James Harrington (1611-1677) was an aristocrat by birth and served as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Charles I from 1647 until the king's execution on January 30, 1649. After the king's death, Harrington retreated to his country estate to study the forces that led England to civil war.
Like Karl Marx after him, Harrington built his philosophical system on an examination of historical cause and effect. After considering the many constitutional, religious, and economic differences between Charles I and Parliament, Harrington came to the conclusion that the underlying cause for the Civil War, also known as the Puritan Revolution, was the uneven distribution of land ownership, not disagreements over the theory of the divine right of kings or the legality of Catholicism in England.
Harrington made a distinction between power and authority. Power was based on wealth, which he called the “goods of fortune,” the most important of which was land. Authority was based on the “goods of the mind,” namely wisdom, prudence, and courage. The best rulers combined both.
Since power was based on wealth, rather than on wisdom, property was the foundation of the state. The way property was distributed between “the one, the few, and the many” reflected the form of the government. In an absolute monarchy, the balance of property was in control of one man, the king, and mercenaries maintained the rule of law. In what Harrington called a “mixed monarchy,” the nobles (the few) owned the land and controlled the military. In a commonwealth, property ownership was spread among the many and defended by citizen soldiers. Harrington concluded that if the concentration of property in the hands of a few inevitably created political instability, the only form of government that could last was an “equal commonwealth” that avoided both domination by an oligarchy and the anarchy of popular rule.
The Commonwealth of Oceana
In The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), Harrington proposed a social program designed to avoid the problems that led to the English Civil War. Concerned more with social order than with social justice, his goal was to create a society in which “no man or men . . . can have the interest, or having the interest, can have the power to disturb [the commonwealth] with sedition.”
Since power depends on wealth, Harrington believed that the way to ensure political stability was to prevent the concentration of property in the hands of a few families. In England, the common practice of primogeniture, in which the eldest son inherits all or most of a father's property, allowed the wealthy to accumulate and transmit property, and consequently political power, from one generation to another. In Oceana, a man's property was divided equally among his children at his death, so power remained widely distributed.
Harrington also deterred the development of an oligarchy through a strict division of power between the legislative and executive branches of government. Power was further separated in the legislature, which was made up of two houses with distinct responsibilities. The upper chamber, called the senate after the Roman legislature, was responsible for proposing and debating policy but had no power to enact law. The lower house was responsible for voting on the policies the upper house proposed, but was not allowed to propose or debate policy.
Representatives of the upper house were drawn from a “natural aristocracy” gifted with the “goods of the mind.” Representatives of the lower house were drawn from the people. Representatives for both houses were elected by indirect ballot and held their positions for fixed terms on a rotating basis. The electorate and pool from which representatives were chosen included all adult male property holders, with two exceptions. Bachelors and attorneys could vote but could not hold office because they lacked the necessary public spirit.
Why do some of Harrington's ideas sound so familiar?
Thomas Jefferson studied Harrington's ideas and incorporated many of them into the Constitution of the United States, including the bicameral Congress, the indirect election of the President, and the separation of powers.
Reactions to Oceana
Harrington's ideas made a brief entrance into the world of practical politics in the confused period after Cromwell's death in 1658. Many of those who were opposed to restoring the House of Lords unsuccessfully proposed variations of Harrington's two-house Parliament in its place.
Harrington found a new audience in the eighteenth century among Enlightenment philosophers and revolutionaries interested in the idea of a commonwealth. The French constitution of 1799 was based on Oceana.