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The Origins Of Modern Constitutionalism
James Harrington
by Wormuth, Francis D.

The most important and most influential of the political theorists of the Cromwellian period was James Harrington. Thomas Hobbes was a great man and could, as Harrington said, "make you a king by geometry," but the deductive method of argument was better adapted to display the author's acumen than to persuade the reader. Harrington resorted to history and by empirical methods quarried out what seemed to him to be general principles of political science. The approach was not new. A number of writers of the period — Marchamont Nedham, for one — turned to the authors of antiquity and to modern historians for data from which to form political judgments. John Hall of Gray's Inn wrote, "And truly I conceive reading of history to be the most rational course to set any judgment right, because it instructs by experience and effects, and grounds the judgment upon material observations, and not blindly gropes after notions and causes, which to him are tantum non inscrutabile."1 Harrington differs from these authors not in his method but in his results. The generalizations which he made appeared to many of his contemporaries and to most students of politics in the eighteenth century the fundamentals of a science of politics. His first and largest book was The Commonwealth of Oceana, which appeared in 1656. This was a description of the institutions of the island of Oceana, a thinly disguised recommendation for England. During the next three years he published a number of smaller tracts defending and elaborating the argument of Oceana; the most important of these are The Prerogative of Popular Government, written in 1658, and The Art of Lawgiving, which appeared in 1659.

All of Harrington's writings rest on a central idea, the law of the balance or, more properly, the over-balance. This is the proposition which John Adams, an admirer of Harrington, summed up in the aphorism "Power follows property." In general, Harrington argued, power follows landed property, but in a commercial state like Venice or the Netherlands money may play the leading part. Power may for a time remain outside the hands of the possessors of land, but this condition is unnatural and precarious and cannot endure. In the long run those who have the over-balance of land will secure control of the government. From this proposition Harrington derives his classification of governments. Absolute monarchy exists where the king owns all the land, as with the Turks. Mixed monarchy is the feudal society set up at the time of the collapse of Rome — Harrington calls it also "the Gothic balance"; here the land is in the hands of a few great lords who overshadow both king and commons. A commonwealth exists when most of the land is held by the commons; such a state must be popular. The proportion of land necessary to support government by a single person or class is two-thirds or three-fourths of the whole. If the governmental form of absolute or mixed monarchy or commonwealth exists without the appropriate economic base, the state is in a condition of "privation of government," which may be tyranny, oligarchy, or anarchy. Where the spurious government is able to maintain an army, this is civil war; if there is no army, the state "must fall away of itself through the want of a foundation, or be blown up by some tumult: and in this kind of privation the matter or foundation of a good orderly government is ready and in being, and there wants nothing to the perfection of the same, but proper superstructures or forms."

This theory supplied Harrington with an explanation of the Civil Wars. When Henry VII had broken up the baronial estates and Henry VIII had distributed the lands of the monasteries among the commons, a commonwealth was inevitable. Oceana was a plea to Cromwell to recognize this fact and establish the institutions appropriate to a commonwealth.

Harrington prided himself on being the discoverer of the law of the balance. He thought it "very foul" when an anonymous writer in 1659 attributed the idea to Sir Thomas Smith's De Republica Anglorum rather than to Oceana,2 and he resented bitterly a Leveller pamphlet which alleged that the notion had been stated in the debates in the Army Council before the execution of the King.3 Certainly Sir Thomas Smith did not formulate the law, and the Clarke Papers record no statement of it in the debates. Yet there are several rather direct anticipations of Harrington. Sir Walter Raleigh in his Discourse of War said, "It has been observed also, that since these troubles from the barons, the kings of England, to lessen the power of the nobility, and balance them, have yielded to the growing greatness and privileges of the commons; and what effect that will have, time alone will show." A book of 1648, Several Politic and Military Observations, which also argued for two of Harrington's favorite devices — a Senate to propose laws and rotation in office — supplied a reading of history much like Harrington's. Henry VII, distrusting the nobility, "began in his days to give the swing of the balance unto the English yeomanry, for he brought his nobility low, and raised the yeomanry; so that the English monarchy inclines rather at this present to fall into a democracy, than to an absolute monarchy, or to an aristocracy; because the greatest power of the kingdom, is at this instant in the hands of the yeomanry." There was no mention of land as the basis of power, but this want was made good by a tract published in 1654 and reissued in 1656. The first edition was entitled A Copy of a Letter from an Officer of the Army in Ireland to the Lord Protector, concerning his Change of the Government, and was signed by R. G. from Waterford, June 24, 1654. This has been attributed to Edmund Ludlow and also to the Digger Richard Goodgroom, but appears not to have been the work of either.4

The Copy of a Letter was an attack on the Instrument of Government; it argued that the shift in land ownership made it impossible for Cromwell to restore monarchical forms in England.

... it is against the interest of a monarchy, to let his subjects grow rich; from this contest of the Lords, with succeeding kings, began the Barons' Wars, and in the close of them our government, by Kings, Lords, and Commons, wherein, although the Commons were named, it will be found, if we look into records, that they had little share, except to help bear up the Lords, whose blue coats they wore against the king, and it will likewise appear, that they were never discontented at their very small proportion, and the reason is the same with the former, viz. that either they possessed no lands at all, or else they held them as servants to their loving Lords and clergy, so that this state was founded with great wisdom, upon the very condition of the people, which had it continued the same it then was, could never have been shaken, but by a foreign war. ...

Henry VII, however, had levelled the peers, and by that means "laid the foundation of destroying his posterity, never considering at all that the Lords could not be diminished, but by advancing and enriching the Commons, whose desire of power must advance accordingly, which if they would obtain, it was then obvious that they must strike not at this or that prince, but at the very root of monarchy itself, as being a thing useless wholly to them, and indeed inconsistent with their government and interest." Henry VIII had continued the same policy, and other factors such as the breaking of entails and the rise of trade had contributed to that enrichment of the commons which made monarchy impossible. Cromwell could restore royal government only by taking the estates from the people and conferring them upon old or new lords, which it would hardly be safe to attempt. Thus the Copy of a Letter anticipated the most characteristic feature of Oceana.

It is, moreover, at least possible that Harrington was assisted to the law of the balance by his friend Henry Neville. Aubrey tells us that "Mr. T. Hobbes was wont to say that Henry Neville had a finger in that pie; and 'tis like enough."5 In the foreword of his Plato Redivivus, published in 1681, Neville took pains to deny that the law of the balance first appeared in Oceana and instanced the Copy of a Letter as one of many earlier statements. What this shows, however, is not that Harrington was dishonest in his claim of originality but that the course of events and the current of discussion had brought others as well as Harrington to the same conclusion.

Harrington grounded the law of the balance on historical evidence rather than on theoretical considerations. The only reason offered for the law was this:

The strength whereby this effect [empire] can be expected, consists not in a pair of fists, but in an army; and an army is a beast with a great belly, which subsists not without very large pastures: so if a man has sufficient pasture, he may feed such a beast; if a few have the pasture, they must feed the beast, and the beast is theirs that feed it. But if the people be the sheep of their own pastures, they are not only a flock of sheep, but an army of lions, though by some accidents, as I confessed before, they be for a season confinable to their dens.6

This was not completely persuasive. Matthew Wren in his Monarchy Asserted, a reply to Harrington published in 1659, reversed the relation between politics and economics. Dominion in land was a mere effect of empire, not the cause. Moreover, money was important as well as land, but the power of money was dependent upon the support of the sovereign, for without such support riches were defenseless, a mere attractive booty. Harrington was mistaken in thinking that an army necessarily belonged to the owner of the pasture, for "this beast is none of those tame ones that are kept within fences, or imprisoned in a several: when an army is once on foot, the enclosure of the law is too weak to hold it in, and property is no better than a hedge of rotten sticks." This was something less than fair to Harrington's position, but as an analysis of the relation of politics to economics it came as close to the truth as Harrington.

The fact is that neither property nor government is primary and the source of the other; they mutually interpenetrate and sustain each other. But Harrington was not so much concerned to explain this relationship as to describe the conditions under which it could exist. Empire must be brought to property, or property to empire; the divorce of the two was "privation of government" and civil war.

Such a divorce between government and property could occur in either of two ways, by a natural or a violent revolution. "Natural revolution happens from within, or by commerce, as when a government erected upon one balance, that for example of a nobility or a clergy, through the decay of their estates comes to alter to another balance; which alteration in the root of property, leaves all to confusion, or produces a new branch or government, according to the kind or nature of the root. Violent revolution happens from without, or by arms, as when upon conquest there follows confiscation."7 The task of statesmanship, therefore, was to prevent the state from leaving the balance upon which it was settled. A commonwealth had need of an agrarian law to maintain a wide distribution of property. Harrington complained that the law of primogeniture led to the concentration of land ownership, and proposed that if an estate exceeded 2000 pounds in yearly rent the younger sons should be admitted to a share. The acquisition of land by purchase and marriage was likewise to be limited. Such an agrarian law, Harrington estimated, would keep the land in the hands of not fewer than five thousand owners, a number large enough to insure the stability of the commonwealth.

There was no suggestion in Harrington's writings that he thought an absolute or mixed monarchy morally reprehensible. He must have shared the view which Henry Neville later expressed in his Plato Redivivus. Turkey was not a tyranny, said Neville, "unless you will call it oppression for the grand signior to feed all his people out of the product of his own lands: and though they serve him for it, yet that does not alter the case; for if you set poor men to work and pay them for it, are you a tyrant?" Nevertheless, Harrington believed that a commonwealth possessed two advantages over other forms. One was stability. The causes of sedition were the desire for liberty, for power, and for riches; but in a commonwealth these were already in the hands of the people.8 The second virtue of a commonwealth was that it alone among governmental forms insured "the empire of laws and not of men."9

Harrington rejected as superficial Matthew Wren's definition of law as will; he himself equated law to interest, from which will proceeded.10 In an absolute or mixed monarchy, law would express the interests of one or the few. A commonwealth aimed at a national interest. But there were two parts of legislation: wisdom to propose measures, and interest to test their utility.11 Accordingly a commonwealth needed three orders: a Senate, to propose; the people, acting through representatives, to consent; and a magistracy, to execute the laws. The Senate was allowed to debate but not to conclude a measure; the popular assembly might approve or disapprove the measures proposed by the Senate, but might not debate or initiate. So essential was bicameralism to a commonwealth, said Harrington, that none ever endured long without it.

Thus Harrington justified bicameralism as an institutional expression of the distinction between wisdom and interest. There was a natural aristocracy fitted to debate and consider reasons; this in the Senate constituted the wisdom of the commonwealth, which proposed measures. But the Senate could not advance its own selfish interests, for it could not enact any law. The popular assembly represented the interest of the commonwealth and applied the test of national interest to the measures it enacted. The popular assembly in turn could not enact factious or partisan legislation, for it lacked the power to initiate. The upshot, said Harrington, was the impartiality Aristotle had advocated — "the empire of laws and not of men."

Implicit in the scheme was the idea of balance, but it was not the balance of social classes. The Oceana allowed every man not a servant to vote for the deputies who choose the members of both houses. It was true that all the Senators and three-sevenths of the members of the popular chamber, the Prerogative Tribe, were to be chosen from those having annual incomes of at least 100 pounds, but this was intended to secure to the commonwealth the services of gentlemen rather than to confer any advantage on that class. What was to be balanced was interest against wisdom. But the only proof Harrington offered to show that bicameralism would result in impartiality and promotion of the general interest was the story of the two girls dividing a cake.

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 divident, dividing unequally loses, in regard that the other takes the better half; wherefore she divides equally, and so both have right. O the depth of the wisdom of God! And yet by the mouths of babes and sucklings hath He set forth His strength; that which great philosophers are disputing upon in vain, is brought unto light by two silly girls, even the whole mystery of a commonwealth: which lies only in dividing and choosing: nor hath God (if his works in nature be understood) left so much to mankind to dispute upon, as who shall divide, and who choose, but distributed them forever into two orders, whereof the one hath the natural right of dividing, and the other of choosing. For example:

A commonwealth is but a civil society of men : let us take any number of men (as twenty) and forthwith make a commonwealth: twenty men (if they be not all idiots, perhaps if they be) can never come together, but there will be such difference in them, that about a third will be wiser, or at least less foolish than the rest; these upon acquaintance though it be but small, will be discovered, and (as stags that have the largest heads) lead the herd. ...

Bicameralism itself and the procedures involved in legislation were suggested to Harrington by the institutions of the city-states of the ancient world.

Athens consisted of the Senate of the bean proposing, of the Church or Assembly of the people resolving and too often debating, which was the ruin of it, as also of the Senate of the Areopagites, the nine Archons, with divers other magistrates executing.

Lacedaemon consisted of the Senate proposing, of the Church or Congregation of the people resolving only, and never debating; which was the long life of it; and of the two kings, the Court of the Ephors, with divers other magistrates executing.

Carthage consisted of the Senate proposing and sometimes resolving, too, of the people resolving and sometimes debating too, for which fault she was reprehended by Aristotle, and she had her Suffetes, and her hundred men with other magistrates executing.

Rome consisted of the Senate proposing, the Concio or people resolving and too often debating, which caused her storms; as also of the Consuls, Censors, Aediles, Tribunes, Praetors, Quaestors, and other magistrates executing.12

To these examples Harrington added Venice, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Israel. His chief indebtedness, however, was to "the experience of Lacedaemon and Venice," which taught that debate "is not to be committed to the people in a well-ordered government."13

Harrington's Senate was intended to perform a necessary function. A large body could not successfully exercise initiative; it must rely on outside leadership or on committees drawn from its own membership. In the case of Athens, where the popular Ecclesia could debate and amend the proposals of the Boulé and even instruct the Boulé to prepare specified measures for its consideration, bicameralism was a successful solution of the problem of legislative leadership. The Boulé was little more than an initiating committee of the Ecclesia, and no conflict arose between the two bodies. But Harrington counted on bicameralism to do more than solve the problem of legislative leadership. It was to prevent partiality in legislation, to insure the empire of laws and not of men; and for this purpose the prohibition on debate and amendment in the popular chamber was essential. But this feature gave Harrington's Senate a power over legislation which might easily be used for interested purposes. An anonymous critic made this point in 1659. Speaking of the cake of the two silly girls, he said: "It is frivolous to think that the fourteen in England, like little babies, would be pleased with this rattle, of choosing; when it is evident that it must be Hobson's choice, this or none; and as I have been cheated myself as a boy, and thought it privilege enough to choose, the wags have cut the greatest piece of an apple, and offered me the remainder, and bid me take that or choose. ..."14

The other two institutions upon which Harrington insisted were the ballot and rotation in office. The ballot, of course, was intended to prevent improper influence in voting. Rotation made the legislature like a rolling stone, "which never did, nor, while it continues upon that rotation, ever shall gather the moss of a divided or ambitious interest." The legislators were to be elected for three-year terms, and one-third were to leave office every year. A legislator was to be ineligible for re-election for three years after his term had expired.

The core of Harrington's teaching, however, was the law of the balance and the necessity of that peculiar institution, the Senate. The idea of the balance very soon passed into practical politics. It was used as a basis for criticism of the Cromwellian Lords in 1658 and 1659. Harrington himself, in February of 1659, published an attack on the other House, A Word concerning a House of Peers. Peers who had the over-balance of property must have a king to unite them and to administer their government; peers who lacked the over-balance must fall with the king, as the old Lords had done. The new Lords could stand only with the help of the Army. Harrington took no other part in the political disputes of the time. In November of 1659 he founded his Rota Club and there his ideas and proposals were debated in academic fashion. In the face of the Royalist revival of early 1660 the Club disbanded. Harrington was arrested in 1661 on the charge of complicity in a plot against Charles II and was held without trial for some years until imprisonment and illness had shattered his mind. He died in 1677.


(1) The Grounds and Reasons of Monarchy Considered (1651), prefixed to Toland's edition of The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington (3d ed., 1747), p. 7.

(2) The Art of Lawgiving (1659), in Toland, p. 431 n. The pamphlet referred to is XXV Queries, modestly and humbly, and yet sadly and seriously Propounded (London, 1659). Perhaps the author of this pamphlet was William King: see John T. Rutt, ed., Burton's Parliamentary Diary (London, i828),iii, 77-82.

(3) The Art of Lawgiving, loc. cit.

(4) William T. Whitley, A Baptist Bibliography (London, 1916), 86-654, says: "R. G. may be Richard Goodgroom. The letter was expressly assigned at Dublin to [Edmund] Ludlow." Whitley, 26-656, attributes the second edition to Goodgroom without question. Internal evidence indicates that the author was indeed an officer of the Army in Ireland in 1654. Ludlow meets this test; but it seems unlikely that he would have failed to mention the pamphlet in his Memoirs if he had written it. Moreover, he was one of the few republicans who never subscribed to the law of the balance on which the tract rests. Richard Goodgroom is a plausible nominee, since Digger doctrine could easily be converted into the law of the balance. But although Goodgroom was an officer of the Army, he was a chaplain of Monk in Scotland rather than an officer in Ireland. Calendar of State Papers Domestic, 1671, p. 52.

(5) Andrew Clark, ed., Aubrey's Brief Lives (Oxford, 1898), i, 289.

(6) The Prerogative of Popular Government (1658), in Toland, p. 249.

(7) Ibid., p. 244.

(8) Ibid., p. 260.

(9) S. B. Liljegren, ed., James Harrington's Oceana (Heidelberg, 1924), p. 22 ff.

(10) The Prerogative of Popular Government, in Toland, p. 241. This is directed in part against Wren's Considerations on Mr. Harrington's ... Oceana (1657).

(11) Ibid., pp. 253-254.

(12) Liljegren, op. cit., p. 29.

(13) Ibid., p. 128.

(14) The Grand Concernments of England Ensured (London, 1659), pp. 44-45.


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