The Inspiration Behind Oceana 4: Francis Bacon

Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes may be the two thinkers whose influence on James Harrington's thought has been explored in greatest detail, but they are by no means the only ones who left their mark on Oceana. On the very first page of Harrington's 'Introduction' he cites the name of another influential figure, Francis Bacon. Just as Harrington refers to Hobbes as 'Leviathan', so he assigns a pseudonym to Bacon, calling him 'Verulamius'. This was not, of course, a reference to Bacon's work, but to his title 'Baron Verulam of Verulam' which was derived from the Roman name for St Albans, where he lived. The title would have been readily associated with Bacon, since he referred to himself as Lord Verulam rather than Lord Bacon (Markku Peltonen, 'Bacon, Francis, Viscount St Alban (1561-1626)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). He also named the house that he built in the grounds of his family home at Gorhambury, Verulam House. The house no longer exists, but John Aubrey included a watercolour image of it in his account of Bacon in Brief Lives

Photograph of old Gorhambury House near St Albans, Hertfordshire. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Photograph of old Gorhambury House near St Albans, Hertfordshire. Image by Rachel Hammersley

This first reference to Bacon in Oceana concerns a quotation that Harrington took from Bacon's essay 'Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates' in which Bacon warns of the dangers for the state if the nobility and gentry are allowed to multiply too quickly. Bacon contrasts the development in England where the process was slow and gradual, with the quicker development in France. He praises Henry VII for enacting a system in which small plots of land could be worked by the owner and would provide for basic subsistence. This meant that, rather than having an economy based on peasants, England became a nation of small-property owners. Bacon perhaps, therefore, inspired Harrington's distinctive theory regarding the relationship between the distribution of land and the wielding of political power. Yet Harrington notes that Bacon, like Machiavelli before him, failed fully to appreciate the significance of the balance of property, harping 'much upon a string which he hath not perfectly tuned' (James Harrington, Oceana, London, 1656, 'Introduction').

'Verulamius' is referred to at several other points in Oceana most often to refer to the dangers of poor counsel and the importance of having wise men in positions of power. In addition to these direct references there are several notable parallels between Bacon's ideas and those of Harrington.

The porch of old Gorhambury House. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The porch of old Gorhambury House. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Harrington's inductive method, discussed in last month's blogpost, owed something to Bacon. Like Harrington, Bacon explicitly rejected the mathematical approach to natural philosophy. He insisted that mathematics was not a good tool for understanding the world. As evidence of this he referred to the fact that heavenly bodies do not move in perfect circles (Stephen Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy, Cambridge, 2001, p. 26). Bacon also challenged the claim that deductive reasoning can yield informative truths. Instead he developed his own distinctive process of eliminative induction (Gaukroger, Francis Bacon, p. 158). This prefigured Harrington's methodology in moving inferentially from experience to first principles, though Bacon also insisted that in the field of natural philosophy it was necessary to then test those principles via fresh experiments (Gaukroger, Francis Bacon, p. 142).

Francis Bacon by John Vanderbank after an unknown artist, 1731? based on a work of c.1618. National Portrait Gallery NPG 520. Reproduced under a creative commons license. According to the English Heritage information board at old Gorhambury, the original image now hangs in the dining room at new Gorhambury.

Francis Bacon by John Vanderbank after an unknown artist, 1731? based on a work of c.1618. National Portrait Gallery NPG 520. Reproduced under a creative commons license. According to the English Heritage information board at old Gorhambury, the original image now hangs in the dining room at new Gorhambury.

There is also an interesting parallel between Bacon's attitude towards natural philosophers and Harrington's approach to politicians. Bacon did not believe that natural philosophers could simply be left to pursue their discipline as they saw fit, rather he developed a theory about how they should be governed so that, contrary to their natural inclinations, they would manifest good sense and behaviour in their observations and experiments (Gaukroger, Francis Bacon, pp. 12, 131). This is very similar to Harrington's belief that those in positions of power could not be expected to act virtuously or to put the public good before their own private interests. The trick, he insisted, was to rely on 'good laws' rather than 'good men', and to organise the political system so as to constrain and encourage rulers and ruled alike to behave appropriately.

One reason why the similarities between Bacon and Harrington have not been widely acknowledged is because Harrington, long  labelled as a 'classical republican', has tended to be seen as reviving ancient thought, whereas Bacon is commonly presented as the progenitor of modern ways of thinking. Yet both were in fact intent on charting a course between the two tendencies. Bacon explicitly spoke of finding a middle way between 'extreme admirations for antiquity' and 'extreme love and appetite for novelty' and Harrington referred to his intention to 'go mine own way, and yet follow the Ancients' (Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, I, lvi: Works i. 170/iii. 59-60; Harrington, Oceana, p. 3).

Central to the forward-looking aspect of both men's thinking was an idea that has particular resonance today: the notion that knowledge should be useful. Bacon believed philosophy should be valued solely for its contribution to general welfare and insisted that the philosopher should be a public figure acting in the service of the common good. While Harrington was less explicit than Bacon about the need for knowledge to be useful, his own exploration of history and politics was emphatically aimed at exercising a positive impact on the contemporary world and solving some of the key issues of his day. 

The statue of Sir Francis Bacon in St Michael’s Church, St Albans. Image by Rachel Hammersley

The statue of Sir Francis Bacon in St Michael’s Church, St Albans. Image by Rachel Hammersley

Yet while Bacon and Harrington were both interested in the utility of knowledge, neither would have endorsed the crude version of this idea that dominates current political and intellectual agendas. This approach tends to see knowledge as a submissive servant to political and economic ends. Bacon was clear that in order for knowledge to be useful it had to be pursued in a comprehensive and unhindered fashion. In his essay 'The Praise of Knowledge' he pointed out that great discoveries - such as printing, artillery and the needle - were not the outcome of deliberate targeted investigations, but rather were 'stumbled upon and lighted upon by chance' (Francis Bacon, 'The Praise of Knowledge'). The idea was that the pursuit of knowledge by appropriate and methodical means would bring improvements to human life, not simply that political agendas should dictate what should be studied, let alone what the outcome of those studies should be.

The Inspiration Behind Oceana: 2. Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes, after John Michael Wright, oil on canvas, based on a work of c.1669-70. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 106. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Thomas Hobbes, after John Michael Wright, oil on canvas, based on a work of c.1669-70. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 106. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Machiavelli was not the only controversial political thinker to have left his mark on The Commonwealth of Oceana. Harrington was also much influenced by Thomas Hobbes. This blogpost will briefly explore Hobbes's influence on the title and structure of Harrington's works. Next month's post will examine Harrington's debt to Hobbes as regards the substance of his argument and his methodological approach.

The precise relationship between Hobbes and Harrington was the subject of speculation in their own time. At first glance they would appear to be on opposite sides of the political divide: the defender of monarchy versus the proponent of commonwealth government. Yet observers saw connections between their ideas. Harrington's critic, Matthew Wren, commented: 'I will not conceal the pleasure I have taken in observing that though Mr. Harrington professes a great Enmity to Mr. Hobs his politiques ... notwithstanding he holds a correspondence with him, and does silently swallow down such Notion as Mr. Hobs hath chewed for him.' ([Matthew Wren], Considerations on Mr Harrington's Common-wealth of Oceana, p. 41). Harrington replied by acknowledging his debt, at least on certain matters:

It is true, I have opposed the Politicks of Mr. Hobbs, to shew him what he taught me, with as much disdain as he opposed those of the greatest Authors, in whose wholesome Fame and Doctrine the good of Mankind being concern'd; my Conscience bears me witnesse, that I have done my duty: Nevertheless in most other things I firmly believe that Mr. Hobbs is, and will in future Ages be accounted, the best Writer, at this day, in the World. (James Harrington, The Prerogative of Popular Government, I, p. 36).

In general, commentary has focused on the second part of this quotation, and in particular on the idea that while Harrington disagreed with Hobbes on political matters, their views on religion were remarkably similar with both insisting that the church should be firmly under state control and treating the political usefulness of religion as more important than its truth. Yet the first part of the quotation - Harrington's claim that he has 'opposed the Politicks of Mr. Hobbs, to shew him what he taught me' - also suggests agreement on certain fundamentals in their political ideas. Harrington often seems to be writing in response to Hobbes, using his ideas as a springboard, so that even where Harrington departs from Hobbes he often uses Hobbesian language and concepts, applying them to different ends.

Thomas Hobbes,  Leviathan  (London, 1651). Reproduced with permission from the Robinson Library, University of Newcastle. Special Collections, Bainbrigg (BAI 1651 HOB). With thanks to Sam Petty.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London, 1651). Reproduced with permission from the Robinson Library, University of Newcastle. Special Collections, Bainbrigg (BAI 1651 HOB). With thanks to Sam Petty.

This connection is hinted at in the titles of their works. Hobbes called his major work of 1651, Leviathan, alluding to the sea monster described in the Book of Job, the chief characteristic of which was that it could not be constrained by any human power. For Hobbes this was a useful metaphor for his conception of the state. Though it was constituted by the population and designed to secure peace and security, it could not be overthrown by any individual or group among them. Harrington's decision to call his work The Commonwealth of Oceana can be read as a response to Hobbes. Most commentators have seen Harrington's adoption of the term 'commonwealth' as a reflection of his republicanism. Yet he may also have been alluding to Hobbes's own use of that term. On his opening page, Hobbes described the Leviathan as a 'COMMON-WEALTH, or  STATE, (in latine CIVITAS)' (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Cambridge, 1991, p. 9). Similarly, 'Oceana' may not only have referred to England being an island nation. The ocean was the medium in which the Leviathan lives and which, to some extent, restricts and determines its movements and actions. While it may not be constrained by human power, there are other limits on it. It cannot, for example, suddenly start living on land, but must conform to the laws of nature. This fits with aspects of Harrington's argument that will be explored in next month's blogpost.

Not only is there a parallel between the titles adopted by these authors, but connections can also be drawn between the structure and form of their works. The frontispiece to Hobbes's text embodies its entire argument. The Leviathan appears at the top of the image rising up out of the sea. In his right hand he holds a sword - the symbol of civil power - and in his left he holds a crozier - the symbol of ecclesiastical power. This literally reflects Hobbes's argument that both powers should be held by the state. The bottom half of the frontispiece is divided into three columns. The left hand one, beneath the sword, depicts various aspects of the state's temporal power. That on the right, beneath the crozier, depicts aspects of ecclesiastical power. Two of Harrington's works refer in different ways to this frontispiece. 

The Prerogative of Popular Government appeared in 1658. It is the work from which Harrington's comment on his debt to Hobbes, quoted above, comes; and it is the work in which Harrington engages most directly with Hobbes's ideas. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the structure of the work can be read as echoing the frontispiece to Leviathan. The work is divided into two books. The first, like Hobbes's left hand column, deals with political or civil affairs. The second corresponds to his right hand column in focusing on religious or ecclesiastical matters. And, just like Hobbes's frontispiece, together they make a complete whole. However, while echoing Hobbes's structure, the thrust of Harrington's argument is at odds with that of Hobbes. Where Hobbes had insisted that civil and ecclesiastical powers should be held by a unified state, Harrington argues that both should be organised democratically. Moreover, Harrington cleverly uses Hobbes's arguments to make this point. The second book of The Prerogative defends Hobbes's account of the early church, which emphasised the importance of election by the people in the process of ordaining ministers, against the objections of the Anglican cleric Henry Hammond. What Harrington appears to be saying is that if Hobbes is right in his interpretation of the early church and on the need for civil and ecclesiastical powers to be held in the same hands, then the people should hold both. This, then, is the 'prerogative of popular government'.

‘The Manner and Use of the Ballot’, taken from  The Oceana and other works of James Harrington , ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

‘The Manner and Use of the Ballot’, taken from The Oceana and other works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The second work that refers to the frontispiece of Leviathan is The Use and Manner of the Ballot, a broadsheet which appeared in 1658/9. Recent research has revealed Hobbes's interest in the use of the visual form to spark the imagination. It has shown how seriously Hobbes took the frontispiece to Leviathan; and has opened up various ways in which that image drew on novel visual techniques to convey the complex relationship between the people, the state, and its functions. Harrington was equally concerned with the problem of conveying complex political ideas in an accessible form and he too experimented with visual images to address this issue. From as early as 1656, Harrington had been concerned that the complex balloting procedure in Oceana was difficult for his readers to comprehend. By the beginning of 1659 this had become a major issue. This was because, as he explained in Brief Directions published just a few months earlier, the use of the ballot was difficult to convey in written form. It would, he believed, be much easier for an audience to understand if they were able to experience it in practice. While this was not immediately possible, presenting the ballot in visual form offered an intermediate solution. The Use and Manner of the Ballot consisted of a detailed annotated illustration of the ballot which was accompanied by a commentary describing the balloting process. As Harrington explained at the beginning of the commentary: 'I shall endeavour by this figure to demonstrate the manner of the Venetian ballot (a thing as difficult in discourse or writing, as facile in practice)'. Though the image remained static, Harrington clearly believed that it would allow his audience to envisage how the ballot would operate, thereby convincing them that what might seem on paper like a complex and cumbersome process could be performed quickly and efficiently. (For an animation of this image produced in conjunction with my colleagues at Animating Texts at Newcastle University see: https://research.ncl.ac.uk/atnu/projects/earlymodernballot/#d.en.870683)

Frontispiece from  The Oceana and other works of James Harrington . Image by Rachel Hammersley

Frontispiece from The Oceana and other works of James Harrington. Image by Rachel Hammersley

While this was the only image that Harrington produced, it was not the only one to be associated with his writings. When John Toland produced an edition of Harrington's works at the end of the seventeenth century, he prefaced it with an elaborate frontispiece, which cost him £30 of his own money. Just like the frontispiece to Leviathan, Toland's image embodied the argument of Harrington's works (as interpreted by Toland) in visual form. It could, therefore, be read as a final response to Hobbes.


The Materiality of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books

The author’s copy of Oliver Lawson' Dick’s Penguin edition of  Aubrey’s Brief Lives.  Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The author’s copy of Oliver Lawson' Dick’s Penguin edition of Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Justinian Pagitt, whose 'Memorandum Book' I discussed last month, was not the only one of James Harrington's friends to refer to him in an extant manuscript. John Aubrey's Brief Lives, the original manuscript of which is held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, has long been acknowledged as one of the most important and reliable seventeenth-century sources of information on Harrington's life. It gained popular notoriety in the second half of the twentieth century thanks to the Penguin edition by Oliver Lawson Dick, and has recently come to prominence again due to Ruth Scurr's wonderful reworking of the material into a quasi-autobiography: John Aubrey: My Own Life. I have discussed Aubrey's Brief Lives as a form of intellectual biography in a previous post.  Yet despite my familiarity with the work, I was not prepared for the impact that seeing the original manuscript for the first time would exert upon me.

The work is a manuscript in the true sense, with erasures, additions, and corrections scattered across its pages. Like Pagitt's 'Memorandum Book' it is prefaced by a list of contents to make locating specific entries easier, and most pages are structured with a wide left-hand margin where additional material could be added. Despite this, in the Harrington entry Aubrey clearly found he had allowed himself insufficient room for what he wanted to say. He ends up adjusting the size of his writing to fit the available space, squeezing tiny vertical notes into the margin, and even pasting in a small additional page of information topped by a pointing finger symbol. The text is also interspersed with illustrations. Most of these are small and crude, such as the sketches of the heraldic shields of his subjects and the drawing in the entry on Harrington of the unusually shaped table that was used during Rota Club meetings to allow the proprietor of Miles's Coffee House to deliver coffee to the participants without disturbing their discussions. Occasionally, however, more detailed images are included, such as the watercolour sketch of Verulum House in the entry on Sir Francis Bacon, which comes complete with a fancy title scroll. All of this may sound chaotic and haphazard, but it results in a manuscript that is simultaneously a provisional 'working' copy and yet a thing of beauty in its unfinished state. Unfortunately I do not have permission to include any images from the manuscript here, but some sense of it can be gained by viewing the entry on William Shakespeare which is displayed on the Folger Library's Shakespeare Documented site.

Portrait of John Aubrey by Michael Vandergucht, after William Faithorne, 1719. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D30214. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Portrait of John Aubrey by Michael Vandergucht, after William Faithorne, 1719. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D30214. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

As with Pagitt's 'Memorandum Book', the Aubrey manuscript presents to us not just the official, public 'Aubrey' but also the private man. Of course, part of Aubrey's point in the work is to save for posterity ephemeral details about the appearance, habits, and thoughts of his subjects. Yet the work as a whole also does this for Aubrey himself. The frequent inclusion of birth diagrams, for example, remind us that this is a man who believed in astrology. And the entries reveal an author with a voracious appetite for gossip.

Some of this is, of course, evident from the published versions of the work, but there can be no doubt that much is lost in the transformation of a working manuscript into printed form. My friend Professor Phyllis Weliver of Saint Louis University demonstrates this very effectively in a YouTube video she has made in conjunction with Cambridge University Library in which she reveals the additional information that can be gleaned from the manuscript version of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem 'In Memorium', which is held in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge.

It is not only in the transformation from manuscript to print that crucial information about a work can be lost, but also in the shift from earlier to modern print editions or - more commonly now - that from print to digital form. In my work on Harrington I have come across several examples of this phenomenon.

One of the arguments of my forthcoming book is that Harrington took very seriously not just the substantive content of his major work The Commonwealth of Oceana, but also its form, style and presentation. Yet key details of his careful presentation are not always reflected either in print editions or even digital renditions of his works. Harrington very deliberately used at least three distinct typefaces to distinguish different elements of this multilayered work. He used gothic type for the thirty constitutional articles or orders that form the core of the 'Model of the Commonwealth of Oceana' section. In doing so he set those orders apart (almost as a text within a text) thereby drawing attention to their similarity to other constitutional models of the time such as the Leveller Agreements of the People or the 'The Instrument of Government' - the constitution by which the nation was then ruled. The use specifically of gothic type can also be seen as giving them a stamp of authority, since it was most commonly used at the time for the Bible and other religious texts. By contrast, the commentary on the orders is in normal roman type, making the authorial voice that it represents the 'norm' of the work as a whole. Finally, the speeches by members of Harrington's 'Council of Legislators' generally appear either in larger or more broadly spaced roman type so that they too can be distinguished from both the orders and the authorial commentary. While these distinct typefaces would seem integral to both the structure and argument of Harrington's text, they were not accurately reproduced by John Pocock in his 1977 Cambridge edition of The Political Works of James Harrington. While the digital versions of Harrington's Oceana available via Early English Books Online fare better in this regard, the use of red type for particular elements of the title page is lost because the digitised editions are in black and white.

Frontispiece from  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Frontispiece from The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Along with typefaces, illustrations are often lost in the transition to modern print or digital editions. Most modern editions of Harrington's works make reference to, and use of, John Toland's 1700 edition. Yet none of those editions reproduce the amazing frontispiece produced by Toland that prefaces and effectively embodies the argument of Harrington's text. While not original to Harrington's works, this image is so illuminating of them that there is a strong case for it to be viewed alongside them, yet to do so one must either find an original copy of Toland's edition or view the digital reproduction of it available via Eighteenth Century Collections Online. It is no doubt for this reason that it is only with the pioneering work of Justin Champion in the early twenty-first century that the symbolism and meaning of that image has been subjected to proper analysis.

Finally, it is important to remember that distinct copies of an original manuscript or printed text might reveal information not conveyed by them all. This might include marginal comments added by the author or a later owner of the book or manuscript; additional material added or 'tipped' into the work; or information that can be gleaned about the way it was classified, read, or used as a result of how, or with which other works, it was bound. Harrington, in his 'Epistle to the Reader' lamented that the first printed edition of Oceana was not as polished as he would have liked. The fact that the work had been dispersed between three presses for printing, among other difficulties, had resulted in multiple typographical errors, and he urged the reader to use the three pages of errata that he supplied to correct their own copy. I see this instruction to the reader as reflective of Harrington's desire to encourage active engagement with his work and the ideas it contained. It is, therefore, of significance that at least one reader appears to have taken heed of Harrington's call. In a version of the text held at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, the errata have been incorporated into the text itself. In some places the error has been scratched out:

Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana  (London, 1656). Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (London, 1656). Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

Elsewhere a handwritten correction has been made in the margin, and in other places places a small strip of paper with the correct word printed on it has been pasted over the error: 

Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana  (London, 1656), Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

Extract from a copy of the John Streater version of James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (London, 1656), Reproduced courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, with particular thanks to Anthony Tedeschi.

This serves to remind us that books were physical objects that were engaged with in a variety of ways by their owners and readers. 

As I have discovered in my research on Harrington, engaging with original copies of both manuscripts and printed books, and paying attention not just to their content but also to their physical form and materiality, can greatly enrich our understanding of the intentions of their authors as well as of whether or not they achieved their aims.

A New Utopia: Oceana for the 21st Century

Frontispiece to James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana  in  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington , ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

Frontispiece to James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

George Monbiot's book Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis calls for the creation of a "politics of belonging". He is not the only person to suggest, in recent months, that a new way of thinking about politics is required. These calls have prompted me to think again about the utopian character of James Harrington's The Commonwealth of Oceana

Historians have long debated whether Oceana should be labelled as a utopia at all, partly because it was very clearly intended as a practical model for a specific place and time. Yet Colin Davis, author of Utopia and the Ideal Society, sees this as precisely one of the key features of a utopia. Davis argues that what distinguishes utopias from other conceptions of the ideal society is their acceptance that limited resources are exposed to unlimited desires: 'The utopian's method is not to wish away the disharmony implicit within the collective problem, as the other ideal-society types do, but to organise society and its institutions in such a way as to contain the problem's effects.' (Colin Davis, Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700, Cambridge, 1981, pp. 37-8). This kind of model, one that takes human society as it is and offers practical solutions to human problems - and yet pushes beyond the framework of the current system - is precisely what we need just now. So what would an Oceana for the twenty-first century look like?

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that, in the first place, my twenty-first century Oceana would seek to challenge the idea that politics is the preserve of a distinct political class. Harrington, following Aristotle, believed every citizen should rule and be ruled in turn. He also insisted that human nature dictated that individuals who held power for long periods of time (however good and virtuous they were in the first place) would inevitably become corrupt. Harrington's solution was the rotation of office, with representatives being in post for three years before standing down and being ineligible for re-election for a similar term. Something like this system could be introduced in the UK Parliament. Of course there are problems that would need to be addressed. Being effectively made redundant after three years may deter certain individuals (perhaps particularly the poorest) from standing at all, so jobs would need to be held open and provision made to support those retiring from office. But the potential advantages of politics being an activity in which most citizens engage at some point, rather than the preserve of a political élite, are significant.

Thirteenth order of Harrington's  Oceana  on the agrarian law.

Thirteenth order of Harrington's Oceana on the agrarian law.

Another central tenet of Harrington's political programme was the preservation of an equitable division of land within the nation. This was necessary to maintain a balance of property, and hence of power, suitable for commonwealth government. Harrington sought to achieve this through his agrarian law, which required those owning large tracts of land to divide their estate more equally among their children. While land is still a crucial source of the wealth of the super-rich, it has largely been replaced by money as the basis of power. My concern here is not with the redistribution of property in either its landed or monetary form, but rather with the means by which the majority of us earn our money. Work is currently divided in ways that are uneven, creating unhappiness both among those who have too much and those who have too little. Earlier this year the New Zealand trustee company Perpetual Guardian initiated a six-week trial in which its employees were to work four days a week while being paid for five, and in this country the Autonomy Institute has called for the implementation of a four-day week. I am one of a growing number of parents who have made the  switch to working four days a week. While there is a danger (for those of us doing four days' work for four days' pay) of succumbing to the tendency to do five days' work in four, my experience is that a four-day week makes for a better work-life balance, for those able to take it. There are also potential benefits for others since, in my own and many other professions, a large number of highly talented young people are struggling to get their feet on the career ladder. If more people worked fewer days a week then more positions would open up for junior staff. Of course, employers may well complain that it would create a less efficient system. But we could off-set the inefficiencies of having to employ more staff against the efficiencies gained from workers being less tired, more motivated, and less susceptible to stress and its associated health problems. Nor should this change in work patterns be available only to professionals. A wholesale reconsideration of what constitutes a working week ought to address changes and benefits that can be brought to all workers.

Finally, Harrington's commitment to healing and settling a divided nation could be developed for the twenty-first century. As I demonstrated in a previous blogpost, he insisted that peace could only be established in post-civil war England if those on both sides of the royalist-parliamentarian divide were allowed to engage equally as citizens. He was also a strong advocate of religious toleration, insisting that no-one's right to citizenship or to hold office should be rescinded on the basis of religious belief. The Brexit Referendum, along with the debates at home and negotiations in Europe that have followed, have created deep divisions in our society. As a result, we too are in need of healing and settling. I suggest, though, that the solution for us lies less in extending citizenship to those who are currently excluded than in making political citizenship more substantial.

John Milton by William Faithorne, line engraving, 1670. National Portrait Gallery NPG D22856. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

John Milton by William Faithorne, line engraving, 1670. National Portrait Gallery NPG D22856. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

One way of doing this would be to encourage open debate about key issues. This might be seen as going against Harrington's ideas, in that his popular assembly was not allowed to discuss legislative proposals - he worried that popular political debate would lead to anarchy. Yet he saw debate by the Senate as crucial to the political process, and he did not want to prevent popular debate from taking place outside the popular assembly. Moreover, in several of his writings he expressed the idea that greater knowledge would arise from the debating of issues, even suggesting that his model constitution would be improved by others examining and criticising it. There is an echo here of Milton's notion from Areopagitica that good ideas will inevitably win out if free debate is allowed to flourish. If we could create opportunities at all levels of society for free, open and constructive political debate involving those of different political views, perhaps we could construct a society that is more open, tolerant, and better informed.

Sir Thomas More, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early C17 based on a work of 1527. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4358. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Sir Thomas More, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early C17 based on a work of 1527. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4358. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Of course, what I have offered here is not a utopia but just three proposals inspired by Oceana. A further distinguishing feature of utopias, noted by Davis, is that they are conceived as total schemes. In the early modern era this was often achieved by setting the utopia on a distant island, as Thomas More did in the work that gave its name to the genre. This reflected a fascination with the, as yet not fully charted nature of the globe at that time. While, like More, Harrington was writing a utopia for England, he indicated the intended location more overtly, the fictional guise he employed simply signalled a concern with England as it ought to be rather than as it actually was. Today, the obvious place to situate a utopia would be in the virtual realm. Moreover, with the right software one might even be able to play out the consequences of such a system, as is done in disaster scenario planning (and as Harrington attempted to do in a more basic form in the corollary to Oceana). Perhaps my next step, after my Harrington book has been delivered to the publisher, should be to construct a Harringtonian 'digitopia'.

 

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.

 

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.