Anti-Federalists 3: Letters of Cato

The next series of Anti-Federalist writings I’m going to discuss are the letters of Cato. There are seven in all. This is the first pseudonymous author we’ve read in this series, which from now on will be the rule, rather than the exception. Historians speculate that this author may be George Clinton, Governor of New York.

In Cato’s first letter, he provides an introduction. He states:

“Government, to an American, is the science of his political safety…”

Cato’s focus is on the long term stability of the government and how it will work for future generations. Because of this focus, Cato encourages careful inspection of the Constitution before ratification and to help make the new government as good as it possibly can be.

His second later deviates from the scheduled plan. It is a response to a letter written by a pseudonymous author calling himself Caesar attacking him. The level of vitriol in the letter is staggering. Cato responds by chortling at the choice of pseudonym before accusing Caesar of wanting to push the new constitution down the public’s throat.

Cato claims that he did not offer up his suggestions for government during the convention because he wanted to see the result the convention made before commenting. Cato also makes the oft-repeated concern that the convention went far beyond its mandate to amend the Articles of Confederation by proposing a new government.

In the third letter, Cato gets back on track. His main worry is about the size and scope of the federal government. He argues that the government will be too big and too powerful for individuals to hold it to account. He also quotes this excellent paragraph from Montesquieu on the size of republics:

“It is natural, says Montesquieu, ‘to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist: in a large one, there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are too great deposits to trust in the hands of a single subject, an ambitious person soon becomes sensible that he may be happy, great, and glorious by oppressing his fellow citizens, and that he might raise himself to grandeur, on the ruins of his country. In large republics, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views, in a small one, the interest of the public is easily perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have a less extent, and of course are less protected’ ”

In his fourth letter, Cato begins to cover specific objections to the Constitution. He thinks that, like Roman consuls, the president should be elected to one-year long terms. He thinks, like others, that mixing  executive and legislative powers into one man (the vice president), just so he has something to do is dangerous.

He believes that the presidency is, de facto, an elected king for a set number of years, and that all of the inefficiencies of kingship (court, palace, etc) would have to be provided for the president anyways. Cato also reinforces that presidential power will be used to create a de facto aristocracy because he will naturally bring in advisers and others to help him rule besides the Senate.

Cato’s fifth letter states some more general problems with the Constitution. He states that Washington DC will be: “the asylum of the base, idle, avaricious and ambitious”. He plainly states that we cannot simply expect that everyone who is in government will be morally good or competent at their job. Cato once again calls for more frequent elections. He closes the letter by discussing how there is not enough involvement by individuals to prevent corruption.

The sixth letter focuses specifically on the apportionment of Congressional seats and taxes based on the number of individuals (plus 3/5ths per slave) rather than the number of voters. Cato takes the time to explain what we would all learn today in introductory economics regarding the effects of taxation and tariffs on the productivity, even hinting at some Laffer curve effects.

Cato alternatively proposes a wealth tax, rather than tariffs, to provide income for the government. Cato takes the end of the letter to reiterate the objections of others regarding the Senate: that it is too far removed from the people, and that the Senate and President can use treaties to pass laws without the consent of the House.

The final letter deals with the use of public meetings to choose representatives. If you understand the purpose of a caucus used in a selecting party nominees, you’ll understand what Cato is proposing. He advocates public meetings to select representatives who go on to select representatives and so on and so forth until Congress and (via the electoral college), the President is elected. Its a radical idea, but maybe it would work.

Cato proves to be extremely insightful and pinpointed problems with the Constitution that remain today. His description of the denizens of Washington DC felt especially apt.

Next time, we’ll be looking at the Essays of Centinel.

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