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Thomas Gordon on how people are frightened into giving up their liberties (1722)

Thomas Gordon (1692-1750) thought that people willingly gave up their liberties in order to be saved from some perceived threat. Unfortunately, the “savior” all too often destroyed their liberties as a consequence:

It is certain, that Liberty is never so much in danger, as upon a Deliverance from Slavery. The remaining Dread of the Mischiefs escaped, generally drives, or decoys Men into the same or greater; for then the Passions and Expectations of some, run high; and the Fears of others make them submit to any Misfortunes to avoid an Evil that is over; and both Sorts concur in giving to a Deliverer all that they are delivered from.

It is certain, that Liberty is never so much in danger, as upon a Deliverance from Slavery. The remaining Dread of the Mischiefs escaped, generally drives, or decoys Men into the same or greater; for then the Passions and Expectations of some, run high; and the Fears of others make them submit to any Misfortunes to avoid an Evil that is over; and both Sorts concur in giving to a Deliverer all that they are delivered from: In the Transports of a Restoration, or Victory, or upon a Plot discover’d, or a Rebellion quell’d, nothing is thought too much for the Benefactor, nor any Power too great to be left to his Discretion, tho’ there can never be less Reason for giving it to him than at those Times; because, for the most part, the Danger is past, his Enemies are defeated and intimidated, and consequently that is a proper Juncture for the People to settle themselves, and secure their Liberties, since no one is likely to disturb them in doing so.

However, I confess, that Custom, from Time immemorial, is against me, and the same Custom has made most of Mankind Slaves: Agathocles saved the Syracusians, and afterwards destroy’d them. Pisistratus pretending to be wounded for protecting the People, prevail’d with them to allow him a Guard for the Defence of his Person, and by the Help of that Guard usurp’d the Sovereignty: Cæsar and Marius deliver’d the Commons of Rome from the Tyranny of the Nobles, and made themselves Masters of both Commons and Nobles: Sylla deliver’d the Senate from the Insolence of the People, and did them more Mischief than the Rabble could have done in a Thousand Years: Gustavus Ericson delivered the Swedes from the Oppression of the Danes, and made large Steps towards enslaving them himself: The Antwerpians call’d in the Duke of Allençon, to defend them against the Spaniards; but he was no sooner got, as he thought, in full Possession of their Town, but he fell upon them himself with the Forces which he brought for their Defence. But the Townsmen happen’d to be too many for him, and drove these their new Protectors home again: Which Disappointment, and just Disgrace, broke that good Duke’s Heart. Oliver Cromwell headed an Army which pretended to fight for Liberty, and by that Army became a bloody Tyrant; as I once saw a Hawk very generously rescue a Turtle Dove from the Persecution of two Crows, and then eat him up himself.

Almost all Men desire Power, and few lose any Opportunity to get it, and all who are like to suffer under it, ought to be strictly upon their Guard in such Conjunctures as are most likely to encrease, and make it uncontroulable. There are but two Ways in Nature to enslave a People, and continue that Slavery over them; the first is Superstition, and the last is Force: By the one, we are perswaded that it is our Duty to be undone; and the other undoes us whether we will or no. I take it, that we are pretty much out of Danger of the first, at present; and, I think, we cannot be too much upon our guard against the other; for, tho’ we have nothing to fear from the best Prince in the World, yet we have every thing to fear from those who would give him a Power inconsistent with Liberty, and with a Constitution which has lasted almost a Thousand Years without such a Power, which will never be ask’d with an Intention to make no Use of it.

About this Quotation:

The immediate context for this observation by the radical Whig and Commonwealthman Thomas Gordon (the younger half of the duo who wrote Cato’s Letters) was the debate about the danger posed by the creation of a “standing” (i.e. permanent) army in peacetime. The defenders of it said it was necessary to protect the people from the dangers of invasion or civil war. The critics said an expensive, professional, standing army would be the tool for the oppression of the people by some ruthless political leader or general. Gordon provides a long list of historical examples of military leaders who promised to save the people from some threat to their lives and liberties, only to see them turn into oppressors of the people themselves. He gives the wonderful example of Oliver Cromwell whom he likens to “a Hawk (who) very generously rescue(d) a Turtle Dove from the Persecution of two Crows, and then eat him up himself.” Gordon concludes with the observation that there were “two Ways in Nature to enslave a People”; the first is a result of “superstition” or what today we would call ignorance; and the second and more dangerous way by naked “Force”. He thought the former was less of danger in his day than the latter. Today, we might argue the opposite.

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