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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

Thomas Gordon was much read in the American colonies on the eve of the Revolution. One of his great concerns, shared by many in the 18th century “commonwealthman” tradition,” was that standing armies were a threat to liberty. Their danger came from two sources: one was the sheer cost to taxpayers of having a large an permanent body of troops equipped and stationed at home during peace time; the other was the fact that it provided a tempting tool to despotically minded “Princes” or monarchs to use against their own people should they object too strenuously against government policy. It was for this reason that it became embedded in the American constitution that there was a right to bear arms and to form local militias as an alternative to monarchical standing armies.

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5 November, 2007

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Thomas Gordon on standing armies as a power which is inconsistent with liberty (1722)

Read the full quote in context here.

Thomas Gordon, who also wrote under the name of Cato, was an adamant opponent of standing armies, seeing in them a key method of undermining ancient English liberties as he argues in his Discourse of 1722:

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…

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

I have lately met with some Creatures and Tools of Power, who speak the same Language now: They tell us, that Matters are come to that Pass, that we must either receive the Pretender, or keep him out with Bribes and Standing Armies: That the Nation is so corrupt, that there is no governing it by any other Means: And, in short, that we must submit to this great Evil, to prevent a greater; as if any Mischief could be more terrible than the highest and most terrible of all Mischiefs, universal Corruption, and a military Government. It is indeed impossible for the Subtilty of Traitors, the Malice of Devils, or for the Cunning and Cruelty of our most implacable Enemies, to suggest stronger Motives for the undermining and Overthrow of our excellent Establishment, which is built upon the Destruction of Tyranny, and can stand upon no other Bottom. It is Madness in Extremity, to hope that a Government founded upon Liberty, and the free Choice of the Assertors of it, can be supported by other Principles; and whoever would maintain it by contrary ones, intends to blow it up, let him alledge what he will. This gives me every Day new Reasons to believe what I have long suspected; for, if ever a Question should arise, Whether a Nation shall submit to certain Ruin, or struggle for a Remedy? these Gentlemen well know which Side they will chuse, and certainly intend that which they must chuse…

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…

In short, there can be but two Ways in Nature to govern a Nation, one is by their own Consent, and the other by Force: One gains their Hearts, and the other holds their Hands: The first is always chosen by those who design to govern the People for the People’s Interest, and the other by those who design to oppress them for their own; for whoever desires only to protect them, will covet no useless Power to injure them: There is no fear of a People’s acting against their own Interest, when they know what it is, and when, through ill Conduct or unfortunate Accidents, they become dissatisfied with their present Condition, the only effectual Way to avoid the threatning Evil, is to remove their Grievances.

[More works by Thomas Gordon (1692 – 1750)]