24 January, 2020 • • 42.1History

Email This Article Print This Article

Republicanism and Revisionism

Daniel Sutton

Rachel Hammersley
James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography
Oxford University Press

In the mid-to-late twentieth-century, two major schools of intellectual history developed in Britain. There was the Cambridge School, which focused on interpreting political thought in its intellectual context, rather than in isolation or as part of a grand narrative, and thinking about arguments primarily as actions in their historical setting. And then there was the Sussex School, which set out to study political thought in interdisciplinary, often revisionist ways, studying a much wider range of people, material and intellectual influences. Quentin Skinner is probably the most famous representative of the Cambridge School, John Burrows a good example of the Sussex School. The most important thing to understand before reading Rachel Hammersley’s James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography is that it is avowedly in the Sussex School tradition. It essentially sets out to improve on John Pocock’s 150-page introduction to The Political Works of James Harrington—a paradigm of Cambridge School method, published in 1977—by painting a wider picture of Harrington’s life, and one which is accessible to a new generation of readers.

Hammersley wants to use this approach to show the variety and flexibility in Harrington’s thought. Harrington is almost exclusively known today for The Commonwealth of Oceana, his account of a republican utopia, which was initially censored by Oliver Cromwell before being published in 1656. Its most famous arguments are that individuals’ agrarian land holdings should be limited—as Harrington memorably put it, to maintain “equality in the root”—and that elections for office should be conducted by ballot, with a third part of his envisaged senate voted out every year. After a brief spell as a proto-Marxist, for the last fifty years or so he has been understood predominantly as a classical republican, in the tradition of Machiavelli, Polybius and ultimately Aristotle. This view of Harrington was defended most importantly in Pocock’s work, but more recently by Colin Davis and Eric Nelson. Hammersley’s biography argues that a greater range of Harrington’s work deserves attention, that he was not simply a ‘republican’ thinker, and the republicanism in his thought is chiefly not classical. In taking this approach, she finds many new insights, weaves some wonderful narrative and has written a comprehensive, polished biography. I remain to be convinced, however, that there is sufficient reason to move beyond the old, classical republican paradigm.

Hammersley’s headline piece of evidence for taking a broader view of Harrington’s thought is that he served as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Charles I from early in 1647, when the King was imprisoned in Holdenby House, to the autumn of 1648, not long before his death. The story is fascinating, and in places quite touching. Though Charles was initially angry that his old servants had been dismissed, he grew fond of Harrington. Hammersley quotes two early biographers: John Toland, who says “He had the good luck to grow very acceptable to the King, who much convers’d with him about Books and Foren Countreys”, and Anthony Wood, who explains that “His Majesty lov’d his company, and, finding him to be an ingenious Man, chose rather to converse with him than others of his Chamber: They had often discourses concerning Government; but when they happen’d to talk of a Commonwealth, the King seem’d not to endure it.” According to the early biographers, Harrington was finally dismissed from his role after defending some of the King’s arguments against the Parliamentary Commissioners a little too vigorously—as Hammersley notes, it is remarkable he was able to maintain the trust of both King and Parliament so long. I was also persuaded by Hammersley’s case that Harrington’s appointment makes more sense when one considers the long history his family had of serving the Stuarts, and his own experience serving the Prince Elector Charles Louis.

I’m not so sure, however, that this evidence of his relationship with the King demands a re-think of Harrington’s republican political philosophy. In the conclusion of this chapter and throughout the two which follow, Hammersley suggests that Harrington’s service of the King is a sign he was more amenable to monarchy than scholars have previously thought. She supports this claim with a few quotes from other political works of his, and an extended discussion of the role of Lord Archon in The Commonwealth of Oceana. As she notes, this would stand in tension with Skinner’s idea that English republicanism of Harrington’s hue was primarily defined by its opposition to monarchy. But first, there is nothing in Harrington’s character to indicate he couldn’t have both conversed happily with the King and disagreed wholeheartedly with royalist precepts—indeed, the quote from Wood suggests he was quite forthright in his disagreement. A similar principle seems to underlie the passages Hammersley cites from Harrington’s later writings. They show a healthy respect for monarchical opinions and those who hold them, and they show a recognition that in some cases, some monarchies can work well. But they fail to show that he saw monarchy and republicanism as at all compatible or comparable.

Now, Harrington’s friendship with the King and the republicanism of his later writings does greatly help our understanding of the archon, Olphaus Megaletor, in The Commonwealth of Oceana. Harrington’s picture is of a sole, enlightened founder—“ being from Moses and Lycurgus the first legislator that hitherto is found in history to have introduced or erected an entire commonwealth at once”—who abdicates after instituting his ideal commonwealth, amid much public sorrow, but then returns to take part in government as a prince. Harrington’s understanding of the character of a prince—Olphaus Megaletor’s is utterly unimpeachable in The Commonwealth of Oceana—must have been greatly influenced by his conversations with and memory of Charles I. But Olphaus Megaletor is pointedly not a monarch: he is first a legislator, setting down the constitution of Oceana, and later a figurehead, with ceremonial duties and command of the army. His role as sole legislator belongs in a classical tradition of those like Solon and Lycurgus, who had the individual genius to craft a state but no desire to rule it, and his role as figurehead only comes after it was shown that the constitution which he had designed operated well without him. In general, Hammersley’s tendency is to elide monarch and chief magistrate a little easily. Although she quotes an all-important passage from The Art of Law-Giving where Harrington describes how the title ‘King’ was often applied to those who were in practice chief magistrates of a commonwealth, she cites it in reverse, as evidence of sympathy for monarchical principles. Finally, although she acknowledges the argument in passing, I don’t think Hammersley fully appreciates the extent to which Olphaus Megaletor’s return is designed to appeal to—or appease—Oliver Cromwell. We know that Cromwell was an apprehensive dedicatee, who hindered the work’s publication, and many of the proposals in the rest of The Commonwealth of Oceana blatantly contradicted Cromwell’s policies and the role he had crafted for himself as Lord Protector. 

Throughout the rest of the book, Hammersley continues to illuminate lesser-known parts of Harrington’s life and work. There is an excellent chapter on Harrington’s natural philosophy, which is very little studied. It tells the story of his quarrels with the Oxford mathematicians—critics of The Commonwealth of Oceana, whom he described as only good for “diminishing a commonwealth” and “multiplying a louse”—but more importantly, shows that his political philosophy is inextricable from the rest of his theology and philosophy. Hammersley quotes this remarkable passage from Harrington’s A System of Politics:

AS the Form of Man is the image of God, so the Form of a Government is the Image of Man… FORMATION of Government is the creation of a Political Creature after the Image of a Philosophical Creature; or it is an infusion of the Soul or Facultys of Man into the body of a multitude.

To explain exactly what Harrington meant when writing about God, souls, nature and creation, Hammersley then supplies the reader with passages from Harrington’s tongue-in-cheek Politicaster, his Mechanics of Nature, his Aphorisms Political and even his translation of the Aeneid. It is a colourful and coherent jigsaw of his thought-world. The same is true of the chapters on his political pamphlets and his religious beliefs, which also has some very thoughtful discussion of Harrington’s relationship with Hobbes’ writings. All through the book, Hammersley handles Hobbes’ influence on Harrington fairly evenly. As she notes, a common critique of Harrington’s work in his own day was that his work was too similar to Hobbes’, but Hobbesian arguments were also leveraged in opposition to some of his more radically republican suggestions. Hammersley shows that while Harrington’s view of human nature was rather Hobbesian, he differed on plenty of important questions of religion, history and, crucially, his definition of liberty.

Hammersley uses Skinner’s distinction between two understandings of negative liberty in the late-seventeenth century: one saw it as freedom from imminent, physical impediment, the other as freedom from potential, future impediment. On the latter view, the threat of a constraint was a limit on liberty in itself: under a tyranny, it follows, nobody is truly free. True republican liberty, so it went, requires that the citizens only be bound by laws to which they had consented. Now, Hobbes was an advocate of the first position on liberty; Hammersley shows that Harrington not only subscribed to the second, but directly attacks Hobbes’ position. The whole of the preliminary section of The Commonwealth of Oceana is devoted to this end, and Hammersley quotes helpfully from there and other works. But given that in the passages which Hammersley cites to this end, Harrington clearly associates his position with ‘Popular Government’ and Hobbes’ with monarchy, it becomes even less plausible that Harrington was offering “a middle way between traditional monarchy and kingless republicanism”. The clearest example, which Hammersley takes from The Commonwealth of Oceana, comes when Harrington sets out the three assertions which he seeks to prove against Hobbes:

In answer to which question let me invite Leviathan, who of all other governments gives the advantage to monarchy for perfection, to a better disquisition of it by these three assertions.

The first, That the perfection of government lyeth upon such a libration in the frame of it, that no man or men in or under it can have the interest; or having the interest, can have the power to disturb it with sedition.

The second, That monarchy, reaching the perfection of the kind, reaches not to the perfection of government; but must have some dangerous flaw in it.

The third, That popular government, reaching the perfection of the kind, reaches the perfection of government, and has no flaw in it.

The heart of Harrington’s case is that—contra Hobbes—‘popular government’, in its ideal form, can fulfil the criteria of a perfect constitution, whereas ‘monarchy’ cannot. This is because popular government shares out the economic and political clout in the state (the ‘interest’) evenly, preventing anyone from disturbing the balance and ensuring true liberty. Harrington allows that monarchy can be effective, but argues it must have a “dangerous flaw”, whereas the ideal popular government (i.e. the one Harrington goes on to describe) cannot be improved.  

It would also have been interesting to have had more discussion of why Harrington rejected the Hobbesian understanding of liberty, but retained a Hobbesian stance on human nature. One possibility which several of the passages Hammersley cites hint at is that the apparently Hobbesian realism about human nature was really drawn from classical sources, which warned that an excesses of property led to greed, which corrupted the state. As Eric Nelson has noted, the epigraph on the title page of The Commonwealth of Oceana—a passage from Horace’s Satires describing the fate of Tantalus—is fundamentally concerned with a king whose greed proves his downfall. Harrington and his supporters were quick to stress that his great political solution, the balance of property through agrarian laws, was an innovation, which—in the words of Harrington’s note to his translation of Virgil’s Eclogues—“[was] not sufficiently discover’d or heeded by ancient Historians and Politicians”. Whether or not that is so—given the extensive similarities Harrington’s proposals have with Roman and Hebrew agrarian laws, I am inclined to think not—the order in which Harrington approaches the questions of human nature and liberty is much more classical than Hobbesian. Rather than start with the role of self-interest in human nature and work out a form of liberty from the need to curb it, Harrington begins with the need to satisfy the demands of republican freedom and equality, then tries to do so in a way which avoided human nature’s capacity to corrupt or undermine it. Again, if correct, this would be a counterpoint to Hammersley’s more modernist reading of Harrington: the priority of liberty suggests The Commonwealth of Oceana’s fundamentally classical roots.

The most interesting chapters, for me at least, were the two on Harrington’s treatment of language: Innovation in Substance: Democracy and Innovation in Style. In the former, Hammersley shows that a distinctive feature of Harrington’s work is the promotion of a new democratic vocabulary, designed to help commonwealths like those he envisaged flourish. Using the term ‘democracy’ itself in a positive light was unusual in Harrington’s day—it traditionally carried connotations of instability and anarchy—but Harrington systematically used the term to describe a form of government which was to be aspired to. Hammersley gives a good example from one of the Lord Archon’s speeches in The Commonwealth of Oceana:

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 Sovreign power, I hold them to have that share in the Government (the Senate being not for life) whereof, with the safety of the Common-wealth, they are capable in nature; and such a Government, for that cause, to be Democracy.

As Hammersley notes, this passage not only gives ‘democracy’ a positive connotation, but does so by subtly re-defining ‘democracy’: it becomes a form of government where the senate is elected, and the people hold the sovereign power. Hammersley goes on to show that Harrington’s “positive re-appropriation of the term” also led him to re-label past and present governments: in particular, contrary to the prevailing opinion in his time, he recast the Venetian and Dutch republics as fundamentally ‘democratic’. This semantic shift was picked up by his contemporaries, and seems to have changed the way several republicans used ‘democracy’: Rachel Foxley—the other scholar, besides Hammersley, who has studied this aspect of Harrington’s thought in detail—has even suggested that it rubbed off on Milton.

Harrington was not only concerned with that one term, though: as Hammersley puts it, “Harrington appears to have believed that revolutionary circumstances necessitated a revolution in vocabulary; that new words had to be used to describe the new ideas, concepts and theories arising out of these circumstances”. In The Commonwealth of Oceana, Harrington formed his new vocabulary partly from old classical words (“archon”, “strategos”), which he used to describe roles he wanted to re-introduce; partly from traditional English words used in fresh ways (“parish”, “high constable”); and partly from new, often scientific words used in completely different senses (“galaxy”, for instance, is used to describe a type of small elected body of soldiers from a tribe). As Hammersley rightly alludes to in a footnote, this approach to language within political thought demonstrates Harrington’s creativity, but also his distinctively modern approach to language. The need to shape language to fit new political thought is also an explicit theme in Locke’s work, for instance, and is beneath the surface of much of Hobbes’.

It is rather uncommon of history books, but I found James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography both rewarding and entertaining to read: it combines formidable breadth with a story-telling ease. Besides everything I’ve discussed above, there are brief but fascinating chapters on Harrington’s role in the Rota Club and his later life, during and after his imprisonment in the Tower of London. The book is a comprehensive guide to Harrington’s life, but it is crisply written and succinct at every point. The book is suitable as an introduction to Harrington and his thought, but the reader would get more from it if they had read The Commonwealth of Oceana first, or were at least familiar with its main arguments. As such, I would wholeheartedly recommend it, although I am not convinced that Hammersley’s approach to Harrington’s thought does enough to replace the Cambridge School paradigm of Harrington as a classical republican. Many of Hammersley’s quotes, and much of her best analysis, bring out just how dependent Harrington was on classical thought—however critically and creatively he engaged with it—and how pointedly The Commonwealth of Oceana was written to advocate for popular government at the expense of monarchy. But without doubt, Hammersley achieves much of what she sets out to do, and James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography is an excellent example of intellectual history in the Sussex School tradition. I suspect the best thing to do, if you have the time, would simply be to read Pocock’s The Political Works of James Harrington as well.


Daniel Sutton is reading for a DPhil in Ancient History at St John’s College.