Harrington and the origins of Modern Democratic Government

 The Capitol Building, Washington DC. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The Capitol Building, Washington DC. Image by Rachel Hammersley

I am writing this blogpost on my way to Washington DC to attend a conference at the Center for the History of British Political Thought at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Travelling to Washington less than a month after the election of Donald Trump as the next US President has inevitably got me thinking about the relationship between Harrington's ideas and contemporary politics. Moreover, the fact that the conference is on the theme of 'Political Thought in Times of Crisis, 1640-1660' has also led me to think about the parallels with today. Of course, it is not just in the US that 2016 has been dominated by an air of political crisis. In Britain, the fallout from Brexit, the hurried appointment of a new Prime Minister, and the shambles surrounding the Labour leadership contest have vied for front-page status. Meanwhile, in Continental Europe mainstream parties are increasingly being challenged by radical groupings on both the Left and the Right, in the context of austerity economics and the flow of refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

 John Adams by John Singleton Copley. Image courtesy of Harvard Art Museums. http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/299877

John Adams by John Singleton Copley. Image courtesy of Harvard Art Museums. http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/299877

The attitude of many people to these crises is fear and despair. This is an understandable response, but it is not the only one. Crises are also moments of opportunity, when new ways of thinking, new ideas, and new institutions can be invented, and experimented with. This was certainly true of those years in the seventeenth century that are the focus of the conference. There may be much to be learned from times of crisis in the past.

Civil War broke out in England in 1642 when James Harrington was thirty one years old. Four years of fighting followed and, after a brief period of peace in which attempts were made to come to a negotiated settlement with the captured king, hostilities broke out again in 1648. Early the following year, Charles I was tried and executed and the monarchy and House of Lords were subsequently abolished as 'dangerous' to the people. The decade that followed witnessed the introduction, failure, and collapse of a whole series of regimes, coupled with war abroad, and constant threats from royalists and religious radicals at home. Moreover, Harrington was fully conscious of living through a period of revolutionary crisis, seeking to understand how it had come about, and seizing the opportunity to provide innovative solutions to the problems it raised. For this reason, his ideas subsequently appealed to late eighteenth-century revolutionaries. John Adams was one of several Americans to be inspired by him, and the vestiges of Adams' reading of Harrington marked the Massachusetts State Constitution. In France various revolutionaries were fundamentally affected by their reading of Harrington's works. They alluded to him for rhetorical effect, and modelled their own constitutional proposals on The Commonwealth of Oceana.

Though we are living at a far greater temporal distance from Harrington, and though the situation in which he was writing may seem very different from our own, there are reasons why we too might learn from his ideas. In many ways, our current political situation marks a crisis of modern representative democracy. It would, therefore, perhaps be pertinent for us to look again at the debates surrounding the origins of the formation of that democratic system. Though those origins are often seen to lie in the revolutionary period of the late eighteenth century, both positive uses of the term 'democracy' and statements as to what that form of government entailed, surfaced during the English Revolution. Harrington was one of several political thinkers who embraced the term for his own ends - mainly to condemn his opponents as oligarchs. In 1659 he published A Proposition in Order to the Proposing of a Commonwealth or Democracy and some associates of his published a pamphlet entitled A Model of A Democraticall Government. That same year in his work Aphorisms Political Harrington provided some indication of the form that he believed democracy ought to take: 'That democracy, or equal government by the people, consist[ing] of an assembly of the people and a senate is that whereby art is altogether directed, limited and necessitated by the nature of her materials'. His original statement on this issue appeared in Oceana. There he questioned why Athens should have been labelled a 'democracy' and Lacedaemon (Sparta) an 'aristocracy' when both were governed by a senate and a popular assembly. The main difference between them, Harrington noted, was that in Athens the people could both debate and vote on legislation, whereas in Sparta they had no right of debate, but could only accept or reject proposals introduced by the Senate. Harrington went on:

But for my part, where the people have the election of the senate, not bound unto a     distinct order, and the result, which is the sovereign power, I hold  them to have that share in the government (the senate being not for life) whereof, with the safety of the commonwealth, they are capable in nature, and such a government for that cause to be democracy.

Evidently this model is rather different from how most democratic governments operate today. Perhaps the first lesson that Harrington can teach us, then, is that our model of democratic government is not the only one possible and that there may even be others that would fulfil our goals more effectively.

 The Senate Building, Washington DC. The wording at the top reads 'The Senate is the Living Symbol of the Union of States'. Harrington would no doubt have approved. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The Senate Building, Washington DC. The wording at the top reads 'The Senate is the Living Symbol of the Union of States'. Harrington would no doubt have approved. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Some recent commentators have argued that one of the key problems with our democracy today is that the political class has become alienated from those it claims to represent. This fact has been used to explain the Brexit vote in the UK; the rise of extreme Left and Right Wing parties in Europe; and the recent success of Trump. As Moira Weigel argued earlier this week in a column in The Guardian, Donald Trump ran 'as a candidate whose primary qualification was that he was not a "politician"'. Harrington foresaw the danger that elected representatives could easily become too detached from the people they represent. His solution was to follow Aristotle's dictum of ensuring that those who made the laws would have to live under those laws. This could be done, he suggested, by having short terms and regular rotation of office. In his own constitutional model, members of both the senate and popular assembly would serve for just three years and having completed their term, they would then spend the same period out of office before being eligible for re-election. While something like this system operates in modern democracies, it is not true of MPs in the UK, who can spend a lifetime in Parliament. It is perhaps not surprising that long-term inhabitants of the Westminster bubble can become detached from the needs, concerns, hopes and fears of their constituents. The Labour Party is currently toying with the idea of mandatory de-selection, so perhaps this is one Harringtonian idea that may be employed to solve current problems.

Part of the reason for Harrington' insistence on short-terms and regular rotation of office was his belief that all human beings are equally inclined to corruption, particularly when holding a position of power. Consequently he argued against those who believed that political stability and success could be secured simply by choosing virtuous politicians. He argued instead for the development of a robust constitutional structure that would ensure that it was in the interests of those in power to behave virtuously. As noted above, in Harrington's system the senate would debate and propose legislation, but those proposals would only pass into law if they were accepted by the popular assembly. Harrington's belief was that the popular assembly would reject legislative proposals that favoured the interests of the Senate alone, thereby forcing Senators to think about the good of the nation as a whole. Perhaps in the aftermath of recent events, including the MPs expenses scandal of a few years ago, we too should be honest about human frailties and work to develop robust systems that will ensure that politicians act in the interests of those they represent rather than assuming their willingness or ability to do so. 

 The Capitol Building at night. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The Capitol Building at night. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

There are no easy answers in politics and no historian of any worth will suggest that the past provides ready-made answers to our problems. But looking back to key moments of political crisis in the past may alert us to issues that have been obscured or present us with alternative options that we would not otherwise have considered. Moreover, returning to those times can remind us that crises are not just moments of despair, but also of hope and opportunity.