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

Thomas Gordon

Found in Cato’s Letters, vol. 1 November 5, 1720 to June 17, 1721 (LF ed.)

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.

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.”