! I am afraid that the latter begins to be sorely felt by many thousands of our poor, and even the rich complain that they can hardly find money to buy bread.

And shall not our harpies be given up? Shall not their blood and money make an undone nation some small amends for their heavy depredations and matchless villainy? Certainly they must: From a ministry as able, and as innocent, as that of Queen Elizabeth, we may expect the behaviour and public’ spirit of Queen Elizabeth’s ministry: Having no part in the guilt of harpies, they cannot dread the vengeance due to harpies: They have not raised out of their country’s calamities, fortunes great as those calamities; they have no discoveries to dread; they have no guilt to hide; they have not conspired with harpies.

G (I am, &c.)

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