The English Revolution (1640–1660) prompted new thinking about legal and constitutional matters, but also about political institutions and practices. The execution of King Charles I on 30 January 1649, and the subsequent establishment of the “Commonwealth and Free State,” forced thinkers in England and beyond to reassess commonly accepted notions, such as the divine right of kings, the ancient English constitution, and the location of sovereign power. Various thinkers developed theories to explain the situation, offered justifications for the new regime, and even proposed novel institutions of their own.
James Harrington (1611–1677) was particularly influential in this regard. His major work – The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) – explained why a commonwealth was theoretically the best form of government; demonstrated why that form was the most appropriate for England in the mid-1650s – and, in doing so, offered an historical explanation for the outbreak of the Civil War; and proposed a detailed constitutional blueprint for a more successful and durable English commonwealth than the one in existence. Moreover he did this in a multilayered work, which interwove various genres and factual and fictional elements into a complex whole.
After the publication of Oceana, Harrington continued to push his arguments and constitutional model, and to experiment with genre and style, in a series of publications, most of which either debated his key arguments or offered abridged versions of his model. Harrington’s interests were broad, encompassing religious, historical, philosophical, and scientific thought. However, he is best known for his political and constitutional ideas: his theory regarding the economic foundations of political power; his insistence on the rule of laws not men; and the measures he proposed to prevent human self-interest from corrupting the commonwealth. Underpinning all of this was his distinctive division of political power into two components: empire and authority.
Empire and Authority
Harrington grounded his political theory in a naturalistic understanding of human beings and their place in the universe. Since individuals were composed of material, rational, and divine elements, he argued that the state too should embody all three. This was reflected in his distinction between empire and authority. Empire was concerned with the material foundations of power, or as Harrington put it “the goods of fortune” or “riches.” Authority referred to “the goods of the mind,” or virtues, and encompassed both human and divine rationality. This distinction challenged Thomas Hobbes’s belief that “riches are power” and that “prudence, or the reputation of prudence, is power.” As Harrington pointed out, “A learned writer may have authority, though he have no power; and a foolish magistrate may have power, though he have otherwise no esteem or authority” (Harrington 1977, p. 163).
“Empire Follows the Balance of Property”
If one man be sole landlord of a territory, or overbalance the people, for example, three parts in four, he is grand signor, for so the Turk is called from his property; and his empire is absolute monarchy.
If the few or a nobility, or a nobility with the clergy, be landlords, or overbalance the people unto the like proportion, it makes the Gothic balance … and the empire is mixed monarchy, as that of Spain, Poland, and late of Oceana.
And if the whole people be landlords, or hold the lands so divided among them, that no one man or number of men, within the compass of the few or aristocracy, overbalance them, the empire (without the interposition of force) is a commonwealth. (Harrington, pp. 163–164).
Rule “of Laws and Not of Men”
With regard to empire, then, the appropriate form of government was dependent on the distribution of landed property within a country. When it came to authority, however, one form of government was clearly superior to the rest. At the heart of Harrington’s theory of government was the distinction between ancient prudence “whereby a civil society of men is instituted and preserved upon the foundation of common right or interest” and modern prudence “whereby some man, or some few men, subject a city or a nation, and rule it according unto his or their private interest.” Or, as he put it more pithily, between the “empire of laws” and that “of men” (Harrington, p. 161). While this idea was attributed by Harrington to Aristotle and Livy, and while it echoed sentiments expressed by Niccolò Machiavelli, Harrington’s adoption of it was prompted by his sympathy for Hobbes’s negative assessment of human nature.
“Divide”, says one unto the other, “and I will choose; or let me divide, and you shall choose.” If this be but once agreed upon, it is enough; for the dividend dividing unequally loses, in regard that the other takes the better half; wherefore she divides equally, and so both have right. (Harrington, p. 172)
Denying the senate the right to resolve as well as to debate meant preventing its member from both dividing and choosing and thereby from passing legislation in their own interests.
Constitutional architecture, then, could be used to ensure that government was exercised in accordance with human reason, but what about the other aspect of the goods of the mind: divine rationality? Harrington was adamant that religion was essential to human beings and therefore to society. He developed his own distinctive civil religion which combined a democratically administered national church and liberty of conscience for Protestant sects (Goldie 1987).
“Flesh Must Be Changed or It Will Stink of Itself”
Much recent commentary on Harrington has focused on his credentials as a republican, but scholars have also begun to acknowledge his use of democratic practices in church and state (Foxley 2013; Hammersley 2013; Davis 2018). Alongside his commitment to popular sovereignty, Harrington championed a broad franchise and meritocracy, as well as explicitly embracing the term “democracy.” He was, however, aware of the potential dangers of democracy, not least the corrupting effects of power.
Just as the organization of the bicameral legislature was designed to prevent the senate from pursuing its own interests at the expense of the commonwealth, so rotation of office – which was instituted for most offices and assemblies in Harrington’s model – was designed to curb corruption on the part of individual deputies and officeholders. As Harrington explained: “Flesh must be changed or it will stink of itself; there is a term necessary to make a man able to lead the commonwealth unto her interest, and there is a term that may enable a man to lead the commonwealth unto his interest” (Harrington, p. 494). Elections would be held annually with one third of each assembly being replaced each year. Members of the senate and popular assembly could only hold office for 3 years, after which they had to spend 3 years out of office before being eligible for reelection. The awareness of deputies and officeholders that they would soon have to return to the status of ordinary citizens and live by the laws they had enacted would, Harrington believed, keep them focused on the common good.
Finally, Harrington sought to prevent corruption among electors by borrowing the complex balloting system practiced in Venice. It used secret voting and a combination of lot and election to create a system that would make a fair choice of good candidates possible.
Despite his best efforts, Harrington’s proposed constitution was never implemented in England. Yet the novelty of his proposals, and their utility, led to his ideas being debated – and some of his mechanisms implemented – in revolutionary America and France (Hammersley 2005a, b, 2010). Moreover, his recognition of the tendency of power to corrupt, and therefore of the importance of ensuring political accountability, remain just as relevant to us today as they were in his own time.
- Davis JC (2018) James Harrington and the rule of king people. In: Márquez X (ed) Democratic moments: reading democratic texts. Bloomsbury, London, pp 65–72Google Scholar
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- Hammersley R (2005b) From constitution-builders to radical democrats: neo-Harringtonians in eighteenth-century America and France. In: Cope KL (ed) 1650–1850: ideas, aesthetics, and inquiries in the early modern era, vol 2, pp 315–343Google Scholar
- Harrington J (1977) In: Pocock JGA (ed) The political works of James Harrington. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar