Monday, November 21, 2011

Harrington Defends the Republic

In Search of the Republic--19


The most well-known and influential defender of republicanism during England's commonwealth period was James Harrington. When the commonwealth came under attack by absolutist Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, Harrington crafted a defense he entitled The Commonwealth of Oceana.(1656) In this work, Harrington wrote a fictionalized account of England (Oceana) and theorized about the elements of an ideal republic.


The bulk of the work to too detailed in its presentation and too stilted in its prose to thoroughly analyze here. But his “preliminaries,” as he calls them, identify the main contours of his thought.


First, Harrington appeals to classical ideas about the foundation of republican government, largely derived from his reading of Niccolo Machiavelli's writings on ancient republics. He contrasts the classical view of government favorably with the modern view on the grounds of how they protect the liberty of the people:

Government (to define it de jure, or according to ancient prudence) is an art whereby a civil society of men is instituted and preserved upon the foundation of common right or interest; or, to follow Aristotle and Livy, it is the empire of laws, and not of men.”

An empire of laws, and not of men, is one in which people are not subject to the arbitrary will of rulers.

In contrast:

Government (to define it de facto, or according to modern prudence) is an art whereby some man, or some few men, subject a city or a nation, and rule it according to his or their private interest; which, because the laws in such cases are made according to the interest of a man, or of some few families, may be said to be the empire of men, and not of laws.”


Second, Harrington approves of the classical republican model of mixed government. He writes that just governments rule according to reason for the common good. All governments, however, grow corrupt because of the passions for private interest. Monarchy degenerates into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into anarchy.


To prevent this, the ancients

“invented another, consisting of a mixture of them all, which only is good. This is the doctrine of the ancients.”


So how should government be mixed? Harrington presents a model resembling that of Rome.


First, he proposes a Senate that, like the Roman Senate, does not make laws but only deliberates and makes suggestions for the people.


Wherefore the office of the senate is not to be commanders, but counsellors, of the people; and that which is proper to counsellors is first to debate, and afterward to give advice in the business whereupon they have debated, whence the decrees of the senate are never laws, nor so called; and these being maturely framed, it is their duty to propose in the case to the people.”


Harrington's Senate, however, differs in one important from the Roman and from the English House of Lords. He argues that its members should be elected. In a observation that influenced the founders of our own republic, Harrington posits the existence of a “natural aristocracy” that is “diffused throughout the whole body of mankind.” The people will recognize this "natural aristocracy" for their virtue and talents, not for their wealth or noble birth. These will make the best Senators.


Second, Harrington proposes a legislature to choose from the alternatives deliberated upon and forwarded to it from the Senate. Although the Senate is the wisdom of the commonwealth, the people's assembly is its interest in the common good.


The wisdom of the few may be the light of mankind; but the interest of the few is not the profit of mankind nor of a commonwealth. Wherefore, seeing we have granted interest to be reason, they must not choose lest it put out their light. But as the council dividing consists of the wisdom of the commonwealth, so the assembly or council choosing should consist of the interest of the commonwealth: as the wisdom of the commonwealth is in the aristocracy, so the interest of the commonwealth is in the whole body of the people.”


Finally, he proposes a magistrate to carry out the decisions of the assembly. But, in accordance to “an empire of laws and not of men,” the magistrate carry out his duties according to law and must remain accountable to the people.

Nevertheless there is one condition of it that must be the same in every one, or it dissolves the commonwealth where it is wanting. And this is no less than that, as the hand of the magistrate is the executive power of the law, so the head of the magistrate is answerable to the people, that his execution be according to the law.”

This is the basic structure of Harrington's republic.


He adds some other principles as well. He, like Aristotle, analyzes government economically. He feared that too much wealth concentrated in few hands could allow a faction of the extremely wealthy to overpower the balance in the government of a republic and overthrow it.  Consequently, he proposed agrarian laws governing the accumulation of land in order to prevent the growth of a landed aristocracy. He also urged rotation in office. This, too, helps preserve some semblance of equality to preserve a balanced government. Finally, he argued for liberty of conscience in matters of religion.

A government pretending to liberty, and yet suppressing liberty of conscience must be a contradiction.”



James Harrington


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