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

Thomas Gordon

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.

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.