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Thomas Gordon on the nature of power to expand (1721)

The Commonwealthman Thomas Gordon (1692-1750) has some acute observations about human nature. He thinks most people are too credulous or accepting of political power, and that power has a tendency to expand at the expence of liberty:

Power is naturally active, vigilant, and distrustful; which qualities in it push it upon all means and expedients to fortify itself, and upon destroying all opposition, and even all seeds of opposition, and make it restless as long as any thing stands in its way. It would do what it pleases, and have no check. Now, because liberty chastises and shortens power, therefore power would extinguish liberty; and consequently liberty has too much cause to be exceeding jealous, and always upon her defence. Power has many advantages over her; it has generally numerous guards, many creatures, and much treasure; besides, it has more craft and experience, less honesty and innocence: And whereas power can, and for the most part does, subsist where liberty is not, liberty cannot subsist without power; so that she has, as it were, the enemy always at her gates.

People are ruined by their ignorance of human nature; which ignorance leads them to credulity, and too great a confidence in particular men. They fondly imagine that he, who, possessing a great deal by their favour, owes them great gratitude, and all good offices, will therefore return their kindness: But, alas! how often are they mistaken in their favourites and trustees; who, the more they have given them, are often the more incited to take all, and to return destruction for generous usage. The common people generally think that great men have great minds, and scorn base actions; which judgment is so false, that the basest and worst of all actions have been done by great men: Perhaps they have not picked private pockets, but they have done worse; they have often disturbed, deceived, and pillaged the world: And he who is capable of the highest mischief, is capable of the meanest: He who plunders a country of a million of money, would in suitable circumstances steal a silver spoon; and a conqueror, who steals and pillages a kingdom, would, in an humbler fortune, rifle a portmanteau, or rob an orchard.

Political jealousy, therefore, in the people, is a necessary and laudable passion. But in a chief magistrate, a jealousy of his people is not so justifiable, their ambition being only to preserve themselves; whereas it is natural for power to be striving to enlarge itself, and to be encroaching upon those that have none. The most laudable jealousy of a magistrate is to be jealous for his people; which will shew that he loves them, and has used them well: But to be jealous of them, would denote that he has evil designs against them, and has used them ill. The people’s jealousy tends to preserve liberty; and the prince’s to destroy it. Venice is a glorious instance of the former, and so is England; and all nations who have lost their liberty, are melancholy proofs of the latter.

Power is naturally active, vigilant, and distrustful; which qualities in it push it upon all means and expedients to fortify itself, and upon destroying all opposition, and even all seeds of opposition, and make it restless as long as any thing stands in its way. It would do what it pleases, and have no check. Now, because liberty chastises and shortens power, therefore power would extinguish liberty; and consequently liberty has too much cause to be exceeding jealous, and always upon her defence. Power has many advantages over her; it has generally numerous guards, many creatures, and much treasure; besides, it has more craft and experience, less honesty and innocence: And whereas power can, and for the most part does, subsist where liberty is not, liberty cannot subsist without power; so that she has, as it were, the enemy always at her gates.

About this Quotation:

Well before Lord Acton wrote about the corrupting influence of power (1887) it was a staple of the 18th century Commonwealthmen like John Trenchard (1662-1723) and Thomas Gordon (1692-1750) in their warnings about the growth of British imperial power during the 1720s. Gordon in particular saw a strong parallel with the growth of power during the Roman empire and wrote numerous discourses on that in his translations of the Roman historians Tacitus and Sallust. These warnings were well received by the North American colonists in their long struggle for independence from the British crown. In these passages from Cato’s Letters Gordon graphically describes power as a kind of restless energy which is constantly seeking to expand its domain, to go around or overcome any check placed in its way, and to undermine liberty like some kind of “enemy at the gates”. The greatest danger comes from the people’s high regard for so-called “great men” who, although they might not have “picked the pockets” of private individuals, have nevertheless set their sights on “pillaging the world.”

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