Manuscripts and Reception: The Manuscript Versions of Oceana

‘A Discourse of the Ballance or Foundation of Government’. Reprinted with permission @British Library Board, Harleian MS 5063 f.17.

‘A Discourse of the Ballance or Foundation of Government’. Reprinted with permission @British Library Board, Harleian MS 5063 f.17.

Manuscripts not only have the potential to reveal hidden facts about their authors and the purpose behind, or gestation of, their works - as explored in my previous blogposts - but they can also sometimes reveal crucial information regarding the reception of ideas. In the 1960s a manuscript text entitled 'A Discourse of the Ballance or Foundation of Government' was discovered, which was at first believed to have been an early draft by James Harrington of part of The Commonwealth of Oceana. In initial analyses, the fact that the phrase 'the late monarchy' was rendered 'this monarchy' was taken as evidence that the draft dated from before the regicide, so that Harrington was, therefore, already voicing republican ideas during the 1640s.

These assumptions were convincingly disproved by Andrew Sharp in 1973. (A. Sharp, 'The Manuscript Versions of Harrington's Oceana', The Historical Journal, 16:2 (1973), pp. 227-39). He provided compelling evidence that 'A Discourse' actually postdated Oceana, and constituted a handwritten copy of passages from the printed text rather than an early draft of it. Yet he rightly insisted that this did not diminish the significance of the document, since it shed light on the domestication of Harrington's ideas, revealing how 'Harrington, a supporter of revolution, was made a conservative'. (Sharp, p. 227). 'A Discourse' used Harrington's theory of the balance of property - and his account of changes in that balance in England over the previous century - not, as Harrington himself had done, to advocate the replacement of traditional monarchy with popular government, but rather to call for a redressing of the balance among the institutions of England's mixed monarchy and in particular to defend the place of the nobility within that system.

‘A Discourse of the Ballance or Foundation of Government’. Reprinted with permission @British Library Board, Sloane MS 3828 f.75.

‘A Discourse of the Ballance or Foundation of Government’. Reprinted with permission @British Library Board, Sloane MS 3828 f.75.

Since the initial discovery, two further versions of 'A Discourse' have been found. All three appear in manuscript volumes comprised of slightly different compilations of extracts from various seventeenth-century texts (Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. C. 144, ff. 110-23; British Library Sloane MS. 3828, ff. 75-80v and Harleian MS 5063, ff. 17v-11 pagination reversed). While the texts included in the volumes are quite diverse, Harrington's theory of property does appear to have been a common theme since also included in the Bodleian and Sloane volumes is A Letter to Monsieur Van B de M at Amsterdam, by the Presbyterian MP Denzil Holles, which includes the statement: 'the Ballance of Lands is the Ballance of the Government' and draws similar conclusions to 'A Discourse' from this theory for English society.

Sir Robert Southwell by John Smith, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, mezzotint, 1704. Reproduced under a creative commons license from the National Portrait Gallery, NPG D31190.

Sir Robert Southwell by John Smith, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, mezzotint, 1704. Reproduced under a creative commons license from the National Portrait Gallery, NPG D31190.

What, then, were the contexts in which these volumes were produced? We can start with their owners. The Bodleian volume was owned by Robert Southwell (1635-1702), an Irish-born MP, statesman and diplomat in the Restoration regime. One of the British Library volumes was owned by Sir Hans Sloane, an Irish physician, naturalist and collector who was important in the establishment of the British Museum. The other British Library version is part of the Harleian collection, bequeathed by Robert Harley (1661-1724). 

Henry Oldenburg’s notes on Harrington’s  The Commonwealth of Oceana . Royal Society MS 1 f.90. I am grateful to Katherine Marshall for copying this manuscript and for permission to reproduce the image here.

Henry Oldenburg’s notes on Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana. Royal Society MS 1 f.90. I am grateful to Katherine Marshall for copying this manuscript and for permission to reproduce the image here.

What appears to unite two, if not all three, of these figures is the Royal Society. Southwell was admitted as a fellow in 1662, and was an active participant for the rest of the century, even serving as president between 1690 and 1695. Sloane, who was much younger than Southwell, was not admitted until 1685, but he too was active and was secretary from 1693-1700. Robert Harley was proposed, though not elected as a member of the Royal Society, but relations of his, including his father Edward Harley (1624-1700), were fellows, though they appear to have been much less active than Southwell and Sloane (Michael Hunter, The Royal Society and its Fellows 1660-1700, The British Society for the History of Science, 1982). Another fellow Abraham Hill - who was treasurer between 1679 and 1699 - was also closely associated with the volumes. He was identified as the person who had extracted and copied 'Mr Hooker's Opinion of Government' in the Bodleian volume, and a letter written to him by another Royal Society fellow William Petty, was also included in that volume. Petty died in 1687, so he was no longer active in the Royal Society in the early 1690s when Southwell was president, Sloane secretary and Hill treasurer, but he had been a good friend of both Hill and Southwell, and the three of them had collaborated closely within the Society in the early 1670s, when they had all been council members. Yet another council member at that time also displayed an interest in Harrington. The natural philosopher Henry Oldenburg was a salaried secretary of the Society for a time. Among his papers is his transcript of part of the preliminaries of Oceana. 

Sir William Petty by Isaac Fuller, oil on canvas, c.1651. Reproduced under a creative commons license from the National Portrait Gallery, NPG 2924.

Sir William Petty by Isaac Fuller, oil on canvas, c.1651. Reproduced under a creative commons license from the National Portrait Gallery, NPG 2924.

It was Petty, though, who provided a direct connection back to Harrington having been a regular attendee at the Rota Club and, according to Aubrey, 'trouble[d] Mr Harrington with his arithmetical proportions and ability to reduce politics to numbers'. (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. Kate Bennett, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, I, p. 232). Petty also picked up on the term 'political anatomy' which Harrington had coined, calling one of his works The Political Anatomy of Ireland. Further evidence of Petty's interest in key aspects of Harrington's theories is suggested by a manuscript, again in the British Library, in which Petty challenged Hobbes's defence of monarchy, and advocated a democratic system which adopted a similar division of the population to that proposed by Harrington in Oceana (Frank Amati and Tony Aspromourgos, 'Petty Contra Hobbes: A Previously Untranslated Manuscript', Journal of the History of Ideas, 46:1, 1985, pp. 127-32). Harrington and Petty evidently remained in contact with each other for the rest of Harrington's life, since there is a letter from Harrington to Petty dated 1676, again in the British Library. The letter follows up a request Harrington claimed to have made previously that the Royal Society provide a suitable place and instruments for the performance of an experiment which Harrington rather pompously claimed was 'more intimately concerning the good of man kind than any other hitherto contained in the writings or known experience of any of the Philosophers' (British Library: Petty Papers h.f.33).

In his 1973 article, Sharp suggested that an original version of 'A Discourse' was probably produced in the 1670s, and that the manuscript volumes were probably gathered together in the 1690s. The Royal Society link offers some explanation for this history. It seems likely that Petty inspired interest in Harrington among members of the Royal Society in the 1670s. This was a time when Petty and others were seeking to expand the appeal of the Society and reverse the decline in membership (Hunter, The Royal Society). Perhaps extending the Society's interests into economic and political matters, a field in which Petty was himself interested, formed part of that campaign. Moreover, the conclusions drawn from Harrington's theory were also timely, given the political situation - especially the worry among Whigs that the English constitution was being threatened by the encroaching absolutism of Charles II, and the fear of even greater future encroachment under his brother James. In the 1690s, when the question of the encroachment of royal power was again an issue, due to the controversy about William III's attempt to maintain a standing army in the aftermath of the Treaty of Ryswick, Harrington's theory would again have appeared relevant to present politics. It was perhaps this that prompted Southwell, Hill and Sloane to include 'A Discourse' in the manuscript volumes they were involved in putting together. There is a twist, however, since - with Petty now dead - the link back to Harrington appears to have been lost. Harrington's authorship of 'A Discourse' is not mentioned in the volumes, indeed in Southwell's copy a handwritten note attributes it to the English antiquary Sir Henry Spelman. 

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.