The Revolution: Cato’s Thoughts on a Question Proposed to the Public (Part I)

Pamphlet by “Cato”: Thoughts on a Question of Importance Proposed to the Public, Whether it is probable that the Immense Extent of Territory acquired by this Nation at the late Peace, will operate towards the Prosperity, or the Ruin of the Island of Great-Britain?

London, 1765.

At the end of the Seven Years War, known to Americans as the French and Indian War, a peace came to be that included Great Britain adding more territory to its empire. That territory, located in the New World, brought the British Empire to effectively control North America, and while that was widely viewed as a net positive, questions were emerging about what the empire would do with its burgeoning colonies; colonies which may have been bringing income and commodities to Great Britain itself but also colonies that were becoming more difficult to maintain. To the author known as “Cato,” these developments did not bode well: he urged the British government to use the “quiet Interval, such as you now enjoy,” and while it “is very rare in Countries where there is so much Liberty as we have at present; neither can it be expected to last long.”

Cato, looking at history, saw that the “Prosperity of Societies had been owing, in a great Measure, to a Circumstance or two, which all the while they were groaning under, and crying out against as an intolerable Grievance.” And with that history in mind after Great Britain’s acquisition of the land in the New World, the question that presented itself and Cato felt compelled to address was not “how will they bring the greatest immediate Wealth into the Coffers of a few Merchants? Or how will they bring the greatest immediate Splendor to the City of London?” but rather: “how will they continue to promote the Population of the Island, and the Industry of the People of Great Britain?”

Experience and observations underpinned Cato’s conclusions. One was that the newly acquired territory was “so immense, that it must make the Time of Acquisition a remarkable” era for the government and “produce a great Change in our Situation and Circumstances as a Society.” It raised the eternal problem that even the farthest-flung portions of the empire, the “most distant and desolate Part of the Dominions,” belongs to the empire and change must come about to accommodate them.

The Spanish Monarchy’s possession of the West Indies illustrated the danger of these changes: many never expected that the acquisition would make the Spaniards worse off, but the people began to believe, according to Cato, that they deserved to have gold, food, and comforts without working for them. But they had forgotten that when they pay for them, they paid to those who did work for those objects, and the Spaniards soon exhausted their stock of gold. To Cato, this was but one example of a maxim: “When either a Person or People are ruined by too much of any thing that is good in a moderate Degree, the greater the Quantity, their Ruin comes on so much the more speedily.” Human nature proved this out as well:

“If a man is tempted to Luxury, softness, and indulgence, by an affluent fortune; the greater the fortune, the more whimsical, extravagant, and endless his desires. If a man happens to get more applause than he is able to bear, the greater quantity of incense you offer to him, the sooner is his head turned, and the greater is his intoxication. If a General is incommoded in the day of battle by the very numbers of his own army, the greater the multitude, the more inexpressible the confusion; the more sudden and dreadful his defeat.”

There was also the nature of the acquisition: this was land without subjects, “justly called mere Earth.” Cato continued: “Nay, though we had all that the Indians possess behind, as which we shall very soon have, it will be the same Thing; for they seem upon the Eve of either dwindling into nothing of themselves, or being exterminated by us.” Beyond that fact, there “are three great Stages in the Progress of human Society,” and these stages illustrated the differences between Indians and the British: “The First is, the Savage State, in which Men subsist by Hunting, and need by far the greatest Quantity of Ground. The Second, the Pastoral Life; which needs considerably less than the former, but still a good deal.—And the Last, is that of Agriculture and Commerce, which needs least of all.” With that framework, Cato wrote, “Now the Indians are in the first State; we are in the last; and yet we are never satisfied, but still driving them into Corners” and treating them with cruelty. Some would say that the cruelty was necessary, but Cato disagreed. “No Briton at this Time hath so much to say with [the Indians] as Sir William Johnson; and it is evident he acquired his Influence, not by Cruelty, but by Honesty and Mercy.”

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