I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Friday afternoon reading

By Hume's Ghost

I haven't had time to write today, so maybe I can substitute some recommended reading. I recycled this from my blog since I think many of the readers here will appreciate the subject matter.

One of the most under appreciated influences on the Founding Fathers is Cato's Letters, a series of 144 essays on liberty written by the English Whigs John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon under the pen name "Cato" (which they chose because of Cato the Younger's defense of republican values against Julius Ceasar) between 1720 and 1723. One reading the letters for the first time will find that the Founders seemed to have borrowed directly from the pages of Cato.

The letters are a reminder of what the press could be, and what the power of the press is and should be. Not only did Trenchard and Gordon help disseminate the political philosophy of John Locke, helping to lay the philosophical foundations for our democratic freedoms, but they also helped play an important role in the history of winning the freedom of the press. Kovatch and Rosenthal write, in The Elements of Journalism, that they:

introduced the idea that truth should be a defense against libel. At the time, English common law had ruled the reverse: not only that any criticism of government was a crime, but that "the greater the truth, the greater the libel," since truth did more harm.
The authors go on to note that in 1735, when colonist John Zengler was put on trial for printing criticism of the royal governor of New York, his lawyer defended him citing Cato's reasoning (see #32, "Reflections on Libelling"). He was subsequently aquitted by a jury. Also interesting to note, Zengler's attorney was paid in part by Benjamin Franklin, who had himself previously published Cato's letters.

If we seek to educate Americans on their democratic traditions so that they will be more likely to guard jealously against encroachments of power, then I can think of no better place to start than with Cato's Letter #33, "Cautions against the Natural Encroachment of Power" which could well serve as an op-ed today as it did when it was written in 1721. I quote from the conclusion.

Power, without control, appertains to God alone; and no man ought to be trusted with what no man is equal to. In truth there are so many passions, and inconsistencies, and so much selfishness, belonging to human nature, that we can scarce be too much upon our guard against each other. The only security which we can have that men will be honest, is to make it their interest to be honest; and the best defence which we can have against their being knaves, is to make it terrible to them to be knaves. As there are many men wicked in some stations, who would be innocent in others; the best way is to make wickedness unsafe in any station.


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