Independence Hall Home Search Contents Indexes Help



CHAPTER 15 | Document 2

James Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana 70--75


By what has been shown in reason and experience it may appear that, though commonwealths in general be governments of the senate proposing, the people resolving, and the magistracy executing, yet some are not so good at these orders as others, through some impediment or defect in the frame, balance, or capacity of them, according to which they are of divers kinds.

The first division of them is into such as are single, as Israel, Athens, Lacedaemon, etc., and such as are by leagues, as those of the Achaeans, Aetolians, Lyceans, Swiss, and Hollanders.

The second (being Machiavelli's) is into such as are for preservation, as Lacedaemon and Venice, and such as are for increase, as Athens and Rome, in which I can see no more than that the former take in no more citizens than are necessary for defense, and the latter so many as are capable of increase.

The third division (unseen hitherto) is into equal and unequal, and this is the main point especially as to domestic peace and tranquility. For to make a commonwealth unequal is to divide it into parties, which sets them at perpetual variance, the one party endeavoring to preserve their eminence and inequality, and the other to attain to equality. Whence the people of Rome derived their perpetual strife with the nobility or Senate. But in an equal commonwealth there can be no more strife than there can be overbalance in equal weights. Wherefore the commonwealth of Venice, being that which of all others is the most equal in the constitution, is that wherein there never happened any strife between the Senate and the people.

An equal commonwealth is such a one as is equal, both in the balance and foundation and in the superstructures; 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 unto 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 freest where it is made or given in such a manner that it can neither oblige (qui beneficium accepit libertatem vendidit) ["Who accepts a gift sells liberty"] nor disoblige another or, through fear of an enemy or bashfulness toward a friend, impair a man's liberty.

Wherefore says Cicero, "Grata populo est tabella quae frontes aperit hominum, mentes tegit, datque eam libertatem ut quod velint faciant," ["For if the people cherishes its privilege of voting by ballot, which allows a man to wear a smooth brow while it cloaks the secrets of his heart, and which leaves him free to act as he chooses, while he gives any promise he may be asked to give, why do you insist that the courts should determine what a vote cannot?"] 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.

An equal commonwealth (by that which has been said) is a government established upon an equal Agrarian, arising into the superstructures 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. For though rotation may be without the ballot, and the ballot without rotation, yet the ballot not only as to the ensuing Model includes both, but is by far the most equal way; for which cause under the name of the ballot I shall hereafter understand both that and rotation too.

Now having reasoned the principles of an equal commonwealth, I should come to give an instance of such a one in experience if I could find it. But if this work be of any value, it lies in that it is the first example of a commonwealth that is perfectly equal. For Venice, though she come the nearest, yet is a commonwealth for preservation, and such a one, considering the paucity of citizens taken in and the number not taken in, is externally unequal. And though every commonwealth that holds provinces must in that regard be such, yet not to that degree. Nevertheless, Venice internally and for her capacity is by far the most equal, though she has not in my judgment arrived at the full perfection of equality, both because her laws supplying the defect of an Agrarian are not so clear nor effectual at the foundation, nor her superstructures by the virtue of her ballot or rotation exactly librated, in regard that, through the paucity of her citizens, her greater magistracies are continually wheeled through a few hands. As is confessed by Gianotti where he says that if a gentleman come once to be Savio di terra ferma, it seldom happens that he fails from thenceforth to be adorned with some one of the greater magistracies, as Savi di mare, Savi di terra ferma, Savi Grandi, Counselors, those of the decemvirate or dictatorian council, the Aurogatori or censors which require no vacation or interval. Wherefore, if this in Venice or that in Lacedaemon, where the kings were hereditary and the senators (though elected by the people) for life, cause no inequality (which is hard to be conceived) in a commonwealth for preservation or such a one as consists of a few citizens, yet is it manifest that it would cause a very great one in a commonwealth for increase or consisting of the many, which by the engrossing [of] the magistracies in a few hands would be obstructed in their rotation.

But there be [those] that say (and think it a strong objection), let a commonwealth be as equal as you can imagine, two or three men when all is done will govern it; and there is that in it which, notwithstanding the pretended sufficiency of a popular state, amounts to a plain confession of the imbecility of that policy and of the prerogative of monarchy, for as much as popular governments in difficult cases have had recourse to dictatorian power as in Rome.

To which I answer, that as truth is a spark whereunto objections are like bellows, so in this our commonwealth shines. For the eminence acquired by suffrage of the people in a commonwealth, especially if it be popular and equal, can be ascended by no other steps than the universal acknowledgment of virtue; and where men excel in virtue, the commonwealth is stupid and unjust if accordingly they do not excel in authority. Wherefore this is both the advantage of virtue, which has her due encouragement, and the commonwealth, which has her due services. These are the philosophers which Plato would have to be princes, the princes which Solomon would have to be mounted, and their steeds are those of authority, not empire. Or, if they be buckled to the chariot of empire, as that of the dictatorian power, like the chariot of the sun it is glorious for terms and vacations or intervals. And as a commonwealth is a government of laws and not of men, so is this the principality of the virtue and not of the man. If that fail or set in one, it rises in another, which is created his immediate successor.

. . . Uno avulso non deficit alter, Aureus, et simili frondescit virga metallo.

["And when [a bough] is torn away, another gold one grows in its place with leaves of the same metal."]

And this takes away that vanity from under the sun which is an error proceeding more or less from all other rulers under heaven but an equal commonwealth.

These things considered, it will be convenient in this place to speak a word to such as go about to insinuate to the nobility or gentry a fear of the people, or into the people a fear of the nobility or gentry, as if their interests were each destructive to [the] other, when in truth an army may as well consist of soldiers without officers or of officers without soldiers, as a commonwealth, especially such a one as is capable of greatness, of a people without a gentry or of a gentry without a people. Wherefore this (though not always so intended, as may appear by Machiavelli who else would be guilty) is a pernicious error. There is something first in the making of a commonwealth, then in the governing of her, and last of all in the leading of her armies, which, though there be great divines, great lawyers, great men in all professions, seems to be peculiar to the genius of a gentleman. For so it is in the universal series of [history], that if any man have founded a commonwealth, he was first a gentleman. Moses had his education by the daughter of Pharaoh; Theseus and Solon, of noble birth, were held by the Athenians worthy to be kings; Lycurgus was of the blood-royal; Romulus and Numa princes; Brutus and Publicola patricians; the Gracchi that lost their lives for the people of Rome and the restitution of that commonwealth were the sons of a father adorned with two Triumphs, and of Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio, who being sought in marriage by King Ptolemy, disdained to be the queen of Egypt. And the most renowned Olphaus Megaletor [Oliver Cromwell], sole Legislator (as you will see) of the Commonwealth of Oceana, was derived from a noble family. Nor will it be any occasion of scruple in this case that Hobbes affirms the politics to be no ancienter than his book De cive. Such also as have gotten any fame in the civil government of a commonwealth, or by the leading of her armies, have been gentlemen. For so in all other respects were those plebeian magistrates elected by the people of Rome, being of known descents and of equal virtues, save only that they were excluded from the name by the usurpation of the patricians. Holland, through this defect at home, has borrowed princes for her generals and gentlemen for her commanders, of divers nations. And Switzerland, if she have defect in this kind, rather lends her people to the colors of other princes than makes that noble use of them herself which should assert the liberty of mankind. For where there is not a nobility to bolt out the people, they are slothful, regardless of the world and the public interest of liberty, as even that of Rome had been without her gentry. Wherefore let the people embrace the gentry in peace as the light of their eyes and in war as the trophy of their arms. And if Cornelia disdained to be Queen of Egypt, if a Roman consul looked down from his tribunal upon the greatest king, let the nobility love and cherish the people that afford them a throne so much higher in a commonwealth, and in the acknowledgment of their virtue, than the crowns of monarchs.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 15, Document 2
The University of Chicago Press

Easy to print version.

Home | Search | Contents | Indexes | Help

© 1987 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2000