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The Origins Of Modern Constitutionalism|
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
Harrington grounded the law of the balance on historical evidence rather
than on theoretical considerations. The only reason offered for the law was
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
(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.