James Harrington

The Commonwealth of Oceana


To begin with riches, in regard that men are hung upon these, not of choice as upon the other, but of necessity and by the teeth; forasmuch as he who wants bread is his servant that will feed him, if a man thus feeds a whole people, they are under his empire.

Empire is of two kinds, domestic and national, or foreign and provincial. Domestic empire is founded upon dominion. Dominion is property, real or personal; that is to say, in lands, or in money and goods. Lands, or the parts and parcels of a territory, are held by the proprietor or proprietors, lord or lords of it, in some proportion; and such (except it be in a city that has little or no land, and whose revenue is in trade) as is the proportion or balance of dominion or property in land, such is the nature of the empire.

If one man be sole landlord of a territory, or overbalance the people, for example, three parts in four, he is grand seignior; for so the Turk is called from his property, and his empire is absolute monarchy. If the few or a nobility, or a nobility with the clergy, be landlords, or overbalance the people to the like proportion, it makes the Gothic balance (to be shown at large in the second part of this discourse), and the empire is mixed monarchy, as that of Spain, Poland, and late of Oceana. And if the whole people be landlords, or hold the lands so divided among them that no one man, or number of men, within the compass of the few or aristocracy, overbalance them, the empire (without the interposition of force) is a commonwealth.

If force be interposed in any of these three cases, it must either frame the government to the foundation, or the foundation to the government; or holding the government not according to the balance, it is not natural, but violent; and therefore if it be at the devotion of a prince, it is tyranny; if at the devotion of the few, oligarchy; or if in the power of the people, anarchy: Each of which confusions, the balance standing otherwise, is but of short continuance, because against the nature of the balance, which, not destroyed, destroys that which opposes it.

Mankind then must either be less just than the creature, or acknowledge also his common interest to be common right. And if reason be nothing else but interest, and the interest of mankind be the right interest, then the reason of mankind must be right reason. Now compute well; for if the interest of popular government come the nearest to the interest of mankind, then the reason of popular government must come the nearest to right reason.

But it may be said that the difficulty remains yet; for be the interest of popular government right reason, a man does not look upon reason as it is right or wrong in itself, but as it makes for him or against him. Wherefore, unless you can show such orders of a government as, like those of God in nature, shall be able to constrain this or that creature to shake off that inclination which is more peculiar to it, and take up that which regards the common good or interest, all this is to no more end than to persuade every man in a popular government not to carve himself of that which he desires most, but to be mannerly at the public table, and give the best from himself to decency and the common interest. But that such orders may be established as may, nay must, give the upper hand in all cases to common right or interest, notwithstanding the nearness of that which sticks to every man in private, and this in a way of equal certainty and facility, is known even to girls, being no other than those that are of common practice with them in divers cases. For example, two of them have a cake yet undivided, which was given between them: that each of them therefore might have that which is due, "Divide," says one to the other, "and I will choose; or let me divide, and you shall choose." If this be but once agreed upon, it is enough; for the divident, dividing unequally, loses, in regard that the other takes the better half. Wherefore she divides equally, and so both have right. "Oh, the depth of the wisdom of God." And yet "by the mouths of babes and sucklings has He set forth His strength;" that which great philosophers are disputing upon in vain is brought to light by two harmless girls, even the whole mystery of a commonwealth, which lies only in dividing and choosing. Nor has God (if his works in nature be understood) left so much to mankind to dispute upon as who shall divide and who choose, but distributed them forever into two orders, whereof the one has the natural right of dividing, and the other of choosing.

For example: A commonwealth is but a civil society of men: let us take any number of men (as twenty) and immediately make a commonwealth. Twenty men (if they be not all idiots, perhaps if they be) can never come so together but there will be such a difference in them that about a third will be wiser, or at least less foolish than all the rest; these upon acquaintance, though it be but small, will be discovered, and, as stags that have the largest heads, lead the herd; for while the six, discoursing and arguing one with another, show the eminence of their parts, the fourteen discover things that they never thought on; or are cleared in divers truths which had formerly perplexed them. Wherefore, in matter of common concernment, difficulty, or danger, they hang upon their lips, as children upon their fathers; and the influence thus acquired by the six, the eminence of whose parts are found to be a stay and comfort to the fourteen, is the authority of the fathers. Wherefore this can be no other than a natural aristocracy diffused by God throughout the whole body of mankind to this end and purpose; and therefore such as the people have not only a natural but a positive obligation to make use of as their guides; as where the people of Israel are commanded to "take wise men, and understanding, and known among their tribes, to be made rulers over them." The six then approved of, as in the present case, are the senate, not by hereditary right, or in regard of the greatness of their estates only, which would tend to such power as might force or draw the people, but by election for their excellent parts, which tends to the advancement of the influence of their virtue or authority that leads the people. Wherefore the office of the senate is not to be commanders, but counsellors, of the people; and that which is proper to counsellors is first to debate, and afterward to give advice in the business whereupon they have debated, whence the decrees of the senate are never laws, nor so called; and these being maturely framed, it is their duty to propose in the case to the people. Wherefore the senate is no more than the debate of the commonwealth. But to debate is to discern or put a difference between things that, being alike, are not the same; or it is separating and weighing this reason against that, and that reason against this, which is dividing.

The senate then having divided, who shall choose? Ask the girls: for if she that divided must have chosen also, it had been little worse for the other in case she had not divided at all, but kept the whole cake to herself, in regard that being to choose, too, she divided accordingly. Wherefore if the senate have any further power than to divide, the commonwealth can never be equal. But in a commonwealth consisting of a single council, there is no other to choose than that which divided; whence it is, that such a council fails not to scramble -- that is, to be factious, there being no other dividing of the cake in that case but among themselves.

Nor is there any remedy but to have another council to choose. The wisdom of the few may be the light of mankind; but the interest of the few is not the profit of mankind nor of a commonwealth. Wherefore, seeing we have granted interest to be reason, they must not choose lest it put out their light. But as the council dividing consists of the wisdom of the commonwealth, so the assembly or council choosing should consist of the interest of the commonwealth: as the wisdom of the commonwealth is in the aristocracy, so the interest of the commonwealth is in the whole body of the people. And whereas this, in case the commonwealth consist of a whole nation, is too unwieldy a body to be assembled, this council is to consist of such a representative as may be equal, and so constituted, as can never contract any other interest than that of the whole people; the manner whereof, being such as is best shown by exemplification, I remit to the model. But in the present case, the six dividing, and the fourteen choosing, must of necessity take in the whole interest of the twenty.

Dividing and choosing, in the language of a commonwealth, is debating and resolving; and whatsoever, upon debate of the senate, is proposed to the people, and resolved by them, is enacted by the authority of the fathers, and by the power of the people, which concurring, make a law.

An equal commonwealth is such a one as is equal both in the balance or foundation, and in the superstructure; that is to say, in her agrarian law and in her rotation. An equal agrarian is a perpetual law, establishing and preserving the balance of dominion by such a distribution, that no one man or number of men, within the compass of the few or aristocracy, can come to overpower the whole people by their possessions in lands. As the agrarian answers to the foundation, so does rotation to the superstructures.

Equal rotation is equal vicissitude in government, or succession to magistracy conferred for such convenient terms, enjoying equal vacations, as take in the whole body by parts, succeeding others, through the free election or suffrage of the people. The contrary, whereunto is prolongation of magistracy, which, trashing the wheel of rotation, destroys the life or natural motion of a commonwealth. 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.

The materials of a commonwealth are the people, and the people of Oceana were distributed by casting them into certain divisions, regarding their quality, their age, their wealth, and the places of their residence or habitation, which was done by the ensuing orders.

The first order "distributes the people into freemen or citizens and servants, while such; for if they attain to liberty, that is, to live of themselves, they are freemen or citizens." This order needs no proof, in regard of the nature of servitude, which is inconsistent with freedom, or participation of government in a commonwealth.

The second order "distributes citizens into youth and elders (such as are from eighteen years of age to thirty, being accounted youth; and such as are of thirty and upward, elders), and establishes that the youth shall be the marching armies, and the elders the standing garrisons of this nation."

The third order "distributes the citizens into horse and foot, by the sense or valuation of their estates; they who have above 100 a year in lands, goods, or moneys, being obliged to be of the horse, and they who have under that sum to be of the foot. But if a man has prodigally wasted and spent his patrimony, he is neither capable of magistracy, office, or suffrage in the commonwealth."

The fourth order "distributes the people according to the places of their habitation, into parishes, hundreds, and tribes."


The seventh order, requiring, "That upon the first Monday next ensuing the last of January, the deputies of every parish annually assemble in arms at the rendezvous of the hundred, and there elect out of their number one justice of the peace, one juryman, one captain, one ensign of their troop or century, each of these out of the horse; and one juryman, one coroner, one high constable, out of the foot.

The twelfth order, "Directing the muster of the tribe in the second day's election, being that of the list called the galaxy; in which the censors shall prepare the urns according to the directions given in the ninth order for the second ballot; that is to say, with thirty-six gold balls in the middle urn, making four orders, and nine electors in every order, according to the number of the magistrates in the list of the galaxy, which is as follows:

1. Knight

2. Knight

To be chosen out of the horse.

3. Deputy

4. Deputy

5. Deputy

To be chosen out of the horse.

6. Deputy

7. Deputy

8. Deputy

9. Deputy

To be chosen out of the foot.

"The rest of the ballot shall proceed exactly according to that of the first day. But, forasmuch as the commonwealth demands as well the fruits of a man's body as of his mind, he that has not been married shall not be capable of these magistracies till he be married. If a deputy already chosen to be an officer in the parish, in the hundred, or in the tribe, be afterward chosen of the galaxy, it shall be lawful for him to delegate his office in the parish, in the hundred, or in the tribe, to any one of his own order being not already chosen into office. The knights and deputies being chosen, shall he brought to the head of the tribe by the lord high sheriff, who shall administer to them this oath: 'Ye shall well and truly observe and keep the orders and customs of this commonwealth which the people have chosen.' And if any of them shall refuse the oath, he shall be rejected, and that competitor which had the most voices next shall be called in his place, who, if he takes the oath, shall be entered in the list; but if he also refuses the oath, he who had most voices next shall be called, and so till the number of nine out of those competitors which had most voices be sworn knights and deputies of the galaxy. (This clause, in regard to the late divisions, and to the end that no violence be offered to any man's conscience, to be of force but for the first three years only.) The knights of the galaxy being elected and sworn, are to repair, by the Monday next ensuing to the last of March, to the Pantheon or palace of justice, situated in the metropolis of this commonwealth (except the Parliament, by reason of a contagious sickness, or some other occasion, has adjourned to another part of the nation), where they are to take their places in the Senate, and continue in full power and commission as senators for the full term of three years next ensuing the date of their election. The deputies of the galaxy are to repair by the same day (except as before excepted) to the halo situated in Emporium, where they are to be listed of the prerogative tribe, or equal representative of the people; and to continue in full power and commission as their deputies for the full term of three years next ensuing their election. But, forasmuch as the term of every magistracy or office in this commonwealth requires an equal vacation, a knight or deputy of the galaxy, having fulfilled his term of three years, shall not be re-elected into the same galaxy or any other, till he has also fulfilled his three years' vacation."

The centre, or basis of every government, is no other than the fundamental laws of the same. Fundamental laws are such as state what it is that a man may call his own, that is to say, property, and what be the means whereby a man may enjoy his own, that is to say, protection. The first is also called dominion, and the second empire or sovereign power, whereof this (as has been shown) is the natural product of the former, for such as is the balance of dominion in a nation, such is the nature of its empire.

Wherefore the fundamental laws of Oceana, or the centre of this commonwealth, are the agrarian and the ballot: the agrarian by the balance of dominion preserving equality in the root; and the ballot by an equal rotation conveying it into the branch, or exercise of sovereign power,

this council, as to the protection of the liberty of conscience, shall suffer no coercive power in the matter of religion to be exercised in this nation; the teachers of the natural religion being no other than such as voluntarily undertake that calling, and their auditors or hearers no other than are also voluntary. Nor shall any gathered congregation be molested or interrupted in their way of worship (being neither Jewish nor idolatrous), but vigilantly and vigorously protected and defended in the enjoyment, practice, and profession of the same. And if there be officers or auditors appointed by any such congregation for the introduction of causes into the Council of Religion, all such causes so introduced shall be received, heard, and determined by the same, with recourse had, if need be, to the Senate.

The centre or fundamental laws are, first, the agrarian, proportioned at 2,000 a year in land, lying and being within the proper territory of Oceana, and stating property in land at such a balance, that the power can never swerve out of the hands of the many.

Secondly, the ballot conveying this equal sap from the root, by an equal election or rotation, into the branches of magistracy or sovereign power.

The orbs of this commonwealth being civil, military, or provincial, are, as it were, cast upon this mould or centre by the divisions of the people; first, into citizens and servants; secondly, into youth and elders; thirdly, into such as have 100 a year in lands, goods, or moneys, who are of the horse; and such as have under, who are of the foot; fourthly, they are divided by their usual residence into parishes, hundreds, and tribes.

 The full text of Oceana.