J.P.SOMMERVILLE

 


James Harrington (1611-77)

367 - 8

HARRINGTON, SIDNEY & LOCKE

 

James Harrington

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James Harrington was distantly related to Sir John Harington (or Harrington,) godson of Queen Elizabeth and inventor of the flush toilet. He was also a relative of John Harrington, whom James I made Baron of Exton and master of Princess Elizabeth's household.

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At Oxford, James Harrington's tutor was probably the latitudinarian clergyman William Chillingworth.

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Harrington traveled on the Continent and was especially impressed by the Republic of Venice. He played no direct part in the English Civil War, but in 1646 became a groom of the imprisoned Charles .

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Harrington lobbied for constitutional reform both under Charles I, and with friends in the Rota Club not long before Charles II's Restoration. The Rota Club included John Aubrey, William Petty, John Wildman and Henry Neville.

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Charles II imprisoned Harrington for conspiracy in 1661, and though Harrington was later released, his health failed, particularly because he consumed large quantities of a dangerous medicine called guaiacum which produced mental complications.

 

Harrington's main work was The Commonwealth of Oceana. It is a description of an ideally organized state, and summarized Harrington's views on English history and government, and on how the English constitution should be reformed.

He also subsequently wrote replies to a number of his critics

 

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Sir Henry Neville may well have assisted Harrington in writing Oceana,

 

The Context of Oceana.

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The execution of Charles I made many believe that England would become a republic. Harrington made concrete suggestions for thoroughgoing reform (unlike the many gentlemen who wanted as few changes as possible).

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Harrington's belief that political power stemmed from economic wealth convinced him that the only viable form of government in England was a republic controlled by the people - for the monarch and aristocracy no longer possessed the bulk of the country's wealth as they once had.
 

"that goodness
Of gleaning all the land's wealth into one,
Into your own hands"

(Henry VIII 3.2)

 

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Harrington greatly admired Machiavelli's Discourses, but thought that Machiavelli had failed to take proper account of the role of economics in politics. Harrington's achievement was to analyze politics and society in terms of economic interests (not simply rights and duties).

 

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Harrington thought that the balance of political power depended primarily on the distribution of land. Thus, Rome was a republic because land was roughly equally distributed; feudal Europe had a "Gothick" balance where kings and nobles owned most of the land and controlled the state.

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Harrington stressed land ownership. He wrote at a time when Europe's economy was primarily agricultural and thought that it was land which supported armies, and armies that compelled political obedience.
 

"But an army is a beast that has a great belly, and must be fed: wherefore this will come to what pastures you have, and what pastures you have will come to the balance of property, without which the public sword is but a name or mere spit-frog".

(Harrington: Oceana - [a spit-frog is a contemptuous name for a sword])

 

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Harrington argued that Henry VII had begun to change the balance of England's constitution when - fearful of the noble disorder evidenced by the Wars of the Roses - he had stripped the nobility of much of their wealth. The Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII had taken the process further - placing vastly more land in the hands of the gentry.

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Once the gentry had acquired land, they wanted political power to go with it, and this in Harrington's view was what led to the Great Rebellion against Charles I. Harrington believed that since the king and lords had lost economic power, they could never again recover political power, and his Oceana was a plan for the republic that must inevitable follow.
 

"Lo, now my glory smeared in dust and blood!
My parks, my walks, my manors that I had.
Even now forsake me, and of all my lands
Is nothing left me but my body's length.
Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?
And, live we how we can, yet die we must"

(Henry VI iii 5.2)

 

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Harrington thought that a written constitution was best, arguing that by the application of reason an institutional mechanism could be created to prevent dangerous conflicts of interest
[For criticisms of Harrington's ideas by Matthew Wren (1659) click here].
 

Harrington believed that society could be organized in such a way that self-interest and the public good coincided. He gave as an example two girls sharing a cake  - if one girl cuts and the other chooses her piece first, the cake will be fairly divided to the satisfaction of both.
The constitution of the state should aim at the same transparent fairness.

 

"My cake is dough; but I'll in among the rest,
Out of hope of all, but my share of the feast."
(Taming of the Shrew 5.1)

 

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Harrington went into painstaking detail about every aspect of Oceana's constitution, but four ideas were central

  1. Rotation of office.
    Perpetual office holders would become corrupt - just as the Members of the Long Parliament had. [Wren's criticism]. So offices should be held for only short terms.

  2. Secret ballot.
    Harrington wanted a secret ballot to ensure that people and their representatives would vote honestly, not from external influence.

    "The election or suffrage of the people is most free, where it is made or given in such a manner that it can neither oblige nor disoblige another, nor through fear of an enemy, or bashfulness toward a friend, impair a man's liberty. Wherefore, says Cicero, the tablet or ballot of the people of Rome (who gave their votes by throwing tablets or little pieces of wood secretly into urns marked for the negative or affirmative) was a welcome constitution to the people, as that which, not impairing the assurance of their brows, increased the freedom of their judgment. I have not stood upon a more particular description of this ballot, because that of Venice exemplified in the model is of all others the most perfect."

    (Harrington, Oceana)


  3. Agrarian Law
    Legislation should ensure the approximate equality of estates to prevent any one person or group becoming too wealthy or powerful and disturbing the political balance. {Wren argued that an Agrarian Law would ensure that the mass of the people would soon seize all property}.

  4. Religious toleration
    Harrington disliked excessive clerical power and believed that all Protestants should be tolerated by the state. A basic religious education was to be provided, but Protestants could opt out if they chose.

     

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Harrington's system was far from completely egalitarian - only male citizens (not servants) over the age of thirty were to be enfranchised. He wanted a series of hierarchically organized assemblies from the parish at the bottom to the national level at the top. These assemblies ("tribes") were to be divided - according to wealth - between commoners and knights. The knights' assembly (the Senate) would propose legislation, and the commoners' assembly (the prerogative tribe) would approve or reject it.

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The individuality of Harrington's thought lay in his economic theory of power, but it was his constitutional ideas that were to have most influence - especially in America.
 

"What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?"

(Coriolanus 1.1)

 

 


Algernon Sidney
(1622-83)


Lord William Russell
(1639-83)

 

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Algernon Sidney was a younger son of the Earl of Leicester and great-nephew of the poet, Sir Philip Sidney.

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Algernon fought for Parliament during the English Civil War and was wounded at the Battle of Marston Moor (1644). He refused to take part in the trial and execution of Charles I, but did serve in the Rump Parliament until Cromwell's seizure of power.

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After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Sidney lived on the Continent until 1677, when he returned to England and soon became involved with the Whig opposition.

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In 1683, the government claimed to have discovered evidence of a plot to assassinate Charles II and his brother James when they passed the Rye House on the road from Newmarket to London. There was very little evidence of the plot's existence and still less of the involvement of any important Whigs, but the government used the Rye House Plot as a pretext for the execution of Algernon Sidney. and of Lord William Russell, a leader in the attempts to exclude James from the crown.

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Algernon Sidney was executed on the evidence of informers and the manuscript of a a work written against Sir Robert Filmer's theory of the divine right of kings.
His speech on the scaffold summarized his political opinions.

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Sidney's manuscript was eventually published as Discourses concerning government in 1698.

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Along with John Locke, Algernon Sidney was one of the thinkers who most influenced the United States' founding fathers. Sidney combined resistance theory with ideas derived from Machiavelli and the republican tradition encouraging the involvement of citizens in government.
 

"My father was attached, not attainted,
Condemn'd to die for treason, but no traitor;"

(Henry VI i 2.4)

 


John Locke

 


 

James II

Anthony Ashley Cooper,
Earl of Shaftesbury

William III

 

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John Locke was the son of a prosperous Somerset gentleman. He studied at Oxford and began to practice medicine. His most important patient was Anthony Ashley Cooper, later Earl of Shaftesbury, who became Locke's patron and friend after a successful treatment.

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Shaftesbury was a supporter of religious toleration, as was Locke, and they were both opponents of royal absolutism, which they feared that Charles II and his younger brother (who became James II in 1685) wanted to introduce.

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Shaftesbury led the Whigs in their attempts to exclude James II from the throne. But in the conservative reaction after the Exclusion Crisis, he and Locke were obliged to flee to Holland for safety.
 

John Dryden's hostile sketch of Shaftesbury in his poem, Absalom and Achitophel (1681).Of these the false Achitophel was first:
A name to all succeeding ages curst.
For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;
Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit:
Restless, unfixed in principles and place;
In power unpleased, impatient of disgrace.
A fiery soul, which working out its way,
Fretted the pigmy-body to decay:
And o'er informed the tenement of clay.
A daring pilot in extremity;
Pleased with the danger, when the waves went high
He sought the storms; but for a calm unfit,
Would steer too nigh the sands, to boast his wit.
Great wits are sure to madness near allied;
And thin partitions do their bounds divide:
Else, why should he, with wealth and honour blest,
Refuse his age the needful hours of rest?
Punish a body which he could not please;
Bankrupt of life, yet prodigal of ease?
And all to leave, what with his toil he won
To that unfeathered, two-legged thing, a son:
Got, while his soul did huddled notions try;
And born a shapeless lump, like anarchy.
In friendship false, implacable in hate:
Resolved to ruin or to rule the state.

 

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The Glorious Revolution made possible John Locke's return to England, where he wrote philosophical works of great importance. He also helped plan the reform of England's coinage.

 

Locke's ideas
 

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John Locke's most important work was Two Treatises of Government. Although it was not published until after the Glorious Revolution, it had been written a few years earlier.

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In the First Treatise, Locke (like Sidney) attacked Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha. In the Second Treatise, Locke outlined his own beliefs about the natural law, property rights, the origins of government and when governors could be resisted.
 

"If you do sweat to put a tyrant down,
You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain;
If you do fight against your country's foes,
Your country's fat shall pay your pains the hire;
If you do fight in safeguard of your wives,
Your wives shall welcome home the conquerors;
If you do free your children from the sword,
Your children's children quit it in your age.
Then, in the name of God and all these rights,
Advance your standards, draw your willing swords."

(Richard III 5.3)

 

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Many of Locke's ideas differed little from earlier Parliamentarian and resistance theorists. He accepted that a contractual relationship existed between people and their governors, and that governors could be resisted if they breached the terms of this agreement. Like other opponents of patriarchalism he denied that political and paternal power were equivalent.

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However, in the course of his arguments, Locke expounded some original notions:

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Locke argued that in a "state of nature" (before any government had been established) everyone would be perfectly equal. Each person would have the right of self-defense, the right to acquire property by improving natural resources, and the right to punish any criminal who intruded on another's person or property. This "executive power of the Law of Nature" was distinctive to Locke and very important to his theory: where other theorists had thought that political power could reside only in the community as a whole, Locke's account placed political power in individuals.

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Locke distinguished three kinds of power: - legislative (making laws), executive (enforcing laws), and federative (dealing with other communities, i.e. foreign powers). In ordinary circumstances, the legislative power was supreme, but the majority of the people could always choose how the community's powers should be exercised.

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In John Locke's theory, people have private property rights before the creation of the state. The role of the state is to protect this property, and if absolutist monarchs (such as Charles or James) act arbitrarily, individual citizens have as much right to defend their property from seizure as they have to defend themselves from violence or enslavement.

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John Locke's political theory was immensely influential in England, in America and on the European Continent. His defense of individual rights was crucial to the development of liberalism.

[More on Locke]

 

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