Peaceful Revolution?

Several recent commentators on world affairs, including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, have suggested that what is required to solve current problems is nothing short of a revolution. Despite my sympathy with the need for drastic change, as an historian of the English and French Revolutions I always feel cautious about calls for revolution. Both of the revolutions I have researched provide ample evidence of the horrors that it can bring: the havoc and destruction it wreaks on the country and the devastation it causes to individual lives.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The Civil War, which was a key component of the English Revolution, is thought to have resulted, as noted in a previous blogpost, in the deaths of a larger proportion of the adult male population of this country than the First World War. The regicide - effectively a state-sponsored execution - that lay at the Revolution's heart, introduced a period of ten years of unstable government which had serious political and economic consequences. Moreover, the whole period brought division and animosity. Families were divided, with brothers or fathers and sons fighting on different sides. Royalists were excluded from the franchise in both of the constitutions of the 1650s: the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice, as well as having their land and assets seized. After 1660 the tables were turned and it was former revolutionaries, especially the regicides, who were punished. Even his early death in 1658 did not protect Oliver Cromwell: his body was dug up in order to be posthumously decapitated. Moreover, the social divisions survived well beyond 1660, with the labels 'Roundhead' and 'Cavalier' mutating into those of 'Whig' and 'Tory', which dominated British politics throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. 

'A Versaille, a Versaille, du 5 Octobre 1789'. Image from author's own collection.

'A Versaille, a Versaille, du 5 Octobre 1789'. Image from author's own collection.

The French Revolution has an even greater reputation for violence. This was frequently perpetrated by the crowds. For example, around the time of the storming of the Bastille, the decapitated heads of authority figures were hung from lampposts, and in October 1789 a crowd of women armed with pikes marched to Versailles and forced the royal family back to Paris. Later, in the September Massacres of 1792, over a thousand prisoners were slaughtered to prevent them from joining with foreign troops who were imminently expected to invade Paris (but actually never came). Violence was also perpetrated by the government itself, via the use of the guillotine and by the declaration, in September 1793, that Terror was the 'order of the day'.

Of course, not all English or French revolutionaries insisted that violence and division were essential to achieving their aims. In each case there were prominent individuals who argued strongly against both. James Harrington was one of these. Though he supported the parliamentary cause financially during the 1640s, and argued that England was ripe for popular government in his major work The Commonwealth of Oceana of 1656, he acted as gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles I in 1647-8, having previously worked on behalf of Charles's nephew, the Prince Elector Palatine. In keeping with these connections, Harrington was intent, in the aftermath of the Civil War, on healing and settling a divided nation. To this end he even argued that royalists should be allowed to vote:

Extract from James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana,  in  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq.,  ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 74.

Extract from James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana, in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington Esq., ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. 74.

During the French Revolution calls for clemency were made by members of the Cordeliers Club who, as was demonstrated in my previous blogpost, showed an interest both in Harrington's works and in his understanding of democracy. In particular, Camille Desmoulins in his newspaper Le Vieux Cordelier, condemned Maximilian Robespierre's appeal to revolutionary necessity, which was used to justify the Terror. Against Robespierre's position, Desmoulins asserted the traditional Cordeliers call for the protection and defence of the rights of individuals, insisting that the Cordeliers' fight had been to defend: 'the declaration of rights, the gentleness of republican maxims, fraternity, holy equality, the inviolability of principles'. (Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, Paris: Belin, 1987, p.80). Freedom of speech and the liberty of the press were particularly important to him as means of protecting the people against tyranny, and as the fundamental foundation of republican government: 'What is the last retrenchment against despotism? It is the liberty of the press ... What is it that distinguishes a republic from a Monarchy? It is a single thing, the liberty of speaking and of writing.' (Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, p. 147). Moreover, Desmoulins turned this idea directly against Robespierre's notion - borrowed from Montesquieu - of a republic of virtue:

But to return to the question of the liberty of the press, without doubt it must be unlimited; without doubt republics must have as their base and foundation the liberty of the press, not this other base that Montesquieu has given them. (Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, p. 179).

Camille Desmoulins,  Le Vieux Cordelier , no. 4. Taken from Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/

Camille Desmoulins, Le Vieux Cordelier, no. 4. Taken from Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/

Neither Harrington nor Desmoulins proved very successful in their attempts to bring about a more harmonious settlement. Despite his best efforts, Harrington's proposals were not taken up by the government. After the Restoration he was arrested and imprisoned by the authorities, and he did not publish any further works during his lifetime. Desmoulins suffered even more drastically for his views. He was sent to the guillotine in April 1794 by the man whose ideas he had criticised in Le Vieux Cordelier, his former schoolfriend, Robespierre.

Yet, just because they failed, does not mean that the ideas of Harrington and Desmoulins were not feasible, or that they do not have something useful to teach us. Most historians no longer subscribe to a narrow Whig interpretation of the past, but rather acknowledge that the ideas that did not win out, and even the paths not taken, are worthy of some consideration. Finding political solutions that can unite those of very different political persuasions (as Harrington sought to do) is an appealing idea at a time when politics is more divisive and combative than ever. And the notion that freedom of speech and a free press should form the foundation of the political system is widely respected, if not always enacted, today. Moreover, these two ideas are combined in an interesting initiative that has been gaining some traction. Advocates and practitioners of local participatory democracy have shown that allowing groups of interested parties openly to discuss and debate issues often leads to greater consensus. Applying this kind of local participatory democracy more widely could perhaps offer a solution to the current democratic crisis.

No doubt part of the appeal of Harrington's ideas to Desmoulins and his fellow Cordeliers was his attempt to combine a commitment to innovative and revolutionary ideas - not least democratic government - with a concern to heal divisions and to build a society that was open to a range of viewpoints as well as being harmonious. And I am aware that my own interest in both Harrington and Desmoulins stems partly from the same desire. For me, these thinkers offer the possibility that we may be able to bring about positive and lasting change to our society, including its political institutions, without recourse to revolutionary violence or even to the silencing of 'inconvenient' views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

House of Lords Reform Seventeenth-Century Style

House of Lords and House of Commons during King Charles I's reign, c. 1640-42, artist unknown. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D18316. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

House of Lords and House of Commons during King Charles I's reign, c. 1640-42, artist unknown. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D18316. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

In late October, several newspapers reported new proposals for reform of the House of Lords. It was suggested that its membership be cut to 600; that peers be limited to fifteen-year terms; and that future appointments be made not by the government but by all political parties, according to their average share of the vote at the previous election. These proposals are the outcome of ten months of investigation by a committee headed by Lord Terence Burns. For those unhappy with the patently unrepresentative nature of the upper house, the proposals of this committee are likely to be a disappointment. The fact that the reduction to 600 members will not be realised until 2027, and that more drastic change (such as abandoning the hereditary element altogether) is not being proposed, makes the committee look timid. As so often in the face of frustration at contemporary political issues, I am led to reflect on what might be learnt from paying more attention to the debates of the seventeenth century.

The purpose, function and constitution of the second chamber was a major issue during the period of the English Revolution. In the space of less than two decades (from 1640 to 1659) a variety of models were not only proposed and debated, but even enacted. Early seventeenth-century accounts presented the House of Lords as a key component of England's mixed constitution. It provided an institutional setting for the aristocratic element, alongside the King (who embodied the monarchical element), and the Commons (which represented the democratic). However, the composition of the upper house (and therefore what was meant by the term 'aristocracy'), and even its very existence, came up for debate during the Revolution.

Statue of Charles I, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Charles I, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The House of Lords had already become a source of some concern even before the outbreak of civil war in 1642, due to the inclusion of bishops among its voting members. Many Puritans opposed episcopacy (the rule of bishops within the church) and they were especially concerned about their ability to wield political power. The Bishops' Exclusion Bill, which was passed on 13 February 1642, removed them from the House of Lords, thereby reducing the political power of the established church. Bishops only returned to the Lords as a result of the Clergy Act of 1661.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Oliver Cromwell, Westminster. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

By 1649 the House of Lords as an institution was under attack. The Lords was seen as the natural supporter of monarchy and so it was feared that its members would favour a settlement with the defeated king on his terms. Consequently, after the purging of the Commons to remove those MPs thought to be sympathetic to a settlement, the remaining MPs declared the Commons to be supreme, insisting that it would, henceforth, rule without the House of Lords. The purged Commons then initiated the King's trial, which ended in regicide. It also held onto power in the aftermath of that seismic event. Between January 1649 and April 1653 England was ruled by a unicameral system in which power was concentrated in the 'Rump' of the old Parliament (those MPs who remained after the purge), without any second chamber or single figurehead.

The rule of the Rump Parliament was short-lived. It was dissolved by Oliver Cromwell in April 1653, but this did not prompt the return of a second chamber. The Rump was replaced by the short-lived Nominated Assembly or Barebones Parliament, which was also a unicameral body. It was in turn replaced, in December 1653, by the Protectorate, governed according to the Instrument of Government (the first written constitution in English history), which declared that a single chamber parliament would rule alongside the Protector and his Council of State. It was during the early phase of the Protectorate that the absence of a second chamber to rein in or check the power of the Commons started to be seen as a weakness. Consequently, when a revised constitution, the Humble Petition and Advice, was drawn up in 1657 one of the main changes imposed was that the parliament was to be bicameral. The new second chamber was not, however, to be a House of Lords on the old model. Known simply as the 'Other House' it was a small body consisting of between 40 and 70 life members who were nominated by Cromwell as Lord Protector, subject to approval by the Commons.            

'The Use and Manner of the Ballot' shows Harrington's 'senate' in the process of voting.  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

'The Use and Manner of the Ballot' shows Harrington's 'senate' in the process of voting. The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

Writing in the midst of this debate and experimentation surrounding the upper chamber, it is perhaps not surprising that James Harrington voiced strong views on this element of the constitution. In The Commonwealth of Oceana, which was published in 1656 when the weaknesses of the Instrument of Government were most acute, Harrington explicitly insisted on the need for a bicameral system to balance and control the power of the lower house, and he set out very clearly both the composition of the second chamber and the role that it was to play. Harrington argued that the second chamber, or senate as he called it, should be composed of a natural aristocracy. This has led some commentators to view him as a supporter of privilege, but his conception was far removed from a traditional aristocracy. Indeed, the membership of his senate was more democratic not just than other second chamber models of the time, but also than our current House of Lords. In the first place, though he used the term 'aristocracy', birth was to play no part in the choice of senators, since there were to be no hereditary peers. Instead, members of the senate were to be chosen on the basis of wealth and merit. While the criterion of wealth might appear exclusive, the basis on which Harrington justified and applied it was remarkably inclusive. The wealth criterion was justified partly on the grounds that money was necessary in order to engage in the study and travel required for the acquisition of political wisdom. Moreover, the threshold was set extremely low by the standards of the time. Senators were simply required to have an annual income of £100 in land, goods or money. Given that, under the Instrument of Government, the property qualification just for voting in parliamentary elections was set at £200 per annum, Harrington's provision is very generous. In addition, by instituting an agrarian law that was designed to ensure a wide distribution of landed property, and by not relying on property in land alone, Harrington's plan would open the door to social mobility. Nor was wealth to be the only criterion, since to become a member of the senate one also had to be chosen by the people who were to judge potential candidates on the basis of merit alone. Finally, Harrington sought to prevent the senate from becoming an entrenched élite by firmly rejecting the idea that senators should sit for life and instead making them subject to rotation of office, so that each senator would serve for a period of just three years, and at the end of each term would have to spend an equivalent term out of office before becoming eligible for re-election.

It is testimony to Harrington's radicalism that these proposals go far beyond those of the Burns committee today. Imposing an agrarian law might be a step too far, but electing the members of the upper house according to merit and subjecting them to rotation of office would go some way towards removing the appearance of an entrenched political elite.

 

Republics v Monarchies

The Scottish National Party recently brought the question of the Monarchy back onto the political agenda by voting at their 2017 party conference in favour of cutting public funding for the Royal Family. Delegates supported overwhelmingly a motion calling for the repeal of the Sovereign Grant Act of 2011. While the vote will not bring immediate political change, since Westminster retains control of the Sovereign Grant, the vote has drawn attention once again to the alleged republicanism at the heart of the SNP and the idea that an independent Scotland might choose to replace the Queen as head of state. Such suggestions always produce strong views on both sides, usually labelled 'republican' and 'monarchist'.

On the surface, at least, the distinction between republics and monarchies is a crucial feature of our modern political landscape. Yet the history of these two constitutional forms is far more complex than this simple dichotomy would suggest. Indeed, according to one historical definition, Britain is and has long been a republic, whereas on the basis of another neither France nor the United States of America is worthy of that term. Monarchists and republicans alike might, therefore, benefit from a deeper understanding of the history of these political concepts.

Bust of Cicero. I am grateful to Katie East for providing the image.

Bust of Cicero. I am grateful to Katie East for providing the image.

The concept of republican government, in both theory and practice, dates back at least to ancient Rome. It was explored in a number of Roman texts, not least those of Marcus Tullius Cicero who was both a politician and a political thinker. In his De re publica Cicero did not define a republic or commonwealth in opposition to kingship, but instead argued 'that a commonwealth (that is the concern of the people) then truly exists when its affairs are conducted well and justly, whether by a single king, or by a few aristocrats, or by the people as a whole'. (Cicero, On the Commonwealth, ed. James. E. G. Zetzel Cambridge, 1999,  p. 59). The key distinction here, then, is between rule that serves the public interest and that which serves private interests. So, on Cicero's account, a monarchy, if properly organised and directed towards the public good, could be a kind of republic. That same idea was still being voiced as late as the mid-eighteenth century, when the Genevan-born political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract:

I therefore call Republic any State ruled by laws, whatever be the form of administration: for then the public interest alone governs, and the public thing counts for something. Every legitimate government is republican.

The accompanying footnote might appear self-contradictory, if Cicero's position is not borne in mind:

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in Paris. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in Paris. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

By this word I understand not only an Aristocracy or a Democracy, but in general any government guided by the general will, which is the law. To be legitimate, the Government must be not confused with the Sovereign, but be its minister. Then monarchy itself is a republic. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, ed. Victor Gourevitch, Cambridge, 1997, p. 67)

   But while the Ciceronian understanding of a republic survived well into the eighteenth century, from the late fifteenth century onwards a second understanding was developing. This saw monarchy not as one form of republican government, but as its direct opposite. Several historians have recently traced the development of this tradition of republican thought, emphasising its debt to the writings of Italian Renaissance thinkers as well as to a tradition of Jewish Biblical scholarship that offered a distinctive take on the Israelites' plea to God in I Samuel 8 that they be given a king like other nations.

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were certainly those who saw republican government as requiring the destruction of monarchy. The English Civil War of the 1640s prompted some parliamentarians to attack not simply Charles I, or even just tyrants, but all kings. Marchamont Nedham was one of several figures who challenged the very distinction between kings and tyrants: 'Had they [the English] but once tasted the sweets of peace and liberty both together, they would soon be of the opinion of Herodotus and Demosthenes that there is no difference between king and tyrant and become as zealous as the ancient Romans were in defence of their freedom.' (Marchamont Nedham, The Case of the Commonwealth of England Stated, ed. Philip A. Knachel, Charlottesville, 1969, pp. 127-8). This view had practical import too. The 'Act Abolishing the Office of King', which was passed on 17 March 1649, declared the office of king to be 'unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people' and the ensuing 'Act Declaring England to be a Commonwealth and Free State', which was passed in May 1649, insisted that this government was to be 'without any King or House of Lords'.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Yet even this does not present the full complexity of the concept, since those who agreed that republicanism was, by definition, anti-monarchical, could nevertheless disagree over precisely what institutional form should replace the office of king. Most significant was the distinction between those who insisted merely on the absence of a monarch, and those who outlawed any form of single-person rule. Thus a third definition of republic required that the government was not headed by a single figure, but by a group or council. As John Milton asserted in The Readie and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth: 'I doubt not but all ingenuous and knowing men will easily agree with me, that a free Commonwealth without single person or house of lords, is by far the best government, if it can be had.' (John Milton, The Readie and Easy Way, in Selected Prose, ed. C. A. Parties, Harmondsworth, p. 338). Milton's formulation ruled out both monarchy (as in the reign of Charles I) and a Protectorate (as under Oliver Cromwell).

Moreover, the English revolutionaries had attempted to institute such a form a decade earlier. When Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649 he was replaced not by another single person, but rather by the Rump Parliament, which ruled together with its Council of State, until April 1653. Yet as its short life - and the rise of Oliver Cromwell - would suggest, experiments involving a purely conciliar government have often proved unsuccessful in practice. The experiments in France in the 1790s with the Committee of Public Safety, and later the Directory, further confirmed this conclusion.

Evidently, it is the second definition of a republic outlined above that is most common today, so that a republican wishes to abolish the Monarchy. According to the first definition, that of Cicero, modern Britain could, despite having a Queen as head of state, be counted as a republic so long as government decisions were made in the public interest. Indeed, there were those in the eighteenth century who made precisely that argument. In 1700, the controversial political thinker and activist John Toland declared that 'if a Commonwealth be a Government of Laws enacted for the Common good of all the People' and if they had some means to consent to those laws 'Then it is undeniably manifest that the English Government is already a Commonwealth, the most free and best constituted in all the world.' (John Toland, The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, London, 1737, p. vii-viii). According to the third definition, by contrast, which requires that a single person must not be given considerable power, neither France nor the United States of America (both of which have a President), would be deemed worthy of that label.

Viewed historically, 'monarchy', is no easier to define than 'republic'. We can see this if we consider precisely what features make a monarch. Hereditary rule might be thought of as one key element, but this does not hold in the case of the early-modern Polish monarchy, which was elective. We might, then, say that a monarch generally holds his or her position for life. This would work for the Polish system, but it was also true of the Doge of Venice during the same period, and yet most people would argue that the Doge was the head of a republic rather than being a monarch.  Instead of thinking about the nature of the position, then, we might consider the extent of the power wielded. But this seems no more satisfactory as a basis for distinguishing monarchies from republics, since from the late eighteenth century to the present the President of the United States of America has tended to wield far greater powers than the English monarch. While part of the problem here is that the modern British Monarchy is in some ways a misnomer, since our Queen is a hereditary figurehead rather than a power-wielding head of government, even in the late eighteenth century George Washington already enjoyed greater powers in certain respects than George III. (For an interesting exploration of the royal tendencies in the American system see Eric Nelson, The Royalist Revolution, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2014).

John Lilburne,  England's New Chains Discovered,  London, 1649. http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/leveller-tracts-6. 18.10.17. Taken from the Online Library of Liberty [http://oll.liberty.org] hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc.

John Lilburne, England's New Chains Discovered, London, 1649. http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/leveller-tracts-6. 18.10.17. Taken from the Online Library of Liberty [http://oll.liberty.org] hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc.

This is not to say that important differences between what are conventionally labelled as monarchies and republics do not exist. The expenditure of public money on the Royal Family and the upkeep of royal palaces has always been one of the stronger arguments in the British republican arsenal (though of course presidential systems and legislative assemblies also incur costs). But we must also be careful not to assume that all our political problems can be solved by establishing a republic. It did not take long even for those seventeenth-century English revolutionaries who had called for an end to the monarchy to realise that many problems remained in its wake. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the fact that, less than a month after the regicide, the Leveller leader John Lilburne published a pamphlet which he entitled England's New Chains Discovered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Who was James Harrington?

Peter Lely's portrait of James Harrington from John Toland's edition of Harrington's works. Image by Rachel Hammersley, with thanks to James Babb.

Peter Lely's portrait of James Harrington from John Toland's edition of Harrington's works. Image by Rachel Hammersley, with thanks to James Babb.

James Harrington, it must be admitted, is not a household name (at least not beyond my odd little household). Indeed, he is not even particularly well known among scholars, unless they happen to be experts on the English Civil Wars or the history of political thought. Consequently, some justification for why he is a worthy focus of attention seems necessary.

One reason why Harrington is interesting is that he made a contribution both to the development of republicanism in the mid-seventeenth century and to the history of the Stuart monarchy. This makes him unusual in that he straddles what is often seen as the fundamental dividing line of the period. 

The Civil War is often presented as, at heart, a conflict between royalists, who insisted on the divine right of the King to rule, and parliamentarians, who asserted the rights and privileges of Parliament (and of the people it represented) and ended up establishing a republic in order to secure those rights and privileges. Scholars have tended to focus on Harrington’s republicanism, ignoring or downplaying his involvement with the Stuarts.

Traditionally, then, Harrington is known as a leading (for some the leading) seventeenth-century English republican. His best known work The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) served a number of purposes in this context. In the first place, it offered a justification as to why a commonwealth or republic was theoretically the best form of government. Secondly, it demonstrated why that form of government was also the most appropriate for England in the mid-1650s. Moreover, in presenting this claim, Harrington also became one of the earliest writers to offer an historical explanation for the outbreak of civil war in England in 1642. His materialist understanding (that it was changes in economic power, crucially the ownership of land, that prompted political change) prefigured Marxist ideas, and was subsequently used as evidence by Marxist historians of the period. Finally, and most significantly, Oceana offered a detailed constitutional blueprint for a more successful and durable English republic than that which was then in existence. For these reasons, Harrington has long been of interest to specialists in seventeenth and eighteenth-century history and thought. There are, however, other aspects of his life that make him a more complex, and therefore an even more interesting, figure than the conventional understanding suggests.

Scholars have always known that Harrington’s other great claim to fame, besides being a republican author, was that he had been gentleman of the bedchamber to the captive Charles I in 1647-8, following the parliamentarian victory in the first Civil War. Harrington was employed in this role by Parliament, which was holding Charles prisoner, and he was appointed to replace some of the King’s former servants whom Parliament did not feel it could trust. Consequently, this office was not as strongly at odds with Harrington’s later role as a leading republican as it might initially appear. However, tensions are created by the testimony of those who knew Harrington, which suggest that he was on good terms with the King and had great respect for him. John Aubrey, who was a friend of Harrington’s and wrote a brief account of his life, described Harrington speaking of the King ‘with the greatest zeal and passion imaginable’ and claimed that the King's execution 'gave him so great griefe, that he contracted a Disease by it; that never any thing did goe so neer to him' (John Aubrey, Brief Lives..., ed. Kate Bennett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), I, p. 318). Similarly Thomas Herbert, who was gentleman of the bedchamber alongside Harrington, claimed in his Memoirs that Harrington had defended the King’s position on the last peace treaty issued to him, (the Newport Treaty) against some Officers of the Army, and that they had been so angered by his defence of the King’s views that they removed him from his position (Thomas Herbert, Memoirs of the Last Two Years of the Reign of King Charles I (London, 1815), pp. 128-30). Despite these accounts, scholars have tended to play down Harrington’s royal service in the course of emphasising his republicanism. 

Some of the notes that my husband John left me when he died, however, led me to question this interpretation. Further research into Harrington’s own activities, and those of his family, reveal that his role as gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles I, far from being an aberration in his career, was actually the culmination of a family history of service to the Stuarts that dated right back to the beginning of James I’s reign when Harrington’s grandfather and great uncle capitalised on their kinship with the Stuarts to render service and gain favour.

Memorial to Sir James Harington of Exton (1511-1592), father to Sir James and Sir John and great grandfather of James Harrington (1611-1677). Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Memorial to Sir James Harington of Exton (1511-1592), father to Sir James and Sir John and great grandfather of James Harrington (1611-1677). Image by Rachel Hammersley.

In April 1603 James Harington of Ridlington (the republican author’s grandfather) and his elder brother Sir John Harington of Exton met the new King (who was their twelfth cousin) in Yorkshire as he made his journey from Edinburgh to London. According to contemporary accounts, James Harington of Ridlington was one of a number of Englishmen whom King James knighted during his journey. Soon after, when the King reached Rutland, he spent several nights at Sir John’s house, and the men hunted together. 

Trust appears to have been established between them, since in June 1603 James’s wife, Anne of Denmark, and his two eldest children, Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth, also stayed with Sir John Harington’s family on their journey south. Friendships were forged between various family members, not least between Sir John’s son, who was also called John, and the young Prince Henry, and it was presumably on account of these connections that Sir John and his wife became guardians for the young Princess Elizabeth on 19 October 1603, after earlier arrangements had fallen through. She was welcomed into their house in December and Sir John was instrumental in preventing her abduction by the Gunpowder plotters two years later. Princess Elizabeth's connection with the Haringtons continued up to and beyond her marriage to Frederick V Elector Palatine in February 1613. Even after Sir John Harington's death later that year, his wife kept up the connection and was with the Electress when her second child, Charles Louis, was born in January 1618. Not long after this, Frederick was asked to become King of Bohemia. Owing to the short tenure of this position, Elizabeth is sometimes referred to as the Winter Queen. In the 1640s the future author of The Commonwealth of Oceana reinvigorated these family connections with the Stuarts in ways that I will explore fully in my book.

Evidently, then, Harrington is of interest not only to those concerned with seventeenth-century English republicanism, but also to those interested in the Stuart family, court politics and royal service in the seventeenth century. Moreover, it is clear that his role as gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles I cannot be as easily explained away as historians have sought to do in the past. Indeed, this information regarding Harrington’s life raises a troublesome problem. How could the author of one of the most significant republican tracts of the mid-seventeenth century also have been a loyal and attentive servant to members of the Stuart family, including Charles I? This is one of the questions I try to answer in the book on which I am currently working. For a preview of this aspect of the argument, you can listen to the paper I presented as the James H. Burns Lecture at the St Andrews Institute for Intellectual History in September 2016.