The Ideas That Formed the Constitution, Part 15: James Harrington, With Comments on Algernon Sidney

The Ideas That Formed the Constitution, Part 15: James Harrington, With Comments on Algernon Sidney
James Harrington (L) and Algernon Sidney (R). (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Rob Natelson
In the 17th century, England, which always had been a monarchy, flirted with republicanism. From 1649 to 1660, England actually was a republic, at least in theory: King Charles I had been executed, and the country became a “protectorate” under Oliver Cromwell. Not long after Cromwell’s death, however, a “Convention Parliament” invited the deceased king’s son, Charles II, to take the throne, and England’s experiment in republicanism was over.

The period produced some opinion-makers who wanted England to be a republic (or “commonwealth”) permanently. Historian Caroline Robbins famously called them the “Commonwealth Men.” Among those she placed in that category, the best-known to the founding generation were James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and Isaac Newton.

Harrington and Sidney were the two more outspoken of the four, and they suffered for their beliefs. If Locke and Newton really were republicans, they didn’t say much about it—but they influenced political thought in other ways. This essay discusses Harrington and Sidney; the following two essays will address Locke and Newton.

James Harrington

James Harrington was born on Jan. 7, 1611, in Northamptonshire, England. He displayed intellectual brilliance early. He attended Oxford University for two years but didn’t earn a degree. Thereafter, like many of the other figures profiled in this series, he traveled widely, visiting the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

At some point, he met King Charles I. The king had intellectual ability, and despite Harrington’s republicanism, the king enjoyed his company. The two became friends. This friendship led to Harrington being imprisoned briefly before Charles was executed in 1649.

The succeeding regime of Oliver Cromwell disfavored Harrington, and it almost prevented his principal work, “Oceana,” from being published. Harrington was again imprisoned during the early 1660s, his health deteriorated, and he died in Westminster (now part of London) in 1677.


Although Harrington wrote tracts other than “Oceana,” that book is what he’s famous for. It relates the story of how the utopian land of Oceana (a thinly disguised allegory for England) adopted what Harrington considered to be an ideal form of government.

I don’t recommend “Oceana” for general readers: It’s extremely tedious, hard to follow, and at times ridiculous. Here’s the gist of what was important to the Founders:

Oceana adopted an “empire of laws, not of men.” It ensured that the laws reflected the public interest rather than the interest of a monarch or aristocracy. A government of laws in the public interest was necessary, in Harrington’s view, for a nation to be a commonwealth.

Oceana adopted a mixed government, with a bicameral legislature, magistrates, and judges. Because Harrington believed that power followed land ownership, Oceana’s laws ensured that land was widely held—that no person or group owned too much of it.

Harrington wrote that the third of the population with above-average intelligence composed a natural aristocracy. In Oceana, such people populated the Senate, although they were chosen by the general electorate. The lower legislative chamber, the assembly, was elected to reflect the views of the people at large.

Some of my readers may be aware of the rule that when people share cake, the one who cuts the cake shouldn’t be the same person who chooses the pieces. (When our daughters were young, my wife imposed this rule on them.) One of the most famous passages in “Oceana” applies the same standard to the legislature: If the legislature were unicameral, Harrington believed, it would become tyrannical. So Oceana adopted bicameralism. The Senate debated and recommended proposed laws (i.e., it “divided”), but the assembly “chose” whether to adopt or reject the senate’s proposals.

The magistrates were charged with enforcing the law. There were judges, but the highest court was the legislative assembly. This varied English practice, by which the upper (rather than the lower) chamber of Parliament served as the highest court.

Harrington in the Constitutional Debates

Harrington was widely known among the founding generation, but there was no discussion of his views at the Constitutional Convention and relatively little during the ensuing debates over whether to ratify the proposed Constitution. Most mentions of Harrington were respectful: Just before the Constitutional Convention met, a Pennsylvania writer calling himself the “Foreign Spectator” exhorted the delegates to consult Harrington, among others. And after the convention adjourned, another Pennsylvania writer (“Margery”) commended the delegates for producing a document worthy of Harrington and Sidney.
On the other hand, Virginia’s senior lawyer, Edmund Pendleton (who chaired his state’s ratifying convention), wrote two letters acknowledging that Harrington’s work had its faults. And “Americanus,” a New York essayist, lumped him with Plato and Sir Thomas More as authors who “had amused themselves with forming visionary schemes of perfect Governments, but, for want of experimental knowledge, their plans are no better than romances, the extravagant sallies of an exuberant imagination.”

John Adams’s Treatment of Harrington

The foregoing suggests that Harrington had little impact on the constitutional debates. Indeed, he wouldn’t be in this series of essays if not for John Adams. Adams featured Harrington in the first volume of his encyclopedia of republican governments, which, as I noted in earlier installments, circulated at the convention and was mentioned copiously during the debates.

Adams devoted about 10 pages of his book to direct quotations from Harrington, and he added other citations too. Among the topics were (1) the need for the rule of law, (2) the view that political power follows land ownership, and (3) the view that a nation composed of many landowners is more difficult to conquer than a nation where ownership is more restricted. But Adams’s most important use of Harrington was in contending for a bicameral legislature.

When Adams wrote, it was still an open question whether the federal legislature would have one chamber or two. Congress under the Articles of Confederation was unicameral. Three states had unicameral legislatures: Pennsylvania, Georgia, and the still-independent Vermont. Benjamin Franklin, who then served as president of Pennsylvania, was believed to favor unicameralism, and, of course, his prestige was immense. When Virginia Gov. Edmund Randolph offered a plan for a two-house national legislature, William Paterson of New Jersey countered with a one-house proposal.

Adams thought it important to emphasize the advantages of bicameralism, and he employed “Oceana” heavily for that purpose. He quoted Harrington’s “cut and choose the pieces of cake” analogy and Harrington’s warnings about the danger of unicameral tyranny.

Algernon Sidney

Algernon Sidney was born in 1622 and, while interested in politics, had trouble getting along with people. He spent a lot of time in Europe, effectively in exile. In 1683, he was implicated, fairly or not, in the Rye House Plot to kill King Charles II, tried for treason, and beheaded.

As evidence in the treason trial, the prosecution quoted from his unpublished “Discourses on Government.” The work wasn’t published until 1698, but it became one of his two claims to fame. (The other was his Latin inscription subsequently shortened to become the motto of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem—“With his sword he seeks peaceful repose under liberty.”)

“Discourses on Government” is an overly long response to the “divine right of kings” theory propounded by Robert Filmer (c. 1588–1653).

Sidney’s advocacy of revolution against tyrants won him the admiration of many in the founding generation. John Adams quoted Sidney’s discussion of absolute or “pure” democracy (a concept borrowed from Aristotle) and his support for mixed government (borrowed from Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, among others). Also noteworthy was Sidney’s definition of liberty: “Liberty consists solely in an independency on [i.e., from] the will of another.”

I have included Sidney in this essay because he often is identified with Harrington. In truth, however, Sidney’s views had little effect on the Constitution. He was mentioned during the ratification debates, but mostly in passing. His ideas were used almost exclusively by the Constitution’s opponents, who assailed the document for not following Sidney’s recommendations for annual elections and a unicameral legislature. In addition, several essayists—again, almost exclusively opponents of the Constitution—adopted the pen names “Sidney,” “Sydney,” or “Algernon Sidney.”

Read prior installments here: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighthninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Robert G. Natelson, a former constitutional law professor who is senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver, authored “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant” (3rd ed., 2015). He is a contributor to The Heritage Foundation’s “Heritage Guide to the Constitution.”
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