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The Origins Of Modern Constitutionalism
The Gothic Constitution
by Wormuth, Francis D.

Before the Civil Wars most Englishmen believed English institutions to be indigenous to England. A few scholars held a contrary view — Bacon, for example, and Spelman and Selden. But the opinion of Sir Edward Coke was more representative: "And here it is worthy of consideration, how the laws of England are not derived from any foreign law, either canon, civil, or other, but a special law appropriated to this kingdom, and most accommodate and apt for the good government thereof, under which it hath wonderfully flourished, when this law hath been put in execution, and therefore as by situation, so by law it is truly said,

"Et penitus toto divises orbe Britannos."1

During the Civil Wars the Levellers argued that the liberty which they demanded was their birthright as Britons, wrongfully curtailed by the conquering Normans. But others looked for continental origins. Captain Edmund Hall, whose Digitus Testium, published in 1650, indorsed mixed monarchy as the best government in the world, declared that "The original of the subject's liberty came first out of Germany, where saith Tacitus, nec regibus libera aut infinita potestas erat." This seems to be the beginning of the myth which traces English liberty and English institutions to the German forests. Without intending to do so, however, James Harrington played a much more important part in launching the myth. Harrington took from Donato Giannotti, a sixteenth-century Florentine author, the latter's twofold periodization of political history.

Giannotti, the most excellent describer of the commonwealth of Venice, divideth the whole series of government into two times or periods. The one ending with the liberty of Rome, which was the course or empire, as I may call it, of ancient prudence, first discovered unto mankind by God himself, in the fabric of the commonwealth of Israel, and afterwards picked out of his footsteps in nature, and unanimously followed by the Greeks and Romans. The other beginning with the arms of Caesar; which extinguishing liberty were the transition of ancient into modern prudence, introduced by those inundations of Huns, Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Saxons, which breaking the Roman empire, deformed the whole face of the world, with those ill features of government, which at this time are become far worse in these western parts, except Venice, (which escaping the hands of the barbarians, by virtue of its impregnable situation, hath had her eye fixed upon ancient prudence: and is attained to a perfection even beyond her copy) .2

Ancient prudence was bicameral republicanism, which afforded an "empire of laws and not of men." Modern prudence took the form of the "Gothic balance" instituted by the invading tribes from the north.3 Harrington appears to have fixed upon the Goths as the originators of modern prudence because of their prominence in the overthrow of Rome. He may have been influenced by the Italian use of "Goth" as a term of contempt or by Tacitus' statement that the Gothic monarchy was the most severe in Germany, although not entirely incompatible with liberty. The Gothic balance was a monarchy and a powerful landed aristocracy, with the commons negligible because they had small share in the land. Harrington had no respect for this form4; "... the former government was not only a ship, but a gust too; could never open her sails, but in danger to overset herself: neither make any voyage, nor lie safe in her own harbor. ... Your Gothic politicians seem unto me rather to have invented some new ammunition, or gunpowder, in their King and Parliament (duo fulmina belli) than government." For over all of Europe the Gothic balance had blown up. Harrington urged Englishmen to return to the rules of ancient prudence, a course which was now possible since the commons held most of the land.

It appears that Harrington's borrowed periodization and the Gothic attribution became current very soon. Algernon Sidney, in his Discourses concerning Government, written for the most part in 1680, said, "All the northern nations, which, upon the dissolution of the Roman empire, possessed the best provinces that had composed it, were under that form which is usually called the Gothic polity."5 This was mixed monarchy, which was the best form of government.6

Harrington's friend and disciple, Henry Neville, in his Plato Redivivus of 1681 attempted to reconcile the republican ideal of liberty with Stuart monarchy. Limited monarchy had been established by the Goths when they overran Europe, though whether they brought it with them or instituted it after the conquest could not be known. King and Lords, or King, Lords, and Commons composed the government. The Lords owned a great part of the land and by means of feudal tenures controlled the rest; the government was therefore nearer an aristocracy than anything else. But now in England the peers had lost almost all their lands to the commons. Power was founded in property, but the English government ignored this rule; consequently, having been decaying for nearly two hundred years, it "is in our age brought so near to expiration, that it lies agonizing." Nevertheless there was an easy cure without sacrificing the monarchy. Let four executive councils be chosen by Parliament for the control of foreign relations, the command of the military and naval forces, the appointment of officers, and the administration of the revenues. The King would retain his present powers in all other fields, save that he was to lose his voice in legislation. The House of Lords was needed as the senate which proposed measures to the popular chamber, the House of Commons; but new Lords should be created only by act of Parliament.

Thereafter the mixed constitution of King, Lords, and Commons was commonly called Gothic. Addison wrote, "I have often heard of a senior alderman in Buckinghamshire, who, at all public meetings, grows drunk in praise of aristocracy, and is as often encountered by an old justice of the peace who lives in the neighborhood, and will talk you from morning till night on the Gothic balance."7 A large number of wearisome speeches were made in Parliament in the course of the eighteenth century in praise of the Gothic constitution, the mixed monarchy which assured liberty and all the virtues of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Montesquieu, referring to Tacitus, said, "This beautiful system was invented first in the woods." The only considerable writer to deny the Gothic attribution was Dean Swift, who in his anonymous Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome argued that mixed government was founded in

nature and reason, and pointed to the states of the ancient world, as well as Gaul and Germany, in proof.

Harrington's reading of English history and his law of the balance became nearly as popular as his theory of Gothic origins. Sir William Petty, Gilbert Burnet, John Trenchard, John Toland, Dean Swift, Joseph Addison, Bolingbroke, and other well-known writers accepted Harrington's thesis. In the eighteenth century the law of the balance became a commonplace of political discussion and often served as the basis for formal treatises. David Hume alone made a forthright rejection of the proposition that power follows property.8 It is a little perplexing that the very writers who called the contemporary mixed monarchy a mere continuation of Gothic institutions also accepted Harrington's assertion that the shift in the ownership of land had caused the earlier political system to disappear. Bolingbroke undertook to solve this difficulty by asserting that the present mixed constitution was a reversion to the true Germanic form; the feudal monarchy which Harrington had called Gothic was an illegitimate interlude.9

Despite occasional references to Polybius and the classical cult of liberty, eighteenth-century England looked to the Germany of Tacitus for its antecedents. The term Gothic, which Harrington had used in derision, became in politics honorific, and this in spite of a general acceptance of Harrington's ideas.


(1) The Third Part of the Institutes, 100.

(2) S. B. Liljegren, ed., James Harrington's Oceana (Heidelberg, 1924), p. 12.

(3) Ibid., p. 39.

(4) Ibid., p. 124.

(5) The Works of Algernon Sidney (London, 1772), p. 139.

(6) Ibid., p. 138.

(7) The Free-Holder, No. 53, June 22, 1716.

(8) Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (London, 1889), i, 109-117.

(9) Remarks on the History of England, in Works (London, 1809), ii, 242; A Dissertation on Parties, in Works, iii, 268.


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