John Trenchard (1662-1723) and Thomas Gordon (1692-1750)


John Trenchard (1662-1723)

My brief bio

John Trenchard (1662-1723) was a radical Whig and Commonwealthman who, along with his collaborator Thomas Gordon (1692-1750), were important voices defending constitutionalism and individual liberty in the 1720s in England. Trenchard came from a prominent Irish family from whom he inherited considerable wealth, went to Trinity College, Dublin, and served at the Bar before being appointed Commissioner of Forfeited Estates in Ireland. He worked as a journalist in the 1690s writing works criticising the idea of standing armies and the political power of the established church, in 1709 writing anonymously the deistic work The Natural History of Superstition. Trenchard founded and co-wrote The Independent Whig (1720-21) and Cato’s Letters (1720-23) with Gordon, which originally appeared as weekly letters in the London Journal. Trenchard briefly served in the House of Commons, representing Somerset. He was a defender of the idea of liberty against political corruption, imperialism and militarism in the early 18th century. Their writings, especially Cato’s Letters, were also much read in the American colonies.

Dictionary of National Biography Entry

Source: Alexander Gordon, “Trenchard, John (1662-1723)”, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 57.

TRENCHARD, JOHN (1662–1723), political writer, born in 1662, was son of William Trenchard (1640–1710) of Cutteridge (a distant connection of Sir John Trenchard [q. v.]). His mother was Ellen, daughter of Sir George Norton. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where Edward Smith, or Smyth [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Down and Connor, was his tutor. Having been called to the bar, he left the legal profession to become a commissioner of the forfeited estates in Ireland. An uncle's death, and his marriage, placed him in easy circumstances, and he devoted himself to political writing as a constitutional reformer in church and state. His first publication, in conjunction with Walter Moyle [q. v.], was ‘An Argument showing … a Standing Army … inconsistent with a free Government,’ 1697 (thrice reprinted); it was followed by ‘A Short History of Standing Armies in England,’ 1698 (reprinted 1731); much angry controversy ensued. In 1709 he published anonymously ‘The Natural History of Superstition.’ In 1719 began his literary connection with Thomas Gordon (d. 1750) [q. v.], who calls him his ‘first friend’ and ‘the best friend that I ever had.’ They co-operated in the production of ‘The Independent Whig,’ published every Wednesday from 20 Jan. 1720 to 18 June 1721 (to two previous pamphlets they had given the same name), and in the writing of a series of Saturday letters from 5 Nov. 1720 to 27 July 1723, signed ‘Cato.’ The earliest were published in the ‘London Journal,’ later ones in the ‘British Journal.’ The ‘Independent Whig’ was collected into a volume (1721), and swelled by Gordon's additions to 4 volumes (1747). ‘Cato's Letters,’ with six new ones by Gordon, were collected in 4 vols. (1724). Both collections have been often reprinted; in later editions Trenchard's articles are signed ‘T,’ the conjoint articles ‘T and G.’ Some are signed simply ‘G.’ Trenchard, however, as Gordon fully allows, inspired the whole of this joint work by ‘his conversation and strong way of thinking.’

Trenchard was a whig with popular sympathies, but by no means a republican, as his opponents wished to consider him. His unsparing attacks on the high-church party were followed by counter attacks, representing him as a deist, or an enemy of all religion; but he set forth his attachment to Christianity with unequivocal sincerity, and while declaiming against abuses, affirmed his consistent loyalty to the established church. He got into parliament for Taunton, but made no figure in the house.

He died on 17 Dec. 1723, leaving no issue by his wife Anne, daughter of Sir William Blackett. Gordon, who describes him as ‘strong and well set,’ but ‘scarce ever in perfect health,’ draws a vivid picture of his strenuous character and frank disposition, and hints that on his deathbed Trenchard suggested that Gordon should marry his widow—a marriage which came about.

[Burke's Commoners, iv. 79; Gordon's pref. to Cato's Letters, 1724; Gordon's epitaph for Trenchard in Independent Whig, 1732, vol. ii.; Biographia Britannica, 1766; Toulmin's Hist. of Taunton, 1791, p. 81; Notes and Queries, 9th ser. iii. 203.]




Thomas Gordon (1684 or 1692-1750)

My brief bio

Thomas Gordon (1684 or 1692-1750) was a radical Whig and Commonwealthman who, along with his collaborator John Trenchard (1662-1723), were important voices defending constitutionalism and individual liberty in the 1720s in England. Little is known of Gordon’s early life but was possibly admitted to the Scottish Bar before moving to London to clerk for Trenchard. He came to prominence by co-writing The Independent Whig (1720-21) and Cato’s Letters (1720-23) with Trenchard. He was a defender of the idea of liberty against political corruption, imperialism and militarism in the early 18th century. He alos wrote works critical of the established church, some of which were translated into Freanch by Baron D'Holbach. Their writings, especially Cato’s Letters, were also much read in the American colonies. After the death of Trenchard, Gordon translated the works of Tacitus (1728) and Sallust (1744) which included very lengthy political and historical commentaries. Under Horace Walpole he was appointed First Commissioner of the Wine Licences.

Gordon wrote a poem or "monument" on the life of his companion and colleague John Trenchard which appeared in the Independent Whig, extracts of which we reproduce below. The full poem can be seen here (in Latin and English) [PDF 169 KB]:

Of Encroachments and Domination of every kind,
A constant and a formidable Foe;
Of public Liberty and primitive Institututions
A rigid Assertor, a powerful Champion.
From observation he knew, from a just Principle he suspected
The Frailty of human Nature, and the Pravity of Men,
With the Ambitions and Artifices of Men in Power:
Between their avowed Pretences and real Pursuits he could well distinguish,
As between the worthy Magistrate and the lawless Ruler;
Ever resolute to encounter every publick Violence,
And the Insolence of Power,
With consummate Eloquence.
The disbanding of the Army after the French War ,
In the Reign of King WILLIAM,
By an Argument written and published,
Even in his Youth he undertook to procure,
Urged it with great Force,
And even succeeded,
In opposition to the Efforts and Rage of the Courtiers.
To the highest Affairs his Abilities were equal:
But deserving publick Honours,
And despising them
He shone in the Accomplishments of private Life.
To the wild Fury of all Visionaries and Mystists,
To the direful Fooleries of all Bigots,
His Enmity was bent and perpetual,
As Men ever ravening against the Liberty, against the Possessions
Of their Fellow Citizens.
Eloquently he exposed, zealously he restrained
The petulant Spirit and Avarice of such Men.

Dictionary of National Biography Entry

Source: Leslie Stephen, “Gordon, Thomas (d.1750),” Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 22.

GORDON, THOMAS (d. 1750), miscellaneous writer, was born in Kirkcudbright about the end of the seventeenth century. He is said to have been educated at some Scottish university. If a 'disputatio juridica' be rightly attributed to him in the catalogue of the British Museum, he became an advocate at the Scottish bar in 1716. He came to London as a young man and taught languages. Two pamphlets on the Bangorian controversy commended him to John Trenchard [q. v.], a whig politician. One was probably 'A Letter to the Lord Archbishop' (Wake) in 1719, who had written a Latin letter reflecting upon Hoadly, addressed to the church of Zurich. Gordon became Trenchard's amanuensis. A tract called the 'Independent Whig,' published at the time of the rejection of the Peerage Bill (December 1719), of which there is no copy in the British Museum, was followed by a second part in January 1720, on the peace with Spain and the value of Gibraltar to England, several editions of which were issued. A weekly paper of the same name was then started, and carried on through the year, the articles by Trenchard, Gordon, and a third contributor, 'C.,' being distinguished in the fifth edition. It was first collected in one volume in 1721. To the fifth edition (1732) were appended 'The Craftsman,' a sermon, 'in the style of the late Daniel Burgess,' also published separately, a letter to a 'Gentleman of Edinburgh,' and an epitaph on Trenchard. To a sixth edition (1735) was added a third volume containing the letter to Wake (see above) and other tracts; a seventh edition appeared in 1743, and a fourth volume was added in 1747 containing tracts written during the rebellion of 1745. The book was chiefly an attack upon the high-church party, and on the title-page of later editions is called 'A Defence of Primitive Christianity … against the exorbitant claims of fanatical and disaffected clergymen.' Thomas Wilson [q. v.], bishop of Sodor and Man, tried to exclude it from his diocese, and got into trouble in consequence. It was translated into French by the Baron d'Holbach. In 1720 Gordon and Trenchard began the publication of 'Cato's Letters.' They appeared in the 'London' and afterwards in the 'British Journal' till Trenchard's death in 1723, and were reprinted in 4 vols. in 1724. Walpole took Gordon into his pay, and made him first commissioner of the wine licenses, a post which he held till his death on 28 July 1750, and which, it is said, 'much diminished his patriotism.' Gordon was twice married, his second wife being Trenchard's widow.

Gordon published, by subscription, a translation of 'Tacitus,' in 2 vols. fol. 1728 (dedications to the Prince of Whales and Walpole), which went through several editions, and, in spite of an affected style, seems to have been the standard translation till the end of the century. Gibbon read it in his youth (Misc. Works, i. 41). In 1744 he published 'The Works of Sallust, with Political Discourses upon that author; to which is added a translation of Cicero's "Four Orations against Cateline."' He published an 'Essay on Government' in 1747, and a 'Collection of Papers' by him appeared in 1748. Richard Baron [q. v.] also published two collections of tracts by Gordon, 'A Cordial for Low Spirits,' 3 vols. 8vo, 1751, and another by Gordon and others called 'The Pillars of Priestcraft and Orthodoxy Shaken,' 1752. Gordon also wrote a preface to a translation from Barbeyrac called 'The Spirit of Ecclesiastics in all Ages,' 1722. Gordon was 'large and corpulent,' and supposed to be the Silenus of Pope's line in the 'Dunciad,'

Where Tindal dictates, and Silenus snores.

Bolingbroke observed, upon hearing of Conyers Middleton's death at the same time as Gordon's, 'Then there is the best writer in England gone and the worst.'

[Nichols's Anecdotes, i. 709 (notes by J. Whiston), v. 419, viii. 101, 494, 512; Biog. Brit. Supplement (1766), art. 'Trenchard;' Collinson's Somersetshire, iii. 153 (his residence with Trenchard at Abbotsleigh).]


Works available at this Website

Trenchard, An Argument, shewing, that a Standing Army is inconsistent with a Free Government, and absolutely destructive to the Constitution of the English Monarchy (London, 1697). [PDF 1.2 MB]

Trenchard, A Letter from the Author of the Argument against a Standing Army, to the Authors of the Balancing Letter (London, 1697). [PDF 373 KB]

Trenchard, A Short History of Standing Armies in England (London, 1698). [PDF 2.9 MB]

Trenchard, The Natural History of Superstition (A Baldwin, 1709). [PDF 3.6 MB]

John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters: or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects. In Four Volumes. The Sixth Edition, corrected. (London : Printed for J. Walthoe, T. and T. Longman, C. Hitch and L. Hawes, J. Hodges, A. Millar, J. and J. Rivington, and M. Cooper. MDCCLV (1755)). In HTML and facs. PDF.

Trenchard and Gordon, Cato’s Letters, or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects, 4 vols. (1st ed. 1724) (London: W. Wilkins, T. Woodward, J. Walthoe, J. Peele, 1737, 4th ed. corrected).

Gordon, Three Political Letters to a Noble Lord concerning the Constitution (2nd ed. corrected, London: F. Roberts, 1721). [PDF 1.2 MB]

Gordon, A Supplemental Letter, to Three Political Letters to a Noble Lord concerning the Constitution: with a Political Dissertation on the Act of Settlement (n.p., n.d.). [PDF 1.2 MB]

Trenchard and Gordon, The Independent Whig: or, a Defence of Primitive Christianity, and of our Ecclesiastical Establishment, against the Exorbitant Claims and Encroachments of Fanatical and Disaffected Clergymen. The Sixth Edition. With Additions and Amendments (originally published 1720-21) (London: J. Peele, 1735). In 3 volumes with a later 4th volume added.

  • Vol. 1 [PDF 42.8 MB]
  • Vol. 2 [PDF 13.1 MB]
  • Vol. 3 [PDF 30.7 MB]
  • Vol. 4 entitled The Independent Whig: Being a Collection of Papers, all written, some of them published, during the Late Rebellion. Vol. IV. The Second Edition (London: R. Ware, T. Longmasn, C. Hitch and L. Hawes, J. Hodges, A. Millar, J. Ward, W. Johnston, and M. Cooper, 1752) [PDF 15.3 MB]. It originally appeared as a separate volume as A Collection of Papers all written, some of them published, during the Late Rebellion. By the Author of the Independent Whig (Dublin: J. Kelburn, 1748) [PDF 9.4 MB].

Gordon, A Discourse of Standing Armies; shewing the Folly, Uselessness, and Danger of Standing Armies in Great Britain (London: T. Warner, 1722). [PDF 1 MB]

Gordon, An Essay on Government (London: J. Roberts, 1747). [PDF 3 MB]

Gordon, The Works of Sallust, translated into English with Political Discourse upon that Author. To which is added , a translation of Cicero's Four Orations against Cataline (London: R. Warre, n.d.). [facs. PDF 30.3 MB] and HTML]

Gordon, The Works of Tacitus. In Four Volumes. To which are prefixed, Political Discourses upon that Author by Thomas Gordon. The Second Edition, corrected. (London: T. Woodward and J. Peele, 1737).

A Collection of Tracts. By the Late John Trenchard, Esq; and Thomas Gordon, Esq. (London: F. Cogan, 1751). 2 volumes.


Other Works

Preface to his translation of Jean Barbeyrac's Spirit of Ecclesiastics in All Ages (1722).

Some essays in the 4 volume collection The Pillars of the Priestcraft and Orthodoxy Shaken (1752, 1768).