While Hobbes defended an ailing monarchy, James Harrington proposed a democratic utopia. Now that exploration and commerce were opening up remote areas of the globe, and legends came to Europe with any cargo from overseas, it was a simple matter for imaginative wordsmen to voyage in fancy to some happy corner of the map—or, like Cyrano de Bergerac and Tommaso Campanella, to the moon or the sun—whose political and social customs would shame the tyranny and misery of men under “civilization.” The cult of antiquity by the Renaissance gave way to a futuristic romance of more or less perfect states in distant and uncorrupted lands. So in 1656 Harrington offered his Oceana to the coffeehouses of London.
Born among the gentry, he naturally moved toward a political philosophy favoring the minor landlords of England. After leaving Oxford he traveled widely on the Continent, admired the Dutch Republic, served in the Dutch army, visited Venice, was impressed by its “republican” institutions, saw the Pope, refused to kiss the papal toe, and, returning to England, had all his sins forgiven when he explained to Charles I that he could not think of kissing the foot of a foreign prince after having kissed the hand of England’s King. When Charles was arrested, Harrington was appointed by Parliament to attend him. He loved the unhappy prisoner, but explained to him the desirability of a republic. He accompanied Charles to the end, was on the scaffold at the execution, and, we are told, nearly died of grief. 66 Comforted by the birth of the English republic, he set himself to expound his republican ideas in fictional form. But while Harrington wrote, Cromwell changed the new republic into a semimonarchical protectorate; and when The Commonwealth of Oceana was passing through the press the Protector ordered it suppressed. Cromwell’s favorite daughter, Mrs. Claypole, interceded for the book, Harrington dedicated it to her father, and it saw the light in 1656.
“Oceana” is England as the author hoped that Cromwell would remake it. He lays down a principle which, two centuries later, was expanded into the economic interpretation of history: political supremacy, says Harrington, naturally and rightly follows economic supremacy; only in that accord can a state enjoy stability. “Such as is the proportion of property in land, such is the nature of the empire”—i.e., the government. 67 If one man (as in Turkey) owns all the land, the government will be an absolute monarchy; if a few own it, the government will be a “mixed monarchy” supported and limited by an aristocracy; “and if the whole people be landlords, or hold the lands so divided among them that no one man or number of men . . . overbalance them, the empire (without the imposition of force) is a commonwealth.” 68 To Hobbes, who thought that all government rests on force, Harrington answered that armies had to be fed and armed, so power goes to those who can raise the money to feed and arm them. 69 A change in the form or direction of the government is merely an adjustment to a change in the distribution of property. On this basis Harrington explained the victory of the Long Parliament, as representing the gentry, over the King as representing the major landowners.
To prevent the government from being an oligarchy of large estates, Harrington proposed an “equal agrarian” law limiting any one person to land yielding no more than two thousand pounds a year. Actual democracy requires a wide distribution of property; and the best democracy will be one in which every landowner has a turn in government. In the true English republic the citizens will send landowners to serve in a popular assembly and a senate. The senate alone will propose laws, the assembly alone will pass or reject them. The senators will nominate candidates for public office; from that list the citizens will elect the magistrates by secret ballot. 70 Each year one third of the assemblymen, the senators, and the magistrates will be replaced by other men in a new election; by this rotation all landowners will ultimately have a term in the government. Popular election will protect the community against lawyers serving private interests, and against the clergy—“those declared and inveterate enemies of popular power.” 71 There will be universal education in national schools and colleges, and complete freedom of religion.
“The Doctrine was very taking,” reported Aubrey, and soon found enthusiastic supporters. Harrington gathered some of these (including Aubrey) in a “Rota” club (1659), which agitated for parliamentary enactment of his rotarian republic. He ascribed the current collapse of the Commonwealth to its failure to confiscate the large estates and redistribute the land in smaller parcels among the people; that failure left the nobles still powerful, and the people still poor and powerless; on the principle that property dictates government, the restoration of an oligarchic monarchy was inevitable unless Parliament voted the “agrarian law.” “But,” says Aubrey, “the greatest part of the Parliament-men perfectly hated this design of Rotation by Ballotting, for they were cursed tyrants and in love with their power”; 72 they preferred to recall Charles II. As Harrington continued to propagate his plan even after the Restoration, the King had him committed to the Tower on a charge of conspiracy (1661). When efforts were made to free him by habeas corpus, he was transported to closer confinement on an island off Plymouth. There he fell into spells of insanity. He was released, but he never regained his health.
His utopia was more practical than most, and much of it has been realized. Perhaps one weakness lay in its assumption that land is the only form of wealth. Harrington mentioned the power of money in commerce and industry, but did not foresee its rise to political power; he may have felt that even commercial and industrial wealth is ultimately subject to owners of the land. The gradual extension of the franchise, and the secrecy of the ballot, were in line with his hopes; and though Britain rejected rotation in office as an annual dismemberment of experience, the United States accepted it in the periodical election of a part of Congress; and Locke, Montesquieu, and America approved his separation of governmental powers. Let not dreamers despair; time may surprise them with fulfillments, and turn their poetry into prose.