The republicans: Harrington, Milton, and Sidney. The issue of republican as against monarchical government does not appear to have played an important part at any stage of the Puritan Revolution. The officers of Cromwell’s army were prepared in 1648 to release the king and restore his power, with proper safeguards, after an interval in which the results of the Revolution could be secured.
Yet these same officers-a few months later were driven to the execution of Charles not by republican principles but by the conviction that no settlement with him could be made permanent. The Levellers, though some of them were convinced republicans, seem not to have regarded the abolition of the monarchy as a chief end. Anti-monarchical principles were therefore of slight practical importance.
It is true, however, that there was a small volume of definitely republican theory, though this was somewhat heterogeneous in its nature, perhaps because it never had to organize itself to produce results. John Milton and Algernon Sidney defended republicanism on the abstract ground that it was implied by natural law and the sovereign power of the people.
James Harrington, though the creator of a utopia, laid aside more completely than any other writer the familiar legalist argumentation and defended republicanism as a consequence of social and economic evolution. While Harrington was wrong in believing that monarchy had become impossible, he was right about the shifting of economic power which any English government had to take into account.
Harrington was a political thinker of quite unusual power and independence, the only observer of the Puritan Revolution who had any philosophical grasp of the social causes behind it. Though a convinced and outspoken republican, he was by birth and association an aristocrat, an intimate friend who attended King Charles even to the scaffold. He was an admirer of Hobbes, whom he called the best writer at this day in the world, but his political thought was in method the very antithesis of Thomas Hobbes’s. What he admired in Hobbes was his belief in universal causation and his attempt to understand scientifically the springs of human conduct. But he must have felt that Hobbes failed to live up to the light that was in him.
For his theory of the social contract abandoned causes for a legal analogy, and his theory of sovereign power failed to analyze the social Causes alone give any government real power. It was this analysis Which Harrington undertook to supply and in so doing he proved himself political philosopher of first-rate originality, not the equal of Hobbes in the bold sweep of his reasoning but much his superior in the grasp of political realities.
In form Harrington’s Oceana, published in London in 1656 belongs to the class of political utopias; it described the formation of a new government for the fictitious Commonwealth of Oceana, A government was pictured with a good deal of fanciful detail, yet there was comparatively little in Harrington’s thought that was intrinsically utopian.
Oceana was obviously England, and there is never any do, about the real persons or historical events to which he referred book was addressed to Oliver Cromwell and was intended as a tract for the times, the elaborate and rather tiresome fiction being perhaps a means of forestalling the censorship.
There was nothing imaginative about Harrington’s method of political theorizing. He was an ardent admirer of Machiavelli, whom he regarded as the only modern political writer approaching the heights of ancient statesmanship. Like Machiavelli and Jean Bodin, he used a method that was mainly historic and comparative.
Every feature of the fictitious government of Ocean was copied from, and defended by reference to, ancient or existing governments, particularly the Jews, Rome, Sparta, and Venice. Th study of history and the observation and comparison of existing governments are asserted to be the only means by which one can learn the craft of the statesman.
The Economic Basis of Republicanism:-
Harrington stood alone among the political writers of his time in seeing that government is determined both in its structure and in its working by underlying social and economic forces. In an age when the rancor of parties and sects was intense and when each party explained civil disorder by the stupidity or wickedness of its opponents, Harrington almost achieved scientific detachment, though he was intensely in earnest in offering his imaginary government as a plan for political construction.
The underwriting thought in Harrington’s theory is that the form of government which is permanently possible in a country depends upon the distribution of property, especially property in land. Whatever class owns a preponderating balance of the land say three parts in four, must by sheer economic necessity command the power to control government.
In place of enlarging upon the vices of royalists or parliamentarians, therefore, Harrington offered an economic-historical theory of the civil wars which, so far as It went, was perfectly sound. The explanation, he believed, must be sought far back in the social history of Tudor England. The causes of the demand for popular government began with the destruction of the English nobility in the Wars of the Roses and the consistent policy followed by Henry VII of dividing large estates among relatively small owners and thus of increasing the yeomanry at the expense of the nobility.
The second great step in the same direction was the breaking up of the monasteries by Henry VIII, a policy which dispossessed the greatest of English landlords, the church, and put in its place a multitude of small owners. The result in both cases was to distribute wealth among a numerous class of landowners from whom the demand for popular rights was certain sooner or later to arise.
With admirable irony Harrington described the political tactics of Elizabeth as converting her reign through the perpetual love-tricks that passed between her and her people into a kind of romanze. But political play-acting could only put off the day when the realities oi popular ownership would have to be recognized.
When a prince, as stiff in disputes as the nerve of monarchy was grown slack, received that unhappy encouragement from his clergy, which became his utter ruin, while trusting more unto their logic, than the rough philosophy of his Parliament, it came unto an irreparable breach.
This theory Harrington derived partly from Aristotle’s view that revolutions are caused chiefly by inequalities of property and partly from Machiavelli’s belief that a powerful nobility is inconsistent with popular government. The latter, he remarked, had failed to note the economic reason for his observation, but when Machiavelli is supplemented by Aristotle the clue to a correct theory is found.
The number of landowners is fundamental; if a large balance of land is held by the nobility, the commoners must be dependent upon them economically and therefore politically. If the land passes into the hands of many commoners, the power of the nobility must be correspondingly curtailed. By this theory Harrington meant also to correct and supplement Hobbes. He went straight to the heart of the latter’s superficial explanation of government as mere power resting upon a Covenant.
As he [Hobbes] said of the law, that without this sword it is but paper; so he might have thought of this sword, that without an hand it is but cold iron. The hand which holdeth this sword is the militia of a nation. but an army is a beast that ha a great belly and must be fed; wherefore this will come up what pastures you have, and what pastures you have will come unto the balance of propriety, without which the public sword is but a name or a mere spit-frog.
Power in the legal sense in no self-explanatory term; it presumes social force and this in turn presumes a control of the means of subsistence, The issue between Hobbes and Harrington was that between a |e logician and a social economist.
For Harrington, then, the outcome of the civil wars was a foregone conclusion; it was a question not of abstract right and wrong but of social causes. Control of the land had passed into the ha of the middle class and with it the sources of political power. Temporarily the Tudor monarchy might exercise great power, pending time when the new class became, so to speak, politically self-conscious, but sooner or later government must conform to the distribute of property. It was upon this ground that Harrington was a republic. He had no theoretical objection to monarchy, though he believed commonwealth to be superior.
The course of England, into a commonwealth, is both certain and natural. The ways of nature require peace: The ways peace require obedience to the laws: Laws in England can be made out by Parliaments: Parliaments in England are co to be mere popular assemblies: The laws made by popular assemblies (though for a time they may be awed, or deceive in the end) must be popular laws; and the sum of popular la must amount to a commonwealth.
This sentence was published within a year of the restoration of t monarchy and therefore offered a handle to gibing critics, but few sentences written in the seventeenth century went deeper into the, fundamental facts of the change that had taken place in England For better or worse the landed gentry were in the saddle and permanent settlement could fail to take account of that fact.
In Harrington’s judgment the property which really counts i political settlement is land. Undoubtedly he exaggerated the political weight of landownership and correspondingly underestimated the influence of manufacture, trade, and finance. He admitted that, every small state composed of merchants, such as Florence, money outweigh land, but he believed this to be impossible in a country size of England.
In this he was right so far as his awn time was concerned. But he had the point of view of a landowning class and so failed to see the importance that trade was assuming even in the England that he could observe. Thus his judgment that England would outstrip Holland commercially (which was right as to the fact) was based upon the belief that she would do so because.of her ability to produce her own raw materials, which was certainly wrong in the event.
Upon his theory of the balance of landownership Harrington proceeded to make his own classification of the forms of government. He used here the traditional threefold classification into monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with the three corresponding perversions derived from Aristotle, but his revision was so original that it completely made over the tradition.
His threefold classification consists of absolute monarchy,-mixed or feudal monarchy, and the commonwealth, each depending on typical forms of land-tenure. If the king can keep control of the land in his own hands, letting it out to a large number of small tenants, who can be forced to give military services to the king, the result is absolute monarchy, a government of the military type exemplified by Rome in the days of the imperial despots and by the Turkish Empire.
When the land passes into the hands of a relatively small number of nobles, who control large bodies of their,own retainers, a mixed monarchy results. This is inevitably a weak form of monarchy, because the king is dependent upon his great vassals, who tend to be rebellious, though their mutual rivalry prevents them from destroying the kingship outright. Finally, if the great feudal estates are broken up and the nobility are unable to support great groups of retainers, the foundation is laid for a commonwealth or popular form of government.
By means of this theory Harrington was able to sweep away entirely the vague notion of the corruption of a people which had bulked large in Machiavelli’s thought and which was inherent in the old theory of a cycle of constitutions. The so-called corruption which turns a Commonwealth into a monarchy is merely a change in the control of land.
The corruption of one government is the generation of another.If there is moral change at the same time, this too results from a change-in the ownership of property. Harrington’s classification leaves room for what may be called perverted forms of government, but these are merely cases in which, for some temporary reason, a government exists which does not accord with the balance of property. In this sense the monarchy of Elizabeth was a perversion. There are also cases in which the balance of power is not decisive.
If the land were about equally divided between nobility and commoners, stable government would be impossible unless one class could eat out the other. The plan offered a flexible, and comparatively a realistic, means of classifying governments.
The Empire of Law:-
Harrington, however, was not an economic materialist. Property is itself a legal institution and hence it is possible by law, not indeed to change radically the distribution of property, but to perpetuate a distribution favorable to a desired form of government. He attributed politics to two principles. The one is force, depending upon the distribution of property and limiting the possibilities of stable government but still leaving some room for choice.
The second principle is authority which depends, as he says, upon the goods of the mind, such as wisdom, courage and prudence. Wisdom or reason in an individual looks to the interest of the individual, and similarly wisdom in a commonwealth looks to the good of the whole body. Harrington would perhaps have been more consistent if he had treated authority or prudence as strictly relative to the form of government in which it must work, but he was influenced at this point by his very sincere republicanism.
Broadly speaking he made the distinction between force and authority parallel to that between ancient prudence, or the art of governing by law for the common good, and modern prudence, or the art of exploiting the community in the interest of an individual or a class.
Among modern writers he believed ancient prudence to be represented by Machiavelli and modern prudence by Hobbes. Since modern prudence begins with the decay of the Roman Republic, the contrast corresponds substantially to that between monarchy, whether absolute or mixed, and the commonwealth. Harrington shared the enthusiasm of the Renaissance for antiquity. His commonwealth was intended to approach as closely as possible to such ancient models as Athens, Sparta, Rome, and the Jewish state, all of which he considered to be popular governments within his meaning of the term.
The distinguishing mark of a commonwealth is that it is an empire of laws and not of men. Hobbes, Harrington says, was guilty of mere confusion when he argued that, since all governments subject men to some control, the liberty of the subject is equal under every system of law. Harrington’s distinction here is practically the same as that drawn by Aristotle between tyranny, which is personal and arbitrary, and constitutional government, which is according to law, in the public interest, and with the participation and consent of its subjects.
All forms of government, including the commonwealth, require the coincidence of power with authority. No amount of wisdom can keep a government going smoothly unless political power and economic power fall together, but it is equally true that government does not flow spontaneously from a given economic arrangement. Like Aristotle and Machiavelli Harrington assumed that politics is an art.
But the commonwealth, properly organized, is more truly a government of laws than monarchy and is also more stable. For absolute monarchy is essentially a government of men and feudal monarchy is a theater for the rivalry of king and the nobility. The commonwealth alone permits liberty under law and gives adequate scope for true statesmanship and public spirit. Harrington believed that men are intrinsically sociable and not selfish, but he was willing to put as little strain as possible upon unselfishness.
True statecraft aims to make self-interest and public interest agree, and popular government most readily does this. Such a state Harrington called an equal commonwealth. In this form of government those who have any interest in being seditious lack the power, and those who have the power lack the interest. Such a government ought to be permanent, so far as internal causes of decay are concerned.
The remainder of Harrington’s political philosophy was devoted to an analysis of the means by which this end could be achieved. Logically the corner stone of the system must be the prevention of serious changes in the distribution of land, or in the case of a commonwealth, the prevention of its being concentrated in a few hands. Hence the importance attached by Harrington to his agrarian law,which amounted merely to a rule requiring the division of large estates among several heirs in parts having not more than £2000 annual income. The law by which an estate was entailed upon the eldest male heir appeared to him both to endanger political equality and to violate every principle of justice.
I marvel much how it comes to pass, that we should use our children, as we do our puppies; take one, lay it in the lap, feed it with every good bit, and drown five
However, he aimed not at the abstract injustice but at the social danger. Under the agrarian law which he proposed, if only one heir exists he may take the whole estate whatever its size, and if the estate is below the maximum it may be devised to a single heir. It is only the large estate to which there are several male heirs that must be divided, Harrington was not concerned to extend the popular ownership of land in England but to keep the status quo.
We do not now argue far that which we would have, but for that which we are already possessed of.
He estimated that five thousand owners were enough to make England safely a commonwealth,
It is difficult ta say how broadly based Harrington’s popular government was intended to he. Citizenship he restricted to such as live of their own, which excluded servants and wage-earners, and yet the figures which he used in his outline of government apparently assumed something like half a million citizens above the age of thirty, Accordingly, if he had any accurate conception of the population of England in his time, the excluded classes would have been negligibly small, At all events it was no part of his plan to limit political rights to landowners, His property qualification for the senate was low and he defended the payment of members in order to open it to poor men, On the other hand he took for granted an aristocratic leadership far the commonwealth,
if any man have founded a commonwealth, he was first a gentleman.
So long as the gentry are too numerous to form a nobility, they are not a threat to a commonwealth but its very life-blood. The choice of magistrates by election commended itself to Harrington because he supposed that It would draw upon the natural aristocracy of ability which belong mainly to the gentry. He rejected the idea that popular government would be used as a means of levelling economic differences,
The Structure of the Commonwealth:-
When the foundation of a commonwealth has been laid in an agrarian law, there are three devices of statecraft for keeping government responsive to the popular will.
- The first is rotation in office, which Harrington compares to the circulation of the blood. Magistrates ought to be elected to office for short terms, usually a year, and ought to be ineligible to immediate reelection.
- Second, to secure a free choice by electors, election ought to be by ballot.
- Harrington devoted much space to elaborating a plan for secret voting, following devices which he says he had seen used in Venice.
- Third, in constructing a free government he thought it essential to secure a separation of powers.
Harrington’s division of political powers, however, did not correspond precisely to that later made familiar by Montesquieu but followed a line suggested by his study of the city-state. The deliberative or policy forming function he regarded as necessarily aristocratic, in the sense that it must be performed by a few persons who have experience and expert knowledge.
The acceptance or rejection of a proposed policy he regarded as a popular function which ought to be performed by a large body elected for that purpose and having no power to deliberate. Rather curiously, in view of English experience just prior to the civil wars, he had nothing to say about the independence of the judiciary.
An agrarian law, rotation in office, the ballot, and the separation of powers are the structural principles of what Harrington called an equal commonwealth, in which he believed that the interest and the power for sedition could never be united. He defined it as follows:
An equal commonwealth is a government established upon an equal Agrarian, arising into the superstructure or three orders, the senate debating and proposing, the people resolving, and the magistracy executing by an equal rotation through the suffrage of the people given by the ballot.
Not content with principles, however, he proceeded to work out a constitution for Great Britain, giving his principles detailed application. This elaboration was chiefly responsible for his reputation as a utopian. He took a childish pleasure in drawing the details of the picture, even down to the dates and hours when his assemblies should meet and the clothes which his officials should wear in fact these fanciful details had little to do with the principles of his philosophy. The doctrinaire part of his thought was his faith in the efficacy of political machinery, and in this respect he did not differ much from his contemporaries. It is strange that a man who saw as far as he did into the economic causes of political power should still have placed so much reliance upon apparatus.
Harrington’s constitution begins by dividing the whole people into freemen, who are citizens, and servants. The citizens are then divided on the basis of age into the active military class, who are under thirty, and the elders, who form a military reserve and also the civil orb of the commonwealth. They are further divided according to wealth into cavalry and infantry, corresponding roughly to gentry and common people.
The plan of government is an elaborate scheme of indirect representation. The smallest local unit is the parish, in which all the elders elect one-fifth of their number to be deputies to the next larger unit, a group of parishes totaling about a hundred deputies.
Twenty hundreds combine to form a tribe. The parishes, the hundreds, and the tribes all elect their focal magistrates, and in addition each tribe elects two knights each year to the senate and seven representatives (three knights and four commoners) to the Prerogative Tribe, which functions as the people in enacting legislation.
The terms are three years, and since there are fifty tribes, the senate consists of three hundred members, one hundred retiring each year, and the people of ten hundred and fifty, three hundred and fifty retiring each year. The senate elects the chief magistrates and also four councils-on state, war, religion, and trade-in which business mainly originates.
In accordance with the division of powers, the function of the senate is debate. After it has formulated legislation or policy, its proposals are printed and transmitted to the people or prerogative tribe, which decides, either by enacting or rejecting or returning the measure to the council for further consideration, but cannot itself debate or amend.
Implicit in Harrington’s scheme of government but not clearly stated were the constitutional ideas, already familiar in the seventeenth century, of a written instrument of government, an extraordinary legislative body for constitution-making, and the distinction between statutory and constitutional law. Writing in 1656, he necessarily addressed his plan to Cromwell, whom he clothed in the glamor of a mythical lawgiver. What he wished Cromwell to do was to set up a council of statesmen and scholars to formulate a new government, everyone being free to carry their proposals to the council. Once formulated the constitution was to be promulgated by articles each dealing with some important element of the structure. Harrington nowhere discussed the amendment of this constitution, but it seems clear that he meant to distinguish between its provision and ordinary acts of the legislature.
In dealing with the thorny problem of religious freedom Harrington tried to effect a compromise between congregationalism and a national church. Some form of national religious establishment he believed to be necessary, both to provide decent stipends for the clergy and to maintain forms of worship in accord with the national conscience. He was opposed, however, to any form of coercion, which he regarded as the cause of that execrable custom, never known in the world before, of fighting for religion and denying the magistrate to have any jurisdiction of it.
Hence he believed that each congregation might be left free to choose its own clergyman and that other forms of worship besides those established by law might be permitted, except in the case of Jews and Catholics. He desired also a national system of schools, supported at public expense and free to indigent students, at which attendance should be compulsory between the ages of nine and fifteen.
Despite the fanciful form of Harrington’s republic, he combined in it a surprising number of the devices that later came to be thought typical of liberal government. The written constitution, the election of magistrates, the use of the ballot, short terms and rotation, the separation of powers, guarantees of religious freedom, and popular education at public expense are illustrations of the point.
Yet Harrington was emphatically not a democrat either in purpose or theory. The leadership of the commonwealth he believed to be safely in the hands of the landed gentry, and the superiority of this class, both in power and capacity, he treated as axiomatic. His theory of economic causation excluded a democratic ideal such as that of the Levellers, which presumed a separation of political rights from the rights of property.
Harrington’s political ideal was the ancient republic under aristocratic auspices and in this respect he agreed with all republicans of his time. He stood alone, however, in emphasizing the dependence of forms of government on the distribution of wealth, and his explanation of the origin of the civil wars was probably the most realistic piece of social theorizing that was produced.
Harrington was right in believing that the rise to power of the landed gentry was the fundamental social fact of the age, but a better understanding of English trade might have suggested to him that the equalizing of landholdings was no adequate means of perpetuating their power.
The extension of trade was quite incompatible with anything like economic equality. Had he seen this, he would have been logically obliged either to look for more drastic kinds of political control over wealth or to alter his whole conception of popular government.
The republicanism of John Milton and Algernon Sidney was less original and less important than that of Harrington. The connecting link between the three men was their admiration for antiquity and their idealization of the aristocratic republic. Milton and Sidney had no such knowledge of political history and comparative institutions as Harrington and no such grasp of the social causes of political change, With them republicanism was a moral ideal based on the abstract ground of natural right and justice. Neither made any significant addition to political ideas generally familiar in the seventeenth century.
Milton’s tracts are chiefly memorable for the magnificence of the literary form in which he clothed ideas already known to everyone and for the eloquence in which he embodied a noble political ideal, Sidney’s rather rambling and ill-constructed book. Would perhaps hardly have been noticed, had it not been written in a peculiarly lean period of English political thought and had it not become the occasion of one of Jeffrey’s most celebrated judicial atrocities.
Of all Milton’s tracts the most memorable is the Areopagitica (1644), his defense of freedom of publication. Though it apparently received little notice when it was written, it has become, together with John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, the classic argument for free speech in the English language. Milton stated once for all the faith of intellectual liberalism, that truth will prevail over error when both may be freely tested by investigation and discussion:
And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to miss-doubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter. For who knows not that truth is strong next to the Almighty; she needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensing to make her victorious, those are the shifts and defenses that error uses against her power.
Hence Milton could do what few men of his age could do he could look with equanimity on the multiplication of sects and parties as experiments in the search for new truth and new freedom. His defense of religious toleration was limited by the prejudices of his age and his party. It did not extend to Roman Catholics, partly because he thought them idolaters and partly because he thought them incapable of loyalty to any ruler save the pope. But even with this limitation the Areopagitica is the finest argument ever written against the stupidities and futilities of censorship.
Milton’s fame as a publicist came mainly after his appointment in 1649 to the secretaryship of the Council of State for the Commonwealth. Already in his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates he had defended the execution of Charles, especially against the Presbyterians, who had begun to repent the lengths to which the Revolution had gone. This was followed in 1649 by the Eikonoklastes and in 1651 by the Defensio pro populo Anglicano, written in reply to Salmasius of Leyden, who had been.employed by the royalists to write a defense of the king.
These works contain an outspoken defense of the death penalty for a tyrannous king, proved from natural law, from Scripture, and from the law of England. He presented his case so powerfully that the Defensio was compared with Cromwell’s army as a bulwark of the Commonwealth. No writer was better qualified to express the enthusiastic idealism of the Revolution:
And here I cannot but congratulate myself upon our ancestors, who founded this state with no less prudence and liberty than did the most excellent of the ancient Romans or Grecians; and they likewise, if they have any knowledge of our affairs, cannot but congratulate themselves upon their posterity, who, when. Almost reduced to slavery, yet with such wisdom and courage reclaimed that state, so wisely founded upon so much liberty, from a king’s outrageous despotism.
Milton’s argument in substance does nothing more than assert the ancient principle that resistance to a tyrant is a natural right. In the Tenure he argued that men are born free and set up governments for the sake of mutual defense. Public authority takes the place of each man’s right to protect himself and-the law is set up to limit and control public authority. The magistrate’s power is derived from the people for the public good, and hence the right to protect the common good against a tyrant must always reside in the people.
The power of kings and magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people, to the common good of them all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them, without a violation of their natural birthright.
The king has no indefeasible right but may be deposed as often as the people see fit. It is perfectly lawful to kill a tyrant, whether a usurper or a legitimate ruler. The argument is supported by the usual citations to the Protestant reformers, especially Knox and Buchanan.
In respect to the religious question Milton’s views were those of the most advanced Independents. Constraint in matters of belief and the support of the clergy from public revenues he regarded as the chief causes of religious corruption. He not only accepted the Protestant principle that Scripture is the rule of faith but he gave it the broadest interpretation every man must interpret Scripture for himself.
No man can know that he is perfectly right, and hence neither a magistrate nor a church should enforce belief in a particular interpretation. Individual conscience Is the court of last resort and no sincere believer is a heretic. The church is concerned only with the spiritual man, who cannot be enlightened by force, while the state is concerned only with outward acts. The two institutions are distinct in nature and purpose and therefore ought to be severed.
Nothing but corruption follows if the clergy look to government for their support and not to the voluntary contributions of those who profit by their teaching. Church and state are therefore two distinct societies, with no community or membership or purpose. Such, a separation, operating equally in both directions, was quite different both in theory and practice from that for which Hooker had criticized Presbyterians and Catholics.
Milton’s conclusion was practically the same as that to which Independence had brought Roger Williams some twenty years before in his controversy with the theocracy in Massachusetts. On the eve of the Restoration it was far from realizable in England.
Behind Milton’s republicanism lay a vague Platonic principle that the real justification of authority is moral and intellectual superiority. Nature appoints that wise men should govern fools. Hereditary power is therefore unnatural. In his last political pamphlet, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, published in 1660 immediately before the Restoration, he even expressed a doubt whether Jesus himself had not put the brand of Gentilism upon kingship. This tract was a last despairing cry against monarchy, written when Milton must have known that the Restoration was inevitable. In it he faces the wreck of all the noble aspirations for which he had believed the Revolution stood.
That a nation should be so valorous and courageous to win their liberty in the field, and when they have won it, should be so heartless and unwise in their counsels, as not to know how to use it, value it, what to do with it, or with themselves; but after ten or twelve years prosperous war and contestation with tyranny, basely and besottedly to run their necks again into the yoke they have broken will be an ignominy if it befall us, that never yet befell? any nation possessed of their liberty.
Yet nothing illustrates so well as this pamphlet-Milton’s chief effort in constructive politics-the failure of his ideals to articulate with reality. His ready and easy way was in fact a fantastic impossibility.
All he had to propose was that the people should lay aside their prejudices and selfish interests and elect the best men of the nation to a perpetual council in which the members shall hold office for life. The pamphlet is a curious mixture of doctrinaire faith in the best men and of distrust for the electorate which must choose, any council, permanent or periodic.
Milton merely assumed that the one election which he desired would work well but that all others, which he did not desire, would work badly. With a real passion for individual liberty he united contempt for the intelligence and good will of men in the mass.
A native fastidiousness of mind made him instinctively an aristocrat, and he despised parliaments as much as he despised kings. He wholly failed to see that individual liberty is an impracticable ideal if men are unfit to be trusted with a voice in government. Like all who idealize the early stages of a revolution as a new birth of civilization, he was ill-prepared to face the realities of its last stage.
Filmer and Sidney:-
Algernon Sidney’s republicanism was in all important respects like that of Milton. With the Restoration in 1660 the active discussion of politics in England died down, after producing in the preceding two decades two great classics, the Leviathan of Hobbes and the Oceana of Harrington, besides a host of controversial tracts covering every phase of political philosophy and constitutional theory. It was not until the approaching death of Charles II made imminent a Catholic succession that the old issue cf hereditary right against the right of parliament reappeared.
James’s hereditary claim was sound and quite in accord with royalist principles, but his succession without proper safeguards for Protestantism filled most Englishmen with apprehension. When the issue began to be apparent, the royalists put forward the strangely antiquated figure of Sir Robert Filmer, who had died in 1653 after writing:a number of royalist pamphlets almost unnoticed at the time.
A volume of these was reprinted in 1679, and the next year his best-known work, Patriarcha or the Natural Power of Kings, was printed for the first time. This work has enjoyed a posthumous fame because it was refuted in detail by Sidney and Locke.
Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government was written between 1680 and 1683 but was not published until 1698, a belated act of piety like parliament’s repeal of his attainder in 1689. Sidney was executed in 1683 for complicity in the Rye House Plot, his papers, including the Discourses, being used against him. The indictment cited sentences saying that the king is subject to law, is responsible to the people, and may be deposed, as a false, seditious, and traitorous libel.
Certainly nothing in. Filmer’s Patriarcha was so significant as the fact that it was first published in 1680. That the case for -indefeasible hereditary right had to be presented in a book that had lain forgotten in manuscript for nearly thirty years, and a book so easily made to appear absurd, shows how little vitality the issue had.
In truth Filmer’s book was an anachronism even when it was written. It was a polemic against the two enemies of royal power, the Jesuits and the Calvinists, by whom Monarchy hath been crucified between two thieves, the pope and the people, and it attempted to restate the two royalist principles, divine right and the duty of passive obedience.
But Filmer adopted the dangerous tactics of carrying the war into the enemy’s country. Instead of relying on Scriptural authority, he tried to prove that the king’s power is natural, and to do this he derived it from the natural authority of parents. In short, Adam was the first king and present kings are, or are to be reputed, next heir to him.
The feebleness of this are to be reputed was lost on none of Filmer’s critics, Since there can be by primogeniture only one present heir to Adam and since no one knows who he is, the conclusion ought to be that every king’s power is unlawful. The tiresome persistence with which Sidney and Locke follow this obvious argument merely shows that an absurd conclusion is a godsend which no controversialist has the heart to overlook.
It is mere justice to Filmer, however, to say that, had he not been whipping a dead horse, his critics would not have. had all the advantage on their side. They were committed to the theory that political power resides in the people and that governments arise only by their consent.
Filmer easily showed that these statements, if supposed to be literally true, are as absurd as any ever uttered. For-who are the people? If they are the whole population, when did they enter into a contract and how can they consent to anything? And if consent be taken literally, how can there be any limits to faction?
In these arguments, curiously enough, Filmer borrowed a good deal from Hobbes whom he esteemed highly. The people, he insisted, are a headless multitude, so many units of population, while conceptions like representation, election, and majority-rule are meaningless except in a legal Community. To form a community there must be a sovereign.
Had Filmer not discredited himself with his absurd argument about the royal power of Adam, he might have been a rather formidable critic. He had quite as good a grasp of English constitutional history as Sidney or Locke, and like most men who are known only by what their critics say of them, he was by no means so foolish as he has been made to appear.
Apparently Sidney never intended to publish the Discourses and despite the esteem in which it was later held, for-example by Thomas Jefferson, it is not in fact an effective book. It follows Filmer, expanding every objection into a short discourse until all sense of direction is lost. It might have made an effective pamphlet of a tenth its size. There is not an original idea in it.
The argument against Filmer merely recited the familiar propositions all peoples have a natural right to govern themselves; they can choose their rulers as they see fit; government derives its power from the people; it exists for their safety and well-being and may be held accountable for these ends. In England Sidney held, Parliament and people have the power of making kings, but he also believed that the power of parliament is delegated and may be revoked in some unspecified way.
According to Bishop Burnet, Sidney was stiff to all republican principles, and presumably he was so in the days of the Commonwealth, but there is nothing in the Discourses really incompatible with constitutional monarchy. Certainly he believed that elected representatives were less likely to be corrupt than the favorites of a prince.
Like Milton, whom he greatly resembled, he admired the aristocratic republic and imagined that election is a way of selecting the best men to govern. Like Milton also he idealized the Commonwealth and looked back to it as an age of noble achievement in which for a moment English liberty reached a height equal to the great days of Greece and Rome.
Perhaps in 1680, after twenty years of the Stuart Restoration, Sidney had an excuse which Milton lacked in 1660 for seeing Cromwell’s thinly veiled dictatorship through a rosy mist. He was most effective when he loosed his righteous indignation on the systematized bribery and disreputable intrigues which, as a republican, he believed the monarchy had brought from France since His Majesty happy restoration. Let men examine, he says,
Whether bawds, whores, thieves, buffoons, parasites, and such vile wretches as are naturally mercenary, have not more power at Whitehall, Versailles, the Vatican, and the Escurial, than in Venice, Amsterdam, and Switzerland whether Hide, Arlington, Danby, their graces of Cleveland and Portsmouth, Sunderland, Jenkins, or Chiffinch, could probably have attained such power as they have had amongst us, if it had been disposed of by the suffrage of the parliament and people.
The importance of English republicanism in the seventeenth century is not easy to sum up. On one side it was hopelessly doctrinaire, since the abolition of the monarchy was never a real issue,was temporarily forced only by circumstances, and by its association with Cromwell’s dictatorship was soon discredited. In Milton and Sidney it reflected mainly a mood of enthusiastic idealism but without, the rugged force possessed by the abstractly similar philosophy of the Levellers.
Republicanism in the seventeenth century was essentially an aristocratic doctrine and not at all a general proclamation of the rights of man such as the political program of the Levellers suggested, For Milton and Sidney the people was still a community led by a natural elite, not at all a mass of equal individuals endowed with innate rights. It is true that the actual settlement of the Revolution, by placing the country gentry in a position of power, was far more aristocratic than democratic, but this settlement was in no way related to republicanism.
The gentry made their peace easily enough with the monarchy after the latter became dependent on parliament. For this reason republicanism as such was never a live issue. Harrington’s economic analysis was not doctrinaire but it had no close logical relation to his republicanism. Had he not happened to write during the Commonwealth, he could easily have adapted it to a constitutional monarchy.